Same-sex parented families in Australia

CFCA Paper No. 18 – December 2013

Diversity in Australian same-sex parented families

Same-sex attracted parents and their children are still a small minority of Australian children and parents. Children with lesbian or gay parents comprise 0.1% of all dependent children in the population (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2013). In the 2011 Census, 33,714 same-sex couples were counted and 12% of these couples had dependent or adult children living with them, a figure slightly higher than the 11% of lesbian or gay parents counted in the 2001 Census (see ABS, 2002). The continuing stigma attached to homosexuality, together with the manner in which parents in same-sex relationships were counted, makes it likely that this figure under-represents the total number of families, particularly sole parents (ABS, 2012). There is no population-based data available on numbers of bisexual or transgender parents, or children raised by bisexual or transgender parents.

Gay men are less likely than lesbians to be resident parents (ABS, 2012). It is much more common for female than male same-sex couples to have children living in the household (22% compared with 3%; ABS, 2012), a trend that is echoed in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community-based surveys conducted with women and men. In Private Lives 2 - a recent national Australian survey of 3,835 LGBT people's relationships, health and wellbeing - about 11% of gay male participants indicated that they were parents or step-parents, or had some other kind of parent-like relationship with children, as opposed to 33% of lesbian participants (Leonard et al., 2012). Considerably more bisexual men than gay men in the study reported having children (40% vs 11%), with bisexual men also more likely than bisexual women (40% vs 25%) to report having children.

Same-sex parented families are characteristically diverse with regard to mode of conception or family formation, and family structure (see Anderssen, Amilie, & Ytteroy, 2002; Biblarz & Savci, 2010; Gunn & Surtees, 2009; Power et al., 2010; Tasker & Patterson, 2007; Weeks et al., 2001). Some parents have children in heterosexual marriages or relationships, and then re-partner with someone of the same-sex, while others have children in the context of same-sex couple or single parent families. In intentionally planned lesbian or gay parented families, it is common for children to be conceived through assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as known or anonymous donor insemination (DI), in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy. The children are usually biologically related to at least one of the parents, as is common in the case of a prior marriage or when ART procedures are used. Many transgender men and women became parents in the context of heterosexual relationships before making the decision to transition (see Green, 1998; Hines, 2006) although more recently, also post-transition. Riggs (forthcoming) argues that since reports of US-resident "pregnant man" Thomas Beatie appeared in the media in 2008, the visibility of transgender men having children post-transition has increased considerably.3

Same-sex attracted parents also have children through foster care and adoption (see Goldberg, 2010; Hicks, 2006; Riggs, Agoustinos, & Delfabbro, 2007) although in Australia the former is much more common than the latter. Many lesbians and gay men who become foster carers do so as a first option for starting a family rather than as "second best" alternative to biological reproduction (Hicks, 2005a; Mallon, 2004). Across Australia, some foster care agencies now actively recruit lesbian and gay carers (Riggs, 2011) and regularly advertise in the LGBT press. In cases where Australian lesbian or gay parents are raising adopted children, it is highly likely these children were adopted in the context of a previous heterosexual relationship due to the legal prohibition on same-sex adoption in Australian states and territories. Further to this, and for a range of reasons, very few Australian children become available for adoption beyond their families of origin (see Higgins, 2012).

The Work, Love and Play study (Power et al., 2010) of 445 Australian and New Zealander lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) parents is the largest in this country undertaken to date and found there are six major family types:

  • a two-parent same-sex couple-based family;
  • families in which a lesbian couple were the primary parents but a known sperm donor lived separately and had involvement in the children's lives;
  • families in which a lesbian or gay man were still co-parenting with an ex-heterosexual partner;
  • separated same-sex families where women or men were co-parenting with their ex-same-sex partner;
  • sole parent families; and
  • multi-parent families, usually a gay male couple and a lesbian couple raising children together from birth across two households.

Despite the diversity, it is apparent that the two-parent, couple-based household family form still holds sway, and many same-sex parented families in Australia conform to this family structure (Power et al., 2010).

There are also differences in levels of education and labour force participation rates of same-sex couples compared to heterosexual couples in Australia. Data from the 2011 Census indicate that people in same-sex couples are more likely to hold a Bachelor degree or higher qualification (42% compared to 23% of people in heterosexual couples). More people in same-sex couples are participating in the labour force (89% compared to 69% of heterosexual couples) and are more likely to work in highly skilled occupations, such as professionals or managers (ABS, 2013).4

Key messages: Diversity in Australian same-sex parented families

  • About 11% of Australian gay men and 33% of lesbians have children, based on data from a recent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community survey of 3,853 people.
  • Children may have been conceived in the context of previous heterosexual relationships, or raised from birth by a co-parenting gay or lesbian couple or single parent.
  • In intentionally planned lesbian or gay parented families, it is common for children to be conceived through assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as donor insemination (DI), in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy. The children are usually biologically related to at least one of the parents.
  • Lesbian and gay parents also have children through foster care and adoption, although in Australia gay and lesbian couples or singles are still not eligible to adopt children.
  • Despite the diversity, many same-sex parented families in Australia conform to the two-parent, couple-based household family form, although a small number of multi-parent families exist.
  • People in same-sex couples are more highly educated and are more likely to be in highly skilled occupations than people in heterosexual couples.

 

Footnotes

3 Female-to-male transgender people may have fully functional female reproductive organs that enable them to become pregnant and give birth while also exhibiting the secondary sex characteristics of men. Similarly, male-to-female trans people may have breasts and other secondary sex characteristics of women, while electing not to have the kind of gender reassignment surgery that would remove their penis or testes (see Couch et al., 2007).

4 It is possible that this finding in the Census data could relate to the stigmatisation of same-sex relationships. Same-sex couples with a high socio-economic status could be more comfortable disclosing their same-sex relationship in government data collections.