Neither Freedom Nor Equality

Be careful what you wish for – that’s the clear warning that Katherine Franke gives the reader in her new book, Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality. In the book, Franke offers a far-reaching and incisive critique of marriage, based on the ways in which marriage was both sought after and suffered through by two distinctly different populations: newly freed slaves after the Civil War and same-sex couples in the wake of marriage equality. Careful not to make direct comparisons between the two populations, Franke presents the experiences of both groups side by side and draws out similarities that are always striking and often surprising. The intertwining stories of these two groups provide a window into “what it means to elaborate a new conception of freedom and equality through a form of state licensure.” (p. 11)

Freedom and equality frame the discussion and serve as touchpoints for Franke as she details the unintended consequence of access to marriage for both populations. What becomes clear, as the book progresses, is that the elaboration of freedom and equality through marriage is quite different than the reality of obtaining freedom and equality through marriage. Franke’s first overarching theme – marriage is not freedom – comes through sharply in the wide-ranging stories she tells about couples, both then and now. Marriage does not and cannot equate with freedom because it is a form of state control. This is not news, but the way in which Franke adeptly draws out the myriad ways in which marriage is used as a mechanism for domestication and governance is compelling. But Franke does not stop there. She deepens this argument by describing the peculiar genius of marriage which is that, despite its being a freedom-constraining relationship, the promise of equality that it offers is sufficiently tantalizing to make the trade-off not only acceptable but even desirable. As she presses on the idea of equality in the context of marriage, however, Franke develops her second, twin theme – that marriage rights do not necessarily produce equality. Not only is freedom illusory; equality is not guaranteed.

Beginning with freedom, Franke presses on this concept throughout and skillfully underscores how marriage operates as a “tactic of governance” (p. 62) that is both plastic and persistent. One particular loss of freedom that concerns Franke derives from marriage being deployed by the State as a technology of power that regulates sexuality, erasing all forms of “fantasmatic curiosity.” (p. 115) The embrace and imposition of marriage on both populations has placed alternative sexualities in service of hetero- and now homonormative ideals. Franke regrets in particular with the gay community that, under the yoke of marriage, “we have lost for now the opportunity to explore the possibilities of a ‘lawless homosexuality.’” (p. 115) Marriage is (as I have explored elsewhere) deeply implicated as a part of the “civilizing process.” As such, marriage demands that sexuality be confined to be legitimized and that individuals discipline their internal, sexual drives. Consequently, relationships that tolerate alternate sexualities – such as bigamy, informal marriage, and multi-party relationships – have been penalized, and might be again, in the rush to ensconce marriage as the one legitimate container for sexual intimacy and activity.

Marriage also entails another, related, loss of freedom because it demands not only sexual but also social conditioning. Marriage is a public-facing relationship that requires that families look and act a certain way: a husband and wife, several children, a well-ordered household. Measured against these perfect families, Franke’s “fluid families” come up short and are penalized for their different-looking, non-traditional forms. Women bear a particular burden of regulation and correction, because the picture-perfect form of marriage is a hierarchical and gendered one. “Fluid families” are therefore disrupted and disciplined not only because of their expressive sexuality but also because they do not conform to gender-based hierarchy. In the context of freed slaves, “female-headed households, or even matrifocal families, in many slave communities were pointed to as evidence of the dysfunction, or even the pathology, of slave family life.” (p.81) Even current marriage laws, however, “take matrimony to be a legal relationship that is fundamentally structured by gender inequality.” (p. 209) Accordingly, Franke worries about the effects of marriage on same-sex couples and how it might transform previously gender-fluid relationships into gender-filled ones. Whether or not same-sex couples will change marriage or marriage will change them, encouraging same-sex couples to reinscribe conventional gender roles in their relationships, remains to be seen. The sociology is in the making. Nevertheless Franke’s warning to monitor the impulse to gender within marriage is apt, especially given power imbalances that result in many couples due to asymmetrical earnings in a marriage.

Finally, marriage represents an immediately relevant form of state intervention and loss of freedom because it imposes default rules about money, resources, and sharing. Marriage economics are, as Franke points out, intimately related to the gendered nature of marriage and marriage as a form of “private welfare.” (p. 90) Because of legal assumptions about the specialization of household labor and marriage as an economic partnership, divorce laws mandate forced sharing, absent private contracting. Same-sex couples are not always aware of these rules (not unlike their different-sex counterparts) and, furthermore, divorce courts don’t always know what to do when confronted with couples who might have been married sooner than they were, had they been allowed to do so. Franke’s story of Ruth and Beth underscores these problems and highlight the possibility of unjust enrichment. (p. 211) Equally likely, however, is the possibility that long-term same-sex couples who have been economic partners for years will be dealt with unfairly by courts refusing to recognize those years of partnership upon divorce. That is to say, while backdating to the beginning of the dating period is one option courts have when constituting the marital estate, they also have the option of not taking into account anything that happened previous to the marriage and thereby artificially circumscribing the assets available to distribute at divorce. Given the reluctance of courts to accord property claims to unmarried cohabitants – and the almost complete rejection by state legislatures of the ALI principles (p. 156) – this may be the more likely danger. Either way, Franke establishes through an abundance of examples that freedom has little relationship with marriage.

Having deconstructed the notion of freedom with respect to marriage – the freedom to marry is really an invitation to relinquish personal freedom to the State – Franke goes on to suggest that the promise of equality through marriage may also be illusory. Marriage inequality operates on several levels. For starters, the right to marry for same-sex couples does not necessitate the right to equal treatment by a legal and societal culture still hobbled by bias and discriminatory desire. One noteworthy thread that runs through the book is that bias has an afterlife – it does not just disappear but rather gets channeled into new outlets and finds new modes of appearance. In the case of marriage equality, inequality may appear in the guise of reinvigorated enforcement of adultery and bigamy law with respect to same-sex couples. (p. 151) Laws that have been on the books for decades, never invoked, may be animated anew because of reconstituted homophobia. Gay men and lesbians, Franke remarks, “have long been accustomed” (p. 152) to outdated laws being selectively applied in order to penalize gay sex. Marriage equality may not change this. This bias may also find other ways to get into court. With same-sex couples having and adopting children, as well as divorcing, bias could easily show up in family court. It is, in fact, simple to speculate about how discrimination and stereotypes might find their way into judicial determinations about property division, spousal maintenance, and child custody. This is a matter, in many respects, of cultural change lagging behind legal change on certain issues and in certain locations. Franke does not have the space, nor is it necessarily a part of her project, to take on the question of how to move cultural change forward, to full acceptance of same-sex relationships and sexuality. The necessity of doing so, however, remains.

There are also other inequalities engendered by the push for equality. In fact, the larger problem with marriage “equality” may be that it creates inequalities within and between various communities. This is a major point in the book and one that weaves together the stories of the gay and African-American communities in the contemporary landscape. In short, the problem with the move to gain rights through marriage, thereby making marriage the standard by which other relationships are “both made legible and assigned value” (p. 112), is that it renders other relationships different and lesser. As Franke argues, “winning the right to marry should not result in making non-traditional families … even more vulnerable for their failure to take a nuclear form.” (p. 111) Perhaps one of the most damaging aspects of this bias “offloading” is that it penalizes and further stigmatizes African-Americans because of the high prevalence of non-normative families in African-American communities. (p. 61) The promise of equality is, consequently, tempered by competing claims to relationship legitimacy and the continuing legacy of racism.

Freedom is not free and equality is not equal. Looking at the possible losses rather than gains in freedom and equality that result from obtaining the right to marry, one is left to wonder two things. Why do we need marriage? And, if we do need marriage for certain purposes, how can and should we manage the technology of marriage so that it serves as a mechanism for enabling freedom and equality?

An answer to the first question is that we don’t need marriage for everything. Consequently, one way to reduce marriage governance is to stop provisioning goods and resources through marriage to the extent that we currently do. There are indisputably good instrumental and practical reasons to marry, given the structure of our current system. As Windsor winningly demonstrated, it is manifestly unfair to ask same-sex couple to be taxed when different-sex couples are not. And, on the flip side, if many different-sex couples count financial planning among the reasons for marriage, why shouldn’t same-sex couples do the same? The thousand-plus benefits that the government provisions through marriage constitute an extremely compelling reason to get married. This has led to a phenomenon of many same-sex couples “holding their noses” and getting married.

This argument, however, does not justify marriage on the merits. There is nothing inherent to marriage that makes it the right or only way to provision benefits. In fact, the answer to the benefits question may be to have the State provision them outside of marriage. Franke does not explore how else we, collectively, might choose to provision benefits or the responsibility of the State to do so in a more equality driven manner. She does, however, nod at the question of redistribution when she suggests that all “married queers” think about what it means to enjoy economic advantage through marriage and reshape their behavior accordingly. (p. 235) Actions like these will help decrease the marriage privilege and smooth out differences among the various types of intimate relationships. This will also prevent couples from being channeled into marriage without any real desire for it.

Another answer is that we need marriage for certain people because, for these couples, the substance of marriage is compelling. Marriage, for some, is a positive good. Consequently, a second strategy – compatible with the first – is to commit to making marriage more equal for those who choose to be in it for affirmative substantive reasons. Franke rightly critiques the fact that “marriage has been recharged as the most august holding environment for the elaboration of one’s mature and authentic self.” (p. 61) Trying to find the charm and charisma of marriage, however, it may be that marriage is deeply appealing because it is a site for making and maintaining a unique connection with another person. The modern ideal of companionate marriage reinforces this ideal and demonstrates how marriage is more than money. Marriage provides a way for individuals to commit to one another, offer continuing support, and receive both love and encouragement. Marriage is of course not required for this type of relationship to develop and flourish. Marriage does, however, serve a signaling function and provide a legal framework for resource sharing and caretaking of multiple kinds.

For these people, marriage is an unalterable part of the social landscape. For them, Franke offers valuable suggestions in her “Call to Action For Married Queers,” including asking spouses to monitor their economic privilege, be aware of gender, and resist offloading bias on other, various non-normative groups. The notion alone of queering marriage is a project worth pursuing in an attempt to help further change the nature of marriage. In this vein, one additional suggestion for Franke’s Call to Action is for married queers – and unmarried ones as well – to open and protect robust critical, queer spaces both inside and outside of marriage. Franke’s message about preserving queer spaces in the context of sexuality is equally important in the political context. Part of keeping marriage equality in play and in question is curating spaces of play and resistance – critical spaces in which divergent practices and personae can be explored. Franke laments that the push to marriage has foreclosed many of these spaces in the gay community. These spaces, however, can be perpetually reinvented through critical inquiry and activity, and they will be the sites of cultural as well as legal resistance.

Ultimately, Wedlocked deftly deconstructs the notions of both freedom and equality with respect to marriage. What remains is to think through how to counter marriage primacy, change marriage internally, and keep open the space for critical play.

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1 Response

  1. Allison – thank you so much for this generous and generative comment on the arguments I offer in “Wedlocked.” Your own work is a testament to the rich forms of analysis that the win in Obergefell calls forth – not to deny the legal/political goal of marriage equality, but to consider anew the structural inequalities and historical legacies that continue to reside in marriage itself, notwithstanding the repudiation of its heteronormative limits. Your article, Divorce Equality, 90 Wash.L.Rev. 1245 (2015), takes up the meaning of equitable distribution rules in the era of marriage equality, and your The Return of Coverture, 114 Mich.L.Rev.First Impressions 99 (2016), unpacks the ways in with Justice Kennedy’s reasoning in Obergefell draws from arguments that are, to borrow at term from Eve Sedgwick, kind of “gendery.” This excellent work challenges us to consider whether the win for marriage equality might be premised on a loss for hetero women in marriage. So too, your work reminds us of the ongoing work to be done to dismantle the afterlife of couverture. I look forward to reading where you take us in future work.