The debate over same-sex marriage has led to a focus on children, with opponents citing the damaging effects of of what they call “imperfect families”. By Max Opray.

Gayby Baby and same-sex families

Ebony, the child of a same-sex couple, appearing in the documentary 'Gayby Baby'.
Ebony, the child of a same-sex couple, appearing in the documentary 'Gayby Baby'.
Credit: Courtesy of Marla House

As we perch on stools at a cafe in Adelaide’s East End, I tell Kate Burns that I also have two dads – just not of the kind we’re discussing. Her fathers loved each other, while mine loved the same woman. When I was nine, my mother died of cancer, and from then on it was up to my father and stepfather to steer me through to adulthood. Like most parents, they stuffed up from time to time, and when they did I’d wonder if it was due to a lack of this maternal instinct everyone was always banging on about.

I invite Burns, a 26-year-old nursing student, to tell me about her childhood, mentally preparing follow-up questions about our mutual lack of motherly influence. As it turns out, while we share the same number of fathers, she is one up on me when it comes to mums.

“My mum had known for a long time she wanted to have kids, but wasn’t in a relationship, so she approached my two dads,” she says of her conception.

Burns’ mother-to-be presented her happily coupled gay friends with a range of proposals, and the trio settled on a plan to raise a child between the three of them, with everything split equally.

“I lived in two households – one with my mum, one with my two dads,” Burns says.

She wasn’t particularly conscious of how unorthodox her family unit was until high school. A schoolyard war zone of homophobic slurs left Burns nervous that gay parents would make her a target, so for years she pretended her mum and dad were divorced, and her other father didn’t exist.

“I used to do rowing at high school,” she says. “Of course all my parents would want to come and see me row, and I couldn’t explain this other guy showing up, so he would actually drive to the other end of West Lakes and stand on the opposite side of the river to watch me.”

A couple of years into high school, she finally felt comfortable enough to tell friends about her other dad, and started calling out people for using words such as “gay” as an insult.

“All of a sudden I was the poster child for standing up for gay rights,” she says. “And it was exhausting.”

She says going public about the make-up of her family also inspired a sense of unease about giving people an excuse to judge her parents. “Especially the political climate at the moment, with everyone focused on same-sex parents and saying they aren’t adequate, I sort of have to think about any little thing I say about my family. Of course we have arguments, they made some bad choices, we made some, families’ stuff – but we have to pretend to be a poster family.”

Children are front and centre in the marriage equality debate, with those fighting against change arguing it will lead to more such couples starting families and more children being raised without both a mother and a father. Rather less focus has been directed towards what positive outcomes marriage equality could deliver to such children.

Just this week, News Corp columnist Piers Akerman wrote a piece condemning the planned screening of the documentary Gayby Baby at a Sydney high school, telling a 12-year-old girl who featured in the film that she was not normal. “Well, Ebony, normality is the state of being usual, typical, or expected according to the Oxford Dictionary,” he wrote, “and according to the 2011 Census… same-sex couples represented about 1 per cent of all couples in Australia – which would indicate they do not meet the definition ‘normal’.”

The University of Melbourne’s Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families (ACHESS) showed that perceived stigma linked to negative mental health was experienced by two-thirds of children of 390 same-sex couples. Despite this, children in the study scored higher on most health measures than the general population. ACHESS also referenced a cross-cultural study between the United States and the Netherlands, the first country to pass same-sex marriage into law, that found American children of lesbian parents were more likely to report teasing about their families.

Late last week, the American Katy Faust concluded her whirlwind tour of Australia. Appearing on both Lateline and Q&A during her visit, Faust made headlines as the woman who doesn’t want her own mother to have the right to marry. Faust’s biological parents divorced when she was in the fifth grade, and a year later her mother started a relationship with a woman. Faust found the transition difficult and turned to Christianity in high school. She says she couldn’t have asked for a better mother, but that kids need a father as well. Faust sees herself as an advocate for children of same-sex parents unwilling to speak out themselves for fear of offending their families.

There are half a dozen or so such children of same-sex couples who have gone public in the US with their opposition to marriage equality, a drop in the ocean when compared with the overall number of such families. But are there any who fit this description in Australia, where at least 6000 children of same-sex parents are estimated to live? To find out, I contact the various Christian organisations leading the fight to preserve marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Representatives from each group adopt a similar defensive tone when they find out I am a journalist, certain I must be on the hunt for a bigoted villain to pillory in a gay rights pantomime. Roslyn Phillips, national research officer at FamilyVoice Australia, chooses her words warily when I ask if she knows of any Australian children of same-sex parents who share Faust’s views.

“The slightest thing gets so much abuse, people are afraid to speak, there is so much vitriol – children in that situation don’t want to share their feelings,” she says.

Phillips points to a wide-reaching study by Father Paul Sullins, a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America, which found children of same-sex parents were more than twice as likely to suffer emotional problems as children with opposite-sex parents – after accounting for bullying. Phillips notes that when Faust came to Adelaide to speak at a FamilyVoice Australia event, a woman in her 50s with same-sex parents approached the American during the event and thanked her for saying things she’d always felt but never told anyone.

Faust herself did have one Australian example she continually referred to – her antipodean “partner-in-crime”, Millie Fontana, who Faust describes as a donor-conceived atheist with two mums and a “father hunger”. Quotes from the pair feature prominently in the Australian Marriage Forum website arguing the case that marriage equality would harm children. Fontana has not made any comment to the media about her story, and did not respond to my request for an interview. In March she uploaded an emotional video blog that raises as many questions as it answers, focusing mostly on her frustration with her mothers and biological father, the latter of whom she says she wasn’t allowed to meet for much of her childhood.

“The sad thing is I feel like I was more of a political statement rather than a baby born out of love,” she said in the video.

Filmmaker Maya Newell, director of Gayby Baby – her second documentary on queer families – tells me the dragging of children into the marriage equality debate, and particularly messages from people such as Faust, had the potential to cause plenty of “hurt and pain”.

“I feel for [Faust], but it is unfortunate she has to make other kids feel bad about their upbringing,” she says.

Raised by lesbian mothers herself, Newell spent time with 30 different children of same-sex couples before settling on four families on which to focus in her film.

“They’re imperfect families – kids get let down, they laugh and cry,” she says. “But our families are no less perfect than any other families.”

Gayby Baby focuses on children, but Newell has been busying herself with older people as well. On August 19 she and a group of other twentysomethings raised by same-sex parents – including Kate Burns – attended a panel discussion at Parliament House with federal politicians from across the political spectrum.

“We wanted to discuss issues in person, in an honest way – not have politicians simply talk about us as if we’re hypothetical,” she says.

The children of same-sex parents obviously aren’t hypothetical, but how they might have turned out in an alternate reality with opposite-gender parents certainly is. Whether it is Faust wondering about a life where her parents never divorced, Fontana thinking of an upbringing where her dad was a part of it from the very beginning, or even my own speculations of how my mother would have handled things differently to my fathers – of course the grass seems greener in a childhood of one’s own imagining.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 29, 2015 as "Nuclear families fallout".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.

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