Discrimination, not same-sex parenting itself, is the source of harm to children, say academics and health professionals

A group of academics and medical practitioners have written an update for the Medical Journal of Australia setting out evidence regarding children in same-sex parented families, and calling on the health professional community to speak up during the Marriage Survey.

The group, who are affiliated with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute as well as several other organisations, write that “misinformation is circulating in the public domain that children and adolescents with same-sex parents are at risk of poorer health and wellbeing than other children”.

They say that “homophobic campaign messages” encouraging Australians to vote no in the Marriage Survey have created an increased public health risk for the LGBTQI+ community and their children.

“The consensus of the peer-reviewed research is that children raised in same-sex parented families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as children raised by heterosexual couple parents,” the group writes.

“These findings have been replicated across independent studies in Australia and internationally.”

They cite a Columbia Law School review of 79 studies investigating the wellbeing of children raised by gay or lesbian couples.

This review found an “overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on over three decades of peer-reviewed research, that having a gay or lesbian parent does not harm children”.

They also cite:

  • A 2014 American Sociological Review of more than 40 studies which found that children raised by gay or lesbian couples did as well as other children across several measures of wellbeing, such as academic performance and psychological health;
  • A 2013 Australian Institute of Family Studies review of Australian and international research on gay and lesbian-parented families which found this family structure does not harm children, who were emotionally, socially and educationally comparable to their peers; and
  • A 2010 meta-analysis of 33 studies which showed that the gender or sexuality of parents did not have an adverse effect on children’s health or wellbeing.

The authors say these studies support a broader consensus among family studies experts and psychologists that it is “family processes” – such as the quality of parenting, and the quality and satisfaction of relationships within the family – which matter more than parents’ sexuality.

Some studies have shown that children with same sex parents show better psychological adjustment and greater open-mindedness towards diversity, though the authors point out that these may reflect the higher than average socio-economic status, parenting and family stability among the population studied.

The authors say studies supporting the opposite view, particularly the often-cited Regnerus Study, have been “widely criticised” for their methodological limitations.  

However, the authors write that there is a negative impact on the health of children and adolescents being raised by gay and lesbian parents: “children and adolescents with same-sex parents are emotionally affected when they and their families are exposed to homophobia, discrimination, prejudice and social stigma, and do better when they live in communities that hold more accepting attitudes.”

“Same-sex couples are at a higher risk of poorer mental health and suicide than heterosexual couples, and living in a society that limits their legal and social rights results in negative psychological outcomes for same-sex parented families,” the authors write.

Young people who identify as LGBTQI+ “experience some of the highest rates of psychological distress in Australia,” they write.

“This cohort of young people is significantly more likely to experience depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm and suicide than other young people.

“These negative outcomes are largely attributed to the harassment, stigma and discrimination that they and other LGBTIQ+ individuals and communities regularly endure.”

The authors call on the health professional community to remember its “duty of care to all groups in our society, particularly to those who are vulnerable”.

“We need to speak up. Opportunities exist to add our voices to the public debate, through public statements as individuals and from our professional associations and workplaces.”

The article was welcomed by Penny Wong, leader of the Australian Labor Party in the Senate, Australia’s first openly gay parliamentarian.

Senator Wong made a statement to MJA InSight in which she said that the article was a “fact-based contribution to a debate that is sorely in need of one”.

“One of the saddest things about this campaign is that the No case says they care about children, but spend a lot of their time denigrating families, suggesting children in same-sex families are being harmed,” Senator Wong said.

“The reality is same-sex couples already have children in this country and the only people harming them are those who make these damaging and entirely false claims.”

Health professional groups including NAPSA and the PSA have spoken out in support of the LGBTQI+ community of late.