Same-sex parented families in Australia

CFCA Paper No. 18 – December 2013


There are many ways in which same-sex parented families are similar to and different from conventional, heterosexual couple families. Although a two parent cohabiting couple often forms the basis of the family, same-sex parented families may also be based on three or four parent models, in which a known sperm donor or co-parenting male couple will be engaged in non-resident care of the children. Same-sex parented families in Australia are often created through assisted reproductive technologies and foster care, yet a substantial number of children being raised by lesbian or gay parents, like many children raised by heterosexual couples, have experienced their parents divorce and were born in the context of prior heterosexual marriages. Although same-sex parented families to some extent challenge the conventional idea that parents are biologically related to their children, with the exception of foster families, it is usual for children to be biologically related to at least one of the parents, and adoption is rare due to legal and social constraints in Australia. Indications are also that same-sex parented families are more likely to challenge the inequitable divisions of paid and domestic labour known to characterise dual earner heterosexual nuclear families (ABS, 2013).

Although numerous scholars now agree it is not possible to sustain a claim frequently made in the earlier literature that there are no differences between children raised in same-sex and heterosexual parented families (Amato, 2012; Biblarz & Savci, 2010; Biblarz & Stacey, 2010; Eggebeen, 2012; Goldberg, 2010; Marks, 2012; Regnerus, 2012; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001), there is now strong evidence that same-sex parented families constitute supportive environments in which to raise children. Indeed, with regard to children raised from birth by lesbian couples clear benefits appear to exist with regard to: the quality of parenting children experience in comparison to their peers parented in heterosexual couple families; children's and young adults' greater tolerance of sexual and gender diversity; and gender flexibility displayed by children, particularly sons.

Biblarz and Stacey (2010) commented that the benefits regarding parenting quality that children of lesbian parents appear to experience could well be due to the "double dose" of "feminine" parenting. Just as heterosexual mothers usually have greater care-giving responsibilities and display greater parenting skill than heterosexual fathers (e.g., Craig, 2006), lesbian mothers appear to bring this gendered tendency to their parenting relationships. Additionally, lesbian mothers are likely to be highly motivated parents given the lengths many need to go to conceive children, and they may also be conscious that their parenting practices are under scrutiny due to social disapproval. It is also possible that same-sex parents are especially attentive to the quality of their parenting as a way of counteracting the ill effects of prejudice and discrimination their children may experience. More needs to be known about whether children raised in planned lesbian parent families are more likely to experience parental separation. However, if this does hold true, it could well be linked to the relative lack of institutional support for same-sex relationships, rather than any inherent instability to which relationships between two women are prone. In many jurisdictions, including Australia, same-sex couples are still not permitted to marry, and it remains to be seen how more widespread marriage rights could influence this relational stability finding.

Where differences that could be construed as disadvantageous to children have been detected between samples of same-sex parented families and heterosexual couple families these need to be kept in perspective. With regard to the one large study thus far that has detected harms to children raised in same-sex parented families, the fact that the analysis does not take into account the children's experience of their parents' separation and divorce is a serious methodological flaw. In commenting on the legislative and policy implications of the recent Regnerus study in the US, Paul Amato (2012), a very well-respected US-based family scholar, warns against deriving legal or policy implications from these ostensibly negative research findings about same-sex parents and their children:

It would be unfortunate if the findings from the Regnerus study were used to undermine the social progress that has been made in recent decades in protecting the rights of gays, lesbians and their children … Most of the young adults with gay or lesbian parents in the New Family Structures Survey also experienced divorce as children. Consequently, it is likely that many of the disadvantages reported by these offspring were due to … the failed heterosexual marriages of parents rather than the sexual orientations of parents. (p. 773)

Law- and policy-makers in Australia have already made use of the considerable research evidence that demonstrates children in planned lesbian parent families do as well psychologically and sometimes better than children in heterosexual parented families. For example, findings from earlier reviews of this body of literature were taken into account in recommending extending the eligibility criteria for access to clinical donor insemination to lesbian couples in the State of Victoria, in addition to amending the Status of Children Act to make children's parentage clearer in cases where lesbian couples use donor insemination to conceive (see Victorian Law Reform Commission, 2007). A remaining area of state and territory based legal inequity involves access to adoption rights for same-sex couples.

Although many Australian same-sex parented families are currently receiving good support from their health care providers, more could be done in the social policy arena to develop supportive service systems. One very positive finding emerging from this overview of the research is that same-sex parented families often do not experience the sexuality-based abuse or discrimination they fear. However, the reported levels of concern about discrimination, teasing or bullying by parents and children in the school setting do indicate that a generalised stigma associated with societal prejudice against same-sex relationships forms a backdrop to all same-sex parenting. Health care providers, the education system, the child protection system and other family service systems clearly have work to do in being fully aware of the diverse family forms in Australia and supporting and providing appropriate services to meet their needs. A set of guidelines were recently developed by the Bouverie Centre, La Trobe University, in conjunction with VicHealth, to assist service providers in community, hospital and counselling settings in Victoria to provide inclusive and sensitive care to same-sex attracted parents and their children, and to prospective same-sex attracted parents.6 More initiatives of this kind in other states and territories would ensure responsive and inclusive service provision to same-sex parented families.

To date, little research has been published on transgender or bisexual parented families, the experiences of children growing up with transgender or bisexual parents, or planned gay father families. More research into family structures and processes among these groups is needed, both in Australia and internationally. Additionally, given the evidence that children's wellbeing in same-sex parented families varies cross-culturally, a body of Australian quantitative data on the wellbeing of same-sex parented children and families would be welcome as a means of monitoring how Australian families are faring in global perspective. It is also important to avoid the assumption that it is only comparative, quantitative research that enables learning about the wellbeing or other characteristics of children in same-sex parented families (see Biblarz & Savci, 2010; Goldberg, 2007, 2010; Hicks, 2005; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001). As scholars such as Goldberg (2010) advocate, it is important to "study complex families in context" through qualitative research, and indeed over time, in order to learn more about how parental gender and sexuality interact in specific relational settings.

6 Guidelines for Health Care Providers Working With Same-Sex Parented Families is available via VicHealth <>