The following text is a slightly modified version of the introduction speech by Annukka Lahti, originally written for the panel discussion on couple-normativity in the launch event of The Research Network of Singlehood Studies that took place on December 17, 2019 in Tampere.
During the last twenty years, the political demands by the LGBTIQA+ movement and public discussion on LGBTIQA+ rights have largely concentrated on ‘family rights’. In many western countries, LGBTIQA+ movements have fought for and won the right to marry and have children. In Finland, the focus of our study, this right is evident in the gender-neutral marriage law and the ‘mothers’ law’, which allow the female partners of pregnant women to be formally recognized by maternity clinics as social mothers (Act 253/2018). Prizing the couple as the normative form of intimacy has been the central means through which same-sex desire has gained social acceptance and legal recognition in an increasing number of western countries, including Finland (Butler, 2004; Lahti, 2015; Warner, 2000). At the same time, LGBTIQA+ people living independently without a permanent partner are left to the margins in this discussion. Queer singlehood has not sparked discussion about family rights in a similar vein. Rather, queer singlehood is rarely visible given that queer desire is made intelligible mainly through a couple’s relationship.
Living as an LGBTIQA+ single can thus be challenging as it does not conform to the heteronormative ideals of coupledom. Many queer theorists and activists have criticized the LGBTIQA+ movement’s concentration on family rights of ‘homonormativity’. Homonormativity refers to politics that does not call into question dominant heteronormative lifestyle(s) and institutions such as marriage, but rather upholds and sustains them. Consequently, queer desire becomes acceptable on the condition it conforms to the conventions and ideals of a middle-class lifestyle such as getting married and having children. Yet, the expectation that non-heterosexuals should organize their lives in terms of normative, marriage-like, monogamous relationship ideals (which includes having children) is relatively new. By contrast, earlier generations of lesbians and gays often embraced and accepted lifestyles without normative families or children (Kuosmanen, 2007; Weston, 1991), which Weston (1991) describes as ‘chosen families’. In chosen families, intimate lives are not arranged so centrally around couple relationships: friendship and community play a more central role.
In a way, singlehood has been historically typical for LGBTIQA+ communities, with non-normative intimacies and chosen families often being a central part of them. Weston (1995) traces back the emergence of chosen families to the late 1970s and 1980s Western lesbian and gay movement, where disclosing one’s homosexuality – ‘coming out’ – was stressed as an important political and personal act. In a homophobic society, coming out as lesbian or gay often meant rejection by one’s biological relatives. Many queers thus saw friendship as the most reliable and enduring kinship relationship (Weston, 1995). The meaning of chosen families as providers of emotional, practical and financial support was further stressed during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS pandemic, when many biological relatives – along with the rest of society – turned their backs on dying gay men (Weston, 1995). In lesbian separatist communities too, alternative forms of family were sought in order to find alternatives to traditional patriarchal family forms (Rich, 1986/1993).
At a time when LGBTIQA+ people’s relationships were disregarded in the public discussion and often not included the traditional forms of family and kin, LGBTIQA+ people were possibly freer to define their relationships on their own terms. Weeks et al. (2001) interviewed British non-heterosexuals between 1995 and 1996. The interviewees often stressed that they wanted to explore non-normative ways of organizing intimate relationships and to conduct ‘life experiments’. Non-monogamous arrangements were especially common among gay men (Klesse, 2007), but in feminist and lesbian communities too, monogamy was criticized as echoing patriarchal ideas about (men’s) ownership of women (Jackson & Scott, 2004). Sexual exploration and the living out of non-capitalist ideas of sexuality were stressed (Wekker, 2006). Yet, a decade after Weeks et al.’s interviews, in 2009 and 2010, young British couples who had entered civil partnerships described their relationships in terms of ordinariness (Heaphy et al., 2013; see Lahti, 2015). Most of them also spoke about monogamy in very self-evident terms.
A similar shift can be seen in Scandinavia, including Finland. Kuosmanen (2007) has referred to this normalizing development, which was strengthened by political demands for family rights made by the lesbian and gay movement, as a turn to ‘rainbow familism’. Although intelligible relationships and family forms have increased to some extent, the couple relationship has not lost its cultural status and is still regarded as the most respectable way of organizing intimate life. The turn to ‘rainbow familism’ thus runs the risk of narrowing the imaginative horizons of close relationship arrangements. Moreover, as research in recent years has largely concentrated on ‘rainbow families’, we know very little about the lives of contemporary LGBTIQA+ singles.
As the LGBTIQA+ culture has become increasingly family-centered, it is important to explore how LGBTIQA+ people who live independently without a permanent partner and/or organize their relational lives in non-normative ways live their lives. Singlehood can be a queer experience because it deviates from the conventions around which most people arrange their lives (Kolehmainen & Lahti, forthcoming). Now is the time to find out more about the kinds of inequalities embedded in LGBTIQA+ singles’ lives, as well as their joyful and happy moments.
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