Difficulties in measuring same-sex parenting

The notion of same-sex parenting, which did not exist 20 years ago, was brought into the public arena in France by the debate on the creation of a civil partnership in 1998-1999, by militant associations such as l’Association des parents gays et lesbiens (Association of gay and lesbian parents, APGL) and by the trend towards recognition of same-sex couples and parents in other countries. The topic has attracted growing interest among social scientists over the past decade. Research in this field is based on legal approaches or qualitativesociology, but same-sex parenting is still difficult to quantify due to a lack of suitable tools.

Various configurations of the homoparentales families

A same-sex family is made up of a parent or couple who openly identify as homosexual and one or more children who are legally filiated to at least one of the parents(1). Same-sex parenting encompasses multiple situations that the social sciences wish to better identify in order to broaden understanding of this type of family setup and contribute to current debate.
Certain same-sex families are stepfamilies resulting from previous heterosexual unions. Others are the planned outcome of a desire for children on the part of a gay individual or a homosexual couple. These plans can involve adoption (on an individual basis as required by French law(2)), insemination by donor(3), or surrogacy (currently illegal in France). Co-parenting applies to situations where the plan to found a family involves several people (among whom at least one is homosexual) who agree to have a child together and to raise it conjointly. This is the case when the project involves a gay couple and a lesbian couple, or just one homosexual individual/couple and a third party.
This diversity of situations is particularly challenging to the social sciences. Two tools can be used to statistically capture the prevalence of same-sex parenting: the census and large scale quantitative surveys in the general population. Each have their limitations.

The population census, only a partial solution

Systematic population enumeration through the census should, in theory, provide a means to count same-sex families, using co-residing couples of the same sex as a criterion.
In 1999, 0.3% of couples comprised two people of the same sex who identified as a couple. An additional 0.6% who reported being «friends» of the same sex did not explicitly identify as a couple, but probably were one. (Digoix, Festy, Garnier, 2004; Festy, 2006). In total, an estimated 1% of all couples in France are co-residing same-sex couples, a similar proportion to that of neighbouring countries.
Positing that one homosexual couple in ten lives with children, and that on average these couples have two children (as in heterosexual couples), P. Festy estimates that in 2005 between 24,000 and 40,000 children lived with a homosexual couple, with a majority of these couples being women.
However, this estimation is biased towards the configuration that the census identifies most easily (same-sex couples living in the same residence). Non-cohabiting couples, and children who live elsewhere are not taken into account.

General population surveys : insufficient sample sizes

General population surveys include a wider range of questions than the census. The questionnaires are more specific and can record useful details to capture the diversity of same-sex family setups. The Contexte de la sexualité en France (Context of sexuality in France, CSF) survey by INED and INSERM in 2005-2006 asked the respondents both their sex and that of their partner, if they had children, and if they lived with them or with those of their partner. The survey identified homosexual parents who were not co-resident and same-sex parenting setups where the parents were not a couple. However, considering the rarity of these configurations, the survey sample (though it exceeded 10,000 people), only included a few same-sex family setups, too small in number to represent the true diversity of configurations. In fact, while the CSF survey confirms that homosexual couples represent 1% of the total number of couples (co-residing or not), it cannot isolate the same-sex families who represent only a minority of this minority, meaning only a handful of people at most.

Between a census that is too vague and the surveys that are too limited, what are the other solutions?

One possible future solution would be to adapt the family survey conducted in association with the population census since 1954. The last edition, in 1999, included 380,000 people. INED and INSEE are currently working on a new edition planned for 2011 which takes same-sex family setups into account through new questions: gender of the respondent’s «partner» or «friend», precise information on their respective children,civil partnerships (PACS), the existence of non co-residing couples, and possible multiple residence of their children. The information obtained in this way will shed light on the key dimensions of same-sex family setups with the same clarity as for other family types.

Note: Focus published in 2009. The last investigation “Family”, renamed “Family and residences”, proceeded in 2011 (Ined, INSEE).

Contact: Wilfried Rault

Online: June 2009