Italian same‐sex parenting in times of COVID‐19: Constructing parenthood on insecure grounds – Monaco – – Family Relations | #parenting


In Europe, Italy was the first country affected by the novel coronavirus, with a huge number of cases in a very short time, primarily in the country’s northern regions (e.g., Lombardia, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto; see, e.g., Corbisiero et al., 2020; Paoloni & Tutino, 2020). The alarming speed of virus transmission forced the Italian government to rapidly adopt a series of emergency measures. To contain the wave of infections, starting in March 2020, Italy has become the first Western country to impose a national lockdown, which was later implemented in many other European countries and the rest of the world (e.g., Goyal & Gupta, 2020; Lal, 2020).

Millions of Italians were ordered to stay at home due to the closure of schools and the suspension of work, with the except of work in certain occupations, need for health care, or other necessity during a compulsory quarantine of 69 days (Guigoni & Ferrari, 2020). In the history of the Italian Republic, such a stringent (lockdown) measure represented something completely novel. For many people, the complete lockdown was experienced as a significant social shock (Monaco, 2020) because the restrictions and the extraordinary precautionary measures put a severe strain not only on their health and lives, but also have completely disrupted the daily routine of people and families, exerting a strong negative impact on daily habits (e.g., De Masi, 2020; Zaccaria & Zizzari, 2020).

As a result, there have been profound changes in working, commuting, childrearing, and family (e.g., FAME-RN Group, 2020; Kerr et al., 2021). In this unprecedented, critical scenario, the Italian government has put into force a series of measures to help companies and workers weather the severe financial crisis. Undoubtedly, specific attention was also paid to Italian families. In particular, to deal with the COVID-19 emergency, starting with the “Cura Italia” decree (D.L. n. 18/2020), the government introduced a series of policies to finance Italian families, and these were subsequently strengthened and prolonged with the “Relaunch decree” and then the “August decree” (Carletti & Pagliuca, 2020).

Thus, the Italian government has provided important funds to strengthen social protection, guaranteeing both economic interventions to support working parents and measures to ensure practical support in managing daily life. In particular, the Cura Italia decree introduced a bonus to cover babysitting at the low price of 100 EUR every week during the quarantine. In addition, for working parents in the private sector, the Italian government has granted permission to take a special leave to stay at home with their children under age 12 years with an allowance equal to 50% of their salary.

These measures have certainly offered valid support for many families, but not for all. In fact, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic emergency in Italy has only served to reenforce the fact that in this country, not all families receive the same degree of protection and support from the Italian government. Such is the case, for example, among same-sex-parent families, whether two fathers or two mothers. The article aims to deepen awareness of and bring attention to the issue of the vulnerability of Italian same-sex-parent families, pointing out existing, long-standing social inequalities that have been exacerbated in the context of health emergencies. Specifically, data collected between March and September 2020 as part of the national project Constructions of Parenting on Insecure Grounds (CoPInG) are presented and discussed. Through interviews, Italian same-sex parents had the opportunity to describe the main difficulties same-sex-parent families experience in Italy and whether and how much they felt supported, protected, and helped by the Italian government during the most acute and severe phase of the pandemic.

Starting from analysis of the collected data, the research critically examines the issues related to the citizenship rights of members living in same-sex parent families, providing a more general overview of the shortcomings of the Italian legal system and hardships that same-sex parent families suffer. These results describe the current experiences of same-sex parent families in relation to equitable support. The goal is that the information collected will inform a potential redefinition of the concept of family at the political and institutional level and grant equal citizenship and welfare rights to homosexual people and their families.

HOW MANY FAMILIES?

In contemporary society, an increasing number of people are in relationships that differ from the mainstream model of the nuclear family made up of two spouses of different genders with children (e.g., Holtzman, 2011; Morgan, 2011; 2015; Naldini & Saraceno, 2013; Saraceno, 2017; Satta et al., 2020). One type outside this concept of the conjugal family is the same-sex parent family, which refers to a family in which at least one homosexual adult is recognized as a parent of one child or multiple children. Homosexual parents are sometimes men or women who have become biological fathers and mothers from a heterosexual relationship; in other cases they are homosexual couples who have a child through assisted fertilization abroad or engagement of surrogate mothers.

Finally, coparenting situations involving homosexual people can exist. These situations arise when two or more individuals raise children together even though they are not in a partnered relationship. More specifically, a homosexual person (or a same-sex couple) can make an agreement (not always formalized) with a heterosexual couple or with a single parent to share parental responsibilities (e.g., Herbrand, 2018; Muzio, 1993).

Evidently, these relationships create families that differ from the traditional notions of genders and families (e.g., Bernstein & Reimann, 2011; Giacobbi, 2019; Goldberg & Allen, 2013; Gross, 2015; Hicks, 2011; Scandurra et al., 2019; Van Eeden-Moorefield, 2018), exposing the underlying gaps related to state-supported family policies. The current legal status of same-sex parent families varies widely from one country to another (ILGA, 2021). Some countries, such as France, Spain, or Belgium, guarantee same-sex families full legal recognition; other countries, however, do not have legal systems that acknowledge same-sex families in terms of social inclusion or support in family-related policies.

It is universally acknowledged that Italy is among the Western countries that is still moving toward full recognition of same-sex families. Same-sex parents have been a reality for several years in Italy. A study carried out by some of the main LGBT Italian associations, in collaboration with ILGA Europe and Osservatorio LGBT (University of Naples Federico II), estimated that in 2017, there were about 100,000 children raised by at least one homosexual parent in Italy (Centro Risorse LGBTI, 2017).

Despite the number of same-sex families in Italy, there remains a lack of recognition and legal protection (e.g., Barbagli & Colombo, 2001; Bosisio & Ronfani, 2015; Cavina & Danna, 2009; Corbisiero & Monaco, 2021; Corbisiero & Ruspini 2015). Only in 2016 did same-sex couples in Italy obtain legal recognition of their union through “civil partnership” (e.g., Bertocchi & Guizzardi, 2017; Cirinnà, 2017; Corbisiero & Parisi, 2016). However, this represents only a partial success in the recognition of and protection for same-sex-parent families. In fact, the condition of parental rights for same-sex families continues to need attention.

In particular, to date, in same-sex partnerships, only one partner can be the legal parent, even if the couple has established a common-law family agreement (Monaco & Nothdurfter, 2020). Further, based on Italian law, the one legal parent must be the biological mother or father. Legal protection for same-sex parent families in Italy is made possible only through the courts. The nonbiological parent, however, can request an intrafamily adoption of the partner’s biological child. In other cases, the parents can petition the mayors of their cities for the transcription of the birth certificate, leveraging international jurisprudence and the globalization of rights brought by the European Union (Corbisiero & Monaco, 2017).

From this point of view, Italy is self-contradictory: Even if the national law does not fully protect families with homosexual parents, some territories implement initiatives to promote the social welfare of these families. From a sociological point of view, one could argue that some of the major Italian cities take an active part in legitimizing the requests of the homosexual community even if, in the absence of a coordinated and unified vision, they act with different policies and initiatives from other parts of the country. In other words, in the absence of an organic law, the decisions of the judges and the political choices of the local administrators can differ greatly. Consequently, the legal status of children changes with the place of origin and residence (Monaco, 2016; Trappolin & Tiano, 2019). Furthermore, in Italy there is no legal recognition for other subtypes of same-sex parent families, such as polyamorous or coparenting families.

CURRENT STUDY

Since October 2018, the national CoPInG project has been investigating contemporary parenting in vulnerable families in Italy, focusing on parents living in poverty and precarious economic conditions, those with forced-migration background, those facing violent conflicts, and LGBT parents. Between March and June 2020, the research group of Free University of Bolzano interviewed 40 homosexual parents, asking them to talk about the challenges they experience in their daily lives, but also the resources they can rely on. The investigated dimensions were as follows: the path to becoming parents, difficulties and challenges of being a homosexual parent in contemporary Italy, supportive networks, relations with institutions, and relationship with their children. Given the particular historical and social period of this study, a specific focus was dedicated to the families’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the research attempted also to explore if and how the pandemic has incurred additional complexity to their roles as homosexual parents and if, as parents, they received institutional support.

METHODS

To collect the information, the researchers conducted qualitative in-depth interviews to access the perspective of homosexual parents, capturing their interpretations of reality and the reasons behind these perspectives. As reported in the literature (e.g., Corbin & Morse, 2003; Gray, 2009; Jamshed, 2014), the in-depth interview is one of the main tools used in exploratory research. Although this tool makes it difficult to arrive at generalizable conclusions, it is valuable for obtaining information regarding individual attitudes, opinions, and behaviors. In this specific case, the use of an entirely qualitative approach appears appropriate because it provides a fuller understanding of the experiences of the families in question and the details of their difficulties.

The project used a “bottom-up” approach to data coding and analysis that was driven by what is in the data. In this way, the codes and themes emerged from the content of the data. For this reason, the approach can be defined as mostly experiential in nature using grounded theory, considering that knowledge of the investigated phenomenon could be accessed through the stories of the research participants (Braun & Clarke, 2006). At the same time, a thematic analysis completed with the collected material was conducted to identify recurring elements about a topic and for make sense to the commonalities (Braun & Clarke, 2012) in a “top-down” manner because a series of concepts from sociology and studies on parenting was used to make visible issues that participants had not explicitly covered. Thus, the collected elements have been useful not only for investigating the social reality, but also for proposing possible policies regarding improvements in family welfare.

Although qualitative research is not aimed at obtaining statistically representative results, regarding the selection of cases, the research group envisaged the involvement of homosexual parents of various family types (first generation, reconstructed, extended, single-parent, coparent) equally distributed in the four Italian macro-areas (Northeast, Northwest, Central, Southern), with the aim of giving voice and visibility to a plurality of identities. Parents were recruited in various ways: with the support of the major LGBT associations and homosexual parent groups in Italy, through personal contacts, and through snowball sampling. The working group used different contact channels, which can be summarized as email, social network, and telephone. For each channel and on the basis of the interlocutor, researchers prepared specific communication scripts. In other words, they prepared different posts for social networks, email, and telephone presentations, as well as for associations and individual parents. In addition, a website dedicated to the project was created.

Because in Italy, homosexual parents are often a “hidden population” (i.e., persons who feel vulnerable and do not want too much exposure), the combined use of different strategies was necessary (Meyer & Wilson, 2009; Monaco, 2022).

Before the interview, all the interviewees were informed about the objectives and methods of the research and data processing. The information has been collected in full compliance with the requirements of the current privacy legislation and is used only for research purposes.

Given the restrictive measures adopted in Italy to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the interviews were conducted remotely (in Italian) and recorded in real time. The recordings were converted into verbatim transcription. At a later stage, the transcriptions were translated into English, with the support of a bilingual expert, to ensure that in the passage from one language to another, the meaning of what had been said by the participants was faithfully reported, guarding against any possible ambiguity due to language barriers.

The analysis of the interviews was conducted by keeping the subdivision of the interviewees into the different family categories, with the aim of highlighting intragroup and intergroup similarities and differences.

The dimensions that emerged from the processing of textual data were reaction to the pandemic, resources and supportive networks, and obstacles and solutions.

RESULTS

The reaction to the pandemic represented one of the first themes that emerged in all the interviews. Understandably, almost all the homosexual parents in the interviews said they had experienced the pandemic and the consequent Italian lockdown as a tragedy. Like many other parents who have had the same experience in Italy and in the rest of the world (e.g., Brietzke et al., 2021; Mamzer, 2020), the mothers and fathers who took part in the research stated that with little notice or preparation, they had to seek a new balance and restructure their daily lives (e.g., Di Nicola & Ruspini, 2020; Lagomarsino et al., 2020). In particular, working from home while supporting their children’s distance learning was the critical concern for many interviewees. This experience was especially evident and stressful in larger families and in those whose shared spaces did not allow sufficient privacy.

In addition, homosexual parents who took part in the research declared that they had some problems associated with the difficulty of accessing the family funds allocated by the Italian government. It should be noted that such financial support was granted exclusively to parents recognized by law. Therefore, only biological parents and intrafamily adopters have had access to these government benefits. This circumstance represents the first element for reflection: In a complex and critical period such as the pandemic, not all parents in Italy have been treated equally. In other words, so-called social parents—namely, those bringing up the child daily even if they are not recognized by law—have been cut off from the targeted beneficiary group of welfare policies, despite their personal dedication to their child. Their caretaker role was in no way taken into consideration by the government. The evidence can be deduced from the narratives of some interviewees:

Our family has not benefited from any incentive programs. My wife is the only nationally recognized parent of the child. Even if I work, I could not claim any bonuses. (Interview 4)

I have not been entitled to take parental leave because I have not yet obtained the legal recognition of parenthood. (Interview 19)

Even if my partner and I are united in a civil partnership, every time I asked for parental leave, my request was refused. (Interview 23)

It should be noted that even in so-called traditional families, some of the government measures were alternatively available to only one of the two parents; however, in same-sex couples in which only one parent is recognized by the State, there was obviously no choice based on the type of work, shifts, or remuneration.

Furthermore, in the few cases in which both homosexual parents were recognized through special adoption, the online benefit application platform did not allow the option of same-sex parenting:

The institutional site of the bonus application crashed and failed when I entered two male names. On the browser a pop-up appeared reporting an ongoing error, and I was not allowed to proceed with the application. (Interview 34)

As a strategy to access the family founds, some respondents explained that they filled out the request declaring that they did not live in a rainbow family:

I had to ask for parental leave, clearly having to fight for it. I had to turn a blind eye to the fact that I am married to a woman, not a man; so, when I filled out the application form, I had to enter my wife’s name in the field where the name of the child’s presumable father was asked. (Interview 6)

To obtain the famous babysitter bonus, considering that I am the only parent from a legal point of view, I lied. I declared that there was abandonment by the mother or lack of recognition, one of these two lies, now I don’t remember which one exactly. (Interview 29)

Since the State does not recognize the second same-sex parent, I applied for leave, indicating that I am a single dad. (Interview 31)

Some homosexual parents who were unable to obtain the bonus to cover baby-sitting, stated that they needed to turn to other people to better cope with their family life. In this scenario, an important role of support was played by “rainbow grandparents,” who were of great assistance.

From the analysis of the interviews, it emerged that even those grandparents who, as parents, had been less receptive toward their children and their homosexuality had a protective attitude toward their grandchildren. As a result, they provided valuable support and help for their homosexual “children” in need:

The relationship with my parents has always been a bit tense due to my homosexuality. They have always made me feel like the “black sheep” of the family. With the outbreak of the pandemic, things have changed a lot. They understood the difficulties that I could face as a mother in this particular historical period, and they have been of great help to me. (Interview 6)

My parents volunteered to help us. They moved into our home so that we could work while they looked after our children. (Interview 24)

I noticed that the relationship with my parents during this period has changed … even if I haven’t forgotten what they made me experience, especially during my adolescence. (Interview 38)

From this critical perspective, one could argue that the pandemic has, in some cases, helped to strengthen (or even restore) intergenerational family relationships that had been undermined in the past due to homosexuality.

A difference in treatment also characterized Phase 2. More specifically, after the national lockdown, reopening governmental measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the situations faced by Italian homosexual parents. In fact, in May 2020, the Italian government planned a gradual reopening program, allowing Italian citizens a series of possibilities: practicing outdoor activities (at a safe distance in parks), buying take-away food, and leaving their home to visit their “kin” (originally congiunti in Italian). Other gatherings among people were prohibited, and all activities required interpersonal distancing. With this regulation, the Italian government limited a person’s opportunity for visiting to only relatives or persons linked by legal kinship within confined spaces and to a maximum number of four people (Monaco, 2021). The term congiunti, in its broader sense, includes people of kinship and blood relations—the ascendants, descendants, the spouse, the partner with whom a civil union was registered, brothers, sisters, relatives of the same seniority in the family, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews. As a result, many strong family relationships that do not fall into these categories remained, at least at first, excluded from the regulation.

In the research data, at least two situations of intense stress and discomfort among interviewees could be detected. The first concerned same-sex parent couples, lesbian mothers and gay fathers, without double parental recognition who were living separately or apart. In this case, the nonbiological parents, not recognized by the law, had to challenge decrees and ordinances to see their children, take them home, and play their role as parents. Not being recognized as parents, many fathers and mothers found themselves plunged into a limbo, hoping to meet reasonable and understanding police officers in case they were stopped for being outside the home during Phase 2:

I took risks every time I moved from home to pick up or bring my children around. We did not experience the hardships and fears of the health emergency like all the citizens of this country because we had met a series of unacceptable additional difficulties. (Interview 3)

Especially at the beginning, there was the problem “Can I go to see my son who is not my son for the State? If the police had stopped me for a check, what could I say?” … So, we had to face more problems. In fact, the association of homosexual parents that I frequent advised us to always inform the police of our movements … in short, we have had problems that other Italian families have not. (Interview 7)

I believe that a democratic country should have given indications on how to visit people [during the pandemic], but not which people can be met on the basis of legal relations or blood ties. The State, however, is expected to delegate effectively and empower its citizens to choose at their will the modalities of social relationship instead of imposing them from above. (Interview 16)

At the same time, it should be noted that the intrafamily adoption, according to Italian law, concerns only the nonbiological parent, not all family ties. In other words, Italian law provides that the people whom children consider uncles, aunts, and grandparents are not relatives by law. As a result, many grandchildren immediately had the opportunity to visit their relatives, while the children of homosexual parents still had to wait:

Stepchild adoption does not guarantee a legal link with our families of origin, so while my son has grandparents who are my parents, he does not have the same legal bond with the parents of his other mother. (Interview 14)

Similarly, the same thing happened in many families based on de facto cohabitation, so-called extended families, or in families in which informal coparenting agreements were in place:

During the lockdown, the child stayed with me. I have no biological connection with him, even though I take care of him in everyday life. I asked the biological mother and father to give me a letter of authorization. To leave the house with my child, I need the authorization of one of the two biological parents. (Interview 1)

The feeling experienced by many of the parents interviewed was that the initial version of the new decree caused inequalities among same-sex parents. Specifically, the decree allowed only some families to restore their emotional network but overlooked citizens who could not satisfy the most traditional definition of kinship. The easing of restrictions on social relations limited to relatives has unequivocally associated the idea of family with the rigid dimensions of kinship, blood, or legal recognition, without taking into account the plurality of experiences and affections.

Faced with this decision, the Italian LGBT associations immediately began to make their voices heard by protesting on social networks. Through online media, people presented their petition to the government to reconsider its position. On the night when the decree regarding the new “Phase 2” indications was released, the hashtags #phase2 and #congiunti jumped into the Twitter trend topics, with more than 5200 tweets.

Faced with this pressure, the government did not turn a blind eye; instead, within a few days, it extended the possibility of visiting people who have “stable bond of affection,” thus adding a social category to the existent legal one (Monaco, 2021).

The experiences shared by the interviewees confirm that Italian homosexual parents have had to experience further difficulties in addition to those generated by the health crisis. The difficulties described have significantly affected their moods. As reported by one of our interviewees, “These situations were very annoying, because I always felt that I was disobeying the rules when in reality, I was doing the most natural thing, that was, to try in every way to take care of my child” (Interview 8).

DISCUSSION

The social and health emergency caused by COVID-19 has highlighted the awkward reality of homosexual relationships in Italy. Thus, in a horizontal comparison, it can be argued that during the pandemic, the same-sex parents who took part in the study experienced a series of situations that were more complex than those faced by nuclear families consisting of married heterosexual couples with children; the complications faced by same-sex parents were in addition to the burdensome and multiple domestic and educational tasks they had to carry out, urgent economic concerns, and negotiation of balance between family and work. With the spread of coronavirus, the shortcomings generated by the legislative vacuum, which remained after the legalization of civil unions in 2016, have become accentuated and made even more visible. Specifically, the various legislative flaws related to inadequate acknowledgment of homosexual parenting have increased the difficulties and the stress that Italian homosexual mothers and fathers experience on a daily basis.

Thus, from their inability to access financial assistance for families to their initial limitation to visiting only kin during “Phase 2”, the research data underline how the policy response to the pandemic has entailed additional complexity for homosexual parents, who did not experience institutional support during such a difficult, unique historical and social period. For example, to access State benefits for families, some homosexual parent had to work harder, resorting to alternative solutions. Even if these arrangements were effective in some ways, they were intended only as temporary expedients and did not solve the problem of invisibility that Italian same-sex parent families still experience (Monaco & Nothdurfter, 2021a).

Furthermore, the research data show that, as in previous situations (e.g., Corbisiero & Monaco, 2020; Santos, 2013), the LGBT movement claimed and obtained (only partially and not without difficulty) some protections initially not granted to sexual minorities living in Italy. The advocacy carried out by national associations represents an important tool for the homosexual population to achieve their civil rights. These social organizations not only act as a symbol for the LGBT movement but sometimes have an important impact on political choices, as in the case of the policy change made by the Italian government proposing and recognizing “stable affections” as valid relationships allowed under Phase 2 guidelines. This does not offer a solution, however, because these organizations subsume the functions of protection and inclusion policies of minorities that the State should implement.

As a consequence, once the health emergency is fully overcome, Italy should learn from this lesson, recognizing full dignity and rendering equal treatment to all citizens. In the specific case of families with homosexual parents, Italy must redefine the concept of family at the political and institutional levels. It should be more plural and social, including all the alternatives formations that constitute a real support network for all people, in full respect of people’s equal dignity and self-determination. This is necessary not only to extend civil and welfare rights to homosexual people (Corbisiero & Monaco, 2013) but above all to protect children who grow up in same-sex parent families. In fact, the current situation of discrimination affects not only adults in these forms of family, but also their children, who are deprived of the most basic right to be legally considered as offspring of the adults who raise them and as kin of other family members (e.g., Allen & Burrell, 1996; Fitzgerald, 1999; Goldberg, 2010; Manning et al., 2014). At present, the legal invisibility affects these children both directly and indirectly because they are left unprotected and stuck in legal limbo. They must be treated like any child born into other families, fully enjoying the right to have a family like their peers because all children have the exact same needs and right to for care and protection.

The existence and presence of same-sex parent families in Italy is now well established, even if Italian politics continues to overlook these families. At present, immediate interventions are necessary. Analyzing the situation from this critical perspective, it can be argued that the new difficulties caused by the pandemic highlight the need for Italian lawmakers to implement new and effective policies in line with the current social change that is far-reaching.

In addition, the research data show that the members of same-sex parent families are still far from living as “full citizens” in Italy because they enjoy only part of the social and individual guaranteed rights that are granted to other Italian citizens. From a sociological point of view, it is possible to argue that individual citizens fully enjoy citizenship rights only when they are protected like all other citizens (Marshall, 1950). Evidently, for same-sex parents in Italy, this is not yet the case. During the pandemic, they, together with their children, have experienced to a greater extreme what it means to face unequal treatment. As a consequence, they are on the periphery of the “community”: Even if they fulfill all the responsibilities and duties of citizenship, they are deprived of the possibility of exercising their rights (e.g., Duyvendak et al., 2016; Lingiardi, 2016; Soysal, 1994). In this sense, Italy is being called on to reduce the inequalities among its citizens, recognizing homosexual parents the right of parenting together since the birth of their children, just is for heterosexual couples. Such a policy is already in practice in most Western European countries, demonstrating a truly progressive and inclusive attitude (Monaco & Nothdurfter, 2021b; Pichardo, 2009; Van den Broeck, 2015).

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