Today’s marriage equality movement is often praised as “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” With head-spinning speed (by law reform standards), advocates for the LGBTQ community have convinced the Supreme Court to stop treating lesbians and gay men as criminals and instead treat us as full-fledged citizens.
While many same-sex couples are busy planning their big fat gay weddings, others of us might pause to think a little about what we won when we won the right to marry. Did the Supreme Court hand the gay community what it asked for and nothing more? Or did this huge victory for gay rights create a tool that other social movements can use? Can a right to marry for same-sex couples deliver tools for the broader struggle to secure rights, liberty, and equality for all oppressed minorities?
To be honest, today’s marriage equality advocates owe a huge debt to the social movements that came before them. Winning the case for same-sex marriage built on constitutional paradigms forged in race-based cases; if laws prohibiting interracial marriage violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, so, too, should laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. Yet this analogy has been resisted in some quarters of the black community, not only for bad or homophobic reasons, but out of a concern that racism and homophobia are too different from one another to bear the comparison.
I’ve been interested for a long time in the parallels between the LGBTQ and black civil rights movements. My new book Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality looks at the legal struggles of both the LGBTQ and black communities through the lens of marriage. As it turns out, today’s gains in the fight for marriage equality have a racial history. Newly freed former slaves also demanded a right to marry at the end of the Civil War. For them, just as for same-sex couples today, the right to marry was at the center of what it meant to be free and equal citizens. By looking at newly freed people’s experiences with a new right to marry, today’s marriage equality movement can learn important lessons about both the freedom and the risks of asking the state to license your relationships when you belong to a social group that still suffers widespread discrimination and hatred. This history teaches us that freedom can be both exhilarating and crushing.
In archives throughout the South, I found stories of new freedom for former slaves, stories in which the right to marry was at the top of the list of rights they demanded to exercise for the first time. What I also found was that the right to marry became a trap as black people built lives as free people. Supposing (wrongly) that the freedom to marry meant the freedom to organize their intimate lives as they wished, many black people found themselves prosecuted for adultery, bigamy, or fornication (sex with someone who isn’t your spouse) when they failed to follow the rules of marriage and divorce—rules no one had told them about. In other cases, newly freed black people were forced to marry by well-meaning Northerners who thought that marriage would teach them the kind of discipline and respectability that would help “elevate” them from the “savagery” of their existence as slaves. Interestingly, members of the black community conspired in this project as well, turning in their adulterous spouses, friends, and neighbors who were giving newly freed black people a bad name by following the “old ways.” Overall, formerly enslaved women found themselves “liberated” into a life where they were dependent and vulnerable wives. In fact, many black women gained their freedom through marrying free black men and found themselves worse off than they’d been as unmarried and enslaved.
This historical material gives us a cautionary tale: Gaining new rights in a society that still hates you can trigger a wide range of backlash. What we can learn today from the experiences of newly freed people at the end of the Civil War is that once you set your sights on a right, the values of that right may overtake the values and aims of the people who seek it. As the LGBTQ rights movement has transformed into a marriage rights movement, we are witnessing the cause for gay rights embracing the values that underlie marriage: respectability, monogamy, and the nuclear family—all things that the demonstrators at Stonewall would have opposed! The experiences of newly freed people with a right to marry also show us that rights are complicated in the sense that each step forward brings with it new forms of vulnerability.
Newly freed people’s experience with marriage can teach us about the perils of marriage equality, but it also casts a light on the differences between racism and homophobia. Remarkably and swiftly, same-sex couples have been able to use marriage equality to rebrand themselves as decent, loving people—just like everyone else. Marriage for gay people has been a site of reinvention and redemption. Yet for black Americans, whether in the 19th century or today, marriage has by and large served as a test they are doomed to fail in the eyes of white policy-makers. The dominant story of black American families in this country has been one of absent fathers, struggling single mothers, and overall dysfunction—despite ample social science evidence that actually proves the opposite. Aaron Paxton Arnold wrote an editorial last summer titled Dispelling the Myths About Black Fathers that sought to dispel the unfounded myths of the broken or dysfunctional black family, but these stories and the facts they are based on seem to get little traction. Meanwhile, lesbian and gay people have successfully transformed their reputation with courts and the public from perverts to model parents.
This, in the end, is the central question I have sought to answer: How does a right to marry help us better understand the stubborn, even indelible, nature of racial stigma, particularly when compared with the stigma of being gay? The answer is in the dissimilarities that emerge. The gay community has been surprisingly successful in using marriage to redefine what it means to be gay. A similar dignity of self-definition has never been made available to black American people. Not through the abolition of slavery, not through the passage of important civil rights laws, and certainly not through marriage.
Understanding how gay men and lesbians have used the cause for marriage equality to rework what it means to be gay helps us see even more clearly how, by contrast, the signature of race is a mark that black American people have had little hand in writing or rewriting. The victories for same-sex marriage are built on the struggles for equality and citizenship fought by black Americans. It’s time we returned the favor and made sure that the gains for LGBTQ people create the ground on which the next generation of struggles for racial justice can be built.