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Grace Papworth reflects upon her childhood growing up with two mothers and interrogates the “traditional” narrative of parenthood and the structures that underpin it.
The Catholic Church phrases it best when they remind us of our civic duty “to not ignore the needs of children for appropriate mothering and fathering.” They warn us of the dangers that are present in same-sex families who “plan from the beginning, artificially, to create an ‘alternative family’ that deliberately deprives a child of a father or a mother.” This, ultimately, forms the foundations of a commonly held idea: children need both a mother and a father.
According to this belief children, such as myself, are faced with a glass ceiling, unable to reach the same levels of success that our peers can. As a direct result of ‘possessing’ a father I have grown up surrounded by people who expect less of me. They are surprised by the academic and personal successes that I have accomplished, by my generally “good” attitude and the descriptions of my carefree childhood.
Ultimately, the above statement hints at the foundations of debate surrounding same sex family structures and forces society to quantify what makes a parent ‘good’ and a child ‘well adjusted’. Having lived the first 20 years of my life with two mothers in a same-sex relationship I feel uniquely qualified to reveal the traumas specific to living with two mothers – and they are not a result of internal dysfunction!
At the turn of the century, the ‘literature’ told us that the children of same-sex parents were not as competent as their heteronormative counterparts. A 2003 study by Golombok became the founding reason for custody arrangements in the US, identifying the very real fear of “exposing children to homosexual lifestyles.”
A 2013 Canadian study affirmed that the children of LGBTIQA+ families were 65 percent less likely to graduate high school. And perhaps most notably, the 2017 Australian ‘no campaign’ told us that we should not mess with marriage because it is very simply “unjust to their children.”
If these reports are correct, how can academia also, overwhelmingly, tell us that there are no notable differences between the children of homosexual and heterosexual couples? To put it simply, the answer to this question is academic bias.
Amongst others, the US National Survey of Children’s Health (2016) and The American Sociological Association report of 2014 tell us that on points of academia, security of attachment to parents, behavioural problems, self-perceptions of cognitive and physical competence, and interest, effort and success in school, there are no notable differences between heterosexual and homosexual family structures. Ultimately these studies conclude that the sexuality of one’s parents doesn’t change the capacity a child has to be successful.
The recognition of this academic bias, leads us to realise that the aforementioned studies questioning the capacity of LGBTIQA+ parents are outliers. They lack large sample sizes and comparable heteronormative families. To put it simply, flawed scholarship has become a smoke screen, allowing illegitimate debate to become the dominant discourse of Australian society. Disregarding this, perhaps the simplest explanation for these results is that when you remove single parents and divorcees from heteronormative families you are bound to be left with very stable families.
Speaking from personal experience, we need need to start looking at the external environments children from same sex families face. Was the environment of early 2000’s Australia really conducive for the wellbeing of children with same-sex parents?
In my lifetime it was, and still is, considered normal to read about the tragic deaths of a gay or lesbian couple. In 2020, the gay panic defence is still used as a valid criminal defence in South Australia and it was widely entrenched in case law across Australia. What this means is, if someone of the same sex appears to be making ‘unwanted sexual advances’ towards a straight man or woman, they may be entitled to act in self-defence. This has the ability to mitigate their sentences and act as a partial defence.
As a child reading about this defence, one phrase remains burned in my mind; “Yeah, I killed him, but he did worse to me”. These are the very words used in landmark case R v Green to justify the death of 22-year-old Donald Gillies. I cannot help but retrospectively ask myself whether this impacted the stability of my upbringing. Did the children of heterosexual couples also become distressed and concerned when onlookers would stare at their mothers holding hands? Did they ever have to watch their parents hide their relationship in public?
In my lifetime, it was considered acceptable for Australia’s no campaign to label same-sex couples as “alternative” and “constructed”. The 2017 referendum in Australia was perceived to be a ‘win’ by the broader community (at least it was to the 67 percent of Australians that voted to legalise same-sex marriage), but to me, it was a gross injustice that became an excuse for institutions and individuals to question my wellbeing and legitimacy.
In 2017, the Catholic Bishops of Australia released a pamphlet that was handed to every child that attended a catholic school. It taught these children that same sex couples were harming the wellbeing of their spouses and their children. As a 16-year-old child I was told that my family was “alternative”. This “don’t-mess-with-marriage” campaign taught me for the first time that I had missed out on something, I had been “deliberately” deprived of having both a mother and a father.
At best, this confused me because in 2016, 10.4 percent of families were single parent households and 30 percent were divorced. And yet, I was told that the fact I have two parents of the same gender meant my family was abnormal?
As the marriage referendum votes were counted, I asked my mother if she was excited to finally get married. She told me that she could not be happy when it had come at this cost. The private matter of my parents’ love had become a way to attack myself and my brothers.
Often in public I would not share with my friends that I had two mothers, I would not invite them over for fear that they would reveal themselves as homophobic or, at best, insensitive.
However, that was not the reality of my private life. I grew up with two parents who loved me and each other. They gave me the same education, drove me to the same musical performances and listened to me cry the same as most heteronormative families would (maybe more on that last one). Perhaps Golombok expresses it best: “It’s stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms.” In truth, I only had one thing to fear within the four walls of my family home: three women on their periods simultaneously!