Same-sex parented families in Australia

CFCA Paper No. 18 – December 2013

Families parented by gay men

Gay fatherhood research prior to the late 1990s tended to be US-based and emphasised the experiences of divorced gay fathers who had had children in heterosexual marriages, mostly with regard to issues associated with disclosing their gay relationships or identity to children, and their perceptions of children's adjustment to their homosexuality (see Barret & Robinson, 2000; Bigner & Bozett, 1990; Bozett, 1987; Miller, 1979). Since the early 2000s, the focus of research into gay male parenting has become more international and shifted towards documenting the increasing compatibility between "coming out" as gay and becoming a parent through adoption, surrogacy, co-parenting and "donor dad" arrangements with lesbian couples (e.g., Berkowitz, 2007; Berkowitz & Marsiglio, 2007; Dempsey, 2006, 2010, 2012a, 2012b; Goldberg, Downing, & Moyer, 2012; Johnson & O'Connor, 2002; Power, Perlesz, McNair et al., 2012b; Riggs 2008a, 2008b; Stacey, 2004, 2006; Weeks et al., 2001). The increasing social acceptability of gay relationships, coupled with social shifts in definitions of appropriate families and indeed the "baby boom" among lesbian couples has facilitated gay men's "procreative consciousness" (Berkowitz, 2007; Berkowitz & Marsiglio, 2007), or awareness that parenting can be rewarding and compatible with living an openly gay life.

Australian gay men's pathways to parenthood are diverse, although relatively limited compared to their counterparts in the US. Some continue to become parents in the context of heterosexual relationships (see Higgins, 2004; Power, Perlesz, McNair et al., 2012) and others through foster and permanent care (Riggs, 2007, 2011), known sperm donation (Dempsey, 2010, 2012a,b; Riggs, 2008a, 2008b; Ripper, 2008) and surrogacy (Dempsey, 2013, forthcoming; Rudruppa, 2011; Tuazon-McCheyne, 2010). Australian gay men's history of involvement in known sperm donation for lesbian friends and acquaintances dates from at least the 1980s (see Borthwick & Bloch, 1993; Dempsey, 2005; van Reyk, 1995; Wakeling & Bradstock, 1995) and some men have developed paternal or parental relationships with children conceived in this way (see Dempsey, 2010, 2012a, 2012b; van Reyk, 2004). Since the early 2000s, it has become popular for Australian gay men to form families through surrogacy, particularly commercial surrogacy arrangements in the US and India (see Dempsey, 2013, forthcoming; Millbank, 2011; Stethoscope Research 2012; Tuazon-McCheyne, 2010). In the US, adoption is a well documented path to parenthood for gay men (Goldberg, 2010; Goldberg, Downing, & Moyer, 2012; Mallon, 2004) although Australian laws prevent this. In the Work, Love and Play study (Power, Perlesz, McNair et al., 2012), of the 88 gay and bisexual men who described themselves as "actively involved" in parenting a child, 39% had become parents in a previous heterosexual relationship, 23% were parenting children conceived through surrogacy with their male partners, 19% had become parents through known sperm donation to lesbian couples or singles, and 11% were foster parents or permanent carers.

Similarly to studies on lesbian-parented families, the strengths of gay fathers as parents have been noted. Just as co-parenting lesbian couples have been found to share housework and parenting more equitably than heterosexual couples, indications are that gay male couples tend to be more like their lesbian than heterosexual peers in this regard. Stacey (2004) found the gay male couples in her study did not privilege paid work over homemaking, and that the partners who worked outside the home tended to see this as a compromise that took them away from the children. In Johnson and O'Connor's (2002) study of gay and lesbian parents in the US, the male couples were more compatible in their parenting styles and parented more equitably than comparable samples of US-resident heterosexual couples. They also displayed more authoritative than authoritarian parenting styles when compared to heterosexual peers. Although there are far fewer studies to date of co-parenting gay male couples or single parent families than planned lesbian-parented families, indications are the way two men parent together is closer to lesbian couples and heterosexual women's approach than the greater detachment from children's daily care characteristic of fathers in conventional nuclear families (Schacher, Auerbach, & Silverstein, 2005; Biblarz & Stacey, 2010; Mallon, 2004; Stacey, 2006). It should be acknowledged, however, that socio-economic differences such as income and education were not always taken into account in these studies.

Several studies of gay fathers have also noted higher self-esteem (Bergman et al., 2010; Sbordone, 1993; Schacher et al., 2005) and fewer negative attitudes about homosexuality than men who are not parents (Sbordone, 1993). It is also apparent that having children is a great source of personal fulfillment and pride for gay men, that brings with it greater connectedness to their own parents and other members of their family of origin (Tuazon-McCheyne, 2010; Bergman et al., 2010; Power, Perlesz, McNair et al., 2012).

Key messages: Families parented by gay men

  • Gay men's pathways to planned parenthood are more restricted in Australia than in the US and UK due to their inability to adopt children and the prohibition on commercial surrogacy. Many gay fathers are divorced men who continue to co-parent with their ex-wife. Some Australian gay men become sperm donors for lesbian friends and acquaintances, and maintain non-resident involvement with the children. A newer group of gay fathers have formed families through commercial and altruistic surrogacy abroad, and this mode of family formation has become increasingly popular in the past 5 years.
  • Although there are far fewer studies to date of co-parenting gay male couples or single parent families than planned lesbian-parented families, indications are that two men parenting together have more equitable divisions of domestic and parental labour than exists in heterosexual couple families; however some studies have not taken socio-economic differences into account.
  • Gay male parenting has also been linked to higher self-esteem for the men involved than that of their childless gay male peers, and improved social and emotional relationships with their families of origin.