In the Best Interests of the Children (1977)
(53min) 16mm, color, sound
Directors: Frances Reid, Elizabeth Stevens, Cathy Zheutlin; Music, Cris Williamson
Grant Awarded to Frances Reid
Archive: UCLA Film & Television Archive
In the mid 1970’s a diverse group eight lesbian mothers and their children were profiled in this pioneering documentary. The film explores the legal, moral, and
human factors involved in child custody battles that many lesbian mothers faced, and the children weigh in with wisdom and humor.
In the Best Interests of Children is a 1977 feature-length documentary “about who lesbian mothers and their children really are.” Made by the feminist filmmakers’ collective Iris Films to help lesbian mothers facing custody battles, this interview-based documentary was made in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. The film portrays the diversity of experiences of lesbian mothers across race and class, featuring eight mothers and their children. Also included are interviews with lawyer Camille LeGrand, clinical social worker Bernice Augenbraun and group “rap” sessions with children of lesbian mothers. Notably, the film also features interviews black lesbian feminist writer Margaret Sloan-Hunter (co-editor of Ms. Magazine) with her eight-year old daughter Kathy and Bay Area black lesbian activist Pat Norman and three of her children. In humanizing their plight, the film frames the legal and moral challenges that lesbian mothers and their children face with wisdom and humor. Hearing about how the women have been subjected to unnecessary psychological testing, evaluation, and scrutiny, the lesbian mothers describe the burden of having to prove themselves to be fit parents and battle the prevailing homophobia and misogyny of family courts while fighting to regain or maintain custody of their children. Empathetic interviews with the children and observational footage of women playing with and talking to their kids emphasize the humanity and love in lesbian families. The group discussion with the children of lesbians is particularly poignant. When asked “How has your mother changed since she became a lesbian?” one of the children responds: “She’s a lot happier …” and another, “I know about more things than other kids.
An essential document of the past, In the Best Interest of Children, is a racially and economically diverse portrait of lesbian motherhood in the 1970s. As the first lesbian-made film about lesbian motherhood, this groundbreaking documentary was directed collectively by feminist filmmakers: Frances Reid, Elizabeth Stevens, and Cathy Zheutlin. The filmmakers, who aimed to humanize the plight of lesbian mothers facing custody battles, were informed by Stevens’s personal experience of losing custody of her two children. While originally created with the intention to inform and influence family courts and judges, the film screened widely in international film festivals and women’s venues nationwide, winning a blue ribbon at the American Film Festival in 1978.Today, the film is recognized as a crucial historical document of the fight for LGBTQ+ civil rights and a landmark in queer film history. It was recently included in the exhibition “Queer California: Untold Stories” at the Oakland Museum of California (2018-19) and was a focal point in the public program “In Conversation: Queer Cinema” (June 14, 2019) with film historians Greg Youmans and S. Topiary Landberg. The interest generated by that program made us aware of the need for professional restoration. The film also recently screened at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona for the Feminist Film Manifestos VI International Women’s Film Festival in 2020 and included in the Virtual Screening Room series Outfest UCLA Legacy Project Screening Series in 2021.
As a window into a nearly forgotten period of LGBTQ+ history, the film portrays not only theodiversity of lesbian experiences of motherhood, but also a representation of the homophobia and misogyny that is hard to fantom by today’s standards in which gay marriage and LGBTQ adoption are legal (for now).
Frances Reid has been working as a producer, director, and cinematographer of documentary films for over thirty years. She is a founder and former executive director of Iris Films, the feminist film production and distribution company founded in 1975. Reid made her first films in Africa in the early 1970’s. She directed and produced her first feature film, In the Best Interests of the Children with Liz Stevens and Cathy Zheutlin in 1977. In the 1980’s she was the cinematographer of many notable documentaries including the Academy Award winning documentary film “The Times of Harvey Milk” (dir. Rob Epstein, 1984) In 2000, with Deborah Hoffmann, she made the film “Long Night’s Journey into Day” about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The film won the Grand Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award, an Emmy, and a Director’s Guild Best Documentary award. In 1992 she produced, directed and filmed the award-winning “Faces of AIDS” for Family Health International, shot in Cameroon and Zimbabwe. In 1994 she and co-director Dee Mosbacher were nominated for an Academy Award for their short documentary, Straight from the Heart. That same year she was the cinematographer for Deborah Hoffmann’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter which was also nominated for an Academy Award. In 1995 she completed her film Skin Deep concerning race relations on college campuses, a film that is still in active use at high schools, colleges, and universities nationwide. Frances served as co-director of the acclaimed documentary, “Waging a Living,” and she was the executive producer for Lost Boys of Sudan.