I don’t watch Modern Family, the prime-time sitcom depicting “non-traditional” — e.g., same-sex, interracial, and inter-generational — couples. Still, I’m struck by how fast family realities change and how slowly laws and societal perceptions about what’s “right” reflect those changes.
The couples depicted in Modern Family were surely seen by society at large as more unusual in 2009, when the show first aired, than even just five years later. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering two cases that might pave the way for federal benefits for same-sex couples, the number of interracial marriages is steadily growing, and the combination of reproductive technologies, longer life-spans, and the normalization of serial monogamy has taken age somewhat out of the equation when it comes to forming a family.
Even so, real-life individuals in same-sex couples, or those who live with someone of a different race or generation from themselves, often face daily struggles to protect their families from legal uncertainty and publicly articulated disgust. Depending on where we live, our intimate lives and families may be subject to criminal sanctions, unequal legal protections, scrutiny, shaming, and belittling.
Often, the protection of our families in law — while welcome — does not mean we are immune to community shaming and violence. In Latin America, for example, a wave of new marriage equality laws has not yet had an impact on pervasive community violence against LGBTI individuals. And though it is more than 45 years since the Supreme Court invalidated the prohibition of interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, prejudices against interracial couples — in particular where one of the partners is Black — are expressed frequently in social media and in some cases result in discrimination.
This tug-of-war between perceptions, laws, and reality expresses itself clearly where courts have to decide to what extent legislators get to put their own — or their constituents’ — prejudices before principles of equality and facts about child welfare.
This week, the European Court on Human Rights issued a ruling in one such case. The court held that Austria had violated human rights by denying two lesbian women a proper evaluation of their adoption petition. One of the women had petitioned to adopt the biological son of her female partner, a child they both had been parenting since infancy.