One key feature of narratives is the uniqueness and the peculiarity of each story that refers to a specific subject in a situated context (Bruner 1996). However, even if every story is unique and peculiar, personal narratives are performed through and in relation to public narratives (Somers and Gibson 1994) or cultural repertoires. Social actors can embrace or challenge such tropes by contributing to their transformation and the construction of new stories (Plummer 1995). While heteronormativity is a “fundamental organizing principle throughout the social order” (Green [2002, 521], quoted in Gamson and Moon [2004, 48]), it is also the social and symbolic repertoire available to individuals to shape both their subjectivities and their public identities (Rosenfeld 2009). The analysis of the narratives collected therefore can open up a space for understanding how heteronormative discourses “are both subverted and reinscribed” (Ryan-Flood 2005: 201). We will explore the interviews collected first to grasp how and to what extent these narratives challenge or queer the notion of couple and family; second to explore the relationship between these narratives and the specific societal and legal Italian context.
4.5.1 Forcing the Boundaries of Heteronormative Kinship
As Ahmed points out on her notion of discomfort of queer families and couples, the point is “not about assimilation or resistance, but about inhabiting norms differently” (Ahmed 2004: 155). Some of our respondents’ stories offer a space for redefining or, better, for forcing the boundaries of heteronormativity and for building new meanings able to account for their specific experiences. In doing so they challenge the notion of family trying to carve out space for their experiences (Franchi and Selmi 2018). In the accounts of some respondents the notions of coupledom, family and kinship are challenged through language. By trying to qualify their intimate relationships, interviewees creatively re-work the traditional meanings of the family to widen them and to make room for their experience (Gabb 2005). The family (and what follows in terms of heteronormativity, gender roles, etcetera) remains a cultural reference, but the narrative of the interviewees allows some shifts of meaning. For example, Gaia describes as non-familial the relationship they (her, her partner and the donor friend) want to create and as a ‘non-paternity relationship’ the one she and her partner envisage between their future child and the donor.
G: Then we identify a donor, a friend that for various reasons was perfect and was willing to be part of the reproductive process but also was willing to gamble with us on the possibility of forms of non familial relationships, but sentimental relationships…i don’t know how to explain it… he was, in principle at least, willing to create a relation of non-paternity with the newborn…
R: What do you mean by non paternity?
G: Not being a father from the legal point of view, hence not recognising (legally, the child), not taking on him the duties and honours of the role, and then being a male figure in the emotive universe of the boy or the girl that though does not imply being a father. Now like… I am going to say the nearest thing I can imagine in my stereotyped universe, like an uncle, but then he might not be an uncle and we might want to call thingumabob and it means whatever will grow out of (the interaction) between the two of them… (Gaia, 41)
A similar situation occurs in the story of Stefano and his partner, a gay foster couple.
We do not feel the necessity to introduce ourselves… we arrive, that is what we are. Me and him, me, him and the boy […] My partner once said to a guy who lived next door and wanted to visit us: “Yes, I will be delighted (if you visit us), so you will meet my family, my (male) partner and our affiglio” we coined this term affiglio, that comes from affido (foster) and figlio (son). (Stefano, 49)
Stefano explicitly uses language to challenge their invisibility. By using the word ‘affiglio’ Stefano challenges the trope of “as if we were a couple and parents like the others” (Cadoret 2008) and forces the boundaries of kinship to make room for their specific intimate relationships. A similar naming practices is narrated by Chiara while describing the way her two children call her and her partner:
They call me mamma obviously. In a very spontaneous way, because I am always here…. I live here… and consequently… mamma… they also call me babba…. This is something I am really proud of… it happened because of a bad cold they caught last winter… They could not say mamma… it came out as babba. I loved it so much that I insisted on babba and now when they have to distinguish us they say mamma and babba… I think that babba really breaks every prejudice… (Chiara, 40)
‘Babbo’ is a regional variant of ‘papà (father)’, here the word is re-gendered to accommodate Chiara as social mother. In a context that not only excludes parenting from legal recognition but also vociferously denies their very existence in the public sphere, the practices of naming and defining appear central in the narratives of some of the families and families-to-be. These narratives do not displace dyadic and differentiated form of parenting but do challenge the boundaries of kinship lexicon impacting a societal discourse that exclude them.
4.5.2 Love Is All You Need?
In other respondent’s stories, mutual love and commitment emerge as key symbolic resources to account for their experience and define themselves as ‘legitimate’ families. Emblematic is the story of Enrica who at the time of the interview had been with her partner Roberta for 9 and a half years, got married in a North European Country 2 years before and had two children. As in many other narratives, the story of their couple and their family develops as a sequence of events that naturally arises from love, passes through cohabitation and finds their successful completion in the birth of their two children. The way Enrica narrates the couple’s decision of becoming mothers is particularly interesting:
E: After few time she expressed the wish to have children. For what concerns me…. Actually it wasn’t an existential need, I never felt I would have been incomplete as a woman if I wouldn’t have had children. Neither did she, however something resounded inside her. She always tells me that she thinks I am the person that made her feel capable to carry on such a life project. Honestly, I would have never had children with anyone else.
R: Why you say that?
E: I have many girlfriends that at some point felt the need to becoming mothers, and this is totally respectable. But for me it was a project… something that grew with her and even if I had many relationships before, this idea (of having children) never arose before. I like her as a mother, as a parent, how we are able to combine each other with our very different characteristics…and our children are the way in which we reaped the fruits of our love. (Enrica, 44)
Enrica’s narrative of the decisions that lead to her and her partner’s pregnancies resonates profoundly with the ‘self-reflective’ project ideal (Giddens 1992) that is envisaged as free of constraints and presents itself as rejecting any gendered expectations. She has a twofold trajectory in her story: on one side, she explicitly positions her parenting project out of the traditional and naturalizing narrative of procreative female roles and underlines twice that she doesn’t feel that having children is what defines her identity as a woman. On the other, the ideal of the modern democratic monogamous couple defined by love is dominant in her narrative. The refusal of a normative gendered role is counterbalanced by the love that becomes generative of both the desire to have children and the act of having children. In doing so however, her narrative still maintains procreation as the ultimate goal of the monogamous couple. A couple that she narrates following the script of complementary roles.
We are really interchangeable… but for reasons that have to do with our personalities. I am much more ‘homely’ and Roberta is much more ‘outdoorsy’. She is always outdoor, on the bike, running… and eventually, we realised that the children ended up identifying a Mother Home and a Mother Play… I am more Mother Home and Roberta is more Mother Play… even though the girls stay home also with Roberta and play also with me the one they get really crazy with is Roberta… And with me… I don’t know, we bake cakes together, biscuits for Christmas, we decorate the Christmas tree… but for instance, we both help Mirella with her homework… since I work from home more often, I am more… maybe I do the daily shopping. Also, I love cooking, so it is natural for me to take care of lunches and dinners. However, on Sunday night is usually Roberta who cooks dinner… she cooks crêpes for everyone and… and that is the exception to the rule… we eat while watching a movie…. (Enrica, 44)
The ‘mother-home’ vs. ‘mother-play’ narrative resonates with a differentiation between a caring homely role and a more social outdoor role but in doing so disrupts its gendered assumptions. Enrica explains the division of roles within the parenting couple as the results of an organic encounter between hers and her partner’s ‘natural’ inclinations and the children’s desires. Gay and lesbian couples challenge de facto the assumptions that sexual complementarity mirrors sentimental complementarity and, above all, generative complementarity that guides traditional notions of couple and kinship (Cadoret 2008). Enrica’s narrative, however, is tied to the heteronormative repertoire of a difference (between the partners) that is essentials to meet the children’s need. As in Ryan-Flood’s analysis, also in the case of our interviewees, we can see a tension whereby lesbian mothers seek to both repudiate and affirm heteronormative discourses that generate from their location and contexts and “are both constituted through and resisting of particular narratives of kinship” (2005: 201).
The tension between constitution and resistance is clear also in Enrica’s discussion about both pregnancies, the role of the sperm donor and the subsequent negotiation of his parental roles. Enrica and his wife choose a friend as sperm donor, who was unwilling to play a parental role within the life of the newborns. While he pays yearly visits, he does not have any parent-like or relative-like relationship with their daughters.
We knew we did not want a project shared by four people. We always wanted to be the two mothers of our two children. [...] At one point we had this desire to… it became a really strong desire to not leave Mirella alone! We liked the idea of a brother or a sister for her [...] this time… I mean the second time I tried and I got pregnant really fast. (Enrica, 44)
He was the donor for both pregnancies as a way to create a biological connection between siblings. In this decision, it is possible to trace a tension between the desire to conform to a normative/biologically informed ideal of the family and the desire to disrupt the dominance of blood ties. Enrica’s narrative does not contemplate alternatives to the dual parenting couple but, at the same time, acknowledges that there is the possibility of a ‘natural’ desires of their children to know their biological roots. Hence the decision for a known donor. The biological/natural trope became central in Enrica’s narrative around the use of a single sperm donor for both pregnancies. Somehow the biological link, subverted in the case of the parenting relationship, is maintained to solidify the relationship between siblings. In Enrica’s narration of the decisions that led to the second pregnancy, it is possible, once again, to see the dominance of the trope of love free of constraints. Enrica refers to the ‘child interest’. In her narrative is central the desire not to leave their first child alone but there is no explicit reference to her position with regard to Roberta, the legally recognised parent of their first daughter. While this is acknowledged later, it is not expressed as the reason why a second pregnancy was planned. The dominance of a narrative organised around love does not leave space for acknowledging power dynamics in the dyadic couple- and in particular how the lack of legal recognition can impact the relationship. The family is narrated as a harmonious, conflict-free realm. By mobilising heteronormative narratives Enrica displays normativity as a desirable/comfortable place to be (Ahmed 2004: 147). Enrica’s narrative is shared by other participants that equally construct the parenting project as connected to love and the fulfilment of the couple.
Unlike Enrica, Benedetta put forward a different narrative; while still relying on tropes of love and monogamous coupledom, her narrative underlines several times the problematic features of this process. A social mother-to-be, Benedetta is also thinking about getting pregnant herself, after her partner, but her narrative does not revolve around the desire to give birth as a woman nor around the desire to complete/complement the couple-project.
Because I intend to... next summer maybe…or maybe next autumn.. to try but… but I really do not have this pregnancy thing… I’d do it only to create a familial bond on both sides. Between me and the child my partner is carrying and between her and a child I could potentially carry … so that… I mean, I do not know… I fantasise that this will prevent a possible break-up… what I mean is [it will prevent that one of us is] stronger than the other. But I mean… unfortunately when you are 40… because I had relationships before her, really committed relationships that I never thought would ever end… even now that they are over I realise how I imagined them to last forever. (Benedetta, 38)
Central to Benedetta’s narrative is the need to solidify the ties among her, her partner and their future child by complicating them, legally and emotionally. In Benedetta’s narrative, the complexities of the parenting project and the lack of legal recognition to parenting are revealed and made explicit. A space is created to complicate the trope of love until death do us part. In so doing the power dynamics between the parent who is legally recognised and the one who isn’t and their families of origin are also recognised. In the above, the impact of social and legal structures became apparent and difficult to escape, as it becomes evident how they might shape or have shaped the decisions of our respondents.
4.5.3 The Context-Dependent Challenge of Heteronormativity: The Role of Legal Constraints
The narratives analysed so far highlighted the tension between the comfort and discomfort with the heteronormative script and the ways families negotiate dominant meanings of family and coupledom. As discussed above, the Italian context is dominated not only by the trope of the ‘natural family’ in public discourses, but also by the absence of legal recognition. Besides the absence of recognition of the social parents, access to ART is denied to single women and lesbian couples, surrogacy is prohibited, and adoption is open to married heterosexual couples only. These legal constraints force LGB couples to travel abroad in order to conceive their children. Lack of a legal framework for same-sex parents, therefore, influences the range of material options available to gay and lesbian couples as Silvia points out:
I don’t want to run the risk that, at some point, someone shows up and says “Since we are genetically tied, he is my son” … The Italian law allows this. (...) This means that even a (donor) friend is risky. If we had a legal recognition of parenting rights, I would not have had any problem (...) but as it is not so, it is way too risky, especially for the parent that is not legally recognised. (Silvia, 41)
The choice of recurring to ART abroad with an unknown donor and to retain the parental roles within the lesbian couple rather than an act of conforming to the dyadic heteronormative model of parenting and coupledom is here framed a ‘bounded choice’ resulting from the lack of sexual citizenship rights. In reading these narratives it is crucial to reflect on the constraints of the context in which they are produced and reflect on the role the heteronormative script plays in granting LG couples’ cultural intelligibility (Butler 1990).
Cultural intelligibility is a disciplinary regime that strictly defines the symbolic resources available to individuals to perform their identity and a normative framework that defines the social field where identities can have a legitimate expression. Such a framework conditions who can be considered as a legitimate (and recognizable) subject. The necessity of being culturally intelligible becomes crucial when advancing claims for legal recognition of parenting rights to juvenile law courts. As discussed above, given the absence of a national law, Italian same-sex parents have appealed to law courts since 2015 to be granted parenting rights:
The lawyer explained to me that (the result of the claim) really depends upon which Court (will examine your case), however, even in the case of a court willing to examine your case (of a step-child adoption) you have to demonstrate that your cohabitation dates back five, six years, that the child recognise you as… that he or she spent (with you) Christmas, the summer holidays (…) so, if in five, six years there still won’t be a law, then we can try the step-child adoption, in the meantime we collect Christmas Cards, letters, home movies, as other couples told me (they are doing)… (Gaia, 41)
Christmas cards, home movies, and proof of a stable cohabitation materialise the couple’s cultural intelligibility and become markers of a familial project worthy of recognition. The strategies of the Rainbow Families movement resonate in Gaia’s narrative as the possibility to strategically adhere to normativity in order to pursue one’s aim. As Benedetta discusses, this strategy is a response to the precariousness of the process of recognition. At the time of the interview, only one couple had been successfully through the process of step-child adoption; while at the time of writing several couples have been successfully through it, the process of scrutiny by Juvenile courts remains the same. Successful outcomes are framed as linked to the ability to demonstrate, during the trial, the couple stability, cohabitation and parenting long-term project as key prerequisite to be recognised as a ‘good’ (and worthy of recognition) family:
Because the deal is this… there is no blueprint, they are making it up… the Rainbow Families association is helping us by saying that, statistically, it works to collect as many documents as possible [demonstrating] the existence of a shared familial project… from the pictures in the labour unit… in the clinic… both signatures [should appear] on every document. We both signed every document. When he will be born… for the nursery [the association suggests] that we ask to be both included in every documents. Because the only couple that managed… we are talking only about one sentence that might eventually be challenged… the couple followed this path… the consolidamento familiare (family stabilisation)... And they demonstrated the familial project, the family, the affective and economic ties… within the couple and between the non-biological mother and her daughter. (Benedetta, 38)
Requests for the legal recognition of same-sex couples, whether in the form of gay marriage or same-sex partnership, have been criticised as upholding values that replicate the discursive structures that reifies heterosexual family and kinship (Butler 2002: 21). The legal recognition of same-sex couples, as well as the debate on gay marriage, are framed as shifting the boundaries of acceptance to the stable monogamous couple, reaffirming the exclusion of queer sexualities (Butler 2002: 17; Bell and Binnie 2000). The forms of kinship that remain unnamed or do not respond to the possibility of legitimation, become in turn unintelligible (Butler 2000, 2002). The process of legitimation is in the State’s own terms and to agree to it requires to abide by its lexicon and norms. However, cultural intelligibility has very material consequences in contemporary Italy. Not to participate in it comes at a cost of not being legally recognised in a context characterised by a strong familial welfare. Within this framework, gathering ‘evidences’ of being a ‘proper family’ rather than being defined as an homonormative move that solidify dominant discourses on family and kinship, could be interpreted as a ‘contextual challenge to heteronormativity’ (Ryan-flood 2005) that strategically manipulates the cultural and social resources available in order to claim citizenship rights.