Understanding child health in same-sex families
Q: What exactly is your study aimed at finding out?
A: The Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families aims for the first time to determine the complete physical, mental and social wellbeing of Australian children with at least one same-sex attracted parent, and to identify factors that may be associated with child health and wellbeing in this setting. In particular the impact of stigma and discrimination on overall wellbeing will be assessed. It is hoped this research will help inform policy to ensure optimal health and wellbeing of all children with same-sex attracted parents.
Q. Do we know how many children in Australia are being raised with parents of the same gender?
A. Our research includes any parent who identifies as same-sex attracted. That will includes gay male or lesbian couples; single same-sex attracted parents, bisexual parents and transgender parents. The closest we have to figures on the number of same-sex families is data from the 2001 Census. Information was collected about households where two adults lived together, of the same sex in a defacto relationship. When these households included children then they were counted as same-sex families. This gross underestimate, that excludes single parents and families who decided not to disclose their same-sex status for whatever reason, suggested 3,500 children living in this setting.
Q. In most cases, is one of the parents usually genetically related to the child or children? What are some other scenarios in which same-sex parents ‘make families’?
A. Modern day same-sex families can be formed in a variety of ways. There are still a few children being born in the context of a heterosexual relationship that subsequently breaks down as a parent (or occasionally both) discovers a same-sex attraction. This is becoming much less common. Increasingly same-sex couples or single gay or lesbian people are starting families. This might be a single lesbian women or lesbian couple using donor sperm. Often a gay man or gay male couple might act as the sperm donor, with the children raised in a co-parenting arrangement. With advancing technology and changing laws gay men are increasingly choosing surrogacy to create their families. Many same-sex attracted couples provide a stable and loving environment through fostering, while some states and territories allow same-sex adoption, although not Victoria.
When assisted reproductive technologies are used, one parent is usually directly related to the child. However the other parent may have used a sibling as an egg or sperm donor. Same-sex families do not place the same emphasis on genetics as has traditionally been the case, often describe the importance of their role as care givers more than their genetic relationship when talking about their children.
Q. Could it be argued that marriage equality for gay couples is essential to ensure a sense of security for their children?
A. There is much research that describes the benefits of marriage in creating more stable relationships and a secure environment for raising children. At present these benefits are not afforded to same-sex couples and their children may suffer because of it. Moving beyond issues of relationship stability, it can be argued that the perceived stigma experienced by same-sex families due to the legislated discrimination of the Marriage Act is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of children in same-sex families. Research suggests that when same-sex families experience stigma and discrimination their children may not perform as well on measures of psychosocial wellbeing.
Q. In terms of physical health of the child, what sorts of issues might you expect to see emerge during your study?
A. As there is no research to date on the physical health of children from same-sex families it is hard to know what we might find. Australian research has demonstrated that same-sex parents perceive barriers when dealing with healthcare providers and this may reduce the benefits that appropriate health services can offer.
Breastfeeding is an important issue when we consider child health. A number of gay fathers do access breast milk. This may be from their child’s surrogate. Others explore the option of breast milk donation. Anecdotally, this is a subject that does cause concern and stress for a number of gay male parents (as well as many women who are unable to lactate). I would always advise gay fathers engaged in surrogacy to explore the option of surrogate-expressed milk. If a gay father wanted to explore informal milk donation they should discuss it with their family doctor and ensure all appropriate health screening processes have been considered.
Q. What sorts of experiences do same sex parents have interacting with new parent support services, such as ‘maternal and child health centres’ and ‘mothers’ groups’?
A. As a gay father myself my own experiences with maternal and child health services and mothers’ groups have all been positive. It can be a little frustrating when there is a lack of recognition given to fathers who take a primary-carer role – my own ‘mothers’ group’ had a heterosexual father as well as myself and all the mothers. However as mentioned above Australian research has demonstrated that there are barriers when same-sex parents interact with health services. This may lead to conflicts around the disclosure of the nature of the family as well as issues related to perceived stigma and discrimination. There are a number of groups throughout Australia for gay and lesbian parents, ranging from online support groups to community playgroups. Many parents feel that it is beneficial for their children to spend time with families that have similar experiences to their own and this has been supported by some of the international research.
Q. Does it help children’s wellbeing if gay or lesbian parents tend to live in areas that might be described as more socially progressive?
A. Melbourne is becoming much more diverse in general and the old clichés of gay ghettos are being broken down. Same-sex parents look for many of the same things other parents do: great schools, good affordable housing, and child-friendly neighbourhoods. This has led same-sex families to settle in many different areas. If socially progressive can be equated to a lack of discrimination then socially progressive neighbourhoods are definitely beneficial for the wellbeing of same-sex families. But this is true for all families and all children should be given the same opportunities regardless of their family background.
The Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex families (ACHESS) is now recruiting same-sex parents who have children under the age of 18 years. If you are interested in taking part in this please contact Dr Simon Crouch by email: email@example.com