Before Marriage: Lesbian and Bisexual Women Reclaiming Relational Visibility in Italy

I will present a research study, which is part of a European project called INTIMATE, funded by the European Research Council. One of the aims of INTIMATE is to investigate how axes of reciprocal influence coming from private and public dimensions impact upon the micro politics of partnering, parenting and friendship among LGBTQ people in Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Between April and July 2015 I conducted the fieldwork on lesbian coupledom in Italy, interviewing 5 self-defined lesbian or bisexual women living in Rome who were staying in a same-sex couple, 3 lesbian activists, and a lesbian lawyer working on LGBTI rights.

Regarding the national sociocultural and legal context, Italy rates very poorly compared to other European countries regarding LGBT rights. Italian law still does not recognize any rights to same-sex couples but things are presently changing. Indeed, in February, Cirinnà Bill on civil unions was approved by one of the chambers of the Parliament, the Senate, and is now waiting for Chamber of Deputies final approval: after months of parliamentary debate, with a strong opposition by right wing, conservative and catholic politicians, the provision on stepchild adoption was eliminated from the already very basic text of the bill, which maintains substantial and symbolic differences between civil unions and heterosexual marriage. Both mainstream LGBT organizations and radical queer and feminist collectives protested against such debasement of the bill, even though their discourses are very different. The mainstream movement, indeed, has an assimilationist approach to citizenship and civil rights, whereas radical and queer collectives propose critical reflections on the limits of homonormative legislative change.

In my presentation I will focus in particular on the 5 biographic narrative interviews with coupled women. I will present two of the issues that emerged. Firstly, the importance of the relationship with families of origin: some accounts showed how the interviewees try to preserve their relationships with their parents by employing daily strategies of in/visibility. In these strategies the role of the couple is central: on the one hand, it enhances lesbian/bisexual visibility in front of the family, on the other hand, it can render lesbianism visible without the necessity of declare it directly; moreover, the normative value represented by the couple can be a means to render lesbianism or bisexuality more acceptable. Secondly, a romantic, homo- and mononormative ideal of the couple emerged, even though practices and experiences seem more nuanced. Indeed, the romantic narrative of the ideal couple keeps guiding participants’ attitudes towards intimate relationships.

I would like my presentation to inspire a discussion on the peculiar Italian context, where family of origin keeps having a central place in the life of LGBT people and where same-sex marriage is still to come. Some of the experiences I got to know during my fieldwork, indeed, prompted a reflection on the visibility of lesbianism and bisexuality through the couple, in a context where lesbian and bisexual women keep being invisible and same-sex couples are not legally recognized.