December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

All you need is love

By |2018-04-22T17:45:28+02:00February 13th, 2013|"That's Queer"|
A child needs love, attention and affection. Gender relations are not among its priorities.

y grandfather was the youngest, born late into a large agricultural family. At age four his parents, swamped by the load of managing the family farm, sent him down the road to live with an old uncle, or so the story goes. This uncle, also a farmer, had never married and had always lived alone.

As a child my grandfather shared a bed with his uncle, not uncommon: the heat of an old wood stove was no match for a Canadian winter. The joke was that my grandfather was allowed to crawl in under the warm covers only if he promised his uncle he wouldn’t wet the bed.

This old uncle raised my grandfather, though he never formally adopted him. As a result, my grandfather lacked legal status over the man who raised him. He had no inheritance rights and no chance to make medical and financial decisions on his uncle’s behalf — even though the two were effectively father and son.

My family certainly wasn’t unique. Plenty have similar stories of adaptation and adjustment, especially if they owned a farm or business.

Historically, in both Italy and Canada, a nuclear family constitutes a core locus within a more extended group. These groups can differ radically, often blending and overlapping. They can include biological kin who join the group mainly through marriage and adoption, or become what’s called “fictive kin” — those considered part of the group even though they have no actual biological, spousal or adoptive affiliation.

The Italian countryside is full of large cascine, adjoining buildings surrounding a courtyard in which one or more extended families live together. These farmsteads testify to the traditional Italian family structure.

But as industrialization spread, many such buildings were converted into separate private condominium units, reflecting shifts in family size, structure, and the movement away from agriculture and toward wage labor.

What is often touted as a “traditional” family — a biological father, mother and children — is in reality just one aspect of family, specifically associated with industrialization and the need for a smaller, independent and mobile labor and consumption unit. These small families could move to where the jobs were. Since there was less shared property, they had to buy more.

But the paradigm that suggests a biological father, mother and children as the exclusive and monolithic basis of what is understood as a family runs counter to any understanding of the family as constantly evolving social unit. It also contradicts both the historical record and current social realities.

Though same-sex families are now in the spotlight, the matter of recognition and rights has always had important implications for any family unit, particularly those that don’t fit the restricting biological father, mother and child definition.

When the Roman Catholic Church and its supporters insist they’re working to defend the “traditional” family, both their definition of “traditional” and what it is they claim to be defending immediately confuses me.

Perhaps they’re referring to the “holy” family, with Joseph as the father, Mary as the mother, and Jesus as the son. Though we recognize them as a family, very little is known about the formative years of Jesus’ life or the specific role Joseph assumed in his upbringing. We are told explicitly that Joseph was not his biological father, since Jesus’ birth was immaculate. As a family, they were connected to a larger tribal unit and they went to Bethlehem to be “counted” as such.

Recently in France, nearly a million people took to the streets to defend the “traditional” family against same-sex marriage rights and the right of same-sex couples to legally adopt children. Once again, the protest ran counter to social reality. For many children, gay parents are their family.

Before Canada recognized same-sex family rights, I heard many stories about children removed from theirs homes and considered orphans after the death of a birth parent. This happened even though the other (same-sex) parent was alive and well. Still, the same-sex parent risked losing custody or visitation rights, or getting visitation only under supervision. Both the child and the remaining parent could have what was left of their family destroyed.

Back to Italy: Outgoing Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who is running atop a Vatican-backed alliance of political parties in coming national elections, has publicly come out against same-sex family rights.

But once again I’m confused.

First, I don’t see how giving equal rights to same-sex parented families can be seen as an “attack” on opposite-sex parented families whose rights are already secured.

Second, if a new law recognized and fully incorporated same-sex families in the context of the legal structure, wouldn’t this in fact protect existing families? Wouldn’t it also help thousands of orphaned children in profound need of care and love?

So what is it, I ask myself, that these people are so adamantly defending?

My answer returns to my premise: They are defending the privileges of a narrowly defined vision of family while denying legal protection to other existing and potential families. True, same-sex parented families may be less common, but they’re hardly rare. To a child, whether his parents are gay, straight or single, his family, whatever its framework, is what’s vital.

So when those who rally to “defend the family” — a monolithic defense — they might do well to pause for a moment and reflect on their view of what a family is. That pause should lead them to champion the cause not just of one definition of family but all families.

About the Author:

Mark Campbell wrote the “That’s Queer” column for neearlu a decade, ending in 2020.