Growing up, we were taught in primary textbooks that a typical, normal, family consists of a father, a mother, and two children. This traditional unchanging family unit has conditioned our society to not think beyond the heteronormative and presents itself as an ideal definition of what it means to be a perfect family.
In the UK, the traditional family unit was the heterosexual married family with two parents. However, there has been a decline in this traditional structure since the 1970s and 1980s. With the increase in rates of divorce, remarriage, cohabitation of unmarried couples, change in same-sex marriage laws, social beliefs and children born outside of marriage etc., traditional family structures slowly started to change, dismantle and evolve. This changing family dynamic occurred not only in the UK but the rest of the world.
In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court of India broadened its traditional definition of family to include domestic, unmarried partnerships, or queer relationships, as well as guardians, caretakers, foster, and adoptive parents.
A Supreme Court bench stated, “These manifestations of love and of families may not be typical but they are as real as their traditional counterparts. Such atypical manifestations of the family unit are equally deserving not only of protection under the law but also of the benefits available under social welfare legislation.”
By widening the definition of a family unit, the court has protected the rights of women and LGBTQI people as they are forced to live with the added burden of concealing their identities and relationships for fear of not being accepted by society. This is a positive step in terms of acceptance in various social domains that heteronormative families have an advantage of.
Although such prose of the courts is often more liberal in its disposition, it is not reflected by the legislature. The government in the UK and everywhere else encourages people to be married as marriage allowance could reduce tax bills. So when it comes to inheritance tax, it is more profitable to follow the traditional route if putting a ring on it.
To assail the notion of a traditional family, it is pertinent to assess how ‘traditional’ this unit really is. David Brook in the essay ‘The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake‘ talks about how the nuclear family unit is a fairly recent construct. He talks about how in the 17th-century, family units had a multigenerational corporate structure. Going back further in time, or parts of the world like central Africa or in North-East India, it is the tribe and not the family which is the organizational unit and the center of social affairs. Thus, what might be considered a quintessential family make-up is an early 20th-century phenomenon.
Brookings Institute writes about potential avenues the family unit could evolve into. A common one, as depicted in popular sitcoms like Friends or How I Met Your Mother, is the ‘chosen family’. This is considered more consistent with the development of modern liberalism, in which relationships are contingent rather than coerced. This change is reflected in the laws of the United States where in the Healthy Families Act, along with other legislation, recognises ‘..any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship”’.
In her book Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy depicts the Jannat Guest House, which houses the society’s most marginalized and ostracized people like an untouchable man, a transgender person, a baby picked from trash etc. These people set up their own heaven and defy the traditional idea of what family members consist of, further reimagining gendered spaces and roles.
This is in contrast to the typical family’s house, where socially established roles and connections exist. The fine line between these two demonstrates that whether a family is made up of cisgender or queer people, with or without biological children, they have real relationships and real people at the end of the day, and they construct what we term a safe haven or home for themselves.
What Arundhati Roy emphasizes, or concepts like ‘Chosen Families’ try to indicate is that families are based on the depth of relationships between the individual units. Thus, the focus of the state is trying to address what constitutes a family unit, and should also focus on the embodiment of strong family values.