Fascinating Facts about Female Same-Sex Couples from the 2011 Australian Census

You’ll think twice about the next nurse, teacher, or police officer you meet… 

Last week, more data on same-sex couples was released from the 2011 Census of Population and Housing. This is the third set of analyses released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS):

  • Same-sex couple families” part of the “Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census” series in June 2012.#
  • Counts of Same-Sex Couples” a census factsheet in September 2012.$
  • a media release titled “Australian Social Trends: Same-Sex Couples in Australia” released July 2013.^

Data are reported by same-sex couple versus opposite-sex couple, with an occasional breakdown by gender. Although there is not enough disaggregation by gender for my liking, I’ve put these data in green. These analyses provide some interesting insights into women living in same-sex couple relationships.

How are same-sex couples identified by the census?

Since 1996 respondents have been asked to identify the relationship of each person in the household to each other person – whether you are the husband/wife, de facto partner, child, stepchild, sibling, or unrelated. In 2011, 33,714 same-sex couples were registered, an increase of 32% since the 1996 census.^ The ABS suggests this is due to “growing social acceptance [and] increased awareness that data about same-sex couples is made available from the Census, giving more reason for same-sex couples to be open about the nature of their relationship and willing to supply this information.”$

Despite there being no marriage equality in Australia and various governments working to make sure marriages from other jurisdictions are not recognized, the ABS made a bold move* for the 2011 census and reported the proportion of same-sex partners registering their relationship as husband/wife. Prior to this, these people would have been reclassified as de facto.^  The ABS  states: “The reasons why people might report that they are the husband or wife of someone of the same sex cannot be known from Census data, but may include having been married in a jurisdiction other than Australia, having registered their relationship under state or territory law, or considering that husband or wife is the term that best describes their relationship.”^

What do the census releases tell us about women in same-sex relationships?

The number of same-sex couples in Australia in 2011

  • There were 16,131 female same-sex couples, of whom, 661 women reported their relationship as wife-wife.^
  • Same-sex partners  accounted for 0.7% of all partners (1.6% of partners aged 15–24 years).#
  • 0.9% of partner Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women were in a same-sex couple, this flattens out when you take account of age. It is worth remembering that 2.9% of all same-sex couples include an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person.#
  • 0.8% of women born in Australia were living with another women.#
  • 0.5% of women born overseas were living with another women. (The most common countries of origin for women were NZ and England).#

Age differences within couples

  • The average age difference between women in a same-sex couple was 4.8 years (compared to 6.5 years between men in a same-sex couple, or 3.7 years between people in an opposite-sex couple).$
  • People in same-sex couples were in general younger than people in opposite-sex couples. The greatest number of same-sex couples were in the age group 35-44 years, followed by 25-34 and 45-54.#


  • 22% of female same-sex couples had children living with them (compared to 3% of male same-sex couples and 54% of opposite-sex couples).$
  • Same-sex couples who had children living with them were less likely to have two or more  (47%), compared to opposite-sex couples (64%).$


  • Same-sex couple partners were less religious than opposite-sex couples (48% compared to 21%); still 40% registered their religion as Christian (compared to 67% of opposite-sex couples).#
  • Same-sex couple partners were more likely to report their religion as Buddhism (4.0% compared with 2.6%).#


  • Same-sex couple partners were twice as likely to have a Bachelor degree or higher than those in opposite-sex couples (42% compared to 23%).$
  • And more than twice as likely to have a Doctoral degree (2.3% compared to 0.9%).$

Workforce participation

  • 89% of partners in same-sex couples are in the workforce, compared with 69% of those in opposite -sex couples.$
  • Partners in same-sex couples are more likely (53% )to be in skilled occupations than those in opposite -sex couples (40%).$
  • The most common occupation for women in same-sex couples was registered nurse (4.3%), with secondary school teacher (2.2%), police (2.2%), welfare worker (2.0%), primary school teacher (1.7%) and university lecturer/tutor (1.5%) all in the top ten occupations.$

Women in same-sex couples are highly engaged in looking after the health and education of the Australian community


  • Women in same-sex couples are earning more than their sisters in opposite-sex couples: three times as many earn $2000 or more per week.$
  • While women in same-sex couples are earning more than their sisters, there is still a gender pay gap: 11% of these women earn $2000 or more per week compared to 18% of men in same-sex couples and 14% of men in opposite-sex couples (and 4% of women).$


  • Women in same-sex couples shared the housework more than all other couples – 59% shared compared to 57% of male same-sex couples and 38% of opposite-sex couples.$

Geographical concentration

  • Same-sex couples are most likely to live in large cities and town – female same-sex couples account for 0.4% of couples in cities of 1million plus people.$
  • Perhaps reflecting the concentration of women in public service jobs, the greatest proportion of female same-sex couples was in ACT (0.6% of all couples in ACT), followed by… Northern Territory (0.5%; but only 0.3% of couples were male same-sex couples).$
  • While NSW had less than 4% of female same-sex couples, 34% of Australia’s female same-sex couples lived there.$

Female same-sex couples were highly concentrated in the inner west of Sydney…

  • The inner west of Sydney comprised the top ten suburbs for female same-sex couples: St Peters (6% of all couples), Newtown (5.7%), Erskineville (5.4%), Enmore (5.3%), Lewisham (4.2%), Alexandria (3.6), Tempe (3.5%), Chippendale (3.4%), Marrickville (3.2%), Stanmore (3.0%).$
  • Not to be left out, female same-sex couples made up 4.5% of couples in Daylesford-Hepburn Springs, a Victorian country town with a population of 3,200. And 1.2% of couples in Alice Springs, a central Australian town with less than 25,000 residents.$
  • 63% of people in same-sex couples had lived at a different address than at the time of the 2006 census (compared to 40% of people in opposite-sex couples).$

Who’s missing?

All the single ladies… Now put your hands up

The 2011 Australian census can only tell us about people in same-sex couples – that’s “two people of the same-sex who report a de facto or married partnership in the relationship question on the Census form” – and who are “usually resident in the same household”.# This means we have no insights into the lives of Australian:

  • Single lesbian or bisexual women
  • Single lesbian or bisexual women with children
  • Lesbian or bisexual women who are in couple relationships but who do not usually reside in the same household
  • Lesbian or bisexual women who are in relationships comprising more than two people

How is this all helpful?

Check out this great discussion paper from the national LGBTI Health Alliance on why this matters and some of the complexities around capturing accurate, useful and meaningful data about lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans/transgender, intersex and other sexuality, sex and gender diverse peoples.

I’m a social researcher working in health and I’d like to have access to reliable data on lesbian and bisexual women. I run  (with colleagues) a biennial survey of lesbian and bisexual women’s health (I’ve written several blog posts about this work). If we can use the census to work out how representative our samples are (I’ll write about this when we do it) then we can be confident about the validity and usefulness of the data we collect. And others can act on it, including those making policy that affects lesbian and bisexual women’s lives and health providers caring for their health and wellbeing. This is especially important as long as lesbian and bisexual women are not identified in national data sets. I’d love to hear about the information about lesbian and bisexual women you’d find useful for the area you work in.

*The fact sheet goes so far as to pointedly state: “However, there is still no Australian legislation to allow same-sex marriage or legal recognition of same-sex marriages performed overseas”.$
Data sources – The ABS has done all the hard work here, I’ve merely collated and pulled data on women. Thanks for that ABS, I really really appreciated your efforts.
$ Counts of Same-Sex Couples
Same-sex couple families. Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011
Australian Social Trends: Same-Sex Couples in Australia

What I learnt at a lesbian and gay community forum on drug use

Last night I presented these findings on the use of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs by lesbian, bisexual and queer women engaged with the LGBT communities in Sydney. This comes from SWASH data.

I have presented this data to professional meetings several before but this is the first outing at a community forum. Why do people attend a community forum on trends in lesbian and gay drug use? I’m not sure but the questions people asked were really interesting. I thought I’d canvas them again here.

How reliable is the data?
People were really quite demanding on this. Did we capture all lesbian / bi / queer/ same sex attracted women in our survey (no); are we just catching people who are heavily engaged in the scene (certainly a bit).
I talked about the scope of the SWASH survey and what we can say on the basis of it. I talked about the best we have being better than nothing at all – and that in the absence of SWASH we don’t know much at all (the National Drug Strategy Household Survey asks about sexuality but doesn’t report the data by gender… so we can’t see how lesbians are doing). Part of the solution is for large well funded health surveys to include sexuality and gender questions so we can collect better and more varied data.

How dangerous is the data for the LGBT community?
A few people intimated this, but two put words to it. Are the findings on rates of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use among lesbians not well know in the wider community because we’re afraid of the what people will do with it? This was followed by a community member reminding us of the damage the Australian Christian Lobby tired to do late last year with erroneous data on short life expectancy among LGBT people. [Crikey explored these claims here ]
My answers to these very reasonable concerns – possibly but if we don’t collect data on these issues, if we don’t talk about them within our community, and if we don’t point out the very real health needs of our communities then we can’t address them (or convince anyone to provide resources for health interventions).

Why are LGBT communities smoking more, drinking at more risky levels more often and using illicit drugs at much higher rates…?
Some great responses here from community representatives and from Ross the substance use counsellor at ACON about experiences of marginalisation, stigma, minority stress, coping with mental health issues. Reference was made to the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre’s recent report on this. We also talked about how LGBT people might have more cause to socialise in spaces where they are exposed to alcohol, tobacco and drugs because many have to go out and create new families and support networks. There was also talk at my table about whether women are less critical of their partners smoking and drinking then male partners are – perhaps to do with violating gender expectations being a bad (or good) thing.

Someone suggested that the LGBT community might be better at looking after alcohol and drug issues at community events (and as a consequence divert people away from emergency departments) than the straight community does at its large music events (I’m not sure how LGBT folk who attend these large music events would feel about them being characterised as straight community events…).
In response, we heard about the amazing community-based volunteer medical teams that work at Mardi Gras events. Others talked about the ways peer support works at events where people are taking drugs… Be interesting to hear more about this.

Lastly, a few people challenged my use of women in the general community as comparisons when I talked about rates of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use by lesbian, bisexual and queer women.
Good question. I wasn’t suggesting that the general community (ie primarily heterosexual women) are a standard by which to judge our communities. Actually maybe I was. They are not a norm to meet, but they are a useful comparison to give us pause. I want to provoke a conversation about the levels of smoking in our communities. Rates in the general community are falling and the government has put huge resources into achieving this. Even though *only* 16% of women in the general community smoke, the government is still working hard to reduce this rate. Australia is leading the world on public health initiatives here – Plain packaging anyone? And yet, twice as many lesbian, bisexual and queer women smoke compared to the rate of women in the general community (33% compared to 16% in 2012). The rates are higher for young women – 42% compared to 17%… What does the community think is an acceptable rate?

We didn’t talk about what we’re going to *do* to help people not take up smoking, and for those who already smoke but want to stop, how we as a community can best support them…

I’d be interested to hear what other people at the forum got from it.

Homophobia in our healthcare system – Sydney Morning Herald

Homophobia in our healthcare system – a very worthwhile read from Friday’s Daily Life, Sydney Morning Herald. Written by Melissa Davey (coincidentally a student at Sydney School of Public Health), it was prompted by a very interesting research article on lesbian mothers’ experience of the healthcare system. What I especially liked about the research article is the researchers’ description of four different ways women experienced homophobia: exclusion from services and healthcare; heterosexual assumption; inappropriate questioning and outright refusal of services. I suspect they resonate for many same-sex attracted women (so not limited pregnancy).

The researchers echo a point ACON has been making for a while (indeed they cite ACON’s historic “Turning Point : Lesbian Health Strategy“):

Fundamentally, the distinctive healthcare needs of lesbian women go unnoticed, are deemed unimportant or are simply ignored

As a reminder, those distinctive healthcare needs include significantly higher rates of smoking, risky drinking, illicit drug use, psychological distress… We don’t have evidence to show the impact of some of these lifestyle risk factors (tobacco, alcohol) because NO ONE IS COLLECTING THE DATA, but we know that they are likely to produce higher rates of  cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc.

Lower rates of Pap smears in women without a history of sex with men suggest there is still education to be done. The comments on the Daily Life blog repeat myths about lesbian women not needing Pap smears. Even though the message has been pretty clear for a while:

Western Australian Cervical Cancer Prevention Program

PapScreen Victoria – although note the curious choice of ‘sexy’ imagery

Women’s Health Queensland

South Australian Cervical Screening Program

Cervical Screen NSW

ACON community forum on lesbian and gay drug trends – TUESDAY @ Oxford Hotel

Lesbian and Gay drug trends forum
Lesbian and Gay drug trends forum

Delighted to have been invited to speak at this community forum with Dr Toby and Miss Tokyo and community representatives… SWASH survey has a lot of data on alcohol, tobacco and other drug use. The main message from me will be: we need to talk about smoking… twice the rate. Still.

I’ll be interested to hear people’s sense of why this might be and – more importantly – what we might do about it. I’ll do a write up here. ACON have done a lovely design job on my slides, I’ll post them here after the forum.

Snakes and Ladders – ACON’s comorbidity education sessions

Did you know that ACON runs a Substance Support Service? And is one of only two providers of stimulant treatment in NSW… Me neither (and I’m a Board Director, so I should know; the scope of ACON’s work continues to surprise me).

Yesterday I attended Snakes and Ladders, a comorbidity education session run by ACON to raise awareness of alcohol and other drug use and mental health issues in LGBT, people living with HIV and sex worker communities. The sessions include invited speakers and facilitated networking. (Contact Marcus mpastorelli@acon.org.au for details of future sessions)

Rachel (Deacon – we run SWASH together) and I were invited to give a presentation on alcohol and other drugs and mental health in the SWASH data set. SWASH is the longest running survey of lesbian, bisexual and queer women’s health in Australia (probably the world). We have data on sexual practices with women men; safer sex practices; knowledge of sexually transmissible infections (STIs); testing for STIs and HIV + diagnosis; pap smear screening; tobacco smoking; illicit drug use; alcohol consumption; self-report measures of general health; self report mental health (K6); accessing counselling; mental health diagnosis; height and weight; regular GP ; whether out to GP; satisfaction with last GP visit; domestic violence experiences; experiences of anti-LGBTQ behaviour (and whether reported to police); community engagement; community media use; community connection as well as lots of demographics on age, sexuality, attraction, children, employment, education, income… Some of this data on sexual practices goes back to 1996! Find out more on SWASH here.

The request from Snakes and Ladders request was a good impetus to dig a little deeper into this huge data set.  Have a look at the presentation…

2nd Australian Forum on Sexuality, Education & Health

I had the pleasure of attending the second meeting of the Australia Forum on Sexuality, Education and Health at UNSW today. It was organised by Peter Aggleton at the National Centre in HIV and Social Research. The forum was a series of short provocations from 4 people on the theme Learning about sex—what, when, where and how? It was a great spread of speakers – an academic, a clinician form Family Planning, a youth worker from Twenty10, and a high school principal.

I experimented with live tweeting for the first time and then with storify to bring together the (admittedly not very extensive) twitter conversation… you can read it here:

[View the story “Aust Forum on Sexuality, Education & Health ” on Storify]

Condom negotiation and young women in Cambodia

A new paper from the research project I am involved with in Cambodia about young female sex workers and HIV. Drawing on the qualitative data from young women sex workers we’ve explored condom use. Originally a paper broadly about the determinants of condom use (incl alcohol and drug use by women and their clients, violence) it now focuses on the use of condoms across the relationships that young women are involved in – commercial, not commercial and those of ambiguous status.  We look at how the young women thought about their relationships – conceptualizing them as risky or not – and how that shaped their desire to use condoms as well as the strategies they employed to use them (or not).

Email me for a copy of the paper or find it here: Maher L, Mooney-Somers J, Phlong P, Couture MC, Phal S, Bates A, Sansothy N, Page K. (2013) Condom negotiation across different relationship types by young women engaged in sex work in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Global Public Health [Epub ahead of print]

Abstract: Cambodia’s 100% Condom Use Programme is credited with an increase in
consistent condom use in commercial sexual interactions and a decrease in HIV
prevalence among female sex workers (FSWs). There has been little improvement
in condom use between FSWs and non-commercial partners, prompting calls for
more innovative approaches to increasing condom use in these relationships. To
understand why condoms are used or not used in sexual interactions involving
FSWs, we examined condom negotiation across different types of relationships.
We conducted 33 in-depth interviews with young (15 to 29 years) women engaged
in sex work in Phnom Penh. There was an important interplay between the
meanings of condom use and the meanings of women’s relationships. Commercial
relationships were characterised as inherently risky and necessitated condom use.
Despite a similar lack of sexual fidelity, sweetheart relationships were rarely
construed as risky and typically did not involve condom use. Husbands and wives
constructed their sexual interactions with each other differently, making agreement
on condom use difficult. The lack of improvement in condom use in FSWs’
non-commercial sexual relationships needs to be understood in relation to both
sex work and the broader Cambodian sexual culture within which these
relationships are embedded.

At the intersection of marginalised identities – paper on LGBT injecting drug users with hepatitis c

A paper based on work we presented at the Social Research Conference on HIV, Hepatitis C and Related Diseases, Sydney, last year. Email me for a copy of find it here:

Deacon, R, Mooney-Somers, J, Treloar, C, & Maher, L. (2013) At the intersection of marginalised identities: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’s experiences of injecting drug use and hepatitis C seroconversion Health and Social Care in the Community. doi: 10.1111/hsc.12026. [Epub ahead of print]

Abstract: While the levels of injecting drug use among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) populations are high we know little about their experiences of injecting drugs or living with hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. The loss of traditional family and cultural ties means connection to community is important to the wellbeing of LGBT populations. While some kinds of drug-use are normalised within many LGBT communities, injecting drug use continues to be stigmatised. This exploratory qualitative study of people with newly acquired HCV used semi-structured interviews to explore participants’ understandings and awareness of HCV, seroconversion, testing, diagnosis and treatment. We present a secondary thematic analysis of eight LGBT participants of the experience of injecting drugs, living with HCV and having a marginalised sexual or gender identity.

Community was central to the participants’ accounts. Drug-use facilitated connection to a chosen community by suppressing sexual or gender desires allows them to fit in to the mainstream; enacting LGBT community norms of behaviour; and connection through shared drug-use. Participants also described feeling afraid to come out about their drug-use to LGBT peers because of the associated stigma of HCV. They described a similar stigma associated with HIV within the PWID community. Thus the combination of being LBGT/living with HIV (a “gay” disease) and injecting drugs/living with HCV (a “junkie’s” disease) left them in a kind of no man’s land. Health professionals working in drug and HCV care services need to develop capacity in providing culturally appropriate health care for LGBT people who inject drugs.

Growing Up with Cancer self-portrait exhibition at Federation Square

This week the Growing Up with Cancer self-portraits are spending a week at Federation Square, Melbourne. This amazing venue gave the exhibition a whole new audience as school groups, tourists and lunching office workers made their way through the Fed Sq complex or to the Ian Potter Museum.

Two of the artist-participants (with proud mums and dads and kids) attended the Tuesday launch. We heard speeches from Michael Carr-Gregg (adolescent psychologist and long-time CanTeen supporter), Lachlan Korvin (CanTeen patient member and board member), Melia Bartholomeusz (GUWC participant and artist) and Peter Lewis (on behalf of GUWC team).

   GUWC at Fed Sq   GUWC at Fed Sq    GUWC at Fed SqGUWC at Fed Sq

The exhibition is now at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (in time for the “Bridging the Gap: Meeting the needs of adolescents and young adults (AYA) wherever they receive Treatment” conference). It will be back in Sydney in May for a month at the Downing Centre.

An electronic copy of the exhibition catalogue is available here; or email me for a printed version.

Special thanks to Sandy Bliim who flew back from Nauru to set things up!