This week Australia’s Victorian government introduced legislation granting same-sex couples equal adoption rights. The passing of this legislation has been duly celebrated across the world. In addition to this, the US Supreme Court’s legislation of same-sex marriage in June this year was lauded as a triumph of equality, and also saw an enormous celebratory response. Certainly, there were many reasons for such celebration. Firstly, with regards to the pillars of non-discrimination and freedom upon which the respective US and Australian constitutions are apparently founded, such legislation was long overdue.

With respect to the American ruling, there are a number of benefits which partners incur once married — benefits associated with banking, travel, and adoption — which are bound to make many lives easier. The Victorian legislation has been welcomed as a means of addressing the critically low adoption rates in Australia.

Developmentally speaking, children raised by gay, married, divorced, lesbian, and/or multi-partner parents (whereby a number of people — some homosexual, others heterosexual, some married, others not — are involved in childrearing) are as cognitively, socially and psychologically sound as those raised by married heterosexual couples. This has been confirmed by numerous studies and appears to no longer be debatable. A child’s development is therefore not hinged upon the family structure in which he or she is raised. Rather, what remains important in this regard is the quality of childrearing.

With this in mind, the respective rulings of the US Supreme Court and Victorian parliament should perhaps not be regarded as undiluted victories. Indeed, such legislation appears to solidify the value and essentialism placed on very particular (and increasingly uncommon) family forms. Where equal rights for all should be commended (and in fact expected), rigid heteronormative ways of conducting family life should not.

Societal views of marriage, or two-parent families, as the ultimate and most beneficial family forms must be dismantled if we are to develop a truly progressive ideal of healthy parenting. Acting to legislatively furnish marriage and traditional families with an apparent “progressive” underpinning, these rulings adhere to the notion that the nuclear family is the most essential, or beneficial, family form to which one should subscribe if he or she wishes to conduct family life in a “healthy” manner. The ruling therefore does little to advance the much more important notion of healthy parenting relationships. For instance, same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa for almost 10 years, but there are still alarming rates of familial violence and parental absence across the country. Indeed, marriages all over the world are marked by stark violence.

A common criticism of, what are considered to be, “alternative family forms” is that children are likely to face a particular kind of stigma. But this argument shifts blame from problematic behaviour onto the individuals to which such behaviour is directed. It is therefore damaging and should be dismissed. Rather, it is the style of parenting that must be emphasised.

Marriage as an institution — gay, heterosexual, or otherwise — does not call for a celebratory response. People should buy into the family form that they wish, and should be able to do so in a context which does not value one family structure over another because, frankly, this does not matter.


  • Nick Malherbe is a researcher at the Institute for Social and Health Sciences at the University of South Africa and the South African Medical Research Council-Unisa Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. He writes in his personal capacity.


Nick Malherbe

Nick Malherbe is a researcher at the Institute for Social and Health Sciences at the University of South Africa and the South African Medical Research Council-Unisa Violence, Injury and Peace Research...

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