Lavender parents.

Author:Henrickson, Mark


The recent introduction of a number of bills in Parliament that affect lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people has engendered a great deal of public discussion. Some of this discussion has focused on relationships and parenting. Much of the existing data on LGB parents in New Zealand is inferential. Lavender Islands: Portrait of the Whole Family is the first national strengths-based study of LGB individuals, and includes specific questions on relationships and parenting. The present paper is based on a subsample of that study. Of the 2,269 respondents, 22.6% had some kind of parenting relationship to children. The sample was highly educated, with relatively high incomes. LGB parents reported that they did not feel pressured into having children and that their children were very important to them, particularly when the child lived with them. There are a variety of routes to parenting and data suggest that the decision to parent may be independent of any decisions about lived sexual identity. The strongest predictor of having a child after a participant identified themselves as LGB was whether they had a child prior to identifying themselves as such. Issues included the responses of other people and professionals who worked or socialised with the children of LGB parents. The policy implications of these findings are discussed.


The question of parenting by same-sex couples and single lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people has emerged as an important subject in New Zealand. This issue has been raised not only in regard to the recently enacted Care of Children Act, but also the Civil Union and the Relationships (Statutory References) bills, as well as considerations about adoption. Most of the research in this area is international, and has focused on the effect of same-gender parenting on children (e.g. Brewaeys and van Hall 1997, Chrisp 2001, Dundas and Kaufman 2000, Fitzgerald 1999, Golombok and Tasker 1996, Golombok et al. 2003, MacCallum and Golombok 2004, Perrin 2002), although there have been studies on the LGB family structure itself (e.g. Boggis 2001, Dalton 2001, Miller 2001, Riemann 2001, Sullivan 2001, Bozett 1987, Ciano-Boyce and Shelley-Sireci 2002, Harris and Turner 1985, Lynch 2000, Lynch and Murray 2000, Medeiros 2003, Rockney 1997, and in New Zealand, Saphira 1984) and stigma against these families (Clarke 2000, King 2001, Maney and Cain 1997). However, it is increasingly important for legislators and human services agencies in New Zealand to understand more about LGB parents who have had children, or who are choosing to become parents.

This article draws directly on data from a large New Zealand research study of lesbian, gay and bisexual persons, and is a step towards describing and understanding more about LGB parents. Much of the negative response toward legislative reforms has proposed that such legislation will result in an unprecedented increase in homosexual parenting. What our research found was a very large number of LGB parents already living in their relationships, and parenting their children. There were also some interesting and perhaps important differences between LGB parents and non-parents. The purpose of this article is two-fold: (1) to describe LGB parents, and in that process possibly deconstruct some myths about LGB parenthood, and (2) to articulate some policy implications of LGB parenting based on actual data about LGB parents.


Much of the existing, putative data about the LGB communities in New Zealand is inferential, based on Statistics New Zealand census data. These data are inevitably limited because there has been no way to identify LGB census respondents except to infer their existence from reported de facto partnerships together with same-sex flatmates or housemates. Data on single LGBs and coupled LGBs whose partners do not live with them are missing entirely. There has also been a substantial amount of appropriately problem-focused research on the LGB populations in New Zealand, including discrimination and workplace problems (Atmore 1995, Guy 2002, Hyman 2001, McDonald 2001, Pratt and Tuffin 1996, Rankine 1997, Vincent and Ballard 1997), health and mental health (Saphira and Glover 1999, Welch et al. 2000), identity (e.g. Ross 1983), suicide (Fergusson et al. 1999, Skegg et al. 2003), alcohol and drugs (Madgeskind and Semp 1997, Welch et al. 1998), prevalence (Dickson et al. 2003), and of course HIV (Davis 1996, McNab and Worth 1999, Mills et al. 2002, Saxton et al. 2002, Worth 2003).

"Lavender Islands: The New Zealand Study" (Henrickson et al. in press) is the first national strengths-based study of lesbian, gay and bisexual people in New Zealand. Researchers deliberately chose not to focus this project on traditional problem areas such as mental health, suicidality, health, alcohol and other drugs, and HIV/AIDS, but focused rather on developing a more general understanding of LGBs. The study was developed by an interdisciplinary research team in close consultation with a community advisory group made up of LGB community leaders and members. Multidisciplinary interest areas were developed by the community advisory group, and included identity and self-definition, families of origin, families of choice (including partnerships and children), immigration and internal migration, wellbeing, politics, work, income and spending, careers and leisure, community connections, challenges, and spirituality.

The 133-item survey was made available both by website and paper copy from April to July 2004. In all, 2,269 unduplicated responses were received, 83.6% from the website and 16.4% on paper (returned by Freepost). Of the entire sample, 45.3% was female and 54.7% male. (There were five transgender and intersex responses received, which have been removed from gendered analysis in this article.) A detailed methodology and results from some of these data have been reported elsewhere.

We acknowledge that this study has the limitations inherent to self-selected samples, including that these respondents are willing to self-identify to the extent of participating in such a study, and that they are people whose identity has coalesced to the extent that they are willing to identify with an LGB community. (It is important to note that there were no significant differences in education or income between website and paper responses, so that differences in this sample do not have to do so much with the response medium, as with their willingness and ability to participate in the study itself.) Nevertheless, the sample is unique and quite large, and is in many ways comparable to New Zealand census data and other relevant studies.

This article focuses exclusively on the Lavender Islands data about parenting and children, including responses to questions concerning:

* the respondents' roles in relation to children in their lives

* how many children were born or adopted before and after respondents came to identify themselves as LGB

* whether respondents ever felt pressured to have children

* whether having a child was important to respondents

* to what extent having children is a part of an individual's identity in New Zealand

* whether participants felt that their children had been disadvantaged in any way because of the parents' identities or relationships.

Participants also commented about parenting and children in a free-response question at the conclusion of the survey.

For the purpose of the analysis reported here, the question about the respondent role in relation to children was recoded as either a parent or not a parent. Anyone who reported giving birth, co-parenting or adopting was coded as a parent; anyone who reported only being a sperm donor or egg donor was not coded as a parent. As noted above, transgendered respondents who were also parents are excluded from any gendered analysis that follows.


Of 1,846 respondents to the question about children, 22.6% (n = 417) said they had some kind of parenting relationship with children. It is not possible to estimate the number of children with same-sex parents, because if both parents responded to the survey this number would overestimate the number of children. There were significant differences between urban and rural areas. Respondents from urban centres were significantly more likely to report "no child" (62.7%) than respondents from non-urban areas (57.4%); and respondents in non-urban areas were significantly more likely to have given birth to at least one child (14.6%) than in urban centres (9.8%).

The parents were significantly older than the non-parents. Respondents who had given birth (a mean of 46.7 years of age at the time of the survey), co-parented (a mean of 48.5 years) or adopted (a mean of 48.6...

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