‘One of the most flattering emails I got about my PhD was from someone trying to criticise the work: “This research is a load of nonsense. It’s right up there with the research suggesting there is such a thing as climate change and evolution.”
I was following the debates in Parliament when New South Wales was introducing its same-sex adoption laws. Politicians were saying things like: “The evidence shows the best way to raise a child is with a mother and a father.”
I tried to find this evidence they were quoting and it just wasn’t there. But the evidence for the counter-argument wasn’t incredibly strong either and that’s what I set out to find in my PhD.
‘I looked at 315 same-sex families, which represented 500 children, making it the largest study of its kind in the world.’
Much of the research before had just focused on psychosocial wellbeing. I looked at the complete physical, mental and social wellbeing of children aged two months to 18 years in families where at least one parent identified as being same-sex attracted.
This included gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual couples and single parents. It wasn’t a direct comparison between same-sex families and heterosexual families. I didn’t want to feed into this “heteronormative” assumption.
I looked at 315 same-sex families, which represented 500 children, making it the largest study of its kind in the world.
I used a number of validated questionnaires for measuring child health and wellbeing as reported by parents and compared their scores to the population average. The adolescents were then invited to complete the survey so I got their perspectives, too.
They described themselves as being very normal and not particularly out of the ordinary. I also interviewed some of the families, which helped interpret the findings from the surveys.
They were very keen to tell their stories. Overall, I found that kids with same-sex attracted parents are doing very well and in some areas they’re doing better than average. They scored higher in the areas of family cohesion, general health and general behaviour.
There weren’t any areas where they scored significantly lower than average but there was an association between stigma and how well these kids scored. The more the stigma, the lower they scored, most often on the psychosocial measures.
‘The more the stigma, the lower they scored, most often on the psychosocial measures.’
My research shows that same-sex families are experiencing stigma and it does affect them. It could be something simple, like overhearing a slightly negative comment about same-sex attracted people, to direct bullying and teasing.
One parent told me about getting a letter from school saying: “Dear Mr and Mrs.” It seems like a relatively small issue, but when you get this letter and it’s not relevant to your family, it changes the whole dynamic for that day and adds to the general family pressures.
There’s also the broader social context of debates around marriage equality and same-sex adoption, where you have members of Parliament standing up and saying: “Same-sex couples can’t raise children.”
This sort of rhetoric that’s being put out there all the time does have a compounding negative effect.
Parent sexual orientation itself has no impact on child wellbeing. In fact, parent gender seems to have very little impact.
‘Many people in Victoria assume that same-sex attracted people can adopt and are surprised when they find out they can’t.’
The only way that same–sex orientation seems to have a role in child wellbeing is this innate ability to break down ‘heteronormative’ stereotypes in a family’s construct.
When that happens, it’s a good thing. Instead of mum staying at home and dad going to work, the roles that parents play are much more negotiated and developed around what they are actually suited to doing.
This leads to greater harmony at home, which leads to greater health and wellbeing for their children. Perceived stigma, and the stress this causes the family, are the things that have a negative impact on child health in this context.
I am a same-sex attracted parent, so some people have questioned my agenda as a researcher. My team brought systematic scientific rigor to every process in the study so I try not to get too engrossed in the really negative stuff.
I’m now using my research to help inform same-sex adoption policy. Many people in Victoria assume that same-sex attracted people can adopt and are surprised when they find out they can’t.
People who are against same-sex adoption often argue that kids do better in heterosexual families and my research shows that’s not true.
My research also shows that these sorts of comments do have a negative impact on children who are growing up in same-sex families. It does make them feel stigmatised. It does cause them stress. It does impact their health.
I believe anybody can have whatever view they want, but I do wonder whether people should be given the freedom to put views out there in ways that negatively impact others. There are now almost three decades of work in this area that overwhelmingly says that kids with same-sex parents are doing pretty well.
Simon Crouch’s thesis is titled: “The Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families: Child Health and Wellbeing in the Face of Stigma”.
* My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.