While many children have grown up with lesbian and gay parents, until the 1980s they were usually conceived in heterosexual relationships. In the 21st century more children were being born into lesbian- and gay-parented families. Lesbian mothers were the primary caregivers in most of these families.
Different lesbian and gay families
Families with lesbian or gay parents, just like families with heterosexual parents, can involve a mixture of:
- children conceived using a known or unknown sperm donor
- children conceived using a surrogate mother
- children from previous heterosexual, lesbian or gay relationships
- whāngai children parented by lesbian or gay relatives who are not their biological parents (whāngai is a Māori form of adoption that sustains the links with biological parents).
Extended family networks
Children conceived by lesbian or gay male parents often have a rich web of family relationships which may include four sets of grandparents, two mothers, two fathers and multiple sets of aunts, uncles and cousins. Often these children have parents of different ethnicities and can draw on the cultural resources of Māori, Pākehā, Pacific Island and Asian family members.
From the 1970s lesbians who wanted to become mothers used non-medical strategies, such as collecting sperm from donors (sometimes gay male friends) and inseminating themselves or their partners using sterile bottles and a syringe.
Recently some lesbian couples have used fertility clinics to conceive children using donated sperm. Sometimes the donors are known to the parents; sometimes they are anonymous. For Māori parents it is important that children should know about their whakapapa – their ancestry. They often look for donors who will want the child to know about their parentage.
Lesbian parents have developed a number of different ways in which donors of sperm can relate to the children they have helped to conceive. Sometimes donors are known as fathers and have some parenting responsibilities, but they are in a minority. Other known donors are defined as uncles or family friends. In some situations, donors have little or no contact with children, but are available to be contacted when children initiate this interaction.
Two mothers, one or more fathers
Some lesbian women and gay men are entering into agreements to parent children with heterosexual and gay men. Sometimes the partners of gay men who are known donors have a role in the care of the children conceived in this way.
A few gay men have made surrogacy agreements with heterosexual women who conceive children using their sperm. Surrogacy is legal in New Zealand as long as biological mothers are only paid for their expenses.
Leading the world
One of the parents in a recent survey of those who identified as lesbian, gay, transgendered and intersex wrote that ‘we [New Zealand] lead the world in how many lesbian women use known donor gay fathers … there is a developing lesbian/gay family community via these joint parenting arrangements.’1
The Lavender Islands survey of 1,846 gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex and transgendered people in 2004 included 417 parents. Parents were more likely to be older and female. Some were parenting the children of their same-sex partners.
Gay and lesbian families parent in much the same way as other parents. Sometimes they struggle to conceive children and juggle jobs and childcare. Couples may split up and parent across households with their separated partners. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and sometimes older siblings help to care for children.
Impacts on children
Most parents (66.7%) in the Lavender Islands survey reported that their children had not been disadvantaged by their parents’ sexual identification. However, 33.3% reported some difficulties with schools, clubs, sports organisations, health providers, friends and friends’ parents. Children of gay and lesbian parents sometimes reported teasing and had to be careful about bringing friends home, but most were very positive about their family life.
Just like everybody else
The family life of children with lesbian and gay parents is much like that of children in other families. In the early 21st century Rupert and Felix lived in Wellington with their mothers. Their biological father and his partner also looked after them, taking them to swimming lessons, gymnastics, the library and the park.
Amendments in 2004 to the Status of Children Act 1969 made it possible for the same-sex partner of a woman who used donor sperm to become a legal parent and have her name on the birth certificate. In 2005 the New Zealand Law Commission recommended that a known sperm donor could become a legal parent if the child’s parents agreed. However, known donors still had no legal rights in 2016.
The Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act 2004 regulates the use of assisted reproductive procedures in New Zealand. Lesbian women and single heterosexual women have access to donor insemination, but only women with fertility problems can access free artificial insemination or invitro fertilization procedures.
Under the Adoption Act 1955, unmarried couples cannot legally adopt children and single men may not legally adopt girls except under special circumstance. When same-sex marriage became legal in August 2013, married same-sex couples became able to jointly adopt children.