Family is...?




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Jan 29, 2018
by Louise Hallman
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Family is...?

Being part of a family is a fundamental human condition, but the way one defines family can vary widely 

The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum prides itself on providing a safe space in which LGBT activists, artists and allies can engage in open and candid conversations. It was in this environment of trust and understanding that the “Family is…” project was born — encouraging participants of all ages and
nationalities to share their experiences of living in, building and raising a family.

The “Family is…” project was developed with support from the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. The Ministry’s support of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum began with its participation in the 2014 session in Berlin, Creating Long-Term Global Networks to Sustain LGBT Human Rights Organizations. Since its launch at the 2015 session, Strengthening Communities: LGBT Rights and Social Cohesion, “Family is…” has seen dozens of Fellows share their family experiences – be that on panels at sessions, in working groups or on film.

Speaking at the 2015 session, State Secretary Ralf Kleindiek explained why his ministry is supporting the project: “Collaboration with the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum is important because family is for most people a crucial part of their lives, of their identities.”

Being part of a family is a fundamental human condition, but the way one defines family can vary widely depending on to whom you speak. How we define “family” or advocate so-called “traditional family values” can be a form of exclusion and discrimination.

“It is important that we have a very wide interpretation of what family is,” explains Kleindiek. “Family is whenever people of different generations look after each other. Married or unmarried, with children or not, old and young, same-sex or heterosexual couples. It is a very serious matter of discrimination if we define family as a closed unit.”

For some, family may be defined by blood relations or marital ties. But as Klaus Mueller remarked at the opening of the 2015 session: “None of us come from families that were prepared for us.”

Through “Family is…” Fellows have shared, candidly and movingly, how families of birth can be hugely supportive or painfully abusive. Stories shared range from those who have received tentative or outright acceptance from their parents, siblings and extended family, to those who had suffered stinging rejections and even physical abuse as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

At the 2016 session, The Many Faces of LGBT Inclusion, held in Chiang Rai, Thailand, Fellows learned  how definitions and practices of family across Asia give or withhold space for LGBT family members and how these practices have changed over time. In many countries across the region, it is typical for multiple generations of families to live together in the same house, leaving few opportunities for independence or privacy. Nepalese and Bhutanese Fellows told the international audience of their compatriots’ ancient beliefs that one cannot die in peace until one has seen the face of their grandchild.

A family’s “honor” is important in countries such India, with certain behaviors or actions considered “dishonorable” and worthy of a variety of often severe punishments, including death. Such attitudes can have serious negative implications for LGBT people, with a number of the participants over the course of the three-year project sharing personal stories or anecdotes of how they or their friends have been cast out of their families for being LGBT. Syrian author Danny Ramadan recalled how his father took the news of his coming out at aged 17: “He has a very heavy hand. After a week I had to leave my family’s home – never to come back. And I have never been back ever since.” Ramadan, now 33, lives in Canada.

As a result of this exclusion, many LGBT people seek to establish “alternative families” or “families of choice” that offer them the love and security they did not find or cannot rely on with their families of birth.

“Alternative family is extremely important,” says Abha Bhaiya, executive director of the Jagori Rural Charitable Trust in India. “I personally find it’s not enough to have a biological family – that is one part of our lives, it’s important, but not sufficient. For me it has always been about creating a collective of like-minded people, where you can have dialogue together and support each other. To be able to give your shoulder to others and put your head on other’s shoulders.”

“I have found an alternative family where we have love and care,” shared one Fellow in Thailand. He had been cut off from his family and had at one point turned to sex work to help fund his university studies. His new family now includes both parental figures and siblings. “To me, family is where there is acceptance and respect. I have found that now,” he says.

Other Fellows have been luckier in their family’s responses, sharing stories of initial rejection but eventual reconciliation, with their families’ understanding growing over time and after many conversations. As Mariano Ruiz, communications officer for IDAHOT (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia) explains, despite having grown up in a very traditional Argentinian family, his mother has been very supportive: “Without her support, I could never be able to be who I am…. I demonstrated to her that things change, that I will sometime in the future be able to raise kids and have a family as she expected, but not in a traditional way of a man and a woman.”

This desire to raise a family, as well as feel part of one, is one shared by many heterosexual/cisgender people and LGBT people alike – and a desire that is increasingly becoming a legal reality and right for many LGBT people across the world. As of August 2017, 25 countries have fully legalized same-sex marriage or are in the process of adopting it; three more countries recognize marriages performed oversees; and civil unions are recognized in a further 16 countries. Many of these countries also have legalized adoption by same-sex couples.

However, outside of those countries, for LGBT people who choose to raise their own families, legal protections can be sparse, leaving children vulnerable should anything happen to their biological parent – there is little guarantee that their non-biological parent will be able to continue to care for them.

“[In the Philippines] there is no legal tool that supports my family of two mothers and one daughter,” explains filmmaker and mom, Cha Roque. “In an emergency situation, my mom will be there to speak at the hospital because my partner does not have that prerogative.”

But even in countries where full legal recognition and protections are lacking, legally binding workarounds have been found. For example, in Cambodia, same-sex couple recognition does not exist so they increasingly rely on Family Book Records. These documents are used to register extended family members but its flexibility allows same-sex families to register adopted or biological children, giving them legal recognition as a family.

“Family to me is a community of love that we create by choice, as opposed to just one we are born into,” says Danish Sheikh, a lawyer and LGBT rights advocate in India. “It is an institution that can be incredibly disempowering – but also unleash power.”

Sharing his hopes for the “Family is…” project back in 2015, Secretary Kleindiek said: “We learn from the LGBT Forum how discussions in Germany influence them, and how their discussions in other countries influence us in Germany… Indeed, we are trailing behind.” For LGBT equality in Germany, a victory was finally won in 2017 when the German Bundestag voted to legalize gay marriage, which in turn also gave same-sex couples full adoption rights.

As former Australian high court judge, Michael Kirby reflected during his “Family is…” video testimonial in 2015: “We all have that family, most of who are heterosexual, and that is our outreach into the rest of society. It’s hard to hate the people you love.”

By sharing these personal stories, the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum seeks to challenge misrepresentations of families and their LGBT members; document the lived reality of families around the globe today; and hopes to contribute to building stronger, more inclusive societies, communities – and families.

Hyun Kyung Kim on becoming part of the minority

Yinhe Li on how Chinese cultural values force gay men and women into heterosexual marriage