What’s Been On My Mind This Week

Question Mark

On 12th March, the latest edition of Italian magazine Panorama was published. On the cover was a picture of the fashion designers – and two of Italy’s most famous gay men – Domenico Dolce and Sefano Gabbana. Inside was an interview with the two men which made international headlines and caused Elton John to call for a boycott on buying their label. Despite being gay themselves, it was widely reported that the designers had denounced gay adoption and labelled children conceived through IVF as ‘synthetic’ or ‘chemical’. Apparently, the only viable family – in their opinion – is the traditional, heterosexual one. Elton John, who, with his husband David Furnish, is father to two boys, conceived with IVF and the help of a surrogate, very publicly hit back, strongly denouncing their claims that his children could be in any way synthetic.

In response to the worldwide criticism faced by the designers – which prompted them to issue further statements about their views, in which they expressed their firm belief in ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of expression’, and allowed for the existence of other ‘legitimate families’ different from the ones they grew up in – Panorama has made the full text of the interview available online, making it sound as though what was said was less controversial than what was reported. So I decided to take a look at the original text.

For those of you who can’t read Italian (for once it comes in handy!), the reason families were part of the discussion is because the designers have dedicated their latest project to the idea of the family, inviting people from all over the world to share their own family photographs. Gabbana says that what struck him about all the photos that were pouring in is the theme of ‘belonging’, and that above all, people have this need to belong. Dolce then follows this with those fateful words, stating that it isn’t them who have invented this idea of the family, but it has been made iconic by the Holy family (i.e. Jesus, Mary and Joseph), and that, when you’re born, you have a father and a mother. He isn’t convinced by those he calls ‘chemical babies’, or ‘synthetic babies’, nor is he in favour of ‘wombs for hire’ and ‘sperm chosen from a catalogue.’ Dolce then goes on to say that ‘procreation should be an act of love,’ and that psychiatrists are not yet ready to deal with the effects of all this ‘experimentation.’ After speaking about their parents, and what it was like for the designers to come out, the interviewer asks if they ‘would have liked’ to have been parents (note the important use of tenses here). Not would they still like to be (because of course they could, should they want to), but would they have liked to have been (assuming, I presume, that they can’t, because they’re gay, though there might also be a reference in the question to the fact that the designers are no longer a couple). Gabbana replies that he would still have a child if he could, while Dolce says, ‘I’m gay; I can’t have a child.’ He goes on to say that he doesn’t believe one can have everything in life and that it can also be beautiful to ‘deprive oneself’ of something. Life has a natural rhythm, he says, and there are things that ‘can’t be changed,’ one of which is the family. It’s also interesting that, right at the end of the interview, Gabbana says he will never marry, and that he doesn’t believe in marriage for homosexuals or heterosexuals, because it’s a promise that one can’t keep, which is interesting in contrast to the traditional family values of Southern Italy they had been praising moments before.

It’s clear from reading the original text, then, that the designers’ words were not misreported. They clearly – as a result of their traditional, Catholic Italian upbringing – believe that heterosexual families are the only valid ones, however they might have later qualified their remarks. That this is what they believe shouldn’t surprise us. Some might be surprised – given their international fame and their clientele – that they chose to publicly air them, but given that LGBT rights in Italy lag far behind those in other Western countries, it’s not particularly shocking. Gay adoption is still illegal in Italy, lesbians aren’t allowed access to IVF and gay men aren’t allowed access to surrogates. Equal marriage has not come into force, despite some polls suggesting that the majority of the country is in favour of it, and there are few anti-discrimination laws in place. Internalised homophobia is not unexpected. But it is sad. It’s sad because the LGBT community desperately needs people in the public eye to stand up and speak out for equal rights, and that people of D&G’s status demeaning non-traditional families means that many others will think it is alright to do so, and will make it difficult for the parents and children who make up those families. But it’s also sad because the designers themselves think that their sexuality means that they can’t have children or families of their own.

I don’t agree with Elton John calling for a boycott on buying D&G products. Nor do I agree with the designers retaliating by claiming for a boycott of Elton John. The argument then descended even further into childish insults and petulance when the designers claimed they didn’t want to see a man who looked like Elton John in their clothes anyway. I do think that Elton John was right to speak out, as were the other LGBT parents who are in the public eye (for example, Melanie Rickey, wife of Mary Portas, wrote a piece in The Times about her own family, for she and Portas have a young son), but allowing the discussion of an important issue to descend into the exchanging of hateful comments is unnecessary.

Some articles, like this one in The Sunday Times, drew attention to the work of Susan Golombok, Professor of Family Research at Cambridge, who’s new book, Modern Familiesclaims that not only do gay parents bring up children just as well as their straight counterparts, they might even be better at it. There are numerous reasons given in support of this argument: new (i.e. non-traditional) families have more involved, committed parents; the years of infertility and social disapproval mean that the parents have thought even more about having children. Other articles referenced recent research carried out at the University of Melbourne into the well-being of children raised by same-sex parents, which concluded that, of the children sampled, those with same-sex parents scored higher than the general population when it came to health and well-being. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to rely too heavily on this sort of research, because it’s in its infancy and the studies so far carried out have only sampled a small number of people. However the early results are encouraging, and Professor Golombok herself joined in the criticism of the designers, calling them on their ‘uninformed views’ that could prove harmful to new families.

Even though not everyone (gay or straight) agrees with the institution of marriage, we can all now get married, and we can all now try to have children (though it still remains easier, and cheaper, for heterosexuals). It’s becoming the ‘new normal’ to ask a non-heterosexual couple if they’re going to get married and have a family, something which many LGBT people of a certain age probably never would have imagined. We’re finally beginning to suffer from the same social pressure as everyone else, which is a source of both triumph and despair.

I wonder whether the public outcry marks a ‘tipping point’ as some have claimed. I hope that, within a generation, at least in this country, there won’t be people around who hold similar views to those of the designers, and that ‘new families’ will be as ordinary, mundane, and happy as the next. There are many children who need homes, there are parents of every sexuality who can provide loving homes for those children, or for children they’ve conceived together, or by themselves. What’s ‘normal’ is changing. If those of us who identify as LGBT and choose to be parents demonstrate that it works, then hopefully it will cease to become an issue.

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Categories: On My Mind . . .

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