A Historian’s Comments on Katherine Franke’s Wedlocked

In Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality legal scholar Katherine Franke compares the African American experience with marriage in the wake of the Civil War, with the quest for marriage equality for queers. Relying on a wide variety of archival sources and the experiences of lawyers specializing in queer family law, Franke details the problems that African Americans faced in their first encounters with marriage, drawing vital conclusions about the care queer people should take when we consider the implications of our newly won right to marry. As Franke so astutely asks, why should queers, who only recently gained the right to be free of state criminalization of our sexual lives in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), immediately invite the state to regulate those newly gained sexual freedoms through the institution of marriage? This question seems especially important given the profoundly gendered nature of Anglo-American marriage. Why would a people, who, by the very nature of our desires, trouble the gender binary, sign up for an institution that has historically been premised on it? Marriage, as Franke states, has “its own well-entrenched agenda” and thus “is a particularly value-laden institution within which to lodge claims for full citizenship.” (143)

Franke frames each chapter with a discussion of African Americans initial experiences with marriage, and thus, with the state. Rather than freeing black families to organize their families as they pleased, she finds that marriage instead opened them up to new forms of white violence, domination and control. For example, in the wake of the Civil War, Franke demonstrates that many states automatically married African Americans who lived in relationships that appeared “marriage-like” without their consent, or at times, even knowledge. People who had been living together in a variety of arrangements suddenly found themselves actually married. This preemptory state move did have some positive effects. After all, marriage licenses cost money– money that most couples in desperately impoverished African American community did not have. However, this also resulted in couples who had no intention of marrying, or any knowledge of the legal requirements of marriage, ending up married.

These automatic marriages opened African Americans to state discipline when they violated the laws governing marriage, such as monogamy and the need for divorce when ending relationships. This proved particularly devastating when the state, often at the instigation of jilted partners, began to prosecute African Americans for crimes directly related to their status as married or unmarried people—bigamy, adultery and fornication. Franke speculates that southern state governments bent on maintaining white supremacy, might have deliberately used violations of marriage law to deprive African American men of the vote, as many states then and now, had laws that disfranchised felons. Even more pernicious, she also wonders if states may have been motivated to prosecute African American men to pull them into the convict lease system. Convict lease, the use of convicts as unpaid laborers for either private or state projects, became a virulently exploitative form of labor discipline directed against African Americans well into the twentieth century.

Franke’s second major point revolves around the formation of alternative structures of family in both the African American and queer communities. Slave law (which traced descent through the mother) combined with traditions brought from West Africa, made slave families broadly matrilineal and matrilocal. Furthermore, the pressures of slavery, particularly the need for abroad marriages (husbands and wives who lived on separate plantations) and forced separation through sale, produced both polygamy (also found in West Africa) and serial monogamy. Finally, the disruptions of slavery encouraged a commitment to much broader family ties among slaves than among whites in the antebellum period. Slave communities relied both on extended kin, particularly aunts and grandmothers, and on what anthropologists call “chosen kin,” people with no blood ties who nevertheless take on family responsibilities. Historians have argued that this diversity of family forms encouraged resiliency among both individuals and the broader African American community.

While feminist historians have rightly cast these differences in a positive light (feminist evolutionary biologists point out that matrilineality produces better child outcomes than other systems), Franke demonstrates how whites (then and now) used diversity in family forms as proof of African American’s racial inferiority. Because they did not or could not always follow the “ideal” nuclear family form with a breadwinning husband and an economically dependent wife, whites consistently denied African American humanity. Denigrating them as inherently “immoral” people who had disorganized and dysfunctional families, whites in the 19th century argued against African American claims for citizenship rights.

Like African Americans, queers have developed a variety of family forms and embrace a much broader definition of family membership. Historically, queer couples, particularly men, have negotiated rather than assumed monogamy, even in long term relationships. Queers also rely extensively on “chosen families” made up of friends and ex-lovers. Finally, when they have children, queers deploy a number of strategies that, Franke points out, stretch the boundaries of legal definitions of families. In addition to the more “homonormative” (to borrow Lisa Duggan’s apt term) choices like couples adopting children, or having a child through ART, some queer folk create families with more than two parents. A lesbian couple, for example, who ask a gay male friend to provide sperm, might also ask him to be a “duncle” (donor uncle) who maintains a relationship with the child that, while not like a father, still provides important support and love. There are a myriad of ways in which queer families strain the traditional legal definitions of family with alternative models that, like strategies among African American, increase our resiliency.

Given these shared characteristics, Franke cautions queers about the dangers that marriage may pose to these much broader family ties. First, she points out, marriage would not protect any of these relationships. The fact that a lesbian couple could marry, for example, would do little to solidify their gay donor’s relationship to their child, much less, say, that of his siblings who may well be functioning as a third set of aunts and uncles. Second, Franke points out that the marriage equality movement itself has cast families not based on marriage as inferior and dysfunctional in order to emphasize the harm produced by policies that restrict marriage to one man and one woman. In their attempts to win marriage equality, she argues, proponents for marriage equality have thrown the rest of our family forms under the married nuclear family bus.

Finally, the granting of marriage equality has, in many states, actually damaged the ability of people to protect family members through means other than marriage.   In many states that have granted gay marriage, legislatures and private institutions have eliminated with domestic partnership registries or benefits. This denies all couples the right to choose between marriage and other kinds of relationships. As Franke points out, some couples may not be interested in the full set of responsibilities contained in marriage, but may still want the more limited set of benefits that derive from domestic partnership. Among other things, while marriage is easy, divorce can be difficult and expensive. Many couples may want to be recognized as partners, but might not be ready for marriage and the attendant risk of spending a lot of money should they break up. All in all, Franke is absolutely right that marriage does not solve all of our complex family problems, and in fact, when not thought through carefully, it may increase them. She argues persuasively for more choices in our family forms, rather than fewer.

Since I have been brought on board as the pet historian, I do feel I must add a little historical context to Franke’s text. Her arguments about the dangers of marriage are apt, but she provides little explanation, beyond a desire for “equality,” as to why the queer community turned to marriage. This leaves the reader wondering why in the world we would pursue such clearly problematic strategy, especially since, as Franke rightly indicates, gay liberation and feminist activists of the 1970s rejected marriage as an oppressive institution. The answer, of course, lies in the very real family crises the queer community confronted in the 1980s. As historian George Chauncey argues, both the lesbian baby boom and the AIDS epidemic forced the queer community to confront the problems attendant to having no easy way to legally acknowledge our family ties. Issues of custody, medical decision making, benefits and inheritance compelled us to turn to marriage as a one-stop-shopping for family rights in the context of the life and death decisions we confronted. In fact, had U.S. law not attached so many rights and benefits to marriage, it seems unlikely queers would have pursued marriage as a goal. (Chauncey, Why Marriage, 87-136))

To me, the most interesting part of Franke’s argument lies in the discontinuities rather than continuities between African American experience in the wake of the Civil War, and contemporary queer experience. She expected, for example, that queers, like African Americans, would experience an upsurge in discrimination and hostile attention from the state upon marriage. But this has, she freely admits, largely failed to happen. Similar to African Americans who brought their spouses before the courts for adultery, some queers have used the rules of marriage (and particularly the assumption of monogamy) to disadvantage ex-partners in matters of child custody and property settlement. She also has found a revival of interest among conservative lawmakers to strengthen (rather than doing away with) state laws against sex crimes like fornication and adultery, which are rarely enforced but remain on the books. However, Franke did not find that states used these laws disproportionately against queer people in the wake of queer marriage victories, as states did against African Americans in the 19th century.

Franke attributes this difference to the way gayness, and by extension, marriage equality, have broadly been seen as white, even if, in fact, many people of color identify as queer. She points out that most of leadership of “big gay” organizations are white and middle class, as have been the majority of plaintiffs in gay marriage cases. This perceived whiteness has increased the respectability of the movement, perhaps to the detriment of African American families, who have been unable, as hard as they try, to shed racist stereotypes of family disorganization and dysfunction.

Second, Franke argues that seeking civil rights through marriage itself represents a “traditional,” perhaps even conservative path. Marriage equality advocates have argued that they should be allowed to participate in marriage as it is currently defined. They have not, for example, pointed out the myriad of ways having two men, or two women, marry might challenge the deeply gendered nature of the institution itself. As she explains, “when the conservatives sign up for marriage equality, they do so because it dawns on them that their interests in traditional family values, in the nuclear family, in privatizing dependency, and in bourgeois respectability are stronger than their homophobia.” (203). Gay marriage, she argues, has allowed gays to take the “sex” out of “homosexuality.” It has allowed us to make homosexuality about family, intimacy and caregiving, rather than various kinds of stigmatized sexual activities, which, she and I both agree, continue to be fun, and worthy of championing.

Franke then raises, but does not answer, the essential question of why blackness has continued to carry such negative valences, even as queers have been able to “rebrand” homosexuality as family friendly, all-American and not really about sex at all. Here, my work on the relationships between gays and family in the post-war period may provide us an answer. Very broadly, I argue that the gay community’s strategy for gaining social acceptance put family bonds to the work of destigmatizing homosexuality.

“Coming out,” first popularized with gay liberation in the early 1970s, asked queer people to tell family and friends about their sexual orientation. The idea was that this would liberate them as individuals, but that it would also liberate the community by challenging heterosexual family members to rethink long held negative stereotypes about homosexuality. Furthermore, once out, the lived experience of queers in America exposes our kin to the depth of hostility and discrimination we face. However, the intense racial segregation of most American cities, ensures that we continue to live, work, and go to school with our own racial groups. U.S. public policy in the 20th century, particularly the Federal Housing Authority, actively promoted segregation, denying both whites and racial minorities the opportunity to live and go to school together, and therefore to know each other in intimate and productive ways. This is one of the many forms of systemic racism white Americans continue to ignore. Deploying kin and the bonds of love in the service of liberation has been a tremendously successful strategy for queers, and it explains why we, as Americans have come so far in such a short period of time on issues of sexual diversity, but have, at the same time, failed to make much progress addressing race, racism, and profound racial disparities.

Franke’s text is a reminder to the queer community that we are at a political and moral crossroads. While we still face some forms of discrimination, particularly the violence directed at trans folk, the fortunes of gender normative queer people have risen substantially. Having engaged in so much creative work around family, equality, and liberty over the last fifty years, we must now choose whether to retreat with our (now) homonormative families to the white suburbs, or to continue the fight for greater equality for all Americans. We know the vicious sting of discrimination, and we know what it’s like to fight desperately for our families as we define them. The question is, will we take those lessons into the fights against poverty and racism? History will judge us in the alliances we make, and the battles we bring. Like Franke, I would like to see us to continue in our queer battle to support all families, not just the ones we can defend through marriage.

 

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2 Responses

  1. It’s great to have an historian — pet or otherwise — on board to situate these points within a larger context. Beth’s post left me wondering if the “bonds of love and kinship” are sufficiently similar in the 19th century as now to withstand the comparison. Have we moved sufficiently far away from the idea of marriage and family as a locus of private caretaking toward companionship and individual self-fulfillment that the “love and kinship” enforced through marriage is different then and now? Or not? And might the “stain” of anti-African-American racism be sui generis? If so, what are we to make of ubiquitous analogies to other “races” or categories like sexual orientation?

  2. I am delighted by Professor Clement’s engagement with Wedlocked. As evidenced by her “We Are Family” scholarship, she has been tilling some of the same soil that drew my attention in this book. Her review/comment above offers an amazing synthesis of so many of the main arguments of my book and I am enormously grateful for the way she engages it. A question: she suggests that the gay community turned to marriage in the 1970s and in later decades because of insecurity our families experienced on marriage’s outside. I agree – but the book aims to suggest that marriage was not the only legal instrument that might have addressed that insecurity. Many of us in the lesbian community felt other legal forms could create a structure for our families without reproducing the troubling history and gendered nature of marriage. Paula Ettelbrick and Tom Stoddard staged this discussion in their now canonical debate about the wisdom of a marriage strategy in Outlook in 1989. I remember Paula writing the early drafts of that essay in our living room in Brooklyn in 1988, screaming at the legal pad on which she was writing (this was a pre-computer era!) that pursuing marriage was a terrible mistake. So yes, I agree with Clement’s explanation of why turn to marriage, but that doesn’t address the larger historical question of whether there was debate in the community about the wisdom of this approach and what the bases of that debate amounted to. Wedlocked tries to give those now-familiar debate a new context in which to be considered.

    Thank you to the historian – pet or otherwise – for taking the book’s history seriously.