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Transformation of Family Norms in a Transnational World: How LGBT Migrants can Affect Change through Social Remittances

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Changing perception and reception of same-sex families in different societies

Transnational migration can disrupt the everyday taken-for-granted ‘normality’ that makes a shift in perspective possible. The TOFNITW project examined the effect of these social expectations as well as laws on the experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) migrants and their families.

Society

Just as remittances refer to the transfer of money back home by foreign workers, social remittance is where awareness and perceptions about ways of doing things are changed by exposure to their realities through visiting or returning migrants. But to date empirical investigation is scarce. Examining the phenomenon, the EU-supported Marie Skłodowska-Curie TOFNITW project (also known as TransNorm), showed that a country’s socio-institutional frameworks deeply affect the everyday lives and families of LGB individuals, in both their new countries and their countries of origin. However, exposure to alternatives can expand the notion of what is ‘normal’.

Changing laws and perceptions simultaneously

To examine how laws and institutions affect the lives of LGB individuals and their families, the TOFNITW project focused on European countries’ differences in terms of their legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Belgium and the Netherlands were taken as the host countries, as they have the longest tradition of same-sex marriage, with LGB migrants settling there from the selected countries Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, which legally define marriage as a union exclusively between a man and a woman. To provide these often marginalised research participants with the opportunity to present their experiences in detail and from their own perspective, 11 in-depth interviews were conducted with individuals who are married or raising a child with a same-sex partner. Additionally, 17 interviews were conducted with family members and friends in the five CEE countries. One of the project’s key findings was that visibility matters and that legal protection solidifies that visibility, helping the transition towards the ‘normalisation’ of non-heterosexual families. “If we want to change things, then activists can make everyday relatable stories of non-heterosexual families more visible. At the same time, policy-makers can provide a safe environment for such stories – to validate them – as an important signal for the general public, turning what is legal into what is accepted,” says Tanja Vuckovic Juros from KU Leuven and lead researcher. An important follow-on finding was that because exposure to alternative family possibilities (legal in other countries) can change perceptions, there is little point in waiting for an accepting public before instituting laws that fully recognise and protect non-heterosexual families. In fact, changed laws, where individual prejudice is no longer implicitly supported, and changed perceptions about ‘normality’ actually go hand in hand.

Policy implications

The project generated a series of educational cartoons and booklets available in the languages of the study’s participants. “I felt that I had to make the project’s main messages accessible beyond an academic audience to the general public, so I developed printed stories that I could hand out,” recalls Vuckovic Juros. The project has demonstrated that the impact of LGB-exclusionary policies and legislations is felt not only by LGB individuals, but also by their families and society more broadly. This has policy implications for the EU’s commitment to ensuring that LGB family-friendly equality policies are adopted and practised by all Member States. “This wider social cost is still understated in the literature and among policy-makers. As, to my knowledge, this is the only research that focused on the families of LGB migrants – both newly formed and families-of-origin – our findings offer a fresh perspective on sexuality, family and transnational migrations,” claims Vuckovic Juros.

Keywords

TOFNITW, same-sex couples, marriage, migration, transnational, LGB, lesbian, gay, bisexual, social remittance, legal, laws

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