Here we define the key terms used on this website and in the Rainbow Families Information Kit, based on the most common usage of terms by rainbow families in Victoria.

People in rainbow families – children, parents, donors and others – use a wide range of terms to describe themselves and their relationships. Language is powerful, in terms of people’s understanding of their own role, and the expectations of others in their community and society. It is critical to be precise about language in relation to people in and connected with rainbow families.

On this website, and in the downloadable Rainbow Families Information Kit, we use terms that fit most meaningfully with how most rainbow families describe themselves, but which are also legally clear. However, our language is not necessarily the same as that used in the relevant Victorian and federal legislation.

Parent: an adult who in fact bears parental responsibility for a child. This includes the birth mother and non-birth mother (for lesbian couples who are parents) and the biological and/or non-biological father (for gay male couples who are parents), even when they are not currently recognised as legal parents, for example if their child/ren were conceived via overseas surrogacy. We generally refer to parents in co-parent families as ‘co-parents’, regardless of who is recognised as the legal parents. We do not use this term for a donor, although we acknowledge that some donors call themselves a ‘father’ and are called ‘Dad’ or equivalent for children for whom they donate.

Co-parent/s: two or more adults, not in a couple, who share significant parenting responsibilities. However, children cannot have more than two legal parents, and who those are depends on whether the child was born prior to the recent reforms and who is listed on the birth certificate.

Birth mother: a woman who gave birth to a child, intending to parent them, who is their legal parent.

Non-birth mother: a woman who is a parent, who did not give birth to her child/ren; the domestic/de facto (see below) partner of the birth mother, who consented to the procedure that led to the child’s conception, with the intention of being the child’s parent; their legal parent, except for children born before the reforms who are not listed on the child’s birth certificate, although certificates can now be corrected (see information sheet ‘Recognition of pre-existing families’). We use the phrase ‘the mothers’ or ‘both mothers’ to mean the birth mother and the non-birth mother.

Mother: a woman who is a parent (a birth mother or non-birth mother), who is usually recognised as the legal parent. The exception is non-birth mothers of children born before the reforms who are not listed on their child/ren’s birth certificate, although certificates can now be corrected (see information sheet ‘Recognition of pre-existing families’). When we use the word ‘mother’ we do not mean a surrogate or egg donor, although the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment (2008) (ART) Act uses the term ‘surrogate mother’, and surrogate is the child’s legal mother until the substitute parentage order is processed and the commissioning parent/s become the legal parent/s. Also, some rainbow families might choose to refer to their surrogate or egg donor as a ‘mother’, although neither is a legal parent (once the substitute parentage order is processed – see information for prospective gay male parents and prospective egg donors and surrogates).

Domestic/de facto partner: both Victorian and federal law recognise lesbian couples as parents if they were in a partnership at the time of conception and the non-birth mother consented to the conception (see below). Victorian law uses ‘domestic partner’ for same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples, which generally includes a requirement that the couple live together ‘on a genuine domestic basis’, although couples who do not live together can also be recognised as domestic partners if their relationship is registered, or they provide ‘personal or financial commitment and support of a domestic nature for the material benefit of the other’. The federal Family Law Act uses ‘de facto partner’, which also generally includes the requirement of living together or having a registered relationship (in their state), but also considers how long you have been together or lived together, whether you are sexual partners, financial inter-dependence, responsibility for children and so on. See the Acts (online) for details.

Biological father: a man who is an actual parent (legally recognised or not, see above), who contributed his sperm for the child’s conception. We generally refer to parents in co-parent families as ‘co-parents’, regardless of who are the legal parents, We do not use the terms ‘father’ or ‘biological father’ for a donor, but acknowledge that some known donors call themselves a ‘father’, and are called ‘Dad’ or equivalent by the child/ren for whom they donated, although they are not their legal or actual parent/father in the sense these words are used here.

Non-biological father: a man who is a parent (legally recognised or not – see above under ‘parent’) who did not contribute his sperm to the child’s conception. This includes both legal parents, such as a member of a gay couple whose child was conceived via altruistic surrogacy in Victoria. It also includes members of gay couples whose children were conceived via overseas surrogacy, although Australian law does not currently recognise them as their child’s legal parent. We also use this term for men who have a parenting role in co-parent families with single women or lesbians, but specify in the relevant section that these men are not legal parents under current law. Not a known donor or the partner of a donor (see under ‘father’).

Father: a man who is an actual parent (legally recognised or not, see above), not a donor. We do not use the terms ‘father’ for a donor, but acknowledge that some known donors call themselves fathers, and are called ‘Dad’ or equivalent by the child/ren for whom they are a donor, although they is not their legal or actual parent/father in the sense these words are used here.

The commissioning parent/s or couple; a couple or single person who engages in an arrangement with a surrogate to bear a child for them to raise. In Victoria this must be altruistic (unpaid) and also involve a known egg donor. The legal parents, once the substitute parentage order is processed, for altruistic surrogacy in Victoria. Overseas surrogacy can be paid, and might involve and egg donor (known or anonymous) or not. Parents whose children are conceived via overseas surrogacy are not recognised as their children’s legal parents under current federal or Victorian law.

Surrogate: a woman who carries and gives birth to a child with the intention that another person or couple (the commissioning parent/s) will raise that child. The Victorian ART Act calls her the ‘surrogate mother’. However, she is only a legal parent under the substitute parentage order is processed, transferring legal parentage from the surrogate (and her partner if she has one) to the commissioning parent/s.

Egg donor: a woman who donates her egg, in the context of this kit usually in the context of a surrogacy arrangement between a gay couple or single man and a surrogate. Egg donors are generally known to the person or couple.

Clinic-recruited donor: a man who is a sperm donor recruited by a fertility clinic, to donate to clients of the clinic. There are currently no clinic-recruited egg donors. Victorian law and federal law are clear that a donor is not a legal parent, and refer to him as ‘a donor’.

Known (sperm) donor: a man who is a sperm donor, known to the lesbian couple or single woman (in most cases, in the context of this kit), who donates to them through a directed donation made at a clinic, or via home insemination with fresh sperm. Victorian law and federal law are clear that a known donor is not a parent, and refer to him as ‘a donor’. We do not use the terms ‘father’ or ‘biological father’ for a donor, but note that some known donors call themselves a ‘father’, and might be called ‘Dad’ or equivalent by the child/ren for whom they donated, although they are not their legal or actual parent/father in the sense these words are used here. Some gay men who are partners might both be ‘donors’ to a woman or couple. This might reflect their social role, or conception might be actually be attempted with both men’s sperm (for example, on alternate cycles, or for subsequent children in a family)

Home insemination: also called ‘self-insemination’ – attempted conception outside a clinic through insemination using fresh semen or frozen, screened sperm.

Treatment procedure/artificial conception procedure: a procedure, carried out in a clinic or through home insemination – not sexual intercourse – with the aim of conceiving a child. The former term is used in the ART Act, and the latter in the Family Law Act. Clinic procedures include donor/intra-uterine insemination, in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and surrogacy.