Talking the Marriage Talk

Monday, August 13, 2012

By Kelly, Special Projects Coordinator

Whitney Houston movingly sings, “I believe the children are our future,” capturing our nation’s legal and social make-up and what the “greatest love of all” is. The US is obsessed with the future talk – what we want to be, how many children we want, when we’re going to get married… Talking the talk and even dreaming about the future as a real, tangible possibility is a privilege that is accessible for some and not for others. As queer of color scholar José Esteban Muñoz claims, the future is accessible for heterosexual citizens, echoing how our society intrinsically constructs the future through marriage, nuclear family, owning property, carrying out one’s lineage through children. The US legally and socially enforces this linear pathway of traditional marriage and nuclear family formation as ensuring nation-building through selective citizenship and reproduction. In this so-called post-race, post-gender society, same-sex marriage is imagined as our last civic rights fight, but is marriage the right place to determine rights at all?

In American Marriage: A Political Institution, Priscilla Yamin leaves us reconsidering this very question: what role should marriage play in defining the rights of citizens? Yamin takes us through key political moments when marriage has been leveraged to recreate hierarchies based on race, gender, class, and sexuality, redefine citizenship, and “normalize”marginalized communities in the guise of full racial and economic equality. For instance, after the Civil War, marriage was used strategically to define freedom for ex-slaves, which granted them citizenship, all while interracial marriage was illegal. During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, marriage was proposed as a solution for “true” equality and the end of poverty in the black community while pathologizing the black family as dysfunctional. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, workfare and marriage promotion policies were put into place as an end all to welfare.

These key moments, according to Yamin, illuminates how marriage is a political strategy and tool used to control civic inclusion and exclusion – who’s in and who’s out. On the other hand, Yamin shows how marriage teeters between a political agenda and a quest for inclusion. In the heat of California’s Prop 8 battle, gay and lesbian activists have fought for same-sex marriage rights for “true” equality, claiming, “we’re just like everyone else!” Marginalized communities have centralized this rhetoric in regards to marriage to validate their normativity, assimilation, and national identity, regenerating and sustaining the US’s dominant ideologies and regulation on partnerships, households, and citizenship.

Yamin’s disruption of the institution of marriage is necessary as we negotiate and grapple with what marriage means for us personally, our communities, and how that affects the larger system. No, marriage might not be the right place to define citizenship and rights, but it’s a political institution that is so set in place and intertwined in our legal and social make-up. However, the talk can be a real and radical talk about how our relationships, our identities, our communities, and our families don’t have to fit into the dominant paradigms of race, sexuality, class, citizenship, religion, and gender. We can slowly wipe the make-up off, and the talk can look like us – real and tangible.

Stay tuned for the second post in this two-part blog piece about the institution of marriage.

Kelly is a Ph.D candidate at Northwestern University in Performance Studies.  

Priscilla Yamin teaches Political Science at the University of Oregon. 
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