Rainbow family formation and dissolution in Australia

A scoping review of the academic literature. 

Published November 2019


The Centre for Better Relationships conducted a scoping review of the Australian academic literature relating to the formation and dissolution of rainbow families and their interactions with family law services. Our aims were to identify any best-practice principles for family law services working with rainbow families, to identify strengths and gaps in the evidence base, to determine the need for a full systematic review, and to identify directions for future research. 

Our search yielded 34 articles for full text review and 17 of these met the inclusion criteria. One of the key findings from this review was the impact of heteronormative social values, policy and service delivery on rainbow families. The current evidence base is heavily skewed towards rainbow family formation, a key gap identified in the literature was research relating to how rainbow families dissolve and utilise family law services.

Key messages

  • Very little is known about how rainbow families access and experience family law services. What is clear is that their interactions with other services are often marred by homophobia, discrimination and heteronormative assumptions.
  • Heteronormativity impacts rainbow families’ decision-making, their experiences of parenting spaces and services, feelings of legitimacy, and community support.
  • Pathways to parenthood for rainbow families involve more and more complex decisions than for heterosexual families, methods for conception include sperm donation, surrogacy and previous heterosexual relationships.
  • Rainbow family dissolution remains a largely invisible experience in the literature.


 A search of the databases Web of Science, Scopus, and Google Scholar was conducted. Web of Science and Scopus were selected because of their coverage of social science studies, where it was expected that most related articles would be catalogued. Google Scholar was selected as a multidisciplinary database to ensure thorough coverage of the relevant literature across other disciplines. Each database was searched using the terms: ‘LGBT’, ‘same-sex’, ‘family formation’, ‘Australia’, ‘family dissolution’, ‘separate’, ‘divorce’, ‘family law’ and ‘family law services’. Truncation was used on the term ‘family’, ‘Australia’ and ‘separate’ to cover various word endings (e.g. Australian), ‘LGBT’ was used in conjunction with a wildcard symbol to ensure coverage of alternative acronym order and endings. A hand search of key journals and reference lists was conducted to ensure no records were missed through database searching.


The search returned 1867 results. 34 papers were included for full text review and 17 were included for analysis (see Diagram 1). Of the articles included for analysis, 70% were qualitative studies (n = 12), followed by mixed methodology (n = 3), literature reviews (n = 1) and quantitative studies (n = 1). Each article was coded for key themes by the research assistant, themes were then tested for relevance through discussion with the research manager. Themes were chosen based on salience in the literature and relevance to the research questions. Seven subthemes were separated under the three primary themes of heteronormativityfamily formation and family dissolution.


This review found a diverse and exciting field of scholarship, that while not as extensive as its heterosexual counterpart, provides some clear insight into the contemporary experiences of rainbow family formation in Australia. While we identified some important studies relating to how rainbow families dissolve and their experiences of accessing family law services, more work needs to be done in this space. Family formation, dissolution and access to services are all located within heteropatriarchal policies and culture. Rainbow families challenge this and are reshaping our notions of family, but they are also restricted and harmed by it. Our findings reveal many opportunities for celebration, including progressive policy changes, but also disappointments in continued discrimination and invisible experiences of rainbow families and the LGBTIQ+ community. Download the full report here.

Interview opportunity

Media Contact: Graeme Westaway p. 0438 318 311

e. Graeme.westaway@betterplace.com.au

Serge Sardo is the CEO of Better Place Australia. He is a member of the Board for the Family and Relationships Services Association and a non-Executive Director of Scope Disability Services and the Alcohol and Drug Foundation. He was also previously CEO of the Responsible Gambling Foundation.

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