Same-sex parented families in Australia

CFCA Paper No. 18 – December 2013

Social support

Because many Australians continue to believe that the two-parent heterosexual nuclear family is the optimum environment in which to raise children (Dempsey & Critchley, 2010; Morse, McLaren, & McLachlan, 2007), lesbian and gay parents and their children may encounter prejudice in school environments and in dealings with other institutions in the course of daily family life (Lindsay et al., 2006; McNair et al., 2002; Ray & Gregory, 2001). In the past decade, Australian researchers have begun to document same-sex parented families' experiences of the education and health care systems, in order to find out how supportive these systems are of their needs (Lindsay et al., 2006; Mikhailovich, Martin, & Lawton, 2001; McNair et al., 2002, 2008; Perlesz & McNair, 2004). Research has also considered the sources of informal support families draw on in order to ensure adults and children's wellbeing (McNair et al., 2002; Rawsthorne, 2009; Short, 2007). As Rawsthorne (2009) argued, this research focus is important to ensure the needs of parents and children can be considered and taken into account in relevant social policy.

Some studies of family functioning in lesbian-parent households indicate that informal social support received from friends, families and other community members and formal support from organisations can help explain differences in children's wellbeing (e.g., Gartrell et al., 1999). In other words, poor access to social support and negative social interactions can be sources of stress that diminish parents' self-esteem and resources and hamper children's development. Support from friends, families, same-sex parented family-friendly organisations and communities can assist in mediating potentially adverse affects of legal and other forms of discrimination (Lindsay et al., 2006; McNair et al., 2002; Rawsthorne, 2009).

McNair et al. (2002) explored 125 mostly Victorian and NSW-resident lesbian prospective and current parents' levels of acceptance and support from informal networks and various formal health and community service providers. They also asked about their actual and anticipated parental difficulties when dealing with services and people in their networks. They found that lesbian parents generally encountered high levels of acceptance and support from their informal networks and service providers. GPs and mental health service providers were most supportive, with child protection workers found to be among the least supportive. Prospective parents anticipated significantly greater difficulties for themselves and their children than women who were already parents indicated was typical. Prospective parents also expected less support from community and health service providers than women who were already parents reported receiving. This indicates that fear of prejudice or discrimination due to parental sexuality may outweigh actual experiences of ill treatment. However, the authors pointed out that qualitative data provided by the parents indicated that professional and other kinds of social supports are carefully chosen for their anticipated "lesbian-friendly" credentials, and that lesbian parents are particularly reliant on other lesbian parents for support. Mikhailovich et al. (2001) also found that lesbian and gay parents reported largely positive experiences of their interactions with the health care system. Although a quarter of the 92 parents they surveyed had experienced some discrimination, usually in the form of inappropriate or invasive questioning about their familial or relationship circumstances, most of their concerns related to problems that had nothing to do with parental sexual orientation (e.g., long waiting times and effective treatment of chronic health conditions).

Lesbian, gay or bisexual foster families may contend with discriminatory practices among social workers that mean they are not given due consideration as suitable carers (Hicks, 2006; Riggs, 2007, 2011). Riggs (2011) noted that few foster care agencies have policies to guide working with LGBT families. Hicks (2000) indicated that gay and lesbian foster parents in the UK, more often than their heterosexual counterparts, have disabled children placed in their care or children who are hard to place for other kinds of behavioural reasons. Although Riggs (2007, 2011) has found no comparable evidence of such practices in Australia, he concurs that Australian lesbian and gay foster parents may be treated as carers of "last resort". In his qualitative study of the experiences of foster families in four Australian states, Riggs (2011) found that many gay men and lesbians believed they were treated with some degree of "justifiable suspicion" by agencies, and were often reliant on the goodwill of individual social workers rather than a policy framework that encouraged their participation. Riggs (2007) also found evidence that social workers' assessment reports are approving of lesbian and gay couples who are not demonstrably affectionate with each other, indicating that their sexuality is only acceptable if it is rendered invisible.

How Australian schools respond to same-sex parented families has recently received research attention. Mitchell and Ward (2010) noted that while there are many opportunities for Australian schools to lead social change in supporting family diversity, many do not effectively address issues facing same-sex attracted or gender diverse young people or same-sex parented families. Lindsay et al. (2006), in a qualitative study of the school experiences of 20 Victorian lesbian-parented families (in which children were included in the family interviews), found that some children receive very strong messages in school environments that they should not discuss their family experiences in the classroom. This could include being silenced by teachers when they attempted to share information about events such as Pride March or their parents' commitment ceremony. Although Lindsay and colleagues noted an increase in families with same-sex parents in some areas is putting pressure on some primary schools to change these kinds of occurrences, both curriculum and pedagogy in primary schools remains strongly heteronormative (Mitchell & Ward, 2010). In other words, teaching materials and library books often give minimal coverage to any kind of family diversity or present a "sanitised" view of lesbian and gay parented families in which parental affection or sexuality is erased (see also Lovell & Riggs, 2009).

In common, researchers call for increased attention to teacher, social worker and medical practitioner training about family diversity, including the need for service providers to avoid making assumptions about family relationships, and for inclusive language about gender and number of parents on relevant documentation. Health, community agency and education service providers, in order to better support LGBT parented families, need to encourage environments in which familial diversity is considered the norm rather than the exception (Lindsay et al., 2006; Lovell & Riggs, 2009; Mitchell & Ward, 2010; McNair et al., 2002, 2008; Rawsthorne, 2009; Riggs, 2011).

Key messages: Social support

  • Support from friends, families, same-sex parented family-friendly organisations and communities can assist in mediating potentially adverse affects of legal and other forms of discrimination.
  • Lesbian co-parenting couples and single parents appear to be receiving good support from medical and other kinds of health care providers but evidence suggests that this is at least in part because lesbian parents choose their health care providers very carefully.
  • Lesbian, gay or bisexual foster families may contend with discriminatory practices among social workers that mean they are not given due consideration as suitable carers, or expected to hide open displays of affection in order to be considered suitable carers. Many foster care agencies do not have policies that support family diversity.
  • Although some school environments in areas with large numbers of lesbian or gay parents have developed practices supportive of family diversity, this is, at best, uneven. Some children receive very strong messages in school environments that they should not discuss their family experiences in the classroom. This could include being silenced by teachers when they attempted to share information about events such as Pride March or their parents' commitment ceremony.