The Age - "Rainbow Children"
Next month Rodney Cruise will become a father for the second time without having had sex with a woman. By then, it will be nine months since his first child, Ethan, was born to a surrogate in the United States, and Cruise and partner Jeff Chiang together cut the umbilical cord. They flew home to Melbourne as a family when Ethan was 11 days old, and three days later Cruise successfully donated his sperm to a lesbian couple who are close friends of theirs and who are now expecting their first child in four weeks.
Cruise, 41, a patent attorney, came out as gay when he was 13, but it is his new role as a father that attracts attention. "We both wanted to be parents and didn't see our sexuality as being a bar to that; it just complicated things," he says.
They used a surrogacy agency in California at a total cost of about $150,000, including flights and accommodation and $35,000 for their surrogate Kelly, from Ohio. They plan to return to the US before Christmas to conceive another child by surrogacy.
That child will be Cruise's third, one of a growing number of babies born of gay and lesbian parents. Victorian families with same-sex de facto partners and at least one child aged 18 or under grew by more than a third in the five years to the 2006 census. Across Australia, there were almost 2400 families with at least one gay or lesbian parent, a jump of about 26 per cent.
If anything, these figures grossly underestimate actual numbers of gay and lesbian families, many of which are not comfortable publicly divulging details of their sexuality. But they offer a good guide to the increasingly pink face of Australian families. The most startling jump in Victoria was in gay families with preschool children, with the number of declared same-sex families with children aged four or under more than doubling to 167.
Dr John McBain, director of Melbourne IVF and head of reproductive services at Royal Women's Hospital, says there is a growing acceptance of same-sex families in the wider community. "I think the public is much more tolerant now of lesbian couples becoming parents," he says. "People are far more aware that lesbian couples are loving couples in relationships as stable as heterosexual ones and that they make good parents."
Shifting public perceptions have also favored single women wanting to start a family. Surveys show that from 1993 to 2000, the number of people who approved of the use of donor sperm to help single women conceive more than doubled to 38 per cent. Almost a third supported the use of donor sperm by gay couples, compared with only 7 per cent in 1993.
Both groups of women have sought to start families through the Royal Women's sperm storage bank, where sperm from known donors is screened for communicable diseases and frozen before it is available for self-insemination. Three months ago, the screening facility celebrated its first birth from one of the 15 women to have used the service, McBain says.
Seven years ago, McBain successfully challenged Victoria's infertility laws on behalf of a 38-year-old animal shelter worker from Box Hill South, who had tried for eight years to conceive but was refused donor sperm because she was single. The 2000 Federal Court decision, upheld on appeal to the High Court, stripped out the requirement that women must be either married or in a solid de facto relationship to access assisted reproductive technology.
But such treatment is still limited in Victoria and South Australia, alone among the states and territories, to women who are medically infertile — effectively barring both lesbian and single women who function fine but don't plan to test out their fertility with the opposite sex.
Lori, 34, and Libby, 32, a lesbian couple in western Victoria, are among a growing number of women who have had to cross the border to make a baby. In November, they will travel to Albury for their second shot at donor insemination for Libby, a horse midwife, at a clinic that is so busy it has closed its waiting list. Each attempt costs about $1500, not including the cost and inconvenience of having to stay interstate for several nights.
Lori, a part-time teacher at a Catholic primary school, who prefers not to reveal her surname, has a 10-year-old daughter from a former heterosexual relationship. She says that gays and lesbians, like the wider community, have become more accepting of parenthood.
"When I came out eight, nine years ago, there wasn't a lot of support for lesbian mums. It was more like, 'Why would you have a kid when you are gay?' And I found it really hard to fight against that stereotype," she says. "Now there are a lot more women who are saying that in a few years' time they would like to have a kid."
The couple have also advertised online for a donor, who they want to play an "uncle" role with limited contact, on Maybe Baby, one of several social groups for "rainbow families" — a mixture of homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals and transgenders. They have had responses from a gay male who has previously donated sperm to two lesbian couples and a heterosexual man who says he would like to help.
They are not alone in pursuing parenthood online. On one website, a 30-something, non-smoking gay couple want to be co-parents and a 31-year-old lesbian with a nine-year-old son is on the lookout for a donor who is extremely fit, healthy and handsome. A gay couple in Perth want a woman to carry their child. And on the Queensland coast, a male bisexual wants to assist a single woman or lesbian couple, promising to help pay for the child's rearing.
Other websites include forums with hints on DIY insemination, including the tip that women should avoid hot baths before and after they insert the syringe, and another on what name children should call their gay parents — Mum and Mumma? Dad and Pop?
The Rainbow Families Council, which was established last September, gives gay and lesbian parents the chance to meet offline as well. Felicity Marlowe, who co-ordinates the council's Love Makes a Family campaign for legal reform, says the growing visibility of same-sex parents has made more gays and lesbians consider having their own children. "Sometimes you think every second person who is queer is having a child," she says.
"We are seeing lots more requests from child-care centers and primary schools to look at how they can become more inclusive in their policies and their curriculum, because they are seeing more families with two mums or two dads."
Schools in Melbourne's inner northern suburbs are particularly inclusive of the children of gay and lesbian families, she says. That might mean simply stocking library books that include same-sex parents among their characters or amending standard letters home to refer to parent/parent rather than mother/father.
It is a long way from the day in 2004 when then acting Prime Minister John Anderson publicly criticized the ABC for a Play School episode showing a young child visiting the zoo with her two mums. The Federal Government is yet to change its tune, with Prime Minister John Howard maintaining this year that having a mother and a father gave children "the best opportunity in life".
Some sectors of the Australian public also maintain that children need a mother and father, preferably married. A spokeswoman for the Australian Family Association says: "Children need an involved, on the ground, in the house, father and mother. They don't need other mothers, adopted mothers or other fathers."
DISCRIMINATION was among the topics discussed at a symposium on same-sex parents for medical practitioners, healthcare workers and researchers at the University of Melbourne in June.
Dr Ruth McNair, a general practitioner specializing in lesbian and women's health and a senior lecturer in the department of general practice at the university, says prejudice remains a potent issue for many same-sex parents. Men in particular face some opposition both from among the general public and from within the gay community, where they might be tagged with the derogatory term "breeders".
"They are often faced with comments that lesbians would have got 20 years ago," McNair says. "Comments like, 'Why are you selling out to the mainstream, why don't you just continue the gay lifestyle'."
Such catcalls are gradually fading, though, says McNair, who is on maternity leave with her four-month-old son, Samuel, whom she parents with her lesbian partner. "There has been a huge change in the community in the past 20 years. If you look at the (Sydney) Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, the first group are always the Dykes on Bikes, but the second group is now mums with prams."
In one sense, the debate has moved on, from discussions on the concept of gay and lesbian parents to a focus on their children as they grow older. A US study last year found that the adolescent offspring of same-sex parents did not differ from the children of heterosexual couplings in self-esteem, peer relationships, school adjustment, drug use or sexual experience. The only significant difference was that the teenagers of same-sex parents coped better with prejudice and bullying.
But in another sense, the debate has stayed the same. The Australian Family Association still argues that "there is bucket-loads of research" showing that children need a mother and father.
This is despite the findings of the Victorian Law Reform Commission's final report into assisted reproductive technology and adoption, which was tabled in Parliament in June. The commission made 130 recommendations for updating Victoria's infertility laws, including that people seeking to undergo treatment or to adopt must not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation or be excluded on the grounds that they have no partner.
The commission also recommended that Victoria scrap its "clinical infertility" bar to treatment in favor of a simple test of whether a woman, in her circumstances, is unlikely to become pregnant by any other means. Attorney-General Rob Hulls, who has sat on the report for several months, has promised to respond before the end of the year.
Cruise and Chiang first told the story of Ethan's birth to The Age in April and on the same day they were stopped in the street by a woman who thanked them for showing that her own gay son might one day give her a grandchild. "When I was young, I always wanted to be a parent but I couldn't see how it could happen. Now there is a sense within the gay community than we can have it too and why should we be denied it," Cruise says.
"Most parents want to be grandparents one day and we look forward to the day when Ethan, whether gay or straight, becomes a dad as well."