The Right to a Privilege? Homonormativity and the Recognition of Same-Sex Couples in Europe

Article
The Right to a Privilege?
Homonormativity and
the Recognition of
Same-Sex Couples
in Europe
Francesca Romana Ammaturo
Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
Abstract
The Council of Europe (CoE) and its judicial body, the European Court of Human Rights,
are at the forefront of the debate for the redefinition of the notion of ‘family’ in relation
to the inclusion of same-sex couples. The recent jurisprudence has demonstrated a
change in the Court’s approach to the question of what counts as a family, by terms
of Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This much-anticipated
development, nonetheless, begs the question of how the ‘right to marry and found a
family’ might prove to be a privilege rather than a right. This article tries to shed light
on the contradictions underpinning the expansion of the concept of family in the context
of the CoE, suggesting the existence of a conflation of both heteronormative and homo-
normative narratives of kinship in the construction of a notion of the ‘family’ that encom-
passes same-sex couples.
Keywords
Commissioner for human rights, European Court of Human Rights, family, family life,
heteronormativity, homonormativity, same-sex marriage
Corresponding author:
Francesca Romana Ammaturo, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, Floor 8, Room
811, Warmington Tower, New Cross, London SE14 6NW, UK.
Email: f.ammaturo@gold.ac.uk
Social & Legal Studies
2014, Vol. 23(2) 175–194
ªThe Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permission:
sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0964663914521651
sls.sagepub.com
Introduction
The regulation of the so-called gay marriage is at the centre of a heated political debate
across Europe. Often heralded as the most advanced frontier of human rights protec-
tion, the discussion and inscription in national legislation of the right to marry for
same-sex couples has ambiguous social, economic and political contours. The 2013
debates in the Parliaments of France and the United Kingdom substantiate the fact that
something more than the achievement of full equality is at stake with regard to the
issue of the marriage rights of same-sex couples. Far from merely discarding the het-
eronormative interpretation of marriage, as Johnson (2012: 147) se ems to suggest,
broadening the concept of ‘family’ to include same-sex couples constitutes a sub-
stantial preservation of the social, political and economic status quo. By means of a
co-opting of a segment of non-heterosexual individuals, in terms of what Duggan
(2003) has defined as ‘homonormativity’, entering marriage presupposes a substantial
adherence to the conservative character of extant institutions, rather than a challenge to
them by means of political action.
This article aims to analyse critically the way in which the European judicial and non-
judicial practice of human rights frames marriage for same-sex couples as the crowning
achievement of full equality, whilst simultaneously concealing the extent to which the
call for marriage equality responds to a need to obtain a ‘privilege’ in social, political
and economic terms. This objective is pursued by combining a sociolegal analysis of
selected cases of the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (‘the Court’)
regarding same-sex couples in relation to marriage, adoption and socio-economic rights,
with an ethnographic account of the work of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the
Council of Europe (‘the Commissioner’) on these same issues.
The cases chosen for this analysis reflect the necessity of abandoning a purely chron-
ological description of the evolution of the jurisprudence. Attention, instead, has been
paid to cases that are relevant to homonormative narratives and to the socio-economic
implications of marriage equality, which are not sufficiently acknowledged, in the cur-
rent sociolegal literature on same-sex couples in Europe. At the same time, the decision
to include data from the fieldwork and first-person observations conducted at the office
of the Commissioner serves the purpose of furnishing a new perspective on the way in
which discourses on same-sex couples are framed, within the Council of Europe (CoE)
itself, beyond the narrow judicial framework of the Court.
The intention of this research is that to constructively de-romanticise, to some extent,
the concept of ‘marriage equality’, in order to emphasise the extent to which the CoE
participates in the definition of a narrow (neo)liberal conception of equality for lesbian,
gay and bisexual (LGB) persons, substantially represented by the ultimate goal of gain-
ing the right to get married. The first part of this article discusses the recognition of
same-sex couples as families in terms of their respectability and full inclusion into the
social fabric of member states of the CoE. This analysis allows a consideration of mar-
riage as being framed more in terms of privilege rather than as a formal human right. The
second part moves to the analysis of different strands of the jurisprudence of the Court,
showing the economic implications that marriage equality entails for member states in
terms of the concession of a privilege to same-sex couples. The third part considers the
176 Social & Legal Studies 23(2)

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