Transcript for
Inclusive practice with rainbow families

Runtime 00:26:38
Released 28/3/20

Narrator [00:00:02] Welcome to the Emerging Minds podcast.

Host Sophie Guy [00:00:08] You’re with Sophie Guy, and today I’m speaking with Dr. Priscilla Dunk-West. Priscilla is a sociologist and social worker and has worked in academia in both Australia and England. Her research interests include identity, sexuality, intimate relationships and parenting. She is currently a senior lecturer in the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders University in South Australia. In today’s episode, we discuss what inclusive practise looks like when working with children from LGBTIQ families and ways the practitioners and organisations can orient their services to be more welcoming if the growing number of rainbow families in Australia. Well, thank you very much, Priscilla, for joining me today for a podcast interview.

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:00:50] Thanks for having me.

Host Sophie Guy [00:00:51] And we’re here today to talk about growing family diversity in terms of sexual orientation, maybe gender identity. Things like that in Australian families. Perhaps, I’d like to start off, though, just by asking you a little bit about your background and how you came to be working in this space.

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:01:13] So I’m a social worker and I’m also a sociologist. And I started out my work as a social worker in child protection and worked with a range of families and children, both here and in the UK, in London. And then I went on to specialise in sexual health counselling. So I would see couples and individuals about intimacy kind of issues or problems, sexual dysfunction and struggles with sexual or gender diversity.

Host Sophie Guy [00:01:44] Interesting. Interesting. Did you get into that in London or back here?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:01:48] No. I mean, because I worked in child protection, I worked with teenagers so often issues about, you know, sexuality, whether it was sexual behaviour or risk taking, would kind of emerge. And particularly for young women, for example, you know, being able to sort of navigate and negotiate their relationships as they enter into kind of adolescence or later adolescence and work out who they are and what they want. So, yes, those were kind of there. But this was more of a kind of specialism, which then led me to want to do a PHD. So I finished my masters and did a PHD looking at kind of day to day sexuality, the ways in which people reflect on and sort of live out their sexuality or sexual identity in day to day life.

Host Sophie Guy [00:02:33] Okay, that sounds really interesting. So when you talk about I mean, I wouldn’t even know how you would start to talk about day to day sexuality. Could you talk a little bit more about what you mean?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:02:43] So we have this idea in terms of sexuality that it sort of is something that manifests in the bedroom or during sexual behaviour. But, you know, we also know that single people have a sexuality or people who aren’t having sex or sexual interactions also have a sexuality. So it’s this approach to sexuality that says sexuality is something that is felt inside, but it’s affected through things like, you know, the social context within which people live. And sexual behaviour may not match up with people’s idea of their own sexual identity. So, for example, in sexual health, historically, there was sort of a term that came about because there were men who were having sex with men but were married in heterosexual relationships or in heterosexual relationships and would say, ‘I’m not gay’. And so it was this sort of this recognition that actually people’s behaviour doesn’t always match how they identify themselves. So it’s quite a complex kind of terrain. So this idea that sexuality only exists within relationships is sort of, doesn’t take into account the social and cultural context within which we live our kind of identities. And so when I first started interviewing people and asked them, tell me about your sexuality, people would talk about, you know, being at work and the clothes they wore and the language they used and, you know, the way they taught their children about respectful relationships, for example. So sexuality kind of is present in our kind of micro interactions in day to day life and comes about through language, but also symbols. If you think about people wearing rings to kind of signify that they’re in a relationship, we have a whole lot of practises that sometimes are overlooked, and we don’t necessarily think about them. So sexuality is something that is kind of reproduced through social interactions.

Host Sophie Guy [00:04:38] And then I feel like there’s probably a lot of pulling apart as well of, we can talk about someone’s sexuality or sexuality, but then gender and gender identity is related, but it’s different as well.

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:04:52] And I think in relation to gender identity, we’re only just now starting to really talk about the ways in which gender can be differently connected to someone’s sense of identity. So we have, you know, lots of research, historical research, for example, where, you know, there was that famous study where someone was given a baby and told this is a girl and so they kind of went, oh, you’re so beautiful and you’re so cute and then dressed the baby in kind of what we would consider socially as boy clothes. And the ways in which somebody interacted with that baby were very different. And that kind of speaks to the attitudes that we have about gender from birth. Right. So there’s this kind of from birth, this socialisation of gender. And we know that children who don’t identify with a particular gender binary, so male or female, girl or boy, that they can struggle with that binary. And so we talk about that as gender nonconformity in children, where there’s a sense of feeling different, feeling like that label doesn’t fit. And this isn’t new. But the way we’re talking about it is becoming more recognised. So, for example, you know, girls who didn’t want to sit and play dolls were often characterised as being tomboys. Boys who want to dress up in girls clothes. People can often be very shocked by that. And it speaks to the ways in which we construct gender socially. And just because something is a social construction doesn’t mean that it’s not real or not tangible or not powerful. It just means that these are very powerful messages that we give one another in society through our day to day sort of practises. For some people, the idea of that has never occurred to them because they felt a kind of fit between the gender they were assigned at birth and the gender that they kind of live out in their day-to-day life. But I guess identity changes across contexts as well. So the self that we present in our work or the self that we present at home, or the self that we present going shopping or in more public kind of settings will differ. And in the same way, sexuality or sexual identity can change over time. So I guess that’s the other thing to say, is that although somebody, you know, social workers might be seeing a client who is a parent and has been married, we don’t assume that they’re straight or that identifies heterosexual. So it’s an acknowledgement that actually sexuality can change over time and gender identity can change over time, or the ways in which people express their gender can change over time, but are always connected with the social and cultural context and historical context within which we live.

Host Sophie Guy [00:07:44] And I’m just thinking about children who, young people who may be questioning the gender identity. And if you’re a practitioner or, you know, you’re in a service. Is it helpful to have conversations about sexuality as well? Or is it more helpful to sort of think of those as separate things?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:08:02] It’s a tricky one. So, in fact, I was reading about this yesterday about a woman who identifies as lesbian. But then there are now people saying, well, I’m gender non binary and I identify as lesbian. So I’ve always had this connexion with gender and sexual identity because, you know, they’re connected in terms of the way we make sense of different categories. But, you know, research from the U.K. with young people, people will talk about all sorts of different genders and sexualities and they’re much more kind of tangled up and deliberately kind of don’t fall into those kinds of very binary notions that we have. So they’re connected. But it’s up to individuals to kind of recognise those connections or think about those connections. So the practitioners, it’s about kind of just understanding, being curious, understanding how that fits for somebody rather than putting on a kind of hetero normative lens, which is the assumption that everybody is heterosexual and cis gendered and cis gendered that idea that people’s gender identity matches their identity assigned at birth.

Host Sophie Guy [00:09:09] And do you feel as though that those assumptions do present quite a lot in even social work students and social workers?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:09:18] Yeah.

Host Sophie Guy [00:09:18] Practitioners out there?

[00:09:20] So I’ve been working for a while in the area of kind of sexuality in social work, and there’s now a fairly good group of academics who do research into, for example, same sex parents or rainbow families that we might term them as, people who don’t fit that kind of fit that hetero normative conceptualisation. So I think for social workers, it’s really important to understand that not only are families changing and configurations of families are changing, but that they’ve got to start from a point of really trying to understand rather than assume that somebody’s family or conceptualisation of family fits within a certain framework or way of thinking. So there’s lots of different types of family diversity now that social workers should be aware of.

Host Sophie Guy [00:10:10] Okay. Is it helpful to sort of identify and say there’s these kinds of families and these kinds of families for the purpose of this interview? Or is that not really a helpful thing to say?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:10:19] Yeah, I mean, I think this kind of umbrella term of rainbow families is a way that some families will talk about themselves. So we know a couple of years ago during this awful kind of period in Australian history where children of parents who were same sex parents or gender nonconforming or trans found themselves in the kind of, you know, spotlight and being questioned about their rights to marriage equality. And so we know through research that they had really profound impacts on people. There’s been historical research that’s looked at the ways in which queer people or people were non heterosexual. Think about their relationships, their families. So, for example, we have a very biologically driven way of thinking about family. You know, your mum, your dad, your uncle, which is the brother of your mother or the brother of your father. That very traditional way of thinking about family and often social workers will want to rely upon these bio narratives, if you like. So some research from the 80s kind of looked at this idea of families of choice. And that was because when people came out as being on heterosexual or we can say nonconforming in terms of gender, that their families rejected them, the families of their birth families rejected them. But that what happens in queer communities is that people develop relationships with friends that are family, become family. And so this idea of families of choice kind of came about. So talking to people about who are the significant people in your life, you know, how are you connected to them? Are they family? You know, what do you think about as family? Is a useful kind of starting point rather than relying on that biological kind of narrative?

Host Sophie Guy [00:12:11] And so are these sorts of approaches to practise being taught in the social work courses now?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:12:18] Yeah, I think they are increasingly so. We have a lot of kind of traditional tools that we use in social work. So we have this, you know, this genogram where we have this map of way of mapping. But, you know, these tools can be adapted so that they’re not about biological connections, but about meaningful connections that people have in their lives. And so we can we can adapt those tools, if you like.

Host Sophie Guy [00:12:43] Okay. We sort of have some broad principles at Emerging Minds that we’ve gotten some consensus around in terms of what we think is sort of helpful practise. And one of them is this idea of child focus and parents sensitive. You wonder if you could talk a bit about what child focussed and parent sensitive practise looks like with rainbow families.

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:13:03] So I guess the first thing is not making assumptions and coming from a point of being or coming from a perspective of being genuinely curious about the child’s world. So who are the significant people in their life? I suppose I’m coming at it from the child centred perspective. So I think in terms of social workers and social work students, I think the skills that that requires is the use of imagination. Right. Being able to imagine life through a child’s perspective, through a child’s eyes, you know, seeing who other connections they have are they significant people who live close by. Are they people who live in a household with the child? So often we have these ideas of, you know, families or having to live under the same roof. But we know that the ways in which families are configured can sometimes include co-parenting relationships, can include new partners into the into the mix. And so those people might become, you know, significant to them. We used to talk about, you know, step families, but thinking about significant people in the child’s life, I think is a really important step and requires that sense of imagination and curiosity. So they’re the kind of the key ingredients, I guess, that social work students and social workers need to kind of look at understanding, better understanding kind of rainbow families.

I suppose the other thing is to always bear in mind, and this kind of speaks to being parent sensitive, is to bear in mind that we do live in a society that is discriminatory against rainbow families so although we have marriage equality it’s very new. It’s very contested. We know there’s still homophobia, there’s still violence. And we know there’s a fall out emotionally from families who have been affected by this, you know, very public debate about their lives. And so being parent sensitive means not being hetero normative, not making assumptions, but really seeking to understand what are the key connections that parents have so we can be parent sensitive in terms if we see the primary couple. But we know that people sometimes have relationships with more than one person. So polyamory, for example, or co-parenting relationships. So just because people aren’t parenting together in the same space doesn’t mean that they don’t still have a really good relationship with the person who was once their intimate partner. And so that’s a relationship and so being parent sensitive involves kind of acknowledging that those connections exist and working with people to strengthen those connections from the child’s perspective, if that makes sense. So, it’s not an either or they have to go hand in hand.

Host Sophie Guy [00:15:48] And could you even give some examples of how you might ask those questions? I guess those with a kid, you know, the assumption, the hetero normative would be like, so who’s your mum? Who’s your dad? Or, you know, to someone presenting as a parent, are you married? What are some alternative questions to start that conversation? Because it can be tricky if you’re not, you haven’t done it before. Yeah. You can feel awkward kind of changing your language.

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:16:14] Yeah. So, I mean, it depends on the age of the child. But, you know, sometimes practitioners will use drawings and ‘can you tell me about, can you tell me about special people in your life?’ And, you know, if you’ve asked your five-year-old that could include their family pet and so, kind of recognising what they see is important connections in their life and being curious and asking, you know, tell me about that. And tell me about this person. And what do you do together? And those sorts of things just help to flesh out, if you like, the kind of connections that children have with significant people. So not starting with who’s your mom? Who’s your dad? Because you can imagine if you if it’s a child who comes from a family where there are same sex parents or parents who are identifying in terms of being gender diverse, that that immediately is going to kind of set up this awkwardness between a practitioner and a child. It’s going to give the message that that’s not somehow normal. So really not engaging in that kind of hetero normative way of thinking or mixed binary way of thinking.

Host Sophie Guy [00:17:22] Yeah. And what about some examples with parents, with adults?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:17:27] So sometimes organisations will use kind of kind of written thing where they’ll get people to write about their relationships or write about their gender identity. So making sure at the very beginning point that organisations have a very flexible kind of tool that is able to capture people’s experiences. So, if you’re filling out a form and the only box is male or female, that immediately gives the message that this is an organisation that isn’t aware of gender diversity or gender nonconformity or trans issues. And so immediately that sets up a barrier. So making sure that those kind of intake forms are there, I think if you’ve got somebody who’s not, you know, who is cis gendered, it also gives the message this is an organisation that welcomes Rainbow families. This is an organisation that understands, you know, sexual identity and gender diversity. So it sets it up not only for people who are part of that rainbow community, but sets it up for people who aren’t to give that kind of I guess it’s role modelling, I guess, it’s saying, you know, these are our values as an organisation. So that’s the kind of first step. I guess the second step is about then looking at the form, interpreting it and asking questions of somebody. So, for example, you know, saying do you have a partner or partners? Gives somebody the opportunity to kind of talk about their key relationships or key relationship if they have one. So being open and asking those questions, I think, as I said, kind of gives the message that a) this practitioner is open and understands the range of diversities that exist in our society. And b) makes people feel welcomed.

Host Sophie Guy [00:19:15] I was going to ask you also about the change in law and marriage equality and what sorts of flow on effects have you seen as a result of that good and bad?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:19:27] I think it’s so early to know what the fallout is. I know there’s some research that’s happening at the moment to look at what have been the impacts. But we know that people who are affected in terms of, you know, identifying as being queer or lesbian or gay or bisexual or trans or gender non-conforming, that this group of people accessed services to help with the impacts of that. So having one’s personal life debated and discussed very publicly, I think it was incredibly damaging. And so, you know, we don’t know yet really what the longer-term effects are. But we know that people, for example, may have become ostracised from their family of origin. So they may have stopped talking to people. They may have lost friends. But at the same time, they may have also gained a sense of community and kind of found strength in community. And that’s where the kind of families of choice kind of concept is really useful to understand that.

Host Sophie Guy [00:20:33] Yeah. Could you talk a bit of a bit more about this families of choice idea? Is it something that you hear people referring to more so in Rainbow families? Is that kind of where it originated in?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:20:46] It did. So it originated through the work of Jeffrey Weeks who from the UK he’s one of the key kind of thinkers in this area. And it’s less used now as a kind of concept, but I think it’s an important one because it speaks to the strength of connections that people have in light of perhaps times when they were ostracised from their birth family or family of origin. And so it was a way of recognising that, yes, you know, we live in a kind of homophobic and hetero normative society, but it’s not all bad because what people do is they find resilience through alternate relationships with people who are significant and whether that’s community, a sense of community. And so, you know, we talk about the Rainbow community as though it was this, you know, very clear, lovely, fun community. But of course, there are tensions between different members of these communities. So it was a way in which people’s resilience could be acknowledged and that we could better understand key relationships that people have.

Host Sophie Guy [00:21:54] I’m wondering about the social and emotional well-being of children who come from rainbow families. And you mentioned something when we spoke on the phone about how there’s research that suggests they actually fare better. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:22:08] Yeah, sort of coedited to book collections where we kind of showcase research around gender and intimacy, kind of research from the U.K., Australia and lots of other places. And there’s been a couple of studies that we’ve included in those collections. But it’s generally found that children from same sex parents fare better than children from opposite sex parents. And I kind of like that finding because people’s assumption sometimes is that there must be an impact on the child or how is that for them or that’s fine for people to have, you know, same sex relationships. But what about the children? And so people who go into this kind of narrative, which is very problematising and hetero normative, I guess. And so that kind of findings just kind of says, actually, we’re doing fine. And it is on a range of kind of, you know, emotional wellbeing in terms of being able to articulate one’s self, feeling happy with life, feeling loved. All of those ingredients we know are important for children’s development. So it doesn’t matter really someone’s sexual identity. It’s about what a child needs.

Host Sophie Guy [00:23:26] Yeah. Yeah. Okay. You talked a little bit about what services can do to practise in a more inclusive way, for example, through the forms and the way we asked people about their gender identity. Is there anything more to add to that? And I’m also wondering, are there things that you can identify that are barriers to services doing this?

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:23:49] You know, one of the things that’s kind of emerging is that when you introduce yourself, you say what your pronouns are. So my name’s Priscilla and my pronouns are she and her so that I show that that’s my gender identity. So for some organisations, that means role modelling that behaviour in terms of just introductions. The other concept that’s quite helpful in social work is when we’re working with diverse families is think about being an ally, like what being an ally looks like. So if somebody is not part of a particular part of rainbow community, so gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual, that being a good ally means kind of sitting back and listening to the needs of that particular group and learning from that particular group, rather than thinking that you know it all or, you know, but actually sitting back and listening. And I think that’s really important, particularly with indigenous queer voices and lots of different ways that those identities can intersect with culture, sexual identity, gender identity, disability, those sorts of other aspects of identity. So, organisations, if they want to be more queer friendly or rainbow family friendly can do a lot in terms of the symbols that they display. So, having a rainbow being, rainbow tick accredited, those sorts of things that practises that organisations can do to show a sense of ally ship and to show this is a welcoming space. So that kind of physical environment is important as well as the forms, the practises, the policies, you know, the stance sometimes the organisations will take so people kind of saying, you know, and you see this in organisations where people will put up something saying, you know, we don’t kind of tolerate homophobia or we believe. So those values statements are important. So it’s the kind of physical, the procedural and then the value base. So those kind of three aspects, I think, help organisations to be more kind of inclusive.

Host Sophie Guy [00:25:54] OK, great. Thank you very much, Priscilla, for coming in and talking to me I really appreciate it.

Priscilla Dunk-West [00:25:59] My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Narrator [00:26:02] Visit our website at to access a range of resources to assist your practise brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, led by Merging Minds and delivered in partnership with the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Australian National University, the Parenting Research Centre and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Programme.

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