Same-sex parented families in Australia

CFCA Paper No. 18 – December 2013


Australian families have changed considerably in recent decades, and many children are now born to unmarried parents, and/or raised in families that do not conform to the two biological parent nuclear form (see Hayes, Weston, Qu, & Gray, 2010). One manifestation of this change is the increasing prevalence and visibility of same-sex parented families.

Over the past 10 years in many Australian states and territories, same-sex couple and parenting relationships have gained considerable legal recognition. These developments have ensued from community activism and the increasing social acceptability of same-sex couple relationships. For instance, reproductive medicine clinics in a number of states have extended their donor insemination and IVF services to lesbians and also changed their Status of Children legislation, to enable the legal recognition of lesbian co-parenting couples, irrespective of which partner gave birth. The Federal Family Law Amendment (de facto Financial Matters and Other Measures) Act 2008 now enables cohabiting same-sex couples legal protection under the Family Law Act with regard to child and property concerns (Sifris, 2010). Civil union schemes exist in four Australian states and the ACT in addition to this federal recognition of same-sex cohabiting relationships (Richardson-Self, 2012).

American psychologist Frederick Bozett noted in 1987 that research into lesbian and gay parenting was preoccupied with "ethical consideration for the well-being of the child" (p. 171). This remains true in the early 21st century, despite the considerable inroads that have been made into the legal and social acceptance of same-sex relationships. Critics often argue that children's wellbeing requires two resident opposite sex parents, and that same-sex couples of either sex cannot provide a supportive family environment (for summaries of the arguments see Clarke, 2001; Dempsey, 2006; Millbank, 2003; Patterson, 2007; Short, Riggs, Perlesz, Brown, & Kane, 2007). Stereotypes of gay male sexuality would have it that gay men are uninvolved and uninterested in parenting or children (see Barret & Robinson, 2000; Bozett, 1987; Mallon, 2004), or that their sexual conduct is incompatible with forming or raising families with children (Barret & Robinson, 2000; Stacey, 2004). Such arguments are not based on a comprehensive assessment of the evidence for this claim and are usually informed by religious or ideological beliefs about what constitutes a family.

This research paper describes the diverse characteristics of same-sex parented families in Australia, their support needs and experiences, and the challenges they may face given the stigma and discrimination often attached to homosexuality and encountered by some same-sex couples. It also examines the international research into the wellbeing of children raised by lesbian and gay parents, commenting on the methodological issues associated with this body of research, and its relevance to Australian policy-makers.1 Most studies to date indicate that children raised in same-sex parented families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as their peers in comparable kinds of heterosexual families, although there are some differences between children raised in same-sex and other kinds of families beginning to be noted and more openly discussed.2 These include benefits in the quality of parenting children receive when raised from birth by lesbian couples, greater gender flexibility, particularly for sons, and their greater acceptance of family diversity. Furthermore, although many lesbian-parented families appear to be receiving good service from their health care providers, there is evidence that more could be done to develop policies supportive of same-sex parented families in the education, child protection, and foster care systems.

Familial language used in this report

Language describing "non-heterosexual" family relationships is controversial and evolving, and there is no consensus on correct terminology (see Brown, 2008; Dempsey, 2012a; du Chesne & Bradley, 2007; Gabb, 2005; Weeks, Heaphy, & Donovan, 2001). In this report, "same-sex parented families" is used when the point being made is relevant to all non-heterosexual families, and "lesbian-parented" or "gay-parented" when the point relates to families headed by female and male same-sex couples or sole parents, respectively.

It is also important to note that "lesbian" and "gay" are not universally used as self-descriptors by women and men who are parenting in the context of a same-sex relationship or identity. The complex interconnection between sexual attraction, sexual behavior and a more overarching sense of sexual identity or orientation has long been noted in sexuality surveys since Alfred Kinsey's formative work in US in the 1940s, including those conducted in Australia (e.g., Dempsey, Hillier, & Harrison, 2001; Smith, Rissel, Richters, Grulich, & de Visser, 2003). Some Australian same-sex attracted parents (indications are, a small minority) may consider themselves "bisexual" or refer to themselves as "queer" rather than "lesbian" or "gay" because they have sexual or romantic relationships with people of both sexes (see Power et al., 2010; Power, Perlesz, Brown et al., 2012). As there is very little research on experiences of parenting or outcomes for children of bisexual parents, bisexual parents are only explicitly mentioned in this report when they were included as a specific participant group in the research under discussion.

Terminology to describe mothers, fathers, parents and sperm donors in same-sex parented families is also contested. In families in which a lesbian couple co-parent, usually both women consider themselves to be mothers, irrespective of who gave birth to the children, while in some families, there is a clearer distinction between the mother (the woman who gave birth) and the "co-parent" or "non-biological" or "non-birth" mother. In this report, "lesbian co-parenting couples" is used or the terms "mother" and "co-parent" when distinguishing between the two women is relevant. "Anonymous sperm donor" or "known sperm donor" are the usual terms for describing biological fathers of children in planned lesbian parent families (although see Dempsey, 2012a) and in cases where these men have parental involvement in children's lives (which is often not the case) they are referred to as "donor dads" or "co-parents", depending on context.

"Transgender" describes people who have had hormone treatment or surgery to reconstruct their bodies, or those whose appearance, comportment and self-identification transgresses usual sex and gender categories in less permanent fashion (see Couch et al., 2007; Hines, 2006). Given there is very little literature on the family lives or children of transgender parents (for exceptions see Green, 1998; Hines, 2006; Riggs, forthcoming), transgender parents are only referred to when they were specifically included in the research under discussion.


1 While most of the research on the wellbeing of children growing up with lesbian and gay parents has been conducted overseas, a growing body of Australian research documents family formation practices, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) families' interactions with the health, educational and community services system in Australia. The country of origin of the research is stated throughout this report.

2 For comprehensive earlier reviews of the international literature on lesbian and gay parenting by Australian scholars, see Millbank, 2003; McNair, 2004; and Short et al., 2007.