CAIRN.INFO : Matières à réflexion

1What is a family? [1] Who is kin and who is not? What is filiation? Such concepts are being redefined on a social, moral and legal level following the emergence of new forms of child production, family reproduction and kinship practices, thanks to the development of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) and social changes within family structures. These redefinitions are at the centre of scientific and political debates on the relationship between biological reproduction and juridical filiation (Weber, 2005). On the one hand, these transformations called for an anthropological rereading of these notions (Carsten, 2004; Collard and Zonabend, 2013; Franklin, 2013; Porqueres i Gené, 2009; Schneider, 1984). On the other hand, the public redefinitions do not always move in the same direction: legislation and public policies are not always adjusted to new family configurations, [2] which are confronted with ambiguous kinship statuses and moving boundaries between notions of “regular” and “irregular” families (Meyer, 1977). More particularly, intentional kinship (i.e. ties based on the intention of becoming a parent) is often not socially or legally recognised. In such circumstances, there is a gap between legal kinship (i.e. juridical regulation of reproduction and parenting) and practical kinship (Weber, 2005).

2This article explores how the institutional treatment of new family configurations is woven into patterns of everyday life, framing intimate family relations and the act of parenting. This question is studied through the case of homoparental family configurations in the Italian context. This example has been selected because of its restrictive legislation on reproductive and parenting rights for the LGBTI population. Without the juridical translation of kinship ties, Italian homoparental family configurations are characterised by inconsistency of filiation, leading to a dissociation between legal, biogenetic, intentional and “everyday kinship.” [3]

3Generally, research on kinship among same-sex families focuses on the impact of the parents’ sexual orientation on kinship relations, or on the dissociation between genitor and parent. [4] Scholars have tried to understand the extent to which homosexuality affects family relations, and whether same-sex parenting can be considered an anthropological break in the realm of kinship. [5]

4In the first part of the article, I will present the research methodology and outline the Italian legal framework. Through the ethnographic gaze, I will show the ambiguities and contradictions in the Italian State’s regulation of reproductive practices and its recognition of kinship ties. In the second part, I will examine parental and institutional efforts to make or unmake kinship ties which are neither “biogenetic” [6] nor legally recognised. In the last part, I will address how kinship relations are constructed, deconstructed and defined by different actors, including children. To conclude, I will offer some theoretical reflections on the “nature” of kinship and filiation.

The context of the research

Methodological approach

5This article is based on an ongoing postdoctoral research project entitled The social, moral and political boundaries of kinship. An anthropology of children of homosexual and lesbian couples in Italy and Belgium.[7] The research studies children of homosexual and lesbian couples from a political and moral perspective, through an ethnography of kinship, including children’s point of view (Le Vine and Price-Williams, 1974; Pontalti, 2018; Toren, 2007). This subject is being studied through (i) an ethnography of familial practices, with a particular focus on children’s perspectives, (ii) a cartography of public and political debate, and (iii) a socio-historical approach. The methodology consists of (i) participant observation of family and social life of same-sex families, as well of procedures to acquire legal kinship; (ii) in-depth biographical interviews and construction of kinship diagrams with several family members; (iii) informal conversations with children with the use of supports that they suggest (drawings, maps, etc.); (iv) interviews with activists and institutional actors, and press analysis. A combinatory ethnography (Dodier and Baszanger, 1997), which ascribes individual choices into their condition of possibility, is being realised through comparative local studies (Kröger, 2001) in Belgium and Italy. The two countries differ in their values and norms of childhood, as well as in their legislation on LGBT reproductive and family rights. More precisely, they are respectively at the top and the bottom of the comparative Rainbow Europe Country Map and Index, produced by the International Lesbian and Gay Association – Europe (ILGA). [8]

6Data used in this article are taken from an initial local study conducted between January and December 2016, in several cities in northern Italy. This was a moment of extra-ordinary politicisation of the question of same-sex couples and family configurations, which occurred during the parliamentary debate for the law on Civil Unions, voted in May 2016. An ethnography of public encounters, demonstrations and flash-mobs was realised in the city of Milan and online through social networks. Data on the institutional treatment of same-sex family configurations have been gathered through an analysis of court cases, and of local public policies collected through interviews with LGBT services of Milan, Turin and of the RE.A.DY network of municipalities (national network of public administration antidiscrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity). An ethnography of childhood and parenthood was realised in several cities of the North of Italy. Following Weber (2005), I have analysed both practical kinship (i.e. kinship as a social experience) and legal and social kinship (i.e. the juridical and social norms surrounding it). This means that I collected practices, norms and feelings of parenting by listening to words, observing practices and detecting feelings. I conducted in-depth ethnography with 12 family configurations with an average-to-high socioeconomic profile. I chose not to contact families through LGBT organisations, but instead to privilege informal networks, LGBT-friendly environments, and word of mouth. My first contacts were made with a letter explaining the research project on the letterhead of my university, through a phone call or more informal contact through social networks. The sample of this initial local study is thus made up of families living in big cities in northern Italy, with a good socio-economic situation and access to services, which may constitute a sample bias. Another bias is the prevalence of female couples; this is due partly to the statistically minor number of male couples compared to female ones, but also to the fact that gay parenting is a more recent phenomena, children are still very young and gay couples were strongly attacked during the political debate on civil unions because of the question of surrogacy. A second local study initiated in September 2017 is trying to address those two biases.

A restrictive and heterogeneous context for LGBT reproductive and family rights

7Historically, Italian legislation has been very slow to adjust to social and demographic transformations in family structures and reproductive strategies (Saraceno and Naldini, 2013). This contributed to making Italy one of the European countries where the transformation of the demographic and social landscape around family structures occurred later (Saraceno, 2012). Nevertheless, there has been very little legal recognition of the new forms of child production, family reproduction and kinship practices, which emerged thanks to the development of ARTs. [9] Notwithstanding a law opening up civil unions to same-sex couples, passed in May 2016, Italy remains one of the most restrictive countries in Europe when it comes to family rights for LGBTI people. Rainbow Europe Country Map and Index gave Italy a total score of 27% and ranked 32 out of 49. Adoption by same-sex couples, in vitro fertilisation with a donor, surrogacy and access to ARTs are not allowed for single people or for same-sex couples.

8In the past few years, Italian same-sex family configurations are becoming more widespread thanks to alternative strategy to access reproduction [10] and more and more visible in the public arena. In most cases, same-sex family configurations are to a certain extent in an “irregular” juridical situation, suspected of duplicity by institutional actors. For instance, gay couples coming back to Italy after GPA run the risk of seeing their child’s birth certificate refused because of suspicions of surrogacy. Ultimately, many kinship ties have no legal recognition. First of all, there is not bilateral transmission of filiation on both sides: non-statutory parents and their genealogical lines are not legally recognised. Secondly, the kin relation between siblings with the same sperm donor and two different mothers who are a couple, or the child of the partneradopted on the basis of adoption in special cases, and the genealogical line of the adopting parent are not recognised. In some cases—, even biological fathers returning to Italy after GPA have trouble getting their children’s birth certificates recognised.

9Although it seems that no legal recognition is given to same-sex family configurations, the judicial system shows a number of contradictions when it came to the definition of family: not only with European legislation, but also with other countries’ legislations, and with other national laws such as immigration law. Because of the heterogeneous situation within the country, there has been some room for manoeuvre at regional and local levels. [11] For instance, some tribunals approves requests for co-parent adoption on the base of the legislation on adoption in special cases, whereas these have been systematically rejected elsewhere. [12] If we were to draw a kinship chart illustrating kinship ties as they are described and experienced by homoparental family configurations and others based on juridical recognition by Italian State, we would have several completely different images of the same family. Even when a person is not recognised as a parent according to Italian legislation, it might be de facto treated as a kin in certain places and situations. Therefore, a non-statutory parent can pass from being a parent or quasi-parent in the eyes of state functionaries to be “nobody” in relation to the child. We can qualify Italy as a restrictive yet heterogeneous context. Indeed, there are a complex set of definitions of family, as well as various norms and values surrounding it. Recently, the Council of the State was called up to define what should be considered a family, from a juridical point of view. After a rereading of the notion of family and family life in the Italian judicial system, on the basis of the national and international juridical context, a sentence of the Council of the State opened the way for a broader definition of family, including civil unions between heterosexual or homosexual couples.

Tactics to build filiation

To kin the un-kinnable child

10In absence of legal and biogenetic kinship, co-parents are non-statutory. As Giulia, mother of two children and co-mother of a little girl, recalls:


When you have a son with two mothers—one who gave birth and the other who didn’t—the broader society only sees a mother and a crazy friend who is there for no apparent reason.

12In order to be recognised by their family, broader society and the State, non-statutory parents undergo processes of symbolic, social and juridical kinning (Howell, 2006). Their goal is to acquire “objective” characteristics (such as any kind of papers or means of presentation as the child’s relation), as well as “subjective” ones (such as the capacity to control the image of being a parent) (Coutant, 2001, p. 33). To these ends, non-statutory parents adopt certain “tactics” (De Certeau, 1990, p. 57-62) to kin their children. Based on Bourdieu’s approach (1994), Simonetta Grilli (2014, p. 25) qualified these techniques as a work of institutionalisation comprised of formal acts, everyday practices and representations which, together, form a recognised and objective social category. Such practices (and, as an extension, parents’ agency) are based on the use of the symbolic register of the heteronormative system of Euro-American kinship. It is true that intentional kinship by co-parents is disconnected from the two symbolical orders of Euro-American kinship—namely, the order of nature and that of law (Schneider, 1968; Salazar, 2005). To compensate, co-parents make creative use of elements of the Euro-American kinship system, namely the principle that transmission (of a name and of heritage) governs filiation. This means finding alternative ways to ensure transmission. The first tactic, which is symbolic but has a strong social significance, is naming a child. This is one of the tactics adopted by Silvia Rossi [13] (mother) and Celeste Ferrari (co-mother). They gave Celeste as a second name to both their children, Mattia and Matilde; each child thus has his own name, his co-mother’s name, and his mother’s surname. In this way, the family list is homogenous: Silvia Rossi and Celeste Ferrari are mothers of Mattia Celeste Rossi and Matilde Celeste Rossi. Celeste’s tactics enable her to obtain the subjective characteristics to be considered a mother, given that people found her children physically similar to her. Other families give the co-parent’s surname as a second name. Such tactics are widespread among same-sex couples in other countries. As Jérôme Courduriès (2017) explained, same-sex couples display creativity in using the choice of their children’s names in order to achieve recognition as non-statutory parents. When it comes to the transmission of goods, many co-parents use their wills to transmit inheritance to their children.

13Another alternative is to resort to another form of kinship, which has long been a central form of kinning in the cultural history of Western Europe, alongside “biological” and legal kinship: “baptismal kinship” (Fine, 1994). A symbolic tactic, which is quite widespread among Catholic same-sex families, is to give the non-statutory parent a place in the realm of kinship as godmother or godfather. One example is provided by Valeria (mother) and Assunta (co-mother), a Catholic couple living in a reasonably large, bourgeois and conservative town in the North of Italy. The baptism of their daughter offered an alternative way to introduce Assunta to the in-laws. This avoided making her co-mothering role explicit, although it was clearly apparent that she had quite a different role towards her goddaughter. Moreover, this tactic was successful given that, ever since the baptism, she has attended her in-law’s family gatherings. Finally, the use of “appellatives” such as co-parent or mother/father for non-statutory parents and terms as donors and surrogate, are a means of stating who is kin and who is not (Gross, 2007).

14Another set of tactics to kin children are intended to overcome the absence of legal kinship that Grilli calls “a work of legal technique” (2014, p. 37). Associations and NGOs such as Famiglie Arcobaleno and Rete Landford play an important role in sharing tactics and alerting parents to problems that could arise. The first and easiest step is to ask for “family status”, a document for cohabiting people with the same residence. Couples with higher cultural, social and economic capital find more solid and sophisticated ways to acquire the objective characteristics of a family. Others couples use social, economic or other resources to find further strategies. Erica and Anna—who gave birth to one child each—each managed to become the lifetime guardian of their partner’s child thanks to an idea from their lawyer. [14] They also managed to inscribe the co-mother’s name in the children’s identity card and passport, so that the co-mother could take the children abroad. Véronique, a Belgian national and co-mother to Milù, used her citisenship to adopt her partner’s child in Belgium. However, the adoption is not recognised in Italy, meaning that Véronique is Milù’s mother in Belgium, and a complete stranger to him in Italy. While Véronique feels protected by “that piece of paper” in case of possible problems, Erica and Anna used the official status of “lifetime guardian” to assert the co-mother’s right to vote in their children’s school elections. Finally, learning from the experiences of the few families who have managed to obtain adoption on special cases, many couples gather in a box all possible forms of proof (pictures, letters, certificates, etc.), with the intention of using these to request adoption once the children are older. Of course, the procedure for adoption requires further economic capital, as well as the capacity to demonstrate objective and subjective characteristics to be considered parents by the court.

15Parents who are stigmatised because of their sexual orientation develop symbolic, social, legal and political tactics to manage their everyday interactions with society, and to deal with the lack of alignment between juridical, biogenetical and every-day kinship. The acquisition of objective and subjective characteristics allowing them to be recognised as parents is a necessary precondition to exercising kinship and parental functions. Administrative tactics are available due to the contradictions of fragmentary Italian legislation that leaves some room for manoeuvre. Finally, social tactics are based on managing stigma. They can be intimate strategies concerning one single family, or public and political ones, indicating a transition to a political subjectivity though hyper-visibility and an affirmation of identity. Through such tactics, parents try to redeem their image in the eyes of society, but they are also thinking about their children. Their agency is based on the use of the symbolic registers of a heteronormative society, based on a legal kinship model which consists largely of the naturalisation of biogenetic ties and does not admit pluri-parenting. To distance themselves from stigma, couples appropriate the repertoire of Euro-American kinship (wedding, baptism, wills, the transmission of filiation through name and goods, and the godmother/godchildren relationship).

The politics of visibility and invisibilities

16In her ethnographical study of Italian same-sex families, Simonetta Grilli (2014) shows how visibility is a habit for interacting in settings outside the family. However, although visibility tactics are used by the Famiglie Arcobaleno association and by the most engaged parents, families may also switch between visibility and invisibility. Or rather, it may be more accurate to speak of a strategic use of visibility and invisibility techniques. Invisibility may be temporary (i.e. restricted to a certain period), it may have a specific intention, and it may be limited to unfriendly environments. Forms can vary from “passing” as heterosexual to hiding the co-parent. Certain couples use this tactic in order to get their reproductive rights recognised. This was the case for Franca and Viola, who used ART services available for heterosexual couples by finding a donor and presenting him and Viola as an infertile couple living together.

17Another form of strategic invisibility limited to certain spaces can be used by couples dealing with conservative families or environments such as Valeria and Assunta. Valeria comes from the wealthier family in a smaller provincial village. Assunta is from a conservative Catholic family and used to work in a Catholic enterprise, and for a long time she struggled to accept her homosexuality. The couple juggle between visibility and invisibility: their motto is reserve, discretion and gradual disclosure. Even their respective families have been informed gradually and not always explicitly, as shown by the example of how Assunta was introduced to Valeria’s family as her child’s godmother. In fact, the couple intentionally choose the degree of disclosure according to the people and environment. Generally, they opt for a higher degree of disclosure in the town where they live than in the village where Valeria grew up. However, they chose to celebrate their civil union in a small village (where neither of them has any friends or relatives) in order not to make themselves too visible, given that it was among the first civil unions after the law was passed.

18In contrast with Assunta and Valeria, many families opt for a complete disclosure, by introducing their family on a daily basis and presenting the co-parent as a full parent:


We are aware that at school there was a need to tell people about ourselves, to explain us in the right way. It was a long pathway […]. At first, you needed to say that you exist and explain […]. After 10 years, I realised that people who know you, they saw you, meaning that they couldn’t avoid seeing the family that we are, and both parents.

20The use of language is among the techniques used to affirm visibility. For instance, when people do not treat the co-parent as a parent, the parents counterbalance this absence, as several recounted:


People continue to ask me “How is Alice’s daughter doing?” “Look, actually, she is my daughter”.
When they talk over the phone, many of my relatives ask me: “How is Giulia?” and I answer “The kids are all right”. I get furious in these occasions because they hurt me by asking such questions. It is not an issue of principle, the issue is... “Fuck, I have had two kids since the beginning!”

22Another technique is to include the co-mother in all parental public functions, such as school WhatsApp groups, school elections, etc.

23Some of these strategies can be qualified as identity affirmation, which consists of presenting non-conformity as positive or desirable, or even presenting same-sex families as a potentially better environment for children to grow up in (Gross, 2011, p. 25-30). This tactic is not specific to same-sex family configurations. On the contrary, it is used by very different kinds of stigmatised families, such as those suffering from racism and racialisation (Collins, 1994; Sarcinelli, 2015). The goal is to manage the stigma. In the case of gay and lesbian parents, their sexual orientation is not viewed as a “non-desirable difference” (Goffman, 1975 [1963]). On the contrary, they present same-sex families as the best way countering heteronormativity. As Erica told me: “We are the arrival point. There is nothing more than us because if we [homosexuals] can have kids, it means that we are really super-equal.” In public demonstrations, activists from the association Famiglie Arcobaleno often express this sort of affirmation. Visibility through the affirmation of identity can thus be considered both a technique to move away from stigmatisation, and a way to help children develop a positive identity in a society that deprecates same-sex families. In fact, some children of the most activist couples are very proud to be part of a same-sex family configuration. This is true of Piero who, at the beginning of primary school, asked his parents: “Will I always be a rainbow family even if, once I grow up, I will have a girlfriend?” or his sister Martina, a teenager, who feels good only at gay prides and among gay people.

24Most activist families choose to progress from complete visibility to public disclosure, by appearing in television or newspaper reports. As Anna recalls:


We went on TV with the kids, and in the newspaper… At first, I didn’t think that I would do it. For several years I didn’t. For the first 10 years, I said “no” to everybody. The kids didn’t appear in newspapers ’cause I considered it too intrusive. At some point, I understood why others members of the association [Italian same-sex families’ association [15]] did it and were accused (I myself used to consider them irresponsible). I understood the importance of showing your life… On an everyday basis it did happen, but you can’t change a country one by one. So, we have this policy as an association. Actually, it is more than a policy: everybody with kids in this situation would have done it… Of course, every member changed its neighbours. But, by showing our family to the media, we went further.

26An additional tactic of institutionalisation is that of Maria-Silvia Fiengo and Francesca Pardi, [16] who decided to open a publishing house to publish books on, among other topics, same-sex families. As Maria-Silvia explained to me:


Considering the absence of legislation, we found it important, from an institutional point of view, that others (other children, but also other parents) could find our reality in society, in the public discourse. So, we thought it was very important that they could find a book talking about us in any bookstore […]. Our general aim is to create an institutional context where our children and their friends could recognise us, given the absence of any discourse. We met Altan [a famous cartoonist [17]] and wrote “Piccolo Uovo.” It was important for us to do it with Altan in this aim of institutionalisation. It was important because Altan would be recognisable for children because of Pimpa. In this way, you don’t have legislation, but you have the Pimpa animals saying that you exist […]. We made it for the kids, so that they could feel and see themselves in the world. You need to see yourself reflected in the public discourse.

Temporary and permanent de-kinning

28The multiple kinning strategies described above seem to be generally successful. Generally, same-sex family’s everyday life proceeds quite smoothly: co-parents manage to accomplish parental tasks such as bringing the children home from school, taking them to the doctor or dealing with emergencies, without any mayor problem. Once co-parents have the subjective characteristics to be identified as parents, they simply pass as parents without any suspicion. At the same time, even parents having achieved significant success in obtaining objective characteristics, feels anxiety as Erica tells me:


After all, when I say that I am Andrea’s mother, I know that I am lying to a certain extent. This feeling remains no matter what […]. They can take your kid at any moment […]. Those are the kind of fears you have, and they depend on the legislation […]. It could happen.

30If such reactions arise from the embodiment of a collective experience of discrimination and disqualification of gay men and lesbians as parents, they are also the result of real situations of symbolic, social or juridical de-kinning [18] experienced by other parents.

31In most cases, non-statutory parents can experience temporary de-kinning in specific situations, as Erica explains further:


You depend on the institution. When you go to the hospital […], you are dependent on who you find in front of you. When the person is open-minded, there are no hassles. If you find a person ostracising you, they can do it. That’s why you become very combative.

33For instance, juridical de-kinning has been experienced by fathers returning to Italy after surrogacy. This happened to Daniele and Francesco, whose transcription of their twins’ birth certificates was denied when they came back from the United States. The couple runs the risk of being accused of the crime of violating law no. 40, [19] since each twin was declared the son of a one of the two fathers, although they were born on the same day from the same surrogated. The same goes for couples who adopted abroad. This is true of Laura, who adopted two children in South Africa with her wife. The Italian Consulate in South Africa did not register the adoption certificate, and when they moved to Europe a few years later, her children needed a residency permit, although they have an Italian mother according to the South African State.

34In many other cases, de-kinning is effected by the statutory parent when the couple splits up. In fact, the kinning of the co-parents depends on the consent of the statutory parent, who actually has the power to de-kin them at any time. Since they are not considered a couple by the State, separation agreements may be more or less formal. Once again, couples with higher cultural and economic capital manage more formal agreements, so that the co-parent is more protected. Once again, associations like Famiglie Arcobaleno (Italian same-sex families’ association) or Rete Landford play an important role in giving advices on how to kin un-kinnable children and how to protect against de-kinning in case of separation. A small number of couples produce formal written agreements in front of lawyers before having children; others contact a mediator at the moment they agree to separate. In the absence of formal agreements, co-parents can be seriously de-kinned by the statutory parent.

At the core of family ties: the “nature” of filiation

35In the first part of the article, I showed how the Italian socio-legal framework and the institutional treatment of same-sex family configurations create processes of kinning and de-kinning. One might think that each same-sex family configuration has a univocal conception of kinship ties: that is to say, that their understanding of kinship is based on the intention of being a parent. Yet this is only a partial picture. First, by concentrating on kinning and de-kinning processes, the focus is on the parents’ point of view, whereas each family member is likely to have his or her own way of experiencing kinship ties. Second, there are internal contradictions within each individual’s practices and discourses. Third, kinship ties have a temporal dimension and are susceptible to transformation over time. To address these biases, this last part will: i) focus on the point of view of different family members such as grandparents, parents and children; ii) see how individual perspectives might present internal contradictions; iii) consider the case of couples who split up, to see whether kinship survives regardless of biogenetic, juridical and everyday kinship; that is, when there is no longer unity of residence or other recognised ties.

“I was nothing” The politics of intra-familial de-kinning

36Consuelo and Alessandra are respectively the mother and the co-mother of Francesca and Isabella. The girls were born in the late 1990s, following self-insemination using sperm donated by Giacomo, boyfriend of Marcello, a gay couple who were very close to the mothers. No form of formal kinning was undertaken. At first, people recognised Consuelo and Alessandra as the mothers, and the mothers gave the gay couple the nickname of “papini” [20]. The two couples continued to spend time together as they used to before the children arrived. However, Consuelo recalls how hurt she felt when her mother-in-law—who had made 4 golden hearts for the birth of their first son—gave the two bigger bijoux to Alessandra and Giacomo (the genitors) and the smaller ones to her and the new-born. The children were still at kindergarten when Alessandra and Consuelo broke up. The papini were called to preside over the informal agreements for the separation, during a meeting where they decided how much money Consuelo would give to Alessandra per month and how the shared custody would be organised (with Consuelo taking the girls for three days a week, two weekends a month, and 50% of the school holidays each year). However, two years later, the de-kinning process started—or, to put it in Consuelo’s words, Alessandra “took her out of the kids’ hearts.” In order to de-kin Consuelo, Alessandra used legal, symbolical and social means. At first, Alessandra changed the children’s elementary school and did not sign the document authorising Consuelo to collect them from school. Meanwhile, she also de-kinned Consuelo through terms of reference and address, by asking Consuelo to correct the children when they called her mum. Then, Alessandra moved to a new town, where she presented herself as a single mother, whose former partner took no responsibility for the children and was currently living in Milan and working in a bank (these elements were partially true, since Giacomo actually did not assume paternity of the children, and he lives in Milan and works in a bank.) Finally, Alessandra prohibited Consuelo from seeing the children. Her mother-in-law supported Alessandra, telling Consuelo: “Those are Alessandra’s daughters.” Consuelo felt lost: “You know, after ten years together, with every Sunday spent as a family with both grandparents… You know, those very normal situations… And then…”

37So, Consuelo went to court, but she was not successful: “Of course it was rejected because I was nothing: I, Consuelo Carta, was requesting parental authority over Francesca and Isabella Manzoni.” However, the Tribunal decided to open an inquiry to verify the two children’s family situation and rule on their well-being. In front of the neuropsychiatrist, Francesca started crying and said that it was Consuelo who didn’t want to see her and Isabella anymore. When Giacomo was called by the court, the Tribunal’s neuropsychiatrist told him that this was the right place to ask for his rights if he wanted to. Consuelo felt humiliated: “You know, I was clutching at straws to obtain a crumb, and they were offering him the loaf on a golden plate.” As Consuelo put it: “Nature and law are not on my side: that’s why we need legislation.” In the end, the Tribunal recognised a parental relationship between Consuelo and the children, but they didn’t think it necessary for the children to re-establish a relationship with her. Later on, when Francesca asked for her father, Giacomo re-established a relationship with her. To put it in Consuelo’s words, nature and law were re-established.

38If we analyse each family member’s conception of the kinship ties, we can see that the grand-mother’s logic (based on biological kinship) and Consuelo’s logic (based on intention) are stable through time, whereas Francesca and Giacomo’s perspectives change. In the logic of Alessandra’s mother, biological kinship takes primacy over legal and intentional kinship. This is clear at the birth of her first granddaughter, where she uses the golden hearts to attribute a more important role to Giacomo than to her daughter-in-law, although Giacomo is neither the legal nor the intentional father of Francesca. Does this choice also rest on a heteronormative conception based on the indivisibility of filiation (Cadoret, 2007)? To put it differently, would she have behaved in the same way if Consuelo was an infertile man and Alessandra undertook self-insemination with Giacomo as a donor? After separation, she still considers her granddaughters to be Alessandra’s children, and not Consuelo’s. As for Consuelo, her logic is also stable and is based on intentional kinship. However, whereas during the relationship and in the first phase of separation, Alessandra and Giacomo supported her view, Alessandra’s conception of kinship as intention does not survive the separation, whereas Giacomo’s intention to be only a donor does not survive Francesca’s demand for a father. Although Giacomo never assumed legal kinship, he ends up assuming biogenetic kinship. Francesca’s position also changes: at the Tribunal, she considered Consuelo a mother who abandoned her (thus basing on practical kinship), but later she ended up asking to meet her father, thus adapting to a heteronormative and biogenetic conception of filiation. As for the legislative position, the Tribunal recognises a kinship tie between Consuelo and the daughters, but do not think it necessary to continue this relationship. Is that a heteronormative position, or is it simply based on a naturalisation of biogenetic kinship?

Inconsistency, contradictions and paradoxical injunctions

39I met Chiara and Valentina a couple of years after they had broken up, when Chiara was living with her girlfriend Monica, and Valentina was living alone. They had two children: Giorgio, whose statutory mother is Chiara and who was 8 when I met them; and Lucia, whose statutory mother is Valentina and who was then 10. The two children have the same donor.

40The mothers’ affirmations and practices are based on a combination of two opposite and apparently contradictory logics: the logic of equality and the logic of competition. On the one hand, the organisation of everyday life is based on the logic of equality. The couple claim to be parents to the same extent since their shared parental project (i.e. intentional kinship) take priority over biogenetical and juridical ties and regardless of everyday kinship (meaning the unit of residence). In fact, in a separation agreement made in front of a mediator, the couple agreed to share custody. They continue to buy joint presents for the children and to spend Christmas together; and even the cat they recently bought for Lucia’s birthday is meant to circulate between the two apartments, with the children. They also affirm that they have the same affection for both children.

41On the other hand, they admit to have a stronger bond with their biological children. Chiara appeals to biology to explain the special kinship tie she has with Giorgio and not with Lucia:


The biological aspect is very strong. Or, rather than biological, it is a bodily experience, meaning that the body knows that you gave birth and that you have to take care of this child.

43As Sarah Franklin (2001) would put it, genetic information is embodied and appropriated by Chiara. However, this appropriation coexists with a deep urge to compete to be the “main mother:”


There has always been a difference between what we say and how things actually are. In fact, we have always said that we are mothers to the same extent. The reality is that I consider myself as the main mother. That’s the truth. […] I know this might appear mean, but that is the truth. Nevertheless, we share all choices. […] There is a bit of competition between the two mothers. The cool thing about same-sex families is that they are super-families. The reason is that between a mother and a father there is a clear difference, whereas between mother and mother […] there is a deep sense of “I am more mother than you” […]. The co-mother wants to demonstrate to the mother that she is as much the child’s mother as the biological mother, and the biological mother wants to demonstrate to the co-mother that she is “more mother.” Therefore, there is a race for victory between the mothers and, as a consequence, you give everything you can imagine to your kids.

45According to Marcela Iacub (2004), the naturalisation of maternal filiation and the sacralisation of maternal womb do not allow mothers to fully assume a motherhood based on intention. This is not limited at a juridical level, but it shapes the intimate life of families.

46The micro-interactions between mothers reveal how the logic of competition operates. If Chiara and Valentina base their conception of family organisation on intended kinship, in the implicit competition between the former couple, biogenetic and everyday kinship re-entered the picture. Valentina uses the “biogenetic” tie, while Chiara leverages her economic capital and her time. Chiara has higher economic capital than Valentina and more free time from work. She therefore manages to be the main caregiver while contributing more to their expenditure, and her house continues to be the children’s main residence. The children sleep at Valentina’s place for half of the week and some weekends; meanwhile, on school days, Chiara picks up the children at school and spends the afternoon with them. Meanwhile, Valentina aims to be considered as the “main mother” by her biogenetic daughter Lucia, whom she privileges and with whom she has a stronger relationship.

47Chiara and Valentina want their children and their own mothers to base their kinship relations on the logic of equality. They would like Giorgio and Lucia to have the same feeling of filiation towards both of them, and their own mothers should love their grandchildren to the same extent, regardless of the genealogical line. However, this doesn’t mean that the rest of the family has adapted to this model. During Valentina’s pregnancy, Chiara told her mother Mara that she had to love her granddaughter exactly as she did her grandson. Mara answered that this was not possible, because ties need time to develop and did not simply appear at birth, thus basing her feelings on practical kinship and relatedness (Carsten, 2000). On the contrary, in terms of her obligations as kin and at the moment of the separation agreement, she uses the same logic of biogenetic and legal ties. In fact, she believed that it was up to Valentina’s mother to help them out after birth. Following the same logic, when the couple split up, both grandmothers expected each child to live with his or her “own mother,” meaning the statutory mother.

48The children also show several logics in their relationship with their mothers. To a certain extent, they show a stronger bond with their biological mother. For example, for several years after birth, Lucia preferred to stay with Valentina, and Chiara felt hurt about it. At the same time, children also adapt to the logic of equality. This logic is used for terms of address and of references: they both refer and address to both mothers as “mothers,” without specifying which mother they are referring to. They also know that they have to ask both mothers for permission to do things. The combination of the two logics appears also in the kinship diagram that we prepared together. Giorgio first indicated himself, and then his two mothers. He explained that Chiara was his biological mother, and then added that it wasn’t necessary to mark this on the diagram. Next, he asked me to add his sister Lucia to the diagram and to mark Valentina as Lucia’s biological mother, pointing out the stronger relation that Lucia has with her mum. In further conversations, the children explained to me that they each considered their statutory mother to be “more mother than the other,” Giorgio used the terms “more mother” and “natural mum,” and then corrected himself by saying that the proper terminology is “biological mother.” He defined this as “the one who carried you in her belly… over there her voice arrives differently.” As for Lucia, she illustrated the term “real mother” as follows:


Lucia: I don’t know how to explain to you why one is more mother than the other… The proper term is biological mother: Valentina is Lucia’s biological mother, whereas Chiara is Irene’s one, that is to say that the mother created that child.
Sophie: What do you mean?
Lucia: I mean that she made you.
Sophie: What does making someone mean?
Lucia: It means that… Well… How would you say when someone carries someone in her belly? The one who carried you in her belly… Let me see, for example there are two brothers with two fathers, Simone and Andrea, and one says that his real father is Simone because he was made by him, meaning that he carried him in his belly, and the other says that his real father is Andrea.
Sophie: But fathers do not carry babies in their bellies, do they?
Lucia: I don’t know how to explain it to you, I get confused! Let me try again: there are two brothers with two mothers called Simona and Andrea (you know, there are also women called Andrea!). One child says that her mother is Andrea and the other’s is Simona, because Simona took the seed to make her and Andrea did the same for the other kid.
Sophie: What is this seed?
Lucia: I don’t know!
Sophie: Is it related to the donor?
Lucia: I think so.
Sophie: So, there is one who is “more mother” and the other one “simply mother”?
Lucia: Exactly! One is my mother whereas the other one is called something like “mother Simona,” you add the name because she is not your real mother. It is like when you are an adopted child: for you, your mum is not your real mother, but you still call her mum because she is not your cousin, right?

50In a recent conversation with Chiara, Giorgio and Lucia (now 10 and 12 years old) introduced new questionings. Lucia talked of “kinship of law,” but Chiara answered her: “What counts is not law, but what you feel and ties that you create,” thus recalling a family pedagogy based on intention. The siblings also tried to established who is “more father” among the two mothers, thus indicating the gendered dimension of parenting and referring to the heteronormative model of filiation.

51Finally, everybody follows the principle of exclusivity, [21] thus not fully recognising pluri-parenting. In fact, there are two people who are excluded from the realm of kinship: namely, the donor, and Chiara’s new partner Monica, who has been living with Chiara and the children for the past five years and is now caring for the children on a daily basis, undertaking some of the parental tasks. Notwithstanding her “everyday” parenting, nobody considers her to be kin. When Chiara created a huge diagram in front of me, including multiple generations from both her own and Valentina’s sides, she added Monica in as the last person in her diagram, after she thought that the diagram was finished. Giorgio didn’t mention her in his diagram. When he had finished, I asked him whether the donor (who rarely comes up in conversation) and Monica should figure in the diagram. Giorgio answered that the donor shouldn’t appear, and that Monica could appear as the mother’s girlfriend, meaning that he doesn’t consider Monica his own kin. Moreover, Monica is never referred to using the terminology of kinship but is instead called by her name.


52Kinship relations among Italian same-sex families depend less on the sexual orientation of the parents per se than on the historical and social condition of their social and legal recognition. They result from their social and historical condition of possibility. We could talk of a “moral economy of kinship” that shows how “a set of values, of feelings and of emotions become dominant in a given historical, political and social context, and how this moral economy is dealt with, re-appropriated, taken over, competed with by different social groups and by the individuals who are part of it” (Fassin and Eideliman, 2012, p. 17).

53In fact, the process of filiation undertaken by non-statutory parents in same-sex couples is particularly complex and is always at risk of deteriorating. As Consuelo puts it, both “nature” (the social representation of genetic and biological ties) and “law” (Italian legislation) contribute to the fragility of these kinship ties. If the ambiguities and contradictions of the fragmentary Italian legislation leave some room for manoeuvre, and thus enable same-sex families to kin the non-statutory parent, they also facilitate de-kinning processes. By valorising the “natural” dimension of engendering and through an arbitrary conception of filiation (Fine and Martial, 2010), Italian legislation reinforces power relations between parents and co-parents, who are already unequal because of “nature”; that is the naturalisation of biological and genetic ties. If couples do engage in processes of social, symbolic and juridical kinning, in moment of crisis such as separations, “nature” and “law” are summoned to this end, and the unequal power relations between parents and co-parents might become visible in all their violence.

54The case of homoparental configurations calls for a reconsideration of the “nature” of the Euro-American model of filiation and its recent transformations. The Euro-American bilateral system of filiation coinciding with genetically rules is challenged. The “feeling of paternity or maternity” (Fine and Courduriès, 2014) may survive also in the absence of all other dimensions of kinship, such as legal, biogenetical and everyday ties. So, intended kinship appears as the main dimension of kinship. As Flavio Tarnowski (2010) argues, “intended kinship” is a further parental function alongside the ones indicated by Esther Goody’s (1982), namely “conceiving and bearing.” But the intention of becoming a parent can also be considered as a necessary but not a sufficient condition to consider oneself kin. Nevertheless, the micropolitics of family life show that the “nature” of kinship is much more incoherent, complex and often contradictory than Famiglie Arcobaleno’s slogan suggests. In fact, intention is a dimension of filiation which characterises a specific moment in a relationship (i.e. the beginning of a parental project) and specific actors in the kinship system, namely parents. This doesn’t imply that intention cannot change, or that every family member adapts to it. Quite on the contrary, both family members and institutional actors define and experience kinship ties according to several logics. Children understand and re-elaborate in their own inconsistencies and paradoxical injunctions, presents both within and outside the home. In fact, kinship is defined and experienced differently on the three key levels of juridical regulations, social norms, and practical kinship (Weber, 2005). Not only does the definition of kinship differ between these three levels, but there are also internal contradictions inside each of these categories. Institutional definitions of kinship is highly fragmentary and ambiguous as it differs at local, regional, national and international levels. On the other hand, the “practical thought of kinship” (Bestard, 2005) reveals a plurality of interpretative registers of Euro-American kinship (Fine and Martial, 2010).


  • [1]
    Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the conference “Transnational politics: State practices and everyday life experiences,” held at the Institut für Europäische Ethnologie in Berlin on 8-9/09/2016 and at a workshop with Florence Weber held at the Université Libre de Bruxelles on 07/08/2016. I have benefited from comments from Beatriz San Román, Florence Weber, the editors of this special issue, and the anonymous reviewers from the journal L’Année sociologique. The research is being funded by the FRS-FNRS post-doctoral grant.
  • [2]
    I propose the etic neologism “family configurations” because family refers to the family norm of the heterosexual nuclear family. Nevertheless, family is an emic term used by same-sex couples in order to claim juridical and social recognition of their own family configurations.
  • [3]
    Weber proposes the notion of everyday kinship to name the ties created through sharing everyday life and domestic economy, as well as through the material and emotional dimensions. According to the French sociologist, these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the exercise of kinship beyond biogenetic (blood) and juridical (transmission of name and goods) dimensions. She argues that this dimension of kinship is neglected in the analysis of filiation ties, to the detriment of biological and juridical ties, whereas it allows us to spot the ways kinship ties are organised within family configurations.
  • [4]
    Research on same-sex family configurations began in the United States, in the field of study on marginalities (Weston, 1991; Lewin, 1993; Hayden, 1995). In France, anthropological studies on the subject investigated the redefinition of the notion of family as well as the relationship between filiation, alliance, gender and kinship (Cadoret, 2002). The first ethnographic researches in Italy have been carried out by Simonetta Grilli (2016), Corinna Guerzoni (2018) and Rosa Parisi (2014).
  • [5]
    According to Anne Cadoret (2001), this is an anthropological break, while Agnès Fine (2001) sees the key break as the practice of both heterosexual and homosexual pluriparenthing (more than two parents for one child), which breaks with the Euro-American principle of exclusivity.
  • [6]
    I put this term in inverted commas because the opposition between the “biological parent” and the “social parent” hides the fact that the “biological parent” is as social as the “social parent,” suggesting that there is a choice between two alternative forms of kinship, namely “biological” and “social” (Fine and Martial, 2010, p. 122). To stress the necessity of overcoming the opposition between “biological” and “social” parents, I will rather use the terms “statutory” vs. “non-statutory” parents. This latter term emphasises the double handicap of being neither a biogenetical nor a legal parent, while being an intentional parent (Descoutures, 2010). For ease of reading, I won’t use inverted commas in the rest of the text and I will also use the terms parent/co-parent.
  • [7]
    This research is being undertaken at the Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale et culturelle, Université de Liège, with a FRS-FNRS fellowship.
  • [8]
    ILGA evaluates the current status of laws, policies and practices affecting LGBTI people in Europe today, based on 42 criteria like equality, non-discrimination, the right to create a family, the presence of hate-speech laws, juridical recognition, freedom of association, and the right to asylum. See Rainbow Europe Map May 2017 [On-line:], accessed on 12/10/2017 and Rainbow Europe Map (Index) May 2017 [On-line:], accessed on 12/10/2017.
  • [9]
    The last reform of family law dates back to 1975. Until then, legislation on this issue dated back to the norms of the Fascist Civil Code of 1942, in clear contradiction with the principles of Italian Constitution of 1947. A law on adoption came in 1967, whereas introduction of divorce in 1970. In 1978, abortion and contraception were legalised. A very restrictive law on ARTs was passed in 2004 followed by several verdicts, such as the one of the Constitutional Court in 2009 and in 2014, as well of the Council and of the European Court of Human Rights. For a more detailed analysis, see Sarcinelli (2018).
  • [10]
    No reliable statistical data is available on Italian same-sex family configurations. According to the “Modi Di” research, conducted in 2005 by NGO Arcigay (the main national non-profit organisation promoting equality between individuals regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity) in cooperation with the Superior Institute of Health on a corpus of 10,000 people under 40, 17.7% of gay men and 20.5% of lesbians have at least one child, and around 100,000 children have at least one homosexual parent (Arcigay et al., 2006). A more recent statistical data collection is being carried out by Centro Risorse LGBTI [On-line:], accessed on 24/05/2018. Until some years ago, couples resorted to clinics offering such services under-the-counter, or to self-insemination. Nowadays, most same-sex couples with a reproductive project choose to go abroad through transnational reproductive spaces or cross-border reproduction. This has led to inequalities in access to reproduction dues to social and economic capital, as well as territorial considerations (Sarcinelli, 2018).
  • [11]
    Since majors and municipalities do have strong power in Italy, some have implemented services and inclusive strategies.
  • [12]
    Law No. 184/1983. This law has been applied to lesbian families in a few cases: the co-mother managed to adopt a child on the principle of the best interest of the child. Although the child acquires a juridical kinship tie with his co-mother, he does not enter her genealogical line as full kin.
  • [13]
    In order to protect anonymity and confidentiality, all names and some personal information have been modified, and replaced by sociologically equivalent information.
  • [14]
    Thanks to this status, the co-parent is the guardian of the child not only in the event of the legal parent’s death, but also when he is still alive in case of “distance, incapacity or other hindrance.”
  • [15]
    Author’s note.
  • [16]
    Those are the only real names as their publisher “Lo Stampatello” is well known.
  • [17]
    Author’s note.
  • [18]
    I am adopting the concept of de-kinning to refer to parental and institutional efforts to unmake kinship ties which are neither “biogenetic” nor legally recognised. Claudia Fonseca (2011) uses this term to refer to the institutional efforts employed to unmake the naturalised category of biological motherhood. For instance, the gap between kinship as it is conceived by family members and the juridical recognition of kinship ties can be considered a form of juridical de-kinning. Such questions have been addressed by Descoutures (2010, p. 203-226).
  • [19]
    Law no. 40, 19 February 2004.
  • [20]
    Which means “Little fathers”.
  • [21]
    The norm of exclusivity is based upon the idea that each person can have a filiation tie with only one man and one woman (Ouellette, 2000).

Cet article explore la façon dont le traitement institutionnel de l’homoparentalité impacte la vie quotidienne, l’intimité et l’organisation familiale. À travers une étude des configurations homoparentales italiennes, je vais analyser l’impact de l’écart existant entre la traduction juridique des liens de filiation des parents et l’exercice, au quotidien, de la parenté. Les données ethnographiques illustreront les efforts parentaux et institutionnels pour faire et défaire des liens qui ne sont ni « biogénétiques » ni reconnus légalement. Ce faisant, j’interrogerai la façon dont les relations de parenté sont construites, déconstruites et définies par différents acteurs, y compris des enfants. L’article se conclut par les implications théoriques concernant la « nature » de la parenté et de la filiation, qui doivent être restituées dans leurs conditions de possibilité au niveau socio-historique, voire dans une « économie morale de la filiation ».


  • Homoparentalité 
  • Italie 
  • Enfants 
  • Parenté pratique 
  • Parenté légale 
  • Filiation

Does Love Make a Family? The Politics and Micro-Politics of Filiation Among Same-Sex Families

This article explores how the institutional treatment of new family configurations weaves into patterns of everyday life, framing intimacy and family organisation. Through the study of homoparental family configurations in the Italian context, I will analyse the impact, on family configurations, of the gap between the juridical translation of filiation ties and the everyday exercise of parenting. The ethnographic gaze will illustrate parental and institutional efforts to make or unmake kinship ties which are neither “biogenetic” nor legally recognised. In this way, I will address how kin relations are constructed, deconstructed and defined by different actors, including children. This will provide some theoretical reflections on the “nature” of kinship and filiation, which must be resituated in its social and historical condition of possibility and in a “moral economy of filiation.”


  • Same-Sex Families
  • Italy
  • Children
  • Practical Kinship
  • Legal Kinship
  • Filiation


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Alice Sophie Sarcinelli
anthropologue de l’enfance et de la parentalité, est chargée de recherche à l’université de Milan Bicocca (Italie) et membre du Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale et culturelle de l’université de Liège (Belgique). Elle a été lauréate 2015 du prix Richelieu de la Chancellerie des universités de Paris pour sa thèse menée à l’ École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) sous la direction de Didier Fassin et intitulée : Protéger, éduquer, exclure. Anthropologie de l’enfance et de la parentalité roms en Italie. Ses recherches sur l’enfance au sein des couples de même sexe en Italie et en Belgique ont été menées dans le cadre d’un mandat de postdoctorat pour le Fonds national de la recherche scientifique belge.
University of Milan Bicocca
LASC-FASS, University of Liège
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