Challenges of Same-Sex Couple Families

This article is part of a special series focusing on common challenges faced by Australian families.

Other articles in this series include:

  1. Challenges of Single-parent Families Due to Death or Separation
  2. Challenges of Blended and Step “Remarried” Families
  3. Challenges of Families Who Experience Domestic Violence
  4. Challenges of Families with a Parent Working Away From Home Base
  5. Family Issues When There is Disability, Illness, or Serious Injury

Nowhere is a discussion of dynamics in the changing family more pertinent than with lesbian and gay couples, and of the four functions that a family is meant to carry out for its members, the question of family formation is primary. Although gays and lesbians are not permitted to marry in most locations around the world, they do come together in civil unions, and many post-divorce families consist of a gay or lesbian couple with the children of one or both of them from a previous heterosexual marriage.

All of the problems inherent in step families are relevant, but in addition, same-sex couples bear the burdens of secrecy and isolation in an attempt to avoid rejection from their families of origin and stigmatisation by the wider (heterosexual) society. In terms of creating a sense of family membership, gays and lesbians are also confronted with the lack of legal sanction for their committed relationships, and challenges with parental rights (Oswald, 2002).

Dealing with prejudice due to unconscious traditional assumptions

Martin (1998) summarises the situation for same-sex couple families by commenting that the issues that arise for gays and lesbians in parenting are a function of two things: the rich variety of constellations same-sex families comprise, and the fact that the society they are living in does not value rich variety! The presumptions supporting “traditional” family make-up (and at the same time condemning gay/lesbian family compositions) are strong, and often unconscious. Some of these are:

  • That there should be two parents
  • That the two parents should be one of each gender
  • That they will be romantic partners of one another
  • That they will live under one roof
  • That they will both be biologically related to the children they raise
  • That they will be recognised legally as a family.

Perhaps because this model of “family” cannot apply to any same-sex couple family, there has been strong opposition to gays and lesbians forming families with the same legal, medical, and other rights as heterosexual, “Mum and Dad” nuclear families. Critics have claimed that same-sex couple family constellations harm the children, although many studies have asserted that children brought up by lesbians and gays are “indistinguishable” from children raised by heterosexuals (Patterson, 1992). To counteract these scientifically unsupported assertions against same-sex marriages, several prominent bodies have come out in recent years with statements such as the one by the American Academy of Pediatrics (2006):

“More than 25 years of research have documented that there is no relationship between parents’ sexual orientation and any measure of a child’s emotional, psychosocial, and behavioral adjustment. These data have demonstrated no risk to children as a result of growing up in a family with 1 [sic] or more gay parents. Conscientious and nurturing adults, whether they are men or women, heterosexual or homosexual, can be excellent parents. The rights, benefits, and protections of civil marriage can further strengthen these families.” (Pawelski, Perrin, Foy, et al., July 2006)

Similarly, in Australia, the Australian Psychological Society declared:

“The family studies literature indicates that it is family processes (such as the quality of parenting and relationships within the family) that contribute to determining children’s wellbeing and ‘outcomes’, rather than family structures, per se, such as the number, gender, sexuality and co-habitation status of parents. The research indicates that parenting practices and children’s outcomes in families parented by lesbian and gay parents are likely to be at least as favourable as those in families of heterosexual parents, despite the reality that considerable legal discrimination and inequity remain significant challenges for these families.” (Short, Riggs, Perlesz, Brown, & Kane, 2007)

Family membership looks different in same-sex couple families

Some of the family formation issues can be found in the following examples:

A seven-year-old boy has three parents in two households. In one household resides his gay biological father, and in the other are his two lesbian moms, neither of whom is biologically related to him. The mothers share half-time custody with the father, including involvement in school activities, but have no legal rights to the child, should anything happen to the father. The boy’s father has a partner, but he is not a designated parent in this family system. The biological mother is not around.

In a different family, a gay man’s sister agreed to become pregnant as a surrogate mother. She was inseminated with the sperm of his partner, gave birth to a little girl, and gave the baby to the two men, who are considered the child’s only parents. The girl’s biological mother is an aunt, both biologically and functionally. Her husband is an uncle, and her three children are the girl’s cousins, both biologically and functionally. They are not considered “siblings” at all. (Martin, 1998)

Martin (1998) claims that children in these relationships are not confused when adults speak to them openly and honestly about whom their biological parents are (those who made them) and whom their caregiving parents are (those who are bringing them up). At an institutional level, however, these children have the challenge to know how to fill in endless forms asking for “Name of Mother” and “Name of Father”. Who does the seven-year-old boy above put for “Mother”, and does he add in an extra line for “Other mother”? Does the girl above write in her biological father’s name, and then cross out “Name of Mother”, writing “Other father” instead?

Even if total disclosure is desired, there is the problem of appropriate language. What, for example, does a mother of a lesbian call her daughter’s primary relationship: girlfriend? Lover? Life-partner? If the lesbian women have a child through artificial insemination, what is the name for the non-birth mother? And what is the name for the relationship between such a child and the non-birth-mother’s mother? (Slater, 1995, in Johnson & Colucci, 2005)

Being totally open and disclosing affords the opportunity for the families to receive all the support and community services available in their towns. Being open puts the children in the strongest position to deal with some of the social situations arising from having gay or lesbian parents. They can become children more capable of authenticity and intimacy, people who demand respectful treatment for themselves and have some trust in their ability to cope with others who are intolerant. And school and medical personnel are in the best possible position to evaluate the children’s experience in terms of decisions needing to be made (Martin, 1998).

Stress and danger for same-sex family disclosers

Unfortunately, the above non-traditional families, upon disclosing their status, also open themselves to taunts and ridicule from homophobic others, potential loss of support from extended family, and even loss of jobs or housing. Some may experience violence upon disclosure. Sadly, lesbian and gay couples are also advised not to disclose the true status of their relationship until custody is ironclad (meaning: for whichever parent gets to be the “legal” one), for there is the real danger of losing the child altogether.

Even if a family lives in a relatively tolerant, liberal society where these dangers do not necessarily lurk, just the thought that they could arise generates considerable anxiety for the same sex couple and their family. The anxiety may be unbearable for a same-sex parent which does not have legal recognition as a parent, because the child could be taken from them in a heartbeat if the parent with legal recognition dies. Too, grandparents may be unwilling to invest time in a grandchild that they are afraid will be taken away. Employers may not offer family leave or recognise family emergencies that an employee must take off for. Insurance companies may not cover the child of a non-legal parent, yet in most communities, a child is not legally permitted to have two same-sex parents.

Apart from those stressors in the outer environment, there is the ever-present danger that the same-sex couple will separate. In this case, the non-legal parent may lose total access to the child, as the biological parent resorts to legal privilege. (Martin, 1998)

Looking at the typical life-cycle of a human being, we can see that lesbian and gay people are challenged to go through all the same family life-cycle phases as heterosexuals. Yet from the stage of adolescence — a fraught time of confusion and destabilisation for teenagers in the best of times –gay or lesbian adolescents with heterosexual parents must do the same individuation (separation from parents) tasks as heterosexual teens, but often without support from the family. They must plan for an adulthood that will be different than anything that their parents are able to help them prepare for.

If such teens do out themselves, families frequently become alienated, disoriented and full of self-blame and guilt. Many families threaten the teen with expulsion and violence. The support that such an adolescent might have had from community organisations for gay and lesbian people is often blocked, as parents fear that association with such groups will expose the teen to exploitation and HIV (Johnson & Colucci, 2005).

In young adulthood, a gay or lesbian faces all the normal developmental life tasks, but must continue to handle the ins and outs of developing gay/lesbian identity, along with the stresses of living in a stigmatising broader culture. Some people delay disclosing their gay/ lesbian orientation for years, being known to the outside world as merely a “single” person. While society often disadvantages a single person, seeing them as “eternal young adults”, the further disadvantage is that a gay or lesbian person’s family may also continue to be in denial about their child’s homosexuality.

When such a person begins to couple, the family of origin can no longer be in denial about the gay or lesbian orientation, and the full brunt of family reactivity, leading to cut-off or dis-allowing of the same-sex partner into the family’s home, may result. It is necessary to do the disclosing, however, if one would develop differentiated relationships with family members. Gay or lesbian adults need social support as much as their heterosexual counterparts: perhaps more so, given the homophobic environment in which so many live.

The family functions of “family formation and membership” and “nurturance, education and socialisation” tended to with intentionality and redefinition

With family of origin either cut off or too alienated to be supportive, gay and lesbian couples have adopted some strategies for carrying out Function One (family membership and belonging), and also Function Three (education and socialisation). Family systems experts name these resilience-promoting efforts as intentionality and redefinition.

Intentionality occurs when gays and lesbians consciously act to validate themselves as family members, creating a sense of family in a hostile environment. Intentionality is happening when same-sex couples “choose” their kin — perceiving friends as members of the family, when they become parents either by natural means or by adoption, and when they integrate heterosexuals, including biological family members, into their lives.

Through these means the same-sex couple creates what is called a “family of choice”. Through intentionality, such couples also carefully manage disclosure and develop networks and communities which support them both materially and socially. Gays and lesbians may also solidify their identity and strengthen their relationships by creating rituals, and by ingeniously working out ways to achieve legalisation (Oswald, 2002).

Redefinition involves the ongoing development of belief systems which affirm gays and lesbians. A chief aspect of redefinition is politicisation, in which same-sex couples become activists, attempting to educate not only their children but also the wider community in the management of stigma. One way in which gays and lesbians do this is through naming, the process of creating labels for parents and other non-kin family members. They also may choose a common surname.

Also, same-sex couple families are helped by integrating their homosexuality with other aspects of themselves that are shared by all, such as ethnicity or religion. Last but not least, gays and lesbians can re-define the concept of family itself, refusing to see it as a bio-legal set of relationships which punish all those who flout the norms. Rather, “family” for same-sex-couple families can come to mean an entity whose ongoing construction is not only tolerant of human differences, but which positively affirms it (Oswald, 2002). Although coming into a same-sex couple family can be a challenging transition, the experience does not put safety at risk in any way like the experience of family violence.

This article is an extract of the Mental Health Social Support Specialty “Supporting Challenged Families”. For more information on MHSS, visit


  • Johnson, T.W., & Colucci, P. (2005). Lesbians, gay men, and the family life cycle. In Carter, B., and McGoldrick, M., Eds. (2005). The expanded family life cycle: Individual, family, and social perspectives (third edition). Boston, Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Martin, A. (1998). Issues for Lesbian- and gay-parented families. Parenthood in America. Retrieved on 5 July, 2012, from:
  • Oswald, R.F. (2002). Resilience within the family networks of lesbians and gay men: Intentionality and redefinition. Journal of marriage and family, 64, 374-383.
  • Patterson, C. (October, 1992). “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents.” In Child Development, October, 1992, 63 (5), pp 1025 – 1042).
  • Pawelski, J.G., Perrin E. C., Foy, J.M., et al. (July 2006). “The effects of marriage, civil union, and domestic partnership laws on the health and well-being of children”. Pediatrics 118 (1): 349–64. DOI:10.1542/peds.2006-1279. PMID 16818585. Retrieved on 5 July, 2012, from:
  • Short, E., Riggs, D.W., Perlesz, A., Brown, R., & Kane, G. (2007). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Parented Families – A Literature Review prepared for The Australian Psychological Society” (PDF). Retrieved on 5 July, 2012, from: