Issues Magazine

Same-Sex-Parented Families in Australia

By Jennifer Power & Henry von Doussa

Same-sex-parented families have become more accepted over the past two decades, and research shows that their children do equally as well as others – emotionally, socially and educationally.

It is quite common these days for Australian same-sex couples (which may include gay male couples or lesbian couples) to have children. Greater acceptance of family and gender diversity has led to greater acceptance of same-sex couples and families over the past 10–20 years.

Society has become more accepting of different types of families. People often live with their partner before they get married and it is not unusual for children to be born to couples who are not married. Many people have experienced separation or divorce, so blended and stepfamilies are common.

Attitudes toward gender and the role of women in society have also changed. For these reasons, gay men, lesbians and bisexual people often find it easier to be open about their sexuality and live happily and freely in their communities.

Because same-sex relationships have become more visible and accepted, it has followed that same-sex couples are more likely to live their lives similarly to heterosexual couples – moving in together, formalising their relationships through marriage (in some parts of the world) or commitment ceremonies, and becoming parents. Research has shown that young gay men and lesbians are much more likely to imagine themselves becoming parents than gay men or lesbians were 20 years ago.

Technology has followed this shift. In recent decades, lesbian couples and single women have been able to access fertility services in Australia, while gay couples have had greater access to surrogacy services outside Australia.

How Many Australian Children Have Same-Sex Parents?

No one is sure how many children in Australia have parents who identify as same-sex-attracted. This is because no one keeps count of who is gay or lesbian or bisexual and who is not. Also, families are very different, so it can be hard to record numbers.

Some children are born into a same-sex couple relationship and have two mums or two dads their whole life, while others have a parent who was in a heterosexual relationship when they were born, but who later came out as gay or lesbian or bisexual. Also, some single gay or bisexual people have children.

In the 2011 Australian Census, 33,714 same-sex couples were counted. Twelve per cent (just over 4000) of these couples had dependent children living with them: 22% of lesbian couples and 3% of gay couples. The 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics report Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census, 2012–2013, “Same-Sex Couple Relationships” shows that, between them, these couples had 6300 children, or 0.1% of all children in the Australian population.

It is important to note that the Census does not ask people about their sexual identity, but records if a person is living with someone of the same sex. This means that people who are not living with their partner, single people or people who chose not to identify themselves as a couple on the Census are not recognised as gay, lesbian or bisexual in the Census. Also, the Census does not record the number of gay or lesbian couples who have grown-up children. For this reason, most researchers in Australia agree that the actual number of Australian children who have same-sex-attracted parents is much higher than Census figures, at least into the tens of thousands.

What Do Same-Sex Couple Families Look Like?

Usually when people think of same-sex-parent families, they think of two mums or two dads and a baby, but the reality is much more complex. A 2010 study from La Trobe University – Work, Love, Play – by Jennifer Power and colleagues looked at the makeup of Australian families with same-sex-attracted parents (see http://work-love-play.blogspot.com.au). It found that while the most common form of same-sex family was the two-parent (two mums or two dads) family, families where one or more parent identified as same-sex-attracted came in all shapes and sizes, including:

  • a family with two mums or two dads
  • blended or stepfamilies where a same-sex couple share parenting with one or both partners’ ex-heterosexual partner (e.g. some children live with their mum and their mum’s new female partner but spend part of the week with their dad)
  • blended or stepfamilies where a same-sex couple share parenting with one or both partners’ ex-same-sex partner (e.g. some children spend part of their week with one of their mums and part of their week with their other mum)
  • a family where a lesbian couple or single woman are the main parent(s), but who have a father (or donor) involved in the children’s life in some way
  • single-parent families
  • families with multiple parents, such as those with co-parenting arrangements between gay men and lesbian couples (e.g. some lesbian couples raise children together with a single man or gay couple)
  • a heterosexual couple parenting together where one or both of the parents identify as bisexual.

How Do Same-Sex Couples Become Parents?

As already noted, some children who have same-sex-attracted parents are born into a heterosexual family, but then have a parent who comes out as gay, lesbian or bisexual later on. Other children are born into a same-sex couple family or their parent is a single mother or single father who identifies as gay, lesbian or bisexual. There are several ways, some listed here, that same-sex couples or single people may become parents.

  • Lesbian or gay couples or single people can become foster parents. It is not known how many children in Australia are currently fostered by same-sex couples or single parents, but many foster agencies encourage same-sex couples to foster. Adoption laws differ across states and territories in Australia, but currently adoption is rare for Australian same-sex couples.
  • Lesbian couples or single women may use anonymous donor sperm to conceive a child. In Australia, they access this through a fertility clinic, and insemination happens at the clinic using artificial intrauterine insemination (where the sperm is injected into the woman’s uterus while she is ovulating to enable natural conception to occur) or via in vitro fertilisation, where the sperm is introduced to the woman’s egg outside of the body and embryos are placed into the woman’s uterus.
  • Many lesbian couples or single women have a friend or someone they know (often a gay man) who is willing to donate sperm to them. Woman who use a known donor may become pregnant using a home-based self-insemination technique (usually where the sperm is inserted into the woman’s vagina using a syringe) or the donor may provide sperm to a fertility clinic for the woman to use. Some donors choose not to be involved in the child’s life. Others may be involved as an active father, a father figure or a family friend.
  • Gay couples or single men can access surrogacy services in countries outside Australia where surrogacy is legal (some exceptions to this will be noted later). Most gay men will use commercial surrogacy, where they pay a woman to carry and deliver their baby for them. Usually the baby will be conceived using an egg donated by a different woman.

Do Same-Sex Couples Mimic Traditional Family Models?

A common myth about families with two mums or two dads is that they follow the same traditional model as the heterosexual nuclear family, with one parent occupying the “father/breadwinner” role and the other the “mother/homemaker” role. Research tells us that this assumption is not true. According to research in Australia and internationally, the division of labour in same-sex-parented households is more egalitarian than in heterosexual households, and that the roles of primary carer and primary “breadwinner” are shared (Perlesz et al. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy 2010; 31(4): 374–91). Having two men or two women (or more than two people) parenting in a family forces people to talk about the roles they will play in the household rather than falling into traditional gender patterns.

Where Do Same-Sex-Parented Families Live?

According to the 2011 Australian Census, same-sex couples are more likely to live in large cities or towns than in rural and regional areas of Australia. However, the Work, Love, Play study found that same-sex parents live everywhere, including regional, rural and remote locations. While gay and lesbian people may be more visible in the inner city, schools and community services all over Australia should be aware that gay, lesbian or bisexual people and their children may be living in the area.

What Does the Law Say?

The right to have a family is recognised as a fundamental human right under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (article 16). There are no laws in place that make it illegal for someone who identifies as gay, lesbian or bisexual (or anyone else) to have a baby.

However, the law does make a difference in how easy or hard it is for same-sex couples to have children. These laws are complicated and vary across states and territories in Australia. Some of the important legal considerations are:

  • In all states and territories, except South Australia, lesbians and single women can access fertility services; previously these were limited to heterosexual couples.
  • Since 2009, Australian birth certificates can show two women as a child’s legal parents provided the women were in a domestic partnership at the time the child was conceived.
  • Altruistic surrogacy (where no payment is made to the surrogate) is legal in most states and territories of Australia.
  • Commercial surrogacy is illegal in Australia. Most Australians can access this in countries where it is legal, although the use of international surrogacy is illegal in some Australian states, meaning residents of those states cannot travel overseas to access surrogacy.
  • The laws of other countries can affect access to commercial surrogacy. For example, India, which was a popular place for gay men to use surrogacy services, changed its laws in 2013 to prevent unmarried people from commissioning Indian surrogates (gay marriage is not recognised in India).
  • Adoption by gay and lesbian people is only legal in some states in Australia.
  • Fostering is legal for same-sex couples in Australia.
  • Sperm donors must be registered with the Registry of Birth, Deaths and Marriages, and all children born via donor conception since 2008 have the right to access details about the donor’s identity when they reach the age of 18.

How Do Children With Same-Sex-Parented Families Cope?

Studies in Australia and internationally have consistently shown that children who have same-sex-attracted parents do just as well as any other children emotionally, socially and educationally (see, for example, Deborah Dempsey’s study at http://bit.ly/1fmYkGu). In fact, an interim report as part of the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families (ACHESS) has shown that same-sex families have particular strengths in areas such as family cohesion (http://bit.ly/1jzmksd).

Some people worry that children who do not have parents of each gender will grow up without appropriate male or female role models. However, there is no evidence to show that children are disadvantaged by having two mums or two dads. Research shows that children do well in families where they have strong family relationships and are well connected and loved, whatever that family’s makeup.

Do Children With Same-Sex Parents Get Teased at School?

While the world has changed significantly in recent decades, and there is greater acceptance of and familiarity with same-sex-parented families (particularly among young people), discrimination is still an issue. Some children with same-sex parents report that they have difficulties at school with teasing or bullying.

However, children and young people can be teased at school for all sorts of reasons. Having same-sex parents does not necessarily expose children to teasing or bullying more than other issues.

Whatever the reason for bullying or teasing, it is the responsibility of schools and communities to take care of children.

Transgender Parents

Along with same-sex-attracted parents, there is increasing visibility of transgender parents in Australia. A person who is transgender does not identify with their gender of birth, and may take steps to live as a different gender. A male-to-female or female-to-male transgender person may or may not have had surgery as part of their gender affirmation journey.

A parent who is transgender may be same-sex-attracted or opposite-sex-attracted and may become a parent before or after their gender transition. The pathways to becoming a parent are much the same as those already discussed for gay and lesbian parents.

In 2008 in the US the pregnancy of a transgender man, Thomas Beatie, received much media attention. Negative responses to this showed a cultural reluctance to accept transgender parents, which can lead to invisibility and exclusion.

A Good Family Life

Same-sex-parented families have higher visibility in the community than ever before. Several television programs depict same-sex couples and their children, Australian laws now recognise same-sex couples and their children as legitimate families, and many schools and childcare services have policies in place that aim to provide a supportive environment for children with same-sex parents.

The most important message to come out of research on same-sex-parented families is that children do well in these families. Some people who do not know any gay or lesbian people find it hard to imagine what family life might be like with two mothers or two fathers, but the reality is that it is not that different to life in any other family.

Many children raised by same-sex parents are happy and well-adjusted adults. Children currently living with same-sex parents go about their lives as any other children do. They have friends, neighbours, aunts, uncles and grandparents, they go to school, they play sport and they live good lives.