Reconstructing Meanings Of Family: Lesbian/ Whanau And Families In Aotearoa

Dr Leonie Pihama

In 1998 I wrote a Chapter for a publication on Families in New Zealand. The focus was to both deconstruct and reconstruct notions of whanau and to clearly articulate the place of gay and lesbian whanau within Maori society. The current debate related to Marriage Equality again raises the issues of how whanau is constituted within Aotearoa in a contemporary context. This blog is a  partial reprint of that article. Where some content may be dated, for example the Christian Heritage Party mentioned could now be replaced with Destiny Church, however the fundamental position remains that whanau are diverse and as such all whanau must be validated and affirmed within our contemporary context. Colonial views on what constitutes whanau has no place in radical Maori discourse. There is no room for those that purport to seek justice for the ‘vulnerable’ to then continue injustice by hiding behind a notion of ‘moral conservatism’. Conservatism seeks to conserve and maintain injustice.


The complexities of this chapter are significant. As a Maori woman academic I have attempted to write against the idea that all lesbian women have similar issues related to parenting, whanau, family. This is one of the internalised mythologies that many lesbian women hold. Where there are clearly struggles that we may have in common, against homophobia and for legislation that safe- guards the rights of lesbian and gay people, the differences that we experience are significant. Exploring these differences provide the potential for much more creative discussion of the issues.

In earlier drafts of this chapter I ‘fell’ into a process of attempting to be ‘totally inclusive’ and to speak more to areas of perceived commonality . Having received some significant feedback on earlier work I have shifted the focus of this piece to explore wider definitions of whanau through my own cultural frameworks. Where this works for me it will not work for all those who define themselves as lesbian families, nor do I assume it will work for all Maori whanau. What it does do, however, is shift the assumption that all lesbian and gay people experience the world in similar ways. We do not.

For many in this country the terms lesbian and whanau or family are viewed as contradictory. Coming out to my whanau was received with more of a shock that I “wouldn’t have children” than anything to do with sexuality. Where in many ways this was a relief, it also highlighted the assumption that to be lesbian was to be ‘child-less’. This is a part of the mythologising about sexuality that dominates much of this society. Lesbians are often presented as ‘deviant’, ‘anti-male’, ‘anti-family’, ‘abnormal’ and until recently were considered as ‘deranged’ or having a psychological illness that required curing (McCreanor 1996). Maori lesbian women often have to cope also with a belief that to be lesbian is a ‘Pakeha thing’. This could not be further from the truth. There have always been Maori takatapui , which includes lesbian relationships (Te Awekotuku, 1991).

Each of these myths have contributed to the ongoing marginalisation of lesbians and provide the basis for the perpetuation of the oppression of those who claim a sexuality that falls outside the dominant definition of a ‘normal’ way of being. As such, these beliefs have meant that takatapui, lesbian, gay, Bisexual and Transexual people are often denied access to basic human rights, on the grounds of sexual orientation.

There are multiple constructions of family within Aotearoa which are socially, politically and culturally influenced. This chapter seeks to engage with some of the ways in which the diversity and strength within those whanau and families that exist outside of the conservative tradition of the western nuclear, heterosexual family norm. A key argument throughout the chapter is that dominant definitions of family have been imposed in ways that marginalise lesbian whanau and families. Furthermore, it is argued these definitions have been legitimated through the legal system which has served further to perpetuate myths related to lesbianism and lesbian mothers in particular. Research, however, challenges the mythologising that exists around lesbian whanau and families.

Whakapapa as an organising principle

Whakapapa is a cultural and structural foundation for the organisation of whanau, hapu and iwi in Aotearoa. Within whakapapa we are involved in a complex set of interrelationships. Kathie Irwin (1992) highlights that it is through tikanga Maori that we are able to maintain cultural control over issues of identification, including that of whanau, with a critical cultural element being whakapapa. For Maori, therefore, whakapapa is a crucial notion through which whanau, hapu and iwi structures are built and maintained.

Mereana Taki (1996) positions whakapapa as both a tool of identity and a vehicle for resistance. The strength of Maori identification lies in the reclamation of who we are as iwi and whanau. However, it is necessary to note that locating whakapapa as an organising concept within which Maori whanau are constructed does not ignore the painful experiences of those who do not have ready access to knowledge about their whakapapa. In discussing, elsewhere, the role of whakapapa in identification, I have argued that

“Not having access to that knowledge does not negate whakapapa as a means of cultural identity. All Maori people have a whakapapa. It is a cultural notion that both precedes and postdates the individual. Not having knowledge about whakapapa may render it invisible however it does not remove its existence. whakapapa remains irrespective of our knowledge of it. Our tupuna will always be our tupuna. What is crucial is finding ways of ensuring that all of our people are able to access that knowledge in order to locate themselves and their relationships with their whanau, hapu and iwi. Therefore, our agenda cannot be solely one of challenging modernist constructions of identity but it needs to encompass a process of reclaiming those knowledge bases that have been submerged through colonialism”.(Pihama 1996)

Where colonisation has impacted upon the degrees of knowledge that Maori people hold, about their own whakapapa, the centrality of this as an means of identification continues. Also, the revival of Te Reo Maori through Te Kohanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Maori has meant an increasing number of young Maori are identifying strongly with their whanau, hapu and iwi. When discussing constructions of families in Aotearoa we can not go past the fact that the Indigenous familial structures in this country are based on whakapapa. The influence of this on, and the relevance to, Maori lesbian women is significant as it provides a basis for whanau organisation.

Henare (1988) describes whanau as the basic social unit within Maori society, which may be generally interpreted as an ‘extended family’ consisting of three or four generations and operated under the guidance of kaumatua. Within both traditional and contemporary Maori society the whanau is critical. Fiona Cram and Suzanne Pitama (1997) provide a depth discussion of both ‘traditional’ and contemporary definitions of whanau which are based within whakapapa and kaupapa respectively. Kaupapa-whanau, they argue, is a creative response to the impact of colonisation and the movement of Maori to urban centres.

Whakapapa as an organising principle for whanau, hapu and iwi validates the roles of Maori lesbian women in that there is an undeniable role as whaea and koka that is not dependent on that of birth-mother. Both whakapapa and whanau assume notions of relationship, responsibilities and obligations that provide for all adults to take a ‘parenting’ role in the lives of Maori children. Where there is a need to be cautious, so as not to provide a romanticised version of whanau, what I am asserting is that there are clear possibilities for Maori lesbians within whanau. However, for those possibilities to eventuate there is a need for critical analysis of how colonial discourses have impacted upon whanau.

The Historical Imposition Of ‘The’ New Zealand Family: Colonial discourses and the impact on whanau

The existence of this publication and the range of expressions of what constitutes family is itself an affirmation of the idea that there is no ‘one’ New Zealand family, but that the make up of families in this country are as diverse as they are multiple. ‘The’ New Zealand family does not exist and yet conservative elements within society remain adamant that it does. The western constructed heterosexual nuclear family remains promoted as ‘the’ family structure and this is maintained through a variety of forms within society. The strength of this discourse is located in its historical development and maintenance within a given society. Therefore, we need to take some time to explore the historical developments that have supported the entrenchment of traditionalist ideas of the nuclear family in Aotearoa.

The first stage of imposing western nuclear family structures in Aotearoa was the process of colonisation. The colonisation of Maori/iwi/hapu lands in this country was seen as an opportunity for ‘new’ space in the colonial expansion agenda. Colonisation was not merely an act of physical takeover by the immigrant settlers but was a process that influenced all aspects of Maori society. Sociologist David Bedggood describes it as a process through which colonial immigrants sought to transplant “a vertical slice of British society – economics, politics and ideology”. (1980:24)

Instrumental in the imposition of colonial structures and ideologies was the idea that a crucial part of the civilising agenda was the replacement of Maori structures, in particular knowledge of whakapapa, whanau, hapu and iwi. Missionaries were instrumental in the process of importing colonial notions of ‘family’ to Aotearoa. These contributed significantly to the redefining of the roles and status of Maori women, particularly through the system of Missionary schooling (Binney 1968, Smith 1992). The colonial nuclear family was promoted within Maori communities as ‘the model’ of civilisation (Smith, 1986). Attempts were made to undermine Maori societal structures through the systematic imposition of western colonial structures. Some of these attempts were successful, others less successful, however what is evident is that Maori structures were significantly impacted upon. Where whanau, hapu and iwi were the cultural formations before colonisation, the influx of colonial immigrant settlers and the development of colonial administration meant that these formations were marginalised. The strength of Maori resistance to the entrenchment of colonial structures is well documented (Walker 1984). This is shown clearly in the ongoing perpetuation of whanau, hapu and iwi dispite all attempts to remove these structures.

A key notion underpinning western colonial nuclear family structures is the position of women. Colonial attitudes toward women which were brought to Aotearoa were based fundamentally upon a belief system which located women as the “full time homemaker, dependent on the earnings of her husband” (Novitz 1982). A “cult of domesticity” emphasised the domestic, private sphere locating of women, which was fully entrenched in this country early in the colonial experience. The primary emphasis of the education of Pakeha girls was that of the “good and wellbeing of the family” (Matthews 1988:29).

Historical documentation shows us that colonial ideologies pertaining to gender roles and expectations located women as chattels, the property of men and therefore inferior to them. Ruth Fry (1988) highlights the debate surrounding what was considered as different levels of intelligence of Pakeha women and men. ‘Scientific’ methods such as craniology and ‘gynaecological theories’ were utilised as methods through which womens’ inferiority could be ‘proved’ and the oppression of women justified. Simon (1994) states that Pakeha girls were denied access to certain academic opportunities as it was argued that mental strain would be “mentally and physically debilitating and possibly de-sexing”(Fry 1985:47 cited in Simon, 1994). Indeed one of the key promoters of traditionalist family roles in this country, and founder of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society, Dr Truby King strongly opposed higher education for girls as this was seen as detrimental to their well being and hence their future role in childbearing (Pihama 1993, Simon 1994).

For Maori girls and women these colonial discourses served to construct particular roles, expectations, values and practices based on ideologies of both racial and sexual inferiority. A range of colonial strategies operated to marginalise Maori women on the basis of both their sex and race. As Diane Mara and I (1994) have argued elsewhere
“The position of Maori girls was such that it incorporated an experience of the effect of both the gender assumptions and the racial ideologies which provided the basis for the suppression of Maori people as a whole (ibid.:223).

Colonial discourses which espoused hierarchical social ordering in regard to ‘race’ and sex impacted significantly on the position of Maori women (Johnson & Pihama 1993, Salmond 1991). Maori women were viewed simultaneously as ‘savages’ and sexual objects. These views then provided justification for the undermining of cultural positioning of Maori women and subsequently the denial of fundamental rights in the decision making processes in this country. Wider historical social policies focused upon the alienation of Maori land, with education being used to support these agendas including the ideological development of notions of individual ownership and responsibility. The movement of Maori children into boarding schools is but one example of the processes employed to breakdown the fundamental tenets of whanau. This was seen as an effective way of removing a communal influence. The systematic denial of Te Reo Maori also impacted on the reproduction of whakapapa as this knowledge was held primarily in Te Reo Maori.

Dominant Western Discourses Of ‘Family’

What is difficult in the writing of a chapter about lesbian , whanau and families is that the discourses surrounding the concept of ‘family’ have been defined and controlled by the dominant group. This means that cultural configurations such as whanau have been marginalised, it also means that the idea of lesbian mothers is often viewed as an impossibility. Miriam Saphira (1984) in her book ‘Amazon Mothers’ highlights the following quote:

“Mothers in our society may be odd or strange but never ‘queer’ – so most people believe. lesbians obviously can’t have children. Theirs is a sterile relationship that is nonprocreative…or so the story goes. Well the news is that many lesbians are mothers and they are raising their children well, or raising them poorly or raising them indifferently just as their heterosexual counterparts do” ( cited in Saphira, M., 1984:5)

Pat Romans (1992) discusses how the term ‘Lesbian’ is often “stigmatized and ridiculed” (Lyon 1972 cited in Romans 1992), whilst the term ‘Mother’ is regarded in more positive, idealised ways, so the two terms are seen as an “unacceptable combination” (ibid.,98). The ‘lesbian mother’ challenges the representation of both lesbians and mothers, to such a degree that she becomes a threat to dominant beliefs about what constitutes family and the roles within it (ibid.).

For the majority of women in this country having a child is an assumed expectation. Whether or not that is a consequence of dominant ideologies that all women should ‘naturally’ want children needs to be explored, however that ‘desire’ is often something that is generally taken for granted. The process of how that comes about for lesbian women is often slightly more problematic. For those lesbians, who wish to birth children, the physical inability to conceive your partners child can be a distressing and at times depressing realisation. We are raised in a society that stresses not only heterosexuality but also the processes and rituals that are attached to ‘being straight’, such as heterosexual marriage, the idea that we will conceive children within this arrangement and the dominant cultural assumption that these are the only ways that we may construct our whanau and family.

Considerations of Tikanga Maori and cultural practices such as whangai are often ignored in the discussion of whanau and families because they are not seen to ‘fit’ the dominant definition of what constitutes ‘family’ in this country. Those definitions are couched within western, ethnosexual discourses that serve the interests of dominant groups. The invisibilising process is not a simple one but is linked to a range of beliefs in society, in particular the construction of heterosexuality as a ‘norm’ through the imposition of certain ideas linked to gender, family, marriage. These concepts will each be explored in following sections, leading on to some general discussion related to the many ways in which lesbian and gay whanau and families are constructed.

Conservative notions of what constitutes ‘family’: Western heterosexual nuclear family structures as a framework of Cultural and Sexual oppression

Conservative notions of ‘the family’ are concerned with the maintenance of dominant relations between women and men, in particular ‘traditional’ gender relations (Jones,1990). These relations are based upon a number of fundamental beliefs:
i. Biological differences are ‘natural’ and therefore the roles that are attached to those differences are also considered ‘natural’.
ii. Biological difference means that traditional gender relations are expected and necessary in order to maintain stability in society.
iii. Boys and girls must be socialised appropriately in to their traditional roles in order to ensure their future happiness and stability. This will ensure that they take up their roles fully.
For many ‘christian’ groups added to these beliefs is an argument that this order is ‘ordained by god’ and therefore is not only ‘natural’ but is the way ‘god’ planned it.

In Aotearoa the most recent public dialogue related to conservative constructions of family and gender relations was expressed by the Christian Heritage Party (CHP) during the campaigning for the 1996 MMP Elections. The Christian Heritage definition of family and their relationship of that to homosexuality was outlined as follows
“[CHP] is committed to the biblical concept of the family: that is, one man and one woman united by marriage, and their children by birth or adoption…Christian Heritage is concerned about the growth of activities which damage family life.…We are opposed to the granting of legal status to same-sex marriages and the adoption of children by such couples.”(CHP Manifesto, 1996:14-15)

The CHP policies are based within conservative ideas of gender being ‘natural’ and ‘ordained’, that there exists a natural order that establishes a norm within society against which policies and legislation must be developed. The ‘family’ in this construct is the ‘nuclear’ family, within which men and women must fulfil traditionalist defined gender roles. To move outside of these roles is viewed as undermining the family unit and therefore society as a whole (CHP: 1993, 1996). Given the strength of these ideas we can see that there are strong ideological positions taken by conservative groups to deny basic rights of those people who are considered ‘deviant’ and ‘sinners’. Within this framework homosexuality, bisexuality, transexuality are considered ‘unnatural’, ‘sinful’ and ‘evil’, a threat to the heterosexual nuclear family structure and dominant gender relations (ibid.).

The imposition of the western nuclear family is perhaps one of the key acts that undermined Maori societal structures. Where, as shown by the CHP material, ‘moral’ and ‘christian’ are utilised to justify these actions, they are underpinned fundamentally more by economic imperatives.

Within the western nuclear family women are positioned as the nurturer, primary caregiver, housekeeper and whose work is on the whole considered to be in the private sphere of the home. Domestic labour is defined as being of inferior status to wage labour on the basis of the lack of profit generated, the locating of women in the domestic labour force thereby places women within what is considered an inferior position. Such a positioning may also be seen within the public sphere of capitalist production. Valeska (1987) argues that market driven economies are dependent on the structure of the western nuclear family both as producers and consumers. Domestic labour is essential in order to achieve reproduction of the labour force, therefore within capitalist ideology it is necessary to characterise womens position as `home makers/housewives’ as being a natural and just order, which in turn justifies a sexual division in wider society (Bedggood 1980).

There are many ways in which the conservative framework can be analysed. Kaupapa Maori analysis challenges the fundamental notions of gender as ‘natural’ and the idea that is promulgated through the conservative paradigm that women are inferior. Writings by Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1992), Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (1991), Kathie Irwin (1992) all challenge the notion that Maori women have any ‘less’ status to Maori men. Each of these authors argue that Maori womens positon within Maori society has been framed within western colonial frameworks that have been distorted by Pakeha men to fit their own agenda.

Considering definitions of the term ‘gender’ that include analysis of power relationships also challenges dominant conservative ideologies related to ‘family’. The term ‘Gender’ is one that has been used in differing ways in everyday English language. The commonsense definition is that it refers to being either male or female. However, in accounting for power in society it is important that the distinction between the terms ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’ is established. The term ‘sex’ is one that refers to the biological sex of a person. We are each born biologically male or female, and it is at the biological level that the term ‘sex’ is utilised as a form of definition. The term ‘Gender’, however is used to refer not to biology but to the social constructions of what it means to be female or male.

Pihama & Mara argue that ‘gender’ is a key way in which society differentiates between people, based on conceptualisations of ‘femaleness’ and ‘maleness’. Therefore, the term ‘gender’ relates to the beliefs, values, expectations and practices that are attached to being either female or male within a particular society (ibid., Oakley 1972). These beliefs, values, expectations and practices are developed in line with particular ideologies and are culturally bound . Therefore, notions of gender differ dependent on cultural philosophies and beliefs. gender is not ‘natural’ but is laden with power and cultural assumptions (Pihama & Mara:1994).

As a Maori woman, there are often contradictions and contesting definitions related to the term gender, this may be a direct consequence of colonisation. Given that the term is culturally bound then the notion of gender is problematic. Te Reo Maori holds clues to the positioning of Maori women within Maori society. The sex-neutral pronoun ‘ia’ means that often whether a person is identified as female or male is determined on the whole context of the discussion/story/event. This signals that complex arrangements in terms of gender within Maori society that can not be explained adequately through western theoretical forms which are based on dualisms, as is constructed through the English language. What this then raises is the question of the depth of influence of colonisation imposed upon Maori society generally and how we constitute ourselves as whanau.

Challenging Dominant/Conservative Definitions Of ‘Family’

For lesbian and gay led families in Aotearoa there is not one single definitive way of being, rather families are diverse. Family types range from a redefined form of ‘nuclear’ family, i.e. two mothers and children, or two fathers and children living together through to more complex and extended arrangements. Many children within those families have a vast assortment of adults within their lives who play key roles in their upbringing. In my own whanau, our children have four sets of grandparents, two mothers, active access to their fathers (a gay Pakeha man and a straight Maori man) and a multitude of whaea, matua, aunts and uncles. Their whanau is extensive and they have input from people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Their whanau constitutes all of these people and their lives are enhanced by it.

The limited definition of the ‘family’ as nuclear, heterosexual and constructed within limited gender roles is not ‘natural’, but is constructed by certain groups to benefit their own interests. For all the challenges put forward by lesbian led families this is probably the most threatening for conservative groups in that it contests the fundamental gender roles in society and the basic assumptions upon which these beliefs are based. In identifying the social and cultural constructedness of ‘family’ it becomes clear that the dominant ideological construction of what constitutes a `family’ fails to accommodate the varied ways in which people locate themselves. This is not to say that some lesbian led families do not fit neatly into the nuclear family model, excluding the heterosexuality aspect of course, as many do. There exists then a challenge to our own internalised beliefs about family, and the need to push our own imaginations in the construction of our families (Vaughn 1987).

For many people the definition of ‘family’ is not dependent on a legal contract of marriage, nor is it dependent on the idea that family must be one man, one woman and their children. Such a definition is not only limited but it also imposes restrictions on how different groups wish to construct their families. With the nuclear heterosexual family being centred as the ‘norm’, the standardised version of family, everything else is measured against it and labelled and judged accordingly.

As has been discussed earlier the colonial nuclear family was imported to Aotearoa as a part of the overall colonising agenda. Whakapapa, whanau, hapu and iwi are not dependent upon a western construction of the nuclear, heterosexual family but are dependent on the ongoing survival of matauranga Maori and Te Reo Maori me ona Tikanga. This is not so say that Maori people do not, now, constitute ourselves in nuclear family structures, but is to highlight that irrespective of those structures we remain linked through wider cultural configurations, in particular through whakapapa. For Maori lesbian women there are wider links through whakapapa that ensure we will always have whanau. By making this point it is important to note that we must not understate the impact of colonialism, in particular sexism, racism and homophobia, and the power of these ideologies in alienating Maori lesbian women from their whanau, as this is a reality for many. What it does, however, is allow for us to look at lesbian and gay whanau in a much wider way. This also contributes to the ongoing need to critique the imposition of western nuclear heterosexual family structures on Indigenous peoples.

In order to critique western notions of ‘marriage’ and ‘family’, it is necessary to recognise the constructed nature of the terms and how they have been positioned within conservative ideologies as being inseparable. Earlier references to the policies of the Christian Heritage and Christian Democrats has highlighted this. A key part of seeking affirmation for lesbian and gay whanau and families is the need to challenge the dominant conservative definitions of ‘family’ and move definitions to be more inclusive of the diverse family types that exist in Aotearoa. This is critical given the influence of dominant definitions on wider social policy developments (Hartman 1996). Hartman (ibid.) identifies that key civil and constitutional rights of lesbians and Gays, in America, have been denied through the imposition of discriminatory acts based within dominant conservative definitions. As such she argues that affirmation of lesbian families is dependent on a need to ensure definitions of family move beyond western conservative frameworks.

It is clear in the discourses of ‘family’ that in order to maintain the ‘sanctity’ of the nuclear family unit attacks have been waged on lesbian whanau and families. These attacks have primarily focused on the notion that lesbians are unable to provide a healthy environment for children. Such assumptions are prevalent in Aotearoa and were publicly expressed in submissions related to Homosexual Law Reform (1985). The following quote taken from a submission shows the fervency of anti-homosexuality that exists in this country:
“Homosexual practices, which the Bill justifies, are anti-social and destructive to normal family conditions. Homosexuality is unnatual sexual activity and decadent… Homosexual practices are unhealthy and deadly..” (unnamed author cited in McCreanor 1996:85)

The strength of homophobic discourses lie in the emotive and fear-mongering ways in which they are expressed. However, reviewing research related to lesbian and gay parenting and their children highlights that this myth has no foundation. Patterson (1996) highlights that a growing body of research findings identify that children in lesbian and gay led families experience ‘normal’ development. Patterson notes that the pyschosocial development of children of lesbians and children of heterosexual parents were generally similar. The key differences existed in the reporting, by children of lesbians, higher reactions to stress (identified by Patterson as emotions such as feeling angry, scared or upset). Children of lesbians were also found to have a greater sense of well-being (identified by Patterson as feeling joyful, content and feeling comfortable with themselves). Pollack & Vaughan (1987) suggest that children raised by two women are more likely to develop skills in talking about their emotions, thereby being able to voice their feelings of both stress and well-being. Laird & Green (1996) identify the stresses placed on lesbians and gay men that stems from homophobia. Such stresses are real and impact upon lesbian and gay led whanau and families.

Further research by Braeways (1997) related to child development and family functioning in lesbian mother families clearly indicates that the quality of relationships between adults for both lesbian couples and heterosexual couples was comparable. They also found that the quality of parent-child interaction did not differ significantly. The one difference they found to be worthy of depth discussion was that the social mother (non-birth mother) in lesbian couples showed greater interaction with their children than did the fathers in the heterosexual couples. This they concluded was linked to gender roles , that is that women tended to spend more quality time with children than men. As a result, childcare arrangements were more equitably divided for lesbian couples than was the case for heterosexual couples. In regard to environment Braeways found the following:
“The most important conclusions emerging from all these findings with regard to family functioning is that children in lesbian mother families have been growing up for the first year of their lives in a warm and secure family environment, just like the children in the heterosexual control groups…Findings with regard to the emotional/behavioural adjustment of the child as measured by the total problem score of the CBCL, revealed that children raised in lesbian mother families did not differ from children raised in the heterosexual control groups…Thus no evidence was found for the supposition that father absence would lead to increasing emotional problems among children.” (Braeways 1997:1356).

It is clear from research findings that the myth that lesbian whanau and families do not provide a suitable environment for children is unsustainable.

Western ‘Marriage’ Structures: Site of Struggle or Cultural Imposition

In discussing the issue of access to ‘marriage’, it is necessary to note that the institution of ‘marriage’ has been constructed through a western framework and imported to this country. Therefore, given the importation of the structure of western ‘marriage’ to Aotearoa the absurdity of assuming there is a ‘natural’ or ‘ordained’ form of union becomes even more evident. ‘Marriage’ is socially constructed and defined within cultural frameworks. There is no one definition of marriage, however the power to impose particular models of ‘marriage’ within society means that structures such as ‘marriage’ are controlled by dominant groups. In Aotearoa the definition of ‘marriage’ is defined through a Pakeha cultural framework.

The western, colonial, heterosexual nature of ‘marriage’ means that the use of that structure for lesbian women is itself problematic. For others achieving access to ‘marriage’ is deemed the ultimate public recognition of their relationship. The struggle over lesbian participation in seeking access to marriage is a complicated issue. Given the constructed nature of the institution of marriage it would seem appropriate that lesbians seek to struggle against such institutionalisation. However, for some lesbian women there is the need for societal acceptance of their relationship. For others, it is a way to access particular rights that are provided through the institution of marriage that are not available to lesbian couples and their children.

Recently the Hawaii Commission on Sexual Orientation voted 5-2 to recommend that lesbian and gay couples have access to the same legal rights and benefits bestowed upon married straight couples. The commission found that to deny these benefits was to deny fundamental human rights. This commission along with a recent Court ruling, again in Hawaii, that ruled against the ability to deny lesbian and gay couples marriage licences (Baehr v Lewin), has brought forward a more intensified debate surrounding the concepts of ‘family’ and ‘marriage’. The conservative response is one of attempting to re-entrench their definitions of family and marriage. Robert Knight, A Director of the Family Research Council (FRC), a group that promotes conservative definitions of the family, argues that ‘gay marriage’ would undermine the basic structure of the family.
“To place same-sex relationships on a par with marriage destroys the definition of marriage altogether. When the meaning of the word becomes non-specific, the exclusivity that it previously defined is lost…If “marriage” in Hawaii ceases to be the term used solely for the social, legal, economic and spiritual bonding of a man and woman, the term “marriage” becomes useless.” (Knight,R.,1997:6)

In the case of Baehr v Lewin the ruling of the Hawaii Supreme Court was one that affirmed the rights of same-sex marriages. This was a landmark court case for those lesbian and gay couples in Hawaii, and in fact across America, who wish to solemnise their partnership through a formal State-recognised marriage process. This decision is not, however, ‘safe’ in that there are numerous groups across America seeking the removal of non-discrimination laws and the denial of the rights of any couples who have sought same-sex marriage in Hawaii (FRC 1997).

In Aotearoa challenges to both Common Law and common-sense definitions of ‘marriage’ have also taken place (Attorney General v Family Court at Otahuhu , Quilter v Attorney General). In 1996 three Pakeha lesbian couples took a case to the High Court after the refusal of the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages to issue them with marriage licences. The case centred around a number of key pieces of legislation, including the Marriage Act 1955 and its subsequent amendments. This case, Quilter v Attorney General, was argued primarily around (i) the definition of ‘marriage’, and (ii) whether the refusal to issue licences to these couples was discriminatory on the grounds of ‘sex’ and ‘sexual orientation’. The findings of Justice Kerr were based upon the definition of ‘marriage’ being “a union between one man and one woman”(FRNZ 1996:430) and that in order for same-sex marriages to take place Parliament would be required to make approppriate changes. It is noted in the findings:
“It is a question of social policy, and it is for Parliament therefore to make a decision on behalf of the New Zealand population, not for a New Zealand Court, by strained interpretation, to create new social policy” (FRNZ, 1996:454).

Justice Kerr’s decision is based upon a traditionalist definition of ‘marriage’ that stems from an definition by Lord Penzance (1861), who was considering whether a Mormon marriage (which included polygamy at that time), was valid under English Matrimonial Law. The Penzance definition clearly linked to what he defined as marriage “as understood in Christendom”. Given the knowledge of the role of ‘christendom’ in colonisation and the fact that spirituality is not universal, or that ‘moral’ impositions have been the cause and in fact justification, for the oppression of many indigenous peoples. The consequence of the ruling is that the decision related to same-sex marriage has been deferred in this country and the dominant, conservative western notion of ‘marriage’ is upheld. The significance is that the strength of conservative ideologies is maintained and affirmed by the Courts.

Clearly there is the desire for some lesbian and gay couples to marry and have their relationship formalised in this way. However, this is not the case for all couples. Many lesbian women, in particular, see the institution of ‘marriage’ (like the nuclear heterosexual family) as an institution that has been founded on the oppression of women. Given the conservative ideologies related to ‘family’, that I have discussed earlier, there is little doubt that for many women ‘marriage’ means the imposition of limited gender expectations on their roles. This is not to say that all women experience this, as that would deny the complexities of women’s lives. The point is, that for many lesbians, ‘marriage’ would never be an expectation because of the political implications of being involved in the affirmation of that institution. On the other hand however there are increasing numbers of lesbian women wanting to have children and develop strong whanau or family groupings irrespective, and in spite of, the attempts to deny them.

Lesbian , Gay, Whanau, Family

A common belief that exists about lesbian women is that we are unable to have children. This is a myth. Lesbian women are no less able to have children than are heterosexual women and men. However, the process of how this is achieved is often more complicated.

There are multiple ways in which lesbian and gay led families are constructed. These familial arrangements are not only located in western notions of family. In Aotearoa the term Whanau is utilised, in a more contemporary sense, to include both biological and non-biological relationships. More recently we have seen whanau has been translated to be an equivalent of nuclear family, this is not the case (Pihama 1993). The term itself then has a much more inclusive and expansive potential, and for Maori lesbian women opens more clearly the possibilities for Maori lesbian led whanau. This is not to deny that some decolonization needs to occur if Maori generally are to embrace lesbian and led whanau, however terms such as ‘whanau’ and ‘whangai’ lead me to believe that the potential is there for wider cultural possibilities.

The process for developing families for lesbian women can be complex. For lesbians, this can include having children from a previous heterosexual relationship or choosing to conceive children either as a single person or within a lesbian relationship, through Assisted Donor Insemination or Donor Self-Insemination . For gay men, there are the options of fathering children with a woman, who may be either lesbian or Straight, or participating in an arrangement with a surrogate ‘mother’. Each of these choices are possible in this country, however whilst there is little indication that surrogacy is an option that is used widely by gay men in this country even, it is increasing in other countries and therefore it is only a matter of time before it is actively undertaken here (Patterson, 1995).

Reconstructing families: Whangai, lesbian parents with children from previous heterosexual relationships and issues of Adoption

For Maori lesbians there are a range of ways in which we may be involved in the constitution of our whanau. I mentioned earlier the possibilities linked to whangai for Maori lesbian and Maori gay families. Whangai relates to cultural notions of wider whanau raising children. The idea that only biological parents, in particular the mother, raise children is a relatively new concept in this country, with journal documentation providing evidence that child-rearing was a collective role (Salmond, 1993).

Submissions by Maori discussed in the Reid and Atkin report (1994) raise whangai as a culturally appropriate form for Maori women who are unable to have children, however the definition used in the submission is itself limiting in that it restricts whangai to ‘infertile’ women. I would argue that whangai encompasses much wider whanau relations and may include both Maori women and Maori men. It may also be determined by the need of the birth parent equally as much as the person who raises the child. Whangai has been, and continues to be, practiced within Maori communities and Maori lesbian women have clearly participated in the raising of children through whangai.

Just as there is no doubt that lesbian parents have been around for some time, nor is there any doubt that a vast number of lesbian women have attempted to live as ‘straight’ at some point in their lives. This is not surprising, given the strength of anti-homosexual sentiment that is espoused within society. In a study undertaken in the United Kingdom, Maggie French (1992) describes the experiences of heterosexual ‘married’ couples and the ‘discovery’ that one partner was gay or lesbian. French (ibid.) provides an informative, nonjudgemental discussion exploring the “crisis, chaos and turmoil” (ibid.:87) these couples and families experienced. What becomes clear from French’s analysis is that if societies continue to oppress and discriminate in line with sexual orientation there will continue to be a difficulty for lesbian women to more readily accept their own sexuality.

Having children within a heterosexual relationship and ‘coming out’ as either lesbian or gay raises other issues. There is little documentation of lesbian or gay parenting in this country and most that exists is either American or British based, however the situation of having to negotiate custody rights from previous heterosexual relationships is a reality. Given that children from previous heterosexual relationships do live with their lesbian or gay parents there has obviously been mutual agreements made. However, the shifts that occur in ‘coming out’ from a heterosexual relationship, may also contribute an added dimension in the separation process that can impact on the outcome related to the placing of the children (French, 1992). Those cases that have been to court in this county are not well documented, however what is evident from overseas literature that the myths that surround lesbian and gay lifestyles are raised in court cases surrounding custody and access (Patterson, 1995).

Patterson (1995) highlights that systematic research related to lesbian and gay families began in context of judical challenges to the fitness of lesbian women as parents. Furthermore, Patterson (ibid.) states that the legal system in America has been hostile to lesbian and gay parents with many being denied custody and visitation rights, with judgements often being based on moralistic, traditionalist, conservative arguments. In Britain, similar findings exist, with Anna Marie Smith (1994) noting that various institutions have actively worked against the interests of lesbian women. Where there is a lack of research in Aotearoa, there are clearly similar issues that must be addressed. The Homosexual Law Reform Act (1986) highlighted the need for antidiscriminatory legislation to be put in place. This however, has not guaranteed the removal of ‘institutionalised homophobia’ (Mitchell 1996), rather State agencies in this country continue to operate on an assumption of heterosexuality.

For lesbian women seeking adoption the conservative nature of judgements and ‘institutionalised homophobia’ influence significantly the decisions made by the State. I am aware of a number of lesbian women who have adopted as ‘single women’, often having to feign heterosexuality in order to ensure the adoption takes place. For others court battles have often been linked to other family members and/or ex-partners. It is evident that in order for lesbian women to adopt in an open process there must be fundamental shifts in the conservative nature of judgements made by the courts. Davies and Weinstein (1987) argue that there is a need for judges to become more aware of the existence of lesbian mothers. They state
“The task CALM [Custody Action for Lesbian Mothers] undertook was enormous, since the very notion of lesbian and mother was a contradiction in terms to the average jusge. For him, lesbian mother was semantically, physically and ideologically impossible; he was likely to believe that the lesbian standing before him was the only one he had ever seen.” Davies & Weinstein (1987:44)

This is not to say that there haven’t been some success stories for lesbian and gay parents. One such ‘success’ was the judgement by Judge D.F. Green in Whangarei District Court (BvP) that saw the granting of custody to a lesbian woman after strong arguments from the childs paternal great-aunt and uncle that the environment was not suitable for raising children. It is noted in the judgement:
“the fact that the mother is living in a lesbian relationship does not give great cause for concern. There is no evidence before me to suggest that his mother is hampered in her ability to parent W by reason of her sexual orientation” (NZFLR, 1992:545).

Where the judgement was one in favour of the mother, we still see even within this case the perpetuation of myths about lesbian and gay parents in the shape of concerns by the psychologist as to the lack of a male role model for the child.

Deconstructing myths about Lesbian and Gay families

Myth One: lesbian and gay lifestyles are ‘unnatural’
This myth has been discussed throughout the chapter and is based fundamentally on the idea that dominant, conservative definitions of gender, sexuality and sexual orientation are ‘normal’. This is clearly not the case. gender, sexuality, sexual orientation are all socially constructed and culturally bound and therefore there will always exist a diversity of expression of each of these notions. What is the case, however, is that dominant groups that have the power to maintain their definitions are more likely to have them accepted as part of a societies common-sense belief systems.

Myth Two: lesbians and Gays don’t have children
Wrong. Many lesbian women do have children. The diverse ways in which lesbians chose to constitute their whanau or families is both cultural and political. The strength of this myth is located in the need to maintain dominant notions related to ‘family’ and ‘marriage’.

Myth Three: lesbians are anti-male
This myth is particularly interesting given that it may be extended to include any women who seek the displacement of unequal power relations between women and men. The conservative argument is that if lesbian are ‘anti-male’ then they will provide an imbalance in the raising of children. The focus for many lesbians is one of being committed to women rather than one of being ‘anti-male’, that is not to deny that some lesbians choose not to have men active in their lives. It needs to be clearly stated, however, that lesbians are not an homogenous group and therefore universal myths such as this do not account for the differing preferences.

Research documented by Chalotte Patterson (1995) highlights that lesbian mothers ensure that their children have regular contact with their fathers. Patterson notes that comparison between divorced lesbian mothers and divorced heterosexual mothers showed that the children of lesbian mothers were more likely to have contact with the father than the children of the heterosexual mothers.

Myth four: Children of lesbian and gay parents become lesbian or gay
This myth is designed to undermine lesbian and gay parenting however it denies a fundamental fact, that most lesbian and gay are children of heterosexual couples. Research tracing the sexuality of children of lesbian and gay parents shows that there is no difference between the sexual orientation of those children as compared to children of heterosexual relationships.

Myth five: lesbian and gay Parents are not ‘real families’.
This myth has been explored and debunked throughout this chapter. In summary, this myth serves to locate lesbian and gay led families as outside of ‘normal families’ and therefore provides the justification for those groups who seek to deny lesbian women basic human rights. This was evident in the British Section 28 campaign within which lesbian and gay led families were termed “the pretender” (Smith, A.M., 1994:204). As has been argued in this chapter the basic assumptions upon which this myth is based are socially constructed to serve the interests of dominant group assertions of heterosexuality. The origins of the New Zealand ‘family’ is located in a western model and therefore the struggle for Maori lesbians can be a fundamental one of reaffirming whanau, hapu and iwi.

Myth Six: lesbian and gay led families is not a ‘good’ environment for children.
This myth is one that is used to ‘prove’ that the idea of lesbian or gay led whanau and families is not only unacceptable but is unhealthy for children. We need to be aware that this myth is based within deficit theories that identify western heterosexual nuclear families as the norm against which all else is measured, therefore it assumes that children raised by lesbians are deprived. Research explored in this chapter show that this myth has no real foundation but is promulgated as a means by which to undermine lesbian whanau and families.

Some Conclusions

As I stated in the introduction to this chapter discussing lesbian whanau and families is not an easy task. The diversity is such that what occurs tends toward a universalising of experiences. This is not an acceptable way to write. Given the dearth of material written about lesbian women in this country there is little information to draw upon. Miriam Saphira’s research in the 1980s was an initial attempt to position lesbian mothers positively in a generally negative environment of representation.

However, even within this ground breaking research there is little acknowledgement or discussion given to the cultural ways in which whanau or families are constituted. For Maori lesbian women there exist cultural possibilities that enable us to explore wider options in parenting and whanau. In order to ensure wide access to these options we need to participate in active reclaiming and affirmation of whangai, whanau and whakapapa as cultural tenets.

For lesbian women who have chosen to have children there is a potential to challenge those dominant discourses about ‘family’ and ‘marriage’ that have served to oppress Indigenous peoples, women, lesbians and gays.

As a Maori woman, who is a mother, their well being is linked to the well being of their entire whanau, their knowledge of who they are and an awareness of those things that are oppressive and therefore inherently unhealthy for them. Being lesbian mothers does not necessarily transform the unequal power relationships within which we are located. This can only come about if we choose to be political in our raising of children, and that means being political in all aspects of our parenting. As African-American writer Pat Parker (1987:99) states:

“People get ready! It you are racist, sexist, classist or homophobic, my child is going to think you are strange.”

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Author: Te Wharepora Hou

Te Wharepora Hou is a collective of wāhine who are mainly Tāmaki Makaurau based, but we have strong participation from wāhine based elsewhere in Aotearoa and the world. We have come together to ensure a stronger voice for wāhine and are concerned primarily with the wellbeing of whānau, hapū, iwi and all that pertains to Papatūānuku and the sustenance of our people.

3 thoughts on “Reconstructing Meanings Of Family: Lesbian/ Whanau And Families In Aotearoa”

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