Radical Psychology
Volume Nine, Issue 2


‘I’m not gay, but my four mums are’: Psychological knowledge and lesbian-headed families

Damien W. Riggs*


Introduction

As I prepared to write this paper, it became apparent the necessity for me to begin the paper with a number of ‘confessions’. Upon further consideration it became clear  that not only were these confessions ethically necessary on my behalf as an academic, but they also frame very neatly all of the arguments I will attempt to make in this paper. So, with that said, let the confessions begin.

For most of my adult life I have identified openly as a gay man. I have done so with friends and family, with colleagues, in publications, and often also in my teaching. For the past seven years I have been a parent, now to three boys. Prior to having children I had an interest in child psychology and in working with children in practice, but parenting and family studies was not one of my central research areas. Since having children, however, I have found myself increasingly involved in this research area, primarily with a focus on lesbian and gay parenting.

In my academic (Riggs, 2006) and personal writing (Riggs, 2007), and largely drawing upon the seminal work of Clarke (2000; 2001), I have been highly critical of the norms that are perpetuated within psychological research on lesbian and gay parents. Primary amongst these are the apparent acceptance of a research agenda that centres upon refuting negative stereotypes. Whilst I acknowledge the power of these stereotypes and the capacity they hold to negatively shape the lives of lesbian and gay parents, I have also been very wary of the complex ways in which simply engaging with the stereotypes (even to disprove them) continues to shape the lives of lesbian and gay parents. The key stereotypes I refer to here are: 1) children of lesbian or gay parents will grow up to be lesbian or gay, 2) lesbian and gay relationships are inherently unstable, unsafe places in which to raise children, 3) children of lesbian or gay parents ‘lack’ opposite-sex gender role models, 4) children of lesbian or gay parents will experience discrimination or harassment, and thus 5) children of lesbian or gay parents will experience negative mental health outcomes. Research that has taken these stereotypes as its starting place has consistently disproven them, thus providing evidence for the merits of lesbian and gay parenting.

Of course the question the reader may ask here is why it is a problem that a now significant body of research exists that not only refutes these negative stereotypes about lesbian and gay parents, but also proves our fitness to parent? Shouldn’t I, as a gay parent, be thankful and pleased about these findings as they legitimate my identity as a gay parent? My answer to these questions is one that largely places me at odds with lesbian and gay rights lobbies seeking equality or ‘sameness’ on the terms set by a heteronormative society. Not only do I have very little interest in disproving negative stereotypes (that I believe will persist in certain circles no matter how much I or anyone attempt to disprove them), but I am also deeply concerned by the way that any engagement in scientific ‘proof’ forces lesbian and gay parents into a very narrow identity that is only rendered intelligible on particular terms. Primarily here I refer to the fact that much of the research evidence referred to by those seeking to disprove negative stereotypes has focused upon white, middle-class, coupled lesbian parents. Furthermore, this research evidence has often made claims such that this family configuration is better than other family forms. Whilst again such findings are useful in their recognition of the positive environments engendered within this family configuration, they often do so by relying upon a set of normalising presumptions about what a ‘good family’ is.

Writing on queer families and the nuclear family, Lehr (1999) suggests that what often occurs when the positive outcomes from (primarily positivist psychological) research on white, middle-class coupled lesbian parents are repeatedly emphasised is that there are negative categories created by contrast. Key amongst these are pejorative references to both heterosexual and non-heterosexual single-parent, working-class and, non-white family forms. A good example of this occurs in discussions advocating for the rights of Australian lesbians and gay men to transnational adoption. Advocates repeatedly make statements such that it is ‘better’ for children to be adopted by lesbians and gay men than for them to ‘roam the streets’ in third world countries (see Riggs, 2009, for a discussion of these types of statements). In arguing for the rights of potential lesbian and gay adopters, however, what often disappears is the privilege held by (most often) white middle-class adoptive parents, and the disparities between their lives and those of the children they seek to adopt and their birth families.

Again, the types of statements I make above, I have been told, are simply ammunition for a right-wing agenda always on the lookout for reasons to refuse rights to, or otherwise demonise, lesbian and gay parents. There are, however, many reasons not to stay silent about the issues I raise above, primary amongst these, I would suggest, is the ongoing reification of psychological knowledge in the pursuit of ‘proof’ of good parenting by lesbians and gay men. Repeatedly I see the supposed ‘gold standard’ of longitudinal, quantitative data upheld as the ultimate goal of researchers in the field of lesbian and gay parenting; a goal that often comes at the expense of challenging the very normalising agendas set by the field of psychology. Which leads me to another confession, and slowly brings us to the overall topic of the remainder of this paper. I currently act as the national convenor of the Australian Psychological Society’s interest group on gay and lesbian issues. Of course an obvious reading (and one no doubt to be leapt upon by any right-wing readers looking for ammunition) is that there must be a fundamental conflict between my identity as a gay parent, my role as a researcher on lesbian and gay parenting, and my role as a convenor and spokesperson for lesbian and gay issues. In response to this I would reiterate my concern about the problems with psychological knowledge and would state more clearly my relation to it. Having spent seven years studying psychology, I have undergone a shift from being in fundamental opposition to positivist psychology, to a more nuanced understanding of the role that psychology plays in westernised societies (and which it will continue play whether I engage with it or not). In other words, I now adopt a very pragmatic approach whereby I am still highly critical of psychological knowledge claims, but I also recognise the importance of understanding how it operates and how I can potentially intervene in its misuse.

To this end, and largely informed by my teaching, I happily read positivist research and assess it in relation to the terms that it sets. In so doing I readily and competently point out the methodological flaws or presumptions made that would undermine its truth claims. When doing this, I am in part buying into the rhetoric of objectivity, even if only so that my reading of positivist research is treated as intelligible. At the same time, however, I seek to challenge the presumption of objectivity, of researcher neutrality, of the lack of reflexivity within the discipline in general, and more broadly to interrogate what it means to make knowledge claims from within psychology. I have a range of strategies for doing this that I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say I attempt to manage the considerable gap between my own distrust of psychology and my recognition of its power and dominance as a field that will continue regardless of whether I engage with it or not. As such, my engagement with psychology represents almost the anti-thesis of Lourde’s (1984) statement made in the title of her now classic essay on racism The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. For myself, and speaking as a white, middle-class gay man, I would feel disingenuous denying the fact that I largely do have access to the ‘master’s tools’, and simply claiming to ‘walk away’ from my privilege (including my ability to hold a position within a psychological society) would actually only perpetuate the problem, rather than address it.

So all of these confessions and backgrounds bring me to the central topic that I focus on in this paper, namely an inquiry into ‘adoption by same-sex couples’ conducted in 2009 in New South Wales, Australia. I was called upon to speak on behalf of the Australian Psychological Society as an author of its literature review on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-parented families (Short, Riggs, Perlesz, Brown & Kane, 2007). I was initially very wary of this, partly because I did not have experience in given testimony to senate inquiries, and partly because I was keenly aware that speaking as a holder of psychological knowledge would potentially only serve to reify psychology yet again as the appropriate arbiter of the lives of lesbian and gay parents and their children. Despite these concerns, however, I agreed to participate as an ‘expert witness’ in the inquiry.

From the onset of my testimony it was apparent that a very narrow agenda for ‘proof’ had been set, that being the ‘gold standard’ mentioned above. Furthermore, my credibility as a witness was challenged, albeit implicitly, by members of the committee who appeared to assume that because I undertake research on lesbian and gay parenting I must be gay, if not a gay parent (and that were this so, I could not undertake research or give evidence without bias). What I didn’t say in the hearing, was that I am ambivalent about the research findings (for the reasons stated above), and as a gay foster parent from South Australia I don’t stand to benefit from any of the changes to legislation, nor do I stand to benefit from any of the changes that have been made, or are in the process of being made, across Australia to better recognise the rights of lesbian and gay parents and their children. Furthermore, I don’t have an invested position in defending psychology, or necessarily in making truth claims about what is morally right or wrong. Rather, the position I adopted was one that emphasised the ideological nature of all research (including that conducted on lesbian and gay parents), the need to maintain a focus upon children’s needs rather than adult’s rights, and a commitment to challenging the status quo (but not to thus assert the ‘rights’ of non-heterosexual people per se, but rather to interrogate how the status quo came to be, the presumptions it rests on, and the negative implications of this for all people).

At the time I was unsure as to how well I communicated this agenda, and whether or not this agenda was even heard by the senate committee. Since the hearing, however, I have been heartened by the release of the report (Robertston, 2009), which has in many ways emphasised the need to interrogate the status quo, and to remain focused on what children need (i.e., a wide range of placement or parenting options that can lead to safety and security). Nonetheless, the report is also problematic for the emphasis it places upon the gold standard of scientific proof, and its repetition of the negative stereotypes and the necessity of considering them.

In the remainder of this paper I undertake a matched case study of the story of one lesbian-headed family in New South Wales reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (Horin, 2007) and the report from the inquiry in order to draw out some of the limitations of both the report and the news story and the assumptions they make about how best to ‘prove’ that lesbian parents are ‘good ‘parents. Whilst only focusing on one family, this case study is highly illustrative for the insight it can provide in regard to the limitations of continuing to rely upon psychological knowledge to frame the lives of lesbian and gay parents and their children. I conclude by briefly outlining an alternative research agenda that emphasises the need to move beyond ‘proof’ as it has largely been understood to date.

Constructing ‘Good Families’

It is important to say from the onset of this analysis that the media article is an extremely positive representation of a lesbian-headed family, and the report from the inquiry is highly supportive of the rights of lesbian and gay parents and their children. As such, both of the sources of data I examine here must firstly be read as indicating at least some sort of ‘progression’ in Australia in terms of a willingness to consider lesbian parents as intelligible (see Baird, in press, for more on this). At the same time, however, my interest here is to examine how ‘positive representations’ are constructed, and what is reified in the process.

In the media article, much is made of ‘scientific evidence’ in support of lesbian parenting. So, for example, there are statements such as: “a growing body of international research ... [has found that] on average these children [of lesbian parents] are as well-adjusted as children raised by heterosexual couples – if not more so”. The article also refers to several prominent Australian academics working in the field of lesbian and gay parenting, in addition to referring to the work of Charlotte Patterson whose work is taken as legitimising lesbian and gay parents as demonstrated by statements such as children raised by lesbian or gay parents are:  “normal by all measures psychologists use, and teachers observe”.

The report from the inquiry devotes an entire chapter to outlining the research on lesbian and gay parenting, and whilst it recognises research that is anti-gay, and acknowledges some of the methodological limitations of the pro-gay research, it is overwhelmingly in favour of research in support of lesbian and gay parents. The end of the chapter summarises what it would consider to be ‘proper’ scientific proof of positive outcomes from lesbian- and gay-headed families, namely that research should be 1) “conducted by professionals who are highly qualified and experienced in their field of expertise”, who 2) “are employed in universities or other scholarly institutions, as opposed to think tanks and lobby groups”, whose 3) “research should be published in peer-reviewed, high quality journals”, and whose 4) “research is funded by an external competitive funding body”.

In addition to stating that it is science (and a particular form of science) that should arbitrate over what constitutes a good family or a good parent, both the media article and the report from the inquiry provide examples of ‘evidence’ of lesbian or gay families actively refuting stereotypes or living up to the findings of the evidence. So, for example, the media article tells the story of Eamon Waterford and his four mums, and describes him as “smart, articulate, well-balanced, socially aware, and just downright nice”. Furthermore, he “cannot remember being bullied or teased” and he is very clear in the conclusion of the article that he identifies as heterosexual. For these reasons, and as the article states, Eamon is a “reassuring figure”: he reassures the (primarily) heterosexual readership that his family on the whole (and despite having four mums – the two mothers who conceived him together, and the women they re-partnered with after they separated) - is ‘normal’ or, that at the very least, his (‘unusual’) family hasn’t ruined his life.

The report from the inquiry similarly uses examples from testimonies provided by lesbian parents to disprove negative stereotypes about lesbian and gay parents. So, for example, the report repeatedly references testimony by Brenna Harding and her mothers Vicki Harding and Jackie Braw, such as Brenna saying “Most kids are totally accepting but there are some that are not as great... [But] once they figure it out they are more accepting of it because they realise it is just like anyone else”, or “I think it is really unfair that Jackie isn’t legally recognised as my mum just because she isn’t a man. She does all the things a man would do (if not more)! She cooks, cleans, takes me to soccer, listens to my never-ending stories about school, jokes with me and tells me to get out of the bathroom just as well as a man would. There is no reason why she shouldn’t be able to adopt me”. Here and in other places Brenna’s words are used to demonstrate that she has a good family, thus reinforcing the claims made from the research evidence about lesbian and gay men’s fitness to parent . As one of Brenna’s mothers – Vicki – states: “the proof is in the pudding, the children”.

Whilst again it is important to recognise that these are overwhelmingly positive depictions of children raised in lesbian-parented families, it is nonetheless important to recognise that these depictions reify scientific knowledge as the appropriate arbiter of what constitutes ‘good parenting’. Moreover, it must be acknowledged that recourse to claims of scientific proof mandates that those who are anti-gay must be provided with the opportunity to explicitly ‘witness’ the disproving of their beliefs. As a result, there is an injunction upon lesbian and gay parents to repeatedly demonstrate examples of ‘good parenting’. I would suggest that if the research evidence had done what it intended to do – namely refute the stereotypes – then there would be no need to repeatedly bring out examples of ‘adjusted children’ to clinch the argument; the evidence itself would be enough. That there is an ongoing injunction to use children as evidence of the ‘truth’ of lesbian and gay families would suggest to me that at base, there is still a fundamental assumption that there is something ‘wrong’ with such families, even if they have become more intelligible in Australia in recent years. As I suggest in the following section, my claim here is demonstrated by the fact that as much as ‘positive’ reports are evidenced by examples of ‘happy families’ who are expected to disprove negative stereotypes (yet again), stereotypes are simultaneously reinforced.

The ongoing enforcement of negative stereotypes

Despite the media article and report from the inquiry being overwhelmingly positive, they still include references to negative stereotypes of lesbian and gay parents that reinforce, rather than challenge, them. So, for example, the media article, having cited ‘research evidence’ and referred to Eamon’s “reassuring figure”, then goes on to talk about ‘male role models’. We are told that “looking back, he understands he craved male role models, and the world of manly things”, and that even though his mothers identified the donor to Eamon as his father from a young age, Eamon and his father haven’t developed a close relationship. An implicit reference to the implications of this is made at the conclusion of the article where Eamon speaks of his heterosexuality, and his many “male gay friends, and a lot of female friends”, but that he “finds it harder to have a close emotional bond” with heterosexual men. It is safe to assume that at least some readers would assess this as demonstrating that Eamon does indeed suffer from a ‘lack’ of male role models in his childhood (who would have enabled him to do ‘manly things’) and that this has translated into his struggle to form friendships with other heterosexual men.

The report from the inquiry similarly reinforces the notion that (a lack of) opposite-sex role models continue to be a ‘problem’ for lesbian and gay families, albeit in slightly more subtle ways. For example, another lesbian parent witness at the hearing is reported as saying “I think it has to be understood here that we are not anti-men. Trust me, we love them, but just not to marry them. We understand the importance of having a male in the children’s lives. They are not surrounded by a mad bunch of females”. This type of argument, and one that has been eloquently explored by Clarke (2006), subtly reinforces a deficit account of lesbian families, whereby woman who might be ‘anti-men’, or who might not love men, or who might be a ‘mad bunch’, are constructed as potentially bad mothers. Thus whilst some of the report from the inquiry clearly refutes negative stereotypes (albeit through ‘scientific proof’), in other places it simply rehearses the stereotypes in ways that actually reinforces them, rather than fundamentally challenging the terms on which they operate.

The generation of new stereotypes

Of course it is not only the case that reportage of lesbian and gay parenting either challenges existing stereotypes (albeit in highly limited ways) or reinforces them. It can also be the case that new stereotypes or norms are created in the rush to ‘prove’ the normality of lesbian and gay parenting. A key way in which this occurs is through the reification of biology as the primary organising factor of lesbian families. In the media article, much is made of who Eamon is biologically related to; the ‘natural drive’ that his birth mother had to conceive him; and a distinction that is made between Eamon and his brothers born to one of his mothers before she entered into a relationship with his birth mother. The reference to him sharing “a house with two female friends and his ‘brother’” (quote marks around ‘brother’ in original) reinforces the idea that somehow he is not actually his brother due to the fact that they are not biologically related.

This norm of biology is repeatedly emphasised in research on lesbian and gay families, in media articles on lesbian and gay parenting, and in the everyday talk of lesbian and gay parents themselves (such as on chat forums or email groups). As a non-biological parent myself, I often find myself affronted by constant reference to ‘real’ families as biological families. Whilst that is obviously one of the confessions that will throw my claims here into question, I think that there is a substantial thread within non-heterosexual parenting communities of all forms in which biological relations are privileged over all other relational forms, and to the detriment of all people. That yet another form of exclusion can be perpetuated within queer parenting communities has much to say about the terms on which inclusion is made possible (i.e., by excluding other people).

Another stereotype that appears to be increasingly used is that of a comparison between ‘good’, ‘worthy’ potential (white, middle-class) lesbian or gay parents, and the children that come into their care (and their birth families). Whilst no mention was made of this in the media article, testimony referred to in the report from the inquiry included lesbian foster carers talking of children who were “very, very, very neglected”, and who had to be taught “to eat vegetables and fruit, because they have never had it before; all they knew was KFC and McDonald’s”. Of course my point here is not that children who come into care have not experienced considerable abuse and neglect, but rather that this construction of lesbians or gay men as ‘justified’ to become foster or adoptive parents on the basis of abusive birth parents serves to 1) demonise birth parents whilst failing to recognise the social contexts (and lack of social services) that often give rise to abusive outcomes, 2) construct an image of foster or adoptive children as ‘damaged’, an image that they will potentially become aware of, and 3) suggest that lesbians and gay men are only fit to care for such ‘damaged children’.

There are, of course, very real implications that arise from these constructions of lesbian and gay foster or adoptive parents (and the children they care for): Research in the UK by Hicks (1996) has long reported that some agencies only place ‘challenging’ children (i.e., those with extreme behaviours or children with disabilities) with lesbian and gay foster carers or adoptive parents. Furthermore, research in both Australia and the UK has suggested the detrimental effects upon foster children of negative media depictions of their lives (Riggs et al, 2009). As a result, and as I have indicated in this section, the creation of new stereotypes in relation to lesbian and gay parents (such as the suggestion that we only deserve to care for children who are constructed as ‘damaged goods’) thus does little to engender a truly positive account of lesbian and gay parenting.

Conclusions

As I have shown in this matched case study of a report from a senate inquiry on ‘adoption by same-sex couples’ in New South Wales, Australia, and a media article on the life of one lesbian-headed family living in the same state, marginalisation often continues in relation to lesbian parenting, despite a gloss of ‘positivity’ towards such parents. My argument has been that this is a result of the emphasis upon ‘scientific proof’, which locks all involved in these discussions into notions of objectivity, of normative moral values, and a range of stereotypes (some old, some potentially new) that perpetuate a distinction between those who are, and those who are not, recognised as being ‘good parents’. Whilst it is heartening to see positive representations of lesbian parents in the media or on the part of politicians (who in this instance were relatively supportive of the current rights claims of lesbian and gay parents in New South Wales), it is nonetheless important, as I have argued, to be mindful of the terms on which this support is offered, and the marginalisation that it potentially perpetuates.

As a counter to this, I now very briefly outline a number of key points that I would see as central to setting a more productive agenda for understanding the lives of lesbian (and other non-heterosexual and/or non-gender normative) parents. First, I would suggest that what is needed is an ongoing interrogation of the normative practices through which certain groups are rendered intelligible, often at the expense of other groups. At present, and as I suggested in the introduction, there are a number of relatively highly visible populations of non-heterosexual parents who receive considerable attention (much of which is positive), but there appears to me to be little attendant recognition of the privilege and responsibility that comes with such attention, particularly when it can result in the marginalisation of other groups of parents or families. As I have suggested extensively elsewhere (Riggs, 2006), I believe that there must be a considerable expectation upon those of us who identify as white middle-class lesbians or gay men not simply to attempt to ‘give up’ or wield our social privilege in benevolent ways. Rather, it is vital that we consider the impact of our social location upon others, and the directions towards which we put our energies when attempting to make rights’ claims (i.e., should our primary agenda be to further secure the position of white middle-class lesbians and gay men, or should it be to address global inequities facing children ‘placed’ for transnational adoption and their birth families, or indigenous families in Australia for example).

In regard to challenging stereotypes, and as I have repeatedly stated, I think there is too much reliance upon the notion that simply refuting stereotypes with evidence will end them. In fact, what I have suggested is that stereotypes appear very much to continue in the face of evidence. A good example of this is the historical conflation of homosexuality with paedophilia. No amount of evidence to the contrary (i.e., most sex offenders being heterosexual men, which itself is a nonsense as paedophilia is not a sexual orientation)  has managed to shift this conflation. One outcome of this, I would suggest, has been an almost wilful avoidance of the topic of child protection within lesbian and gay parenting communities. From my perspective, this means that lesbian and gay parents implicitly accept that we cannot talk about child protection or child abuse issues for fear of raising the spectre of paedophilia. This is akin to the resistance to talking about domestic violence within non-heterosexual relationships for fear of reiterating negative stereotypes. Of course my point here is not that child abuse does necessarily occur within lesbian- or gay-headed families, but that we need to open a conversation whereby rather than avoiding child abuse as a topic in society in general, that non-heterosexual parenting communities engage in agenda setting for addressing the causes of child abuse (for more on this see Riggs, 2010).

This brings me to my third point, which relates more closely to the terms upon which we set agendas. Key to this, from my perspective, is a need to move toward a practice (rather than simply rhetoric) of being child focused. To be clear, my point here is not that non-heterosexual parents in general are not child focused, nor that we do not care about our children. Rather, my point is that too often I see cases of what Baird (2008) has termed ‘child fundamentalism’: children being wielded as tools to serve adult agendas. Of course often the two are closely related, but there are likely to be times when children will have their own agendas or desires that must be recognised. Rather than perpetuating the construction of children as naive, or empty vessels, I believe it is vital that we move towards finding ways to actively recognise the lifeworlds that children inhabit on their terms, and to resist co-opting these into the agendas of adults (Riggs, 2008; 2010). In this sense, the difference between child fundamentalism [as Baird (2008) defines it] and being child-focused is that in the case of the former, adults wield children as tools to meet their own ends whereas in the latter, as adults we are mindful of the privileged position that we hold in regard to children, and recognise that we must use this position responsibly to advocate for the rights of children as children define them (and to increase opportunities for children’s voices to be heard on their own terms).

To conclude, and to return to my initial confessions, while it is naive for any researcher to try and claim that they are truly outside of the communities they research, or that their research can ever be free of their own viewpoints, it is also problematic if researchers engaging with their own communities fail to interrogate the norms and stereotypes they may inadvertently perpetuate. I of course don’t believe I am outside of networks of power and privilege, nor do I think that my location as a gay parent gives me the authority to speak for all other non-heterosexual parents. Rather, my point in this paper has been to explore some of the complex interplays between social marginalisation and a desire for social inclusion, and how attempts at achieving the latter can, sometimes, simply increase instances of the former for certain groups. Whilst it too would be naive to believe there could be a world where exclusion or marginalisation does not exist, it is nonetheless vital to engage in a praxis where challenging norms (even within marginalised communities) can at the very least encourage us all to examine our privileges and marginalities in ways that destabilise hegemonic forms of relationality and rights.


Acknowledgements


I begin by acknowledging the sovereignty of the Kaurna people, the First Nations people upon whose land I live in Adelaide, South Australia.


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Biographical note


Damien W. Riggs is a lecturer in social work at Flinders University. His research interests encompass the intersections between critical race and whiteness studies, LGBT psychology, and family and parenting studies. He is the author (with Victoria Clarke, Sonja Ellis and Elizabeth Peel) of Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer psychology: An introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and he is the editor of the Australian Psychological Society journal Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review.