Archive for the ‘sexuality’ Category
It’s hard not to succumb to the temptation to overread the importance of firsts: Frank Ocean, the R&B singer who is best known to a wide audience for singing the hook on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” and member of Odd Future collective, wrote a poignant story on tumblr about falling in love with a man. By virtue of his post, he accomplished a first for mainstream black music in openly discussing his relationship with a man. The actual story is powerful because in many ways because it is universal. Ocean recounts the longing, unrequited feelings, and finding closure from a transformative love. The posting is a pivotal one in his personal journey and feels like a great moment for black music writ large. The expression of Ocean’s group member, Tyler, the Creator sums up the exuberance of this moment by stating on Formspring, “yeah thats my n***a tho, shit is hard for him but he did that.”
The African American community has expanded immeasurably by the figure of Frank Ocean. Black music in general and hip hop in particular is supposed to reflect the vast expanse of human existence and the reality of life in urban America. It has often been summed up by shorthand to keep it real. Authenticity is a preoccupation of hip hop and its marching orders. It is a medium that possesses a youthful swagger that has become a dominant force in popular culture. Like all art, hip hop both transcends and remains frustratingly bound by material limitations of sexism and consumerism. In other words, it encompasses the contradictions, myopias, strivings and beauty of life. At this moment, black music also has the power to become more accepting of the range of human sexuality. Read the rest of this entry »
Much ink has been spilled about the death, life, and roommate of Tyler Clementi, the gay teenager who in 2010 jumped to his death from the GW bridge during his first semester at Rutgers in the days after his roommate twice web-cam’d him having intimate relations with another man. In the past week there has been a general outcry over the conviction of his roommate Dharun Ravi, now facing up to 20 years in prison, on charges of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation (hate crimes), witness tampering, and evidence tampering.
The punishment doesn’t fit the crime, he was just a “jerky kid.” A sympathetic New Yorker article by Ian Parker primed a liberal public for this a few months back. Parker painted a picture of Ravi as a puffed up, insecure teenager (in other words, an American teeanger) and suggested, “[Ravi's] predicament could be seen either as a state’s admirably muscular response to the abusive treatment of a vulnerable young man or as an attempt to criminalize teen-age odiousness by using statutes aimed at people more easily recognizable as hate-mongers and perverts.” Both Emily Bazelon in the New York TImes and J. Bryan Lowder at Slate have recently written in support of the latter sentiment.
I’m not sure why we’re surprised that a teenager has seen a rough day in court. This appears to be the norm these days, with over 2,000 kids sitting in jail for life without parole, Occupy movements violently broken up by the police, depicted as threats to both private property and the state, and anti-bullying laws on the move, in part due to this case, which raises the inevitable question of whether we really want seven-year-olds to have round-the-clock access to the Crimestoppers hotline. It’s not that the law doesn’t recognize youth as an important identity, it’s that it doesn’t like what it sees. Youth, in other words, is an increasingly useless category of defense.
I’ve been thinking about identity a good amount lately while going through the Wendy Brown/Janet Halley volume Left Legalism/Left Critique. Richard T Ford’s “Beyond ‘Difference’: A Reluctant Critique of Legal Identity Politics” worries about the way in which the law, while providing recourse to those who can claim a certain identity like “woman” or “black American” simultaneously reconstitutes that identity, reifying it in its cultural associations. For instance, an employee who brings suit against her employer because the employer has told her she cannot wear her hair in cornrows does so on the basis of racial discrimination. Yet in doing so, cornrows become the “‘cultural essence’ not of one black woman but of all black women.” With racial identities thus culturally concretized, Ford worries that the politics of difference will threaten to become another hegemonic discourse “no less myopic than the universalist ideal that preceded it.”
Yesterday I sat in on a discussion on Karla FC Holloway‘s new book, Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics. As a professor in both the English department and Law School at Duke, Holloway is well aware of both the constructiveness of identity and of the legal recourse certain socialized and historically subjugated identities like “black” and “women” provide in today’s America. When asked, she said she was not yet willing to do away with these socialized identities. In light of the recent Trayvon Martin shooting, one can see why. It’s unclear what will happen at the criminal level, but it seems likely that Martin’s family will seek reparation from the city or from the neighborhood watch organization through a civil trial whose success will swivel on the fulcrum of race. The shooter’s racist exclamations may make it an easy case, yet in arguing that Martin was targeted because he was a young, African-American male, the trial will inevitably articulate certain “truths” about his African-American-maleness.
Similar debates on how the law provides relief through the reiteration of reifying identities and stereotypes run through the theory of many identity groups. The Arizona Senate recently passed legislation that will protect doctors from liability in cases where a child is born with congenital disability following prenatal testing– in other words doctors will no longer be under any real legal obligation to tell parents about diagnosed congenital disabilities. The back story of this law is a series of “wrongful birth” lawsuits. See historian Leslie Reagan’s very good article tracing this back to the German Measles outbreak in the 1950s/1960s. In “wrongful birth” suits, parents who unexpectedly gave birth to disabled children have sued their doctors for malpractice. The implication is that had the parents been provided correct information, they would have chosen to abort. Some have criticized such lawsuits for proliferating the idea that the disabled are “less worthy” of life, but the flip side is that parents don’t bring such suits in order to symbolically disavow their disabled children; they do so to seek financial redress to help cover medical bills.
It may seem like we’re a long way away from Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi’s dorm room at this point, but I want to swing back for a moment, because there were a few key identity categories at play in the media arc on this case. First, appealing to “youth” as an identity that explains and excuses the crime isn’t working. We live in a world of rapidly evolving, destabilizing technology, of media articles that avow and disavow rampant teenage sexuality all in one breath, and of successful campaigns like the Trevor Project’s “It Gets Better,” a campaign I’m sympathetic to in sentiment but which subjectivizes homophobia and reduces it — temporally and geographically — to the local schoolyard.
Disciplining the young, our future citizens, is nothing new. Foucault’s “The Carceral” begins with “that glorious day, unremarked and unrecorded, when a child in [the penal colony] Mettray remarked as he lay dying, ‘What a pity I left the colony so soon.” What is interesting today is not that youth are a target of overreaching discipline, but instead the relationship between law and social discipline at a moment where technological innovation has opened up unique behavioral, but also surveillance and disciplinary, possibilities. Yes, it seems that Dharun Ravi was punished harshly for a variety of reasons, but surely in part he was made an example of — a spectacle — for thousands of others teens to reference as they think about their daily technological routines and interactions.
One last word on a final identity that seems to have become completely stabilized in media discourse as object of Ravi’s homophobia: Clementi’s homosexuality. Given the way our culture sees sexuality as an innate, biological, subjectivized identity, this is no real surprise, yet Parker’s discussion with Molly Wei, the girl whose computer Clementi used, reveals that Ravi had a real discomfort with the object and kind of Clementi’s desire:
“It’s a really old-looking guy, like, What the heck, what’s going on?” Ravi thought that M.B. seemed “really shady.” [Wei]went on, “He actually was kind of angry. He’s, like, ‘If he steals my iPad I’m going to make Tyler pay for it.’ And he’s, like, ‘Oh, and my roommate’s gay, like what if something else is going on?’ ” Speaking to the police, Ravi recalled M.B. as “slightly overweight,” with facial hair of some sort. Ravi’s reaction appears to have included some class prejudice: the man, apparently working-class, was a likely thief. He was “random,” as one of Molly Wei’s friends later put it—he was troublingly not of their world.
It seems that the issue, at least at this moment, was not just, or not totally, that Clementi was gay, but that he was participating in a certain kind of deviant sexuality: crossing class, age, and respectable relationship bounds. This isn’t to say that Ravi would have had the same reaction had Clementi brought home a girl. More likely such an illicit heterosexual hookup would have been cause for celebration had it been orchestrated by a straight male. But in this case, a gay sexual identity opened Clementi up for visual probing into a private space that would have been respected had he been straight.
I’m pleased to once again be able to introduce a great guest post from friend-of-PhD-Octopus, Mircea, who takes on the case of the mythical Syrian lesbian blogger, Amina, and its personal and geopolitical fallout. –Luce
It’s been not 24 hours since the mystery behind detained Syrian lesbian blogger Amina Abdallah Arraf Al-Omari has been solved. What began as an international outcry over the arrest of a popular blogger giving voice to the queer side of the “Arab Spring” quickly turned into a frenzy of Internet investigations, carried out by journalists and bloggers, that has reached a sad and predictable end – there was never an Amina in the first place. The blog, and even more disturbingly, an entire online identity going back almost four years, was the creation of a 40 year-old American man from Georgia now studying in Edinburgh, Tom MacMasters, and his wife Britta. In what follows I’ll quickly recount the story, from first suspicions to this morning’s denouement, then offer a few thoughts on what this might mean in the larger context of queer politics and the Middle East.
It all began with this post detailing Amina’s capture by Syrian security forces, ostensibly put up by Amina’s cousin Rania Ismail. The response was swift, with several newspaper reports and a flurry of “Free Amina” facebook groups, like this one and this one, mobilising concerned people around the world. But within a few days, as reporters and State Department officials in Syria attempted to contact Amina’s family, doubts began to emerge. No one, it seems, had ever met or spoken to Amina, not even her girlfriend in Montreal, Sandra Bagaria (they had only communicated via e-mail). One of the first to publicly question the story was NPR’s Andy Carvin, who was sceptical yet cautious to declare that she didn’t exist. Maybe she was simply very good at concealing herself, as all activists living under repressive regimes must be. But then a Croatian woman living in London, Jelena Lecic, noticed that the photos of Amina being circulated were actually of her. There were hundreds, including all the photos on Amina’s personal facebook page, all apparently stolen from Jelena’s facebook. Troubled, she went on the BBC to prove her identity, and wonder how all this had come about. The evidence was increasingly pointing to an elaborate hoax.
I began following the controversy at Liz Henry’s blog, where commenters took to the Internet to uncover as many details about Amina as could be found. The mass of details was confusing, and involved an extensive cast of characters, some real and some fictional. Amina had stated she was born in Virginia and went to high school and college in Georgia. She had a previous blog where she declared her intention to mix fact and fiction; she had also been active in posting on alternate history Yahoo mailing lists, declaring her interest in medieval Byzantium. There were several online dating profiles, one in which she listed her language as Hebrew. Some used pictures of Jelena Lecic, some of another woman. Her cousin Rania Ismail’s facebook page turned out to be a likely fake; no one had been able to contact her either. Anything seemed possible. Was she the creation of Rania, a married Syrian woman looking for an escapist fantasy? Did Rania even exist? Was Amina a creation of Sandra Bagaria, the Canadian girlfriend? Or perhaps it was Jelena Lecic herself, whose first statement to the media was released through a suspicious P.R. agency? These theories may seem ridiculous in retrospect, but only through this kind of free-thinking exercise could all options be considered. The truth, when it came out, was perhaps stranger still.
Parallel to Liz Henry’s and Andy Carvin’s efforts, which later turned out to involve e-mail communications with someone likely to be the person behind the hoax, the website Electronic Intifada and the Washington Post were putting together a story based on two concrete leads. One came from Paula Brooks, an editor at the website LezGetReal (which was the first to introduce Amina’s blog to a wide readership). She provided two IP addresses used by Amina, both in Edinburgh. The other came from Scott Palter, a moderator on the alternate history boards, who had once gotten a mailing address from Amina in Stone Mountain, GA. This, it turned out, was Tom MacMaster’s home. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place: MacMaster was born in Virginia, had lived in Georgia, currently studies in Edinburgh, and plans to write a thesis on medieval Byzantium. He is a pro-Palestinian activist, and his wife Britta, a Quaker, was involved in organising events on Syria and Israel. Britta is a fellow at St. Andrews in the Centre for Syrian Studies, writing a thesis on the Syrian textile industry. She had posted pictures of her travels in Damascus, the same ones also used by Amina. The game was up.
MacMaster’s so-called apology on the blog, posted this morning, is a remarkable display of narcissism, self-delusion and self-righteousness. He declared, “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground,” with the exception, of course, of all the key facts on the blog – that a gay woman, living in Damascus, was experiencing the revolution and had been detained by security forces. He had the gall to claim that, “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone.” Let me count the ways:
- Closest to home, it was Sandra, the Canadian girlfriend, who had been privately lied to for months. Reading her tweets from before the abduction story, one is struck by the sincerity and passion with which she speaks of Amina. She had to endure constant media questioning, when it became clear just how deep the deception went. Interestingly, the abduction story was posted only a few days after Sandra attempted to call Amina at home in Syria and got no answer. That day Amina wrote about security forces visiting her family and her subsequent need to go underground. It may be that this is the point at which Tom and Britta freaked out and looked for a way to take their character off the stage, at least temporarily.
- Everyone else who had an online relationship with Amina, and who has been affected by the investigation. The website LezGetReal, for example, was subjected to intense scrutiny because Paula Brooks and other editors, who have families working for the federal government and do not wish to be outed, write under pseudonyms; they, too, were suspected of being fake.
- Finally, most obviously and most importantly, this is a devastating blow to queer activism in Syria and everywhere else in the Middle East. These furious reactions from actual Syrian activists give a sense of the damage. Not only does the hoax make it more difficult for Syrian bloggers to be heard in the future without undue suspicion, but it puts LGBT activists currently in Syria under the spotlight of the authorities. In every way, MacMaster has done about as much harm to the Syrian revolution as could be imagined from a computer in Scotland.
It is, however, the following sentence that deserves the greatest outrage: “This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” Not only is MacMaster not apologising, he is in fact blaming everyone else for the very sin he has committed. In a sense, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” was the perfect instantiation of liberal Orientalism, wherein Western audiences are enjoined to sympathise with a young, attractive, Westernised and courageous individual battling against the forces of dark, oppressive Islam. If Amina didn’t exist, one would have had to invent her. MacMaster’s twisted activist vision piled on all the desirable characteristics for what he thought the West should know of the Middle East, but didn’t bother because of the biased, Zionist media. The cruel irony is that in not finding a real Syrian who could represent some or all of these things, he confirms the very fantasies he set out to dismantle are just that, fantasies.
It is also troubling, it must be said, how those sceptical of Amina’s story from the start have slipped into the same traps of Orientalist fantasy. One of the earliest arguments for the hoax was that, “No one in Syria would ever kiss their girlfriend in public,” or speak so freely, etc. Though this may be in a very general sense accurate, it further adds to the erasure of the public presence of LGBT Syrians. Another argument from a commenter on one of the investigating blogs was that MacMaster had wished to show that being gay in Arab countries is not so bad, when in fact he had proved the opposite. There could be no one as free as Amina in Syria; but, the commenter added for good measure, there could be in Israel. It was MacMaster’s anti-Israel bias that made him paint such a rosy picture of an Arab country. Both Amina’s blog and the arguments of the sceptics are symptomatic of a wider set of highly debilitating discourses. In effect, it is becoming impossible to speak of what being queer in the Middle East is like without falling into one extreme or the other.
All of this brings to mind Jasbir Puar’s extraordinary theoretical work Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, in which she tracks the complex ways in which queer activism in the West has become implicated with imperialist projects and mindsets. One effect is the erasure of Muslim queer sexuality, and its converse — Israel’s propaganda efforts to brand itself as the only “gay-friendly” country in a homophobic region (known as “pinkwashing”). One of her tasks is to affirm the voices of queer Muslims and queer Arabs speaking out against state violence, against religious intolerance, and against US and Israeli colonialism all at once.
This is the kind of person whom MacMaster, no doubt familiar with this literature, wished to concoct. Two of Amina’s blog posts, for example, were on the phenomenon of “pinkwashing.” What this odious, despicable individual has managed to do instead is produce the perfect mockery of queer scholarship and activism, a farce that feeds right back into the very discourses he sought to resist, feeding them to the brim and sustaining them for years to come.
In January 2009 the media midwifed a new hybrid species and dubbed it Octomom. Octomom was 33-year-old Nadya Suleman, a California woman who had an unknown number of eggs implanted using IVF and gave birth to octuplets on January 26, 2009, bringing her total brood to 14. Since then Octomom has never quite left us. Just last week she appeared on Oprah to talk financial difficulties.
Once it became known that Suleman’s octuplets, only the second set to be born alive in the United Sates, were no miracle but the result of an assisted reproductive technology [ART], that all her other children had also been born through IVF, and that Suleman herself was single and unemployed, a media storm blitzed its way through the nation. The public spiritedly lambasted Suleman as a selfish woman who had irresponsibly used ARTs to bring 14 children into a world in which she and 11.6 million other Americans were unemployed.
Yet just a decade earlier in December 1998 Nkem Chukwu became the first American woman to successfully give birth to octuplets. Chukwu also used IVF to achieve this feat, but the American public did not gnash its teeth at the announcement. Chukwu was portrayed as a tired woman in a wheelchair next to her husband, a woman who discussed how her faith in God had brought her through a hard pregnancy, and who explained that she had refused a selective reduction operation during her pregnancy because she “could not find such words in [her] Bible.” No one pointed out that neither could she have found “IVF” there. Chukwu sacralized the births: “I wanted to have as many babies as God would give me,” and in turn the media portrayed the pregnancy as miracle rather than monstrosity.
In contrast no mention was initially made of Suleman’s refusal to undergo the same selective reduction procedure. A bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania called the scandal an “ethical failure” and there were invocations only of Suleman’s obsessions, not God’s gifts. Of course Suleman embodied one of the media’s favorite objects of fascination and reproach: young, female, desirous, and with a body that performed feats unknown to natural woman. Like other media favorites, Suleman even got her own hybridized nickname, Octomom, but unlike Brangelina, the hybridity was maternal rather than romantic, interspecies rather than intra-; Octomom was part-mom, part-(marine)-beast, and implicitly part-machine.
Though at first the nickname Octomom seems to reduce Suleman to the sum of her eight kids, the focus on Suleman’s desire or “obsession” instead reduced her eight newborns to herself. The scorn heaped on Suleman’s actions carried the implication that the children should never have been born in the first place, a curious stance for a society obsessed with abortion, celebrity children, and big families like the conservative Christian Duggars and John & Kate Plus 8. But Suleman made no attempt to explain her extraordinary pregnancy outside her own personal desires, and she lacked the trappings—husband, comfortable income, religious belief—that might have normalized it socially.
As a result, Octomom became a symbol of selfish enhancement, artificial excess, and irresponsible motherhood, and a reproductive technology that has been used to conceive over 250,000 pregnancies in the United States since the early 1980s suddenly became the focus of intense public discussion, giving bioethicists a platform to point out that while IVF is widely regulated throughout Europe, the US federal government only demands that ART clinics track their success rates.
Was the reaction to Octomom merely symptomatic of society’s anxiety about the impact of new technologies on society, or was something deeper at work concerning our contemporary understanding of maternal agency? I think Carl Elliott’s Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream  is an interesting place to start thinking about the relationship between society, agency, treatment, and enhancement. Elliott theorizes that Americans’ obsession with identity and authenticity helps explain why Americans appear uneasy with enhancement technologies yet seek them in droves:
We need to understand the complex relationship between self-fulfillment and authenticity, and the paradoxical way in which a person can see an enhancement technology as a way to achieve a more authentic self, even as the technology dramatically alters his or her identity.
This authenticity often depends on the assertion of deficiency. By turning a characteristic into a deficit, such as the lack of social ease in those prescribed Paxil, an enhancement becomes a treatment.
Of course this construction of deficient or disabling conditions is an ever-evolving social process with consequences for a person’s understanding of his or her authentic self. Today social phobia is the third most common mental disorder in the US, but 15 years ago it was a rare problem. Diseases are not just culturally symptomatic, they are causal and therein lies the risk. Ian Hacking’s looping effect suggests that the identification of a disease creates the conditions for the manifestation of that disease in others. For instance the emergence of the idea of gender identity disorder gave people a means to conceptualize and reinterpret their experiences around a single idea, in this case a disorder with a surgical solution.
Elliott calls this semantic contagion, and while it is a more complex idea than the gloss I give it here, its relation to the idea of copycatting may help explain the suspicion and fear with which certain diseases or disabilities are approached.
In general, Elliott is sympathetic to those who make use of the possibilities of biomedicine like pharmaceuticals or sex-reassignment surgery to achieve self-fulfillment because he sees bodies, technology, and identity as co-constructive entities. He is even sympathetic to voluntary amputees, who want to cut off their limbs as surgical treatment for what they claim is a psychological condition, asking which is worse: to amputate your leg or to live with an obsession that controls your life. Elliott provocatively suggests that voluntary amputation is fair game in a world where you can “pay a surgeon to suck fat from your thighs, lengthen your penis, augment your breasts, redesign your labia, implant silicone horns in your forehead or split your tongue like a lizard’s.” Thirty years after the first test-tube baby, is Octomom just what society should come to expect?
In an America that takes its individual responsibility seriously and its babies very seriously, how a gestating mother behaves and what she ingests has become increasingly socially and medically monitored. Authors who have explored the construction of fetal alcohol syndrome or tracked the impact of obstetric tools like ultrasound have argued that this has resulted in the objectification and erasure of the mother, and her individual needs, as she comes to embody the potential life within her.
In The Making of the Unborn Patient: A Social Anatomy of Fetal Surgery  Monica Casper traces the implications of what in the 1990s was the relatively new medical field of fetal surgery. In fetal surgery a woman’s fetus is partially taken out of the uterus, operated on, and, if it survives, placed back into her womb for further gestation. In 1998, fewer than 100 fetuses, all of which would otherwise have died in the womb, had been operated on. Only 35% of the fetuses survived the surgery.
Though the numbers suggest that most women will miscarry or choose to abort a fetus that is likely to die in the womb, Casper sees fetal surgery as contributing to the materialization of the fetal patient at the expense of the mother. The mother and fetus are first separated as subjects, and then one is given preference over the other. Pathologization in this case doesn’t result in the reorientation of an identity but instead in the creation of one subject and the erasure of another.
Casper obviously sees her book as a warning signal to women; they should be aware that in being made invisible, their agency risks obliteration. In becoming patients, fetuses problematically become persons. Casper surely uncovers a discursive realm, with very material consequences, that represents a serious threat to maternal agency. But does she overstate the extent to which the creation of a fetal patient necessarily erases the pregnant woman, or the extent to which such erasure necessarily threatens the woman’s agency?
If we take Carl Elliott’s biomedical world as our own, then bodies are frequently objectified and technologized for one’s own interests. Does the materialization of another subject through this technologization necessarily threaten those interests? I am not doing Casper, who recognizes that both fetal and maternal interests could be valued in fetal surgery and argues that the field is a ripe area for a women’s health intervention, full justice. But I do want to challenge the idea that invisibility, in the face of social and bioethical surveillance, is necessarily a handicap to a pregnant woman’s agency. In a world where increased biomedical capabilities has engendered a field of bioethicists, of which a substrata warn the public to value mystery in the face of mastery, do efforts to regulate maternal behavior in fact intensify when a pregnant woman’s own subjective desires and agency become visible? In other words, are pregnant women in fact more free because the gestating woman is absent from the sonogram?
The case of Octomom would seem to confirm the idea that unmediated maternal agency provokes surveillance and can even reverse a typically pro-life discourse (though not necessarily its anti-choice iteration). Obviously the media’s issue with Octomom was partly the abnormality of giving birth to eight children at once, combined with the perceived social disadvantage of the children as members of a 14-child family led by an unemployed, unmarried mother. I want to argue, however, that the intense media circus surrounding Octomom suggests that we, benefactors of the biomedical era, owners of our own bodies, who need merely pop a pill each day to prevent pregnancy and who can pull out a fetus and put it back in, whose obsession with identity grants us leave to do most of what we want with our bodies, have centered many of our anxieties surrounding the blurry divide between perfection and freakishness, human mastery and mystery, on the bugaboo of maternal hubris.
Yet how to explain the fact that most women who undergo IVF are not seen as hubristic cyborgs? In Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies  Charis Thompson details the small everyday negotiations that are made to normalize ARTs in fertility clinics. She argues that not just babies but parenthood is constructed in the reproductive clinic, and that we exist in a new biomedical era which requires us to reconceptualize objectification, agency, and naturalness. Rather than seeing a sharp division between personhood and non-personhood, for either the fetus or mother, Thompson sees many forms of fetal personhood that operate in direct relation to the mother’s own expressions of agency:
The clinics deal on a daily basis with human gametes and embryos, which function in this clinical setting as questionable persons, potential persons, or elements in the creation of persons. Embryos, for example, can go from being a potential person (when they are part of the treatment process), to being in suspended animation (when they are frozen), to not being a potential person (when it has been decided that they will be discarded or donated to research), and even back again to being a potential person (when a couple has a change of heart and frozen embryos are defrosted for their own use or for embryo donation.
As in Casper’s narrative, the pregnant woman still comes to embody the potential life attributed to the embryos, but Thompson asserts that this ontological change contains not just objectification but agency and subject-formation—a dense choreography on whose merits Thompson makes no explicit judgments, though she herself used IVF to give birth to her daughter. Just as Elliott’s voluntary amputees objectify their own bodies to achieve a more authentic conception of themselves, women using ARTs allow the medical objectification of their bodies in order to assume the identity of motherhood.
Thompson traces how the work done in reproductive clinics naturalizes kinship and procreative intent, smokescreening patients’ exceptional agency in selecting gametes with certain characteristics or constructing non-normative, and previously impossible, bio-social family structures. Significantly, of course, IVF actually has a high failure rate, and many women often require three or four rounds before an embryo implants, though this fact doesn’t necessarily obscure the appearance of extraordinary control, as the ambivalent reactions to the NY Times story of the Twiblings recently demonstrated.
Because of the costs involved, many of those who use ARTs embody a certain socially desirable profile: white, heterosexual, partnered, middle to upper class. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, there was a shift in focus from childrens’ to parents’ reproductive rights, corresponding to a legal trend protecting privacy in the bedroom. Infertility has become pathologized so that some states now mandate that insurance companies cover a certain number of treatment cycles. What were once called artificial reproductive technologies, denoting enhancement, are now called assisted reproductive technologies, denoting aid and treatment. Finally, the language of genes has helped reconstruct kinship ties whose traditional linearity can sometimes be disrupted by ARTs. A mother who uses a daughter’s egg to give birth to her daughter’s sister can focus on genetic kinship rather than processual kinship. An Italian-American woman can invoke the idea that genes code for race and ethnicity to seek gametes that appear to represent a specific group identity.
All these factors contribute to the strategic naturalization of ARTs. When the biological facts of parenthood are underdetermined—for instance when a woman gestates a different woman’s egg—legal, medical, and familial conventions step in to naturalize kinship. In turn, biological entities, like genetics, are used to substantiate the social. In this biomedical process neither the natural nor the social is essentialized—elements of each work together and contribute to a recognizable process of “family building.”
The irony then is that a woman can achieve a great deal of agency by putting herself at the mercy of medicine so long as the desire and control that technology grants her to achieve an exceptional, nontraditional pregnancy in form or substance, is mediated, normalized, and made invisible. And when other forces fail to naturalize an IVF procedure, abortion politics and its close companion, contemporary American religion, have a significant role to play in shaping public perception, as demonstrated by the Nkem Chukwu narrative.
Octomom incurred scathing public scorn and initiated a debate on the regulation of a reproductive technology that has been around for nearly three decades because Suleman made visible—literally embodied—the potential abnormality of ARTs and did nothing to mediate this abnormality through socio-naturalization or by deploying a supernatural discourse of God and miracles. Instead, Suleman’s story was told through the language of human “obsession,” “desire,” and “fixation.” As a result tabloids painted her as selfish and irresponsible, a drain on society’s resources, and the pregnancy as regrettable, the work of human hubris and misappropriated technology.
Ten years ago when Nkem Chukwu had her eight children there was no media storm; in fact the Chukwu octuplets were largely forgotten until Octomom. Nearly two years later, Octomom is still with us. An image of her very pregnant stomach photographed eight days before giving birth saturates the internet—in this photo both Suleman’s stomach and her face, which looks directly into the camera with a half-smile, are distinct and memorable. In October 2010 news sources began to report on the California trial of Suleman’s doctor for negligence. Paparazzi follow Suleman around and blogs speculate about post-pregnancy plastic surgery, the great symbol of American artificiality.
Childbearing in the US is tightly bound to narratives of self-sacrifice—whether it’s the mother who gives up drinking during pregnancy, her career to stay home, or her body to fetal surgery. And while we have reached a point where we endorse a normalized agency and right to parent that supports such sacrifices and naturalizes ARTs as treatments rather than enhancements, maternal self-interest must be mediated and muted, better off obscured than exposed.
Suleman was unusual in her use of reproductive technology to achieve an extraordinary birth, but she was also unusual because she made no effort to portray her pregnancy as natural, therapeutic, miraculous, or self-sacrificial. As a result she became an object of fascination, a much-photographed freakish symbol of hubristic enhancement. Yet the sudden public attention on the question of legal regulation of IVF thirty years after its American birth suggests that Suleman and her pathologized self-interest were also seen as potentially contagious. The border between extraordinary reproductive enhancement and typical treatment was a little too blurry. A fence had to be built, and the media have always been excellent fence-builders. They drew up plans and the easiest way to build it was to turn a woman into a cyborg.
Nancy Cott’s essay in the Boston Review on the history of American marriage.
The history of marriage laws tells a more complex story. The ability of married partners to procreate has never been required to make a marriage legal or valid, nor have unwillingness or inability to have children been grounds for divorce.
And marriage, as I have argued, has not been one unchanging institution over time. Features of marriage that once seemed essential and indispensable proved otherwise. The ending of coverture, the elimination of racial barriers to choice of partner, the expansion of grounds for divorce—though fiercely resisted by many when first introduced—have strengthened marriage rather than undermining it. The adaptability of marriage has preserved it.
I always wondered if people who are opposed to gay marriage think about this history. Do they say to themselves “yes, in the past, it was wrong for conservatives to prevent interracial couples from marrying, and immoral for conservatives to try to keep women in abusive marriages, and it was terrible that women had no property rights in marriage, etc… But this time… this time we conservatives have really hit on the perfect unchangeable form of marriage and history will prove us correct! Every other conservative was wrong on this issue, yes, but we’re right!”
I don’t really have too much to say about the recent episode at Yale where a group of Delta Kappa Epsilon frat boys marched through Old Campus where most Yale freshmen (half of whom are young women) live chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.” I experienced some mixture of disgust, outrage, and weird disbelief when I first read about it: disbelief that a group of young (frat-boyish) college-aged men would so blatantly perform, publicly (though perhaps they felt safe under the cover of darkness?), all the worst possible stereotypes associated with young (frat-boyish) college-aged men.
But I found a recent anonymous interview that one brother in the fraternity, who did not participate in the rape chant, gave to Tracy Clark-Flory over at Salon really interesting, mostly because it revealed exactly how little at least the fraternity brothers (though in trying to absolve DKE, the guy indicts the entire Yale campus toward the end) seem to get what misogyny is and how permissiveness in language can allow for permissiveness in action. Take the following for example:
How would you describe the general attitude toward women at DKE?
The general attitude is as respectful as anywhere else on campus. I’ve heard more misogynistic comments elsewhere on campus than in the fraternity. That’s not to imply that people don’t make mistakes, but DKE is no more inherently misogynistic than Yale at large. Unfortunately, our thoughtless and offensive chanting last week leaves the impression that there are no differences between our words and actions — which is certainly untrue.
It’s interesting that the standard by which the fraternity would still judge itself, even after an episode that has sparked off some form of national or at least blogosphere outrage, is the Yale campus, without questioning whether those standards are high enough, or whether they really want to justify an act of groupthink with an example of groupthink.
The other thing that comes out of this interview is the fact that the frat boy admits this wasn’t an isolated episode: “This chant was said without thought in previous years on one night of the year,” and yet he also claims it was an anomaly: “This event is without question an anomaly.”
What was anomalous of course was that it was caught on video and posted to youtube. Were the men never called out on this before? Did they walk through the freshmen quad, chanting, militantly marching, without complaint before? It’s weird to think what will happen in the age of youtube, as people become more savvy, realize that there are cameras that connect to internet cables that connect to websites that will broadcast your most immediate, egregious action to the world at large. Will the eyes and voice of an outraged cybersociety “cure” an American society of such public performances? Will they just be driven to the basements of frat houses? And for that matter, what is a different segment of “cybersociety” saying about the chant? I’m too afraid to look right now, already pessimistic enough about things like “the eyes of cybersociety” and “yale frat boys” on this cold October day.
I was in a New York bookstore last weekend when the word “Matricide!” scrawled across the cover of Harper’s magazine caught my eye. Yet another story about the cat-(read: bitch)-fight between my feminist generation and our second wave mothers, this time by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi in a cover story titled “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide.” The need to invoke Greek tragedy to add fateful weight to a warmed-over story did not bode well. I shrugged and moved on.
So maybe I was irritated by a sexist media’s need to paint intergenerational conflicts as distinctly “female,” maybe I was nonplussed by their assumption that fragmentation in the sisterhood is necessarily a negative thing, maybe I was angered by their constant need to ask what I consider a silly, tautological question: Why do women, who have been raised by their mothers to freely decide their futures, fail to become their mothers?
And by “shrugged and moved on,” I mean I stewed throughout my four-hour bus trip back to Boston and bought the mag when I arrived at South Station. Let me throw in a few full disclosures at this point. First, if a generational label is forced on me, then you would call me a member of the seemingly incoherent, rogue younger generation. Or in Faludi’s generational construct, a feminist who not only repeats the 1920s young women’s matricide of her reformist mothers, but has fallen into the “1920s trap of employing a commercialized ersatz ‘liberation’ to undermine the political mobilization of their mothers.” I’m going to assume, though Faludi might try to disavow it, that this is code for oversexed, frivolous, panderer to the masculine worldview.
Second, I am more inclined to reconciliation than polemics, and used to blog at Girl w/ Pen with Deborah Siegel and Courtney Martin, whom Faludi discusses as members of “’Women, Girls, Ladies,’ a feminist road show meant to foster a “fresh conversation” between younger and older women.” Finally, before picking up Faludi’s article, I had just finished Wendy Kline’s new book, Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave, a great look at the paradoxical successes and failures of the American women health movement’s efforts to transform medicine’s way of knowing from an objective, lab-based epistemology to an experiential one and ground a “universal sisterhood” of women in corporeality. I was softened at the time by Kline’s descriptions of the earnest if often futile efforts made by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective to incorporate as many different experiences of the “female body” into Our Bodies, Ourselves as possible. I was more than ready, in other words, to lend a sympathetic ear to the concerns of my elders.
Instead I was infuriated. I’m still not sure why Faludi wrote this piece. She herself acknowledges that media coverage of this intergenerational feminist “conflict” is hardly new; flare-ups happen every couple of years. Perhaps Faludi did the math and realized there hadn’t been any major shots fired since Rebecca Walker’s 2008 smackdown of second-wavers in Baby Love. Perhaps she thought she was saying something “new” in constructing a narrative wherein daughters have been committing matricide since the 1920s (when the New Woman killed her reformist mother), not just the 1990s. But isn’t this just the typical storyline of cyclical youth rebellion in a rapidly evolving, “modern” society? Why gender it? In any case, her obvious preference for Second Wave feminism still places any “betrayal” squarely on my generation’s shoulders. Perhaps her initial aim was reconciliation, but she found the surprise defeat of a thirty-three-year old black daughter figure (Latifa Lyles) by a fifty-six-year old white mother figure (Terry O’Neill) for the leadership of the National Organization of Woman (NOW) too convenient a plot line to ignore. But in that case, why is her story titled “Matricide”? Was “Infanticide” too political, “Suicide” too gender-neutral?
But let’s not get caught up in things like coherent representations, apt illustrations, and basic definitions. Let’s instead address the main thrust of Faludi’s screed, which is that “over and over, the transit of feminism seems to founder in the treacherous straits of mother-daughter relations. Over and over, a younger generation disavows the women’s movement as a daughter disowns her mother.” According to Faludi, universal sisterhood was lost after the late 19th/early 20th century age of women-led reform movements. And this was a bad thing. For “how can women ever vanquish their external enemies when they are intent on blowing up their own house?”
Of course Faludi, in writing an article proclaiming “Matricide!” is partisan to this destruction. Case in point: my own experience. The hazy warm glow I’d retained from the women’s health movement was blown away by the Faludi’s diatribe. The very act of reading polarized me into the younger generation’s camp: defenses up, teeth bared, dare I say claws ready? I was prepared to do anything to aggressively defend my right to take a divergent path and alternative ideology from an older feminist generation.
But why does Faludi think women challenging women means a failure of feminism? Part of the problem is that she doesn’t differentiate between ideals, issues, and organizational structures. I think my generation shares many of the same ideals as an older generation, but the specific issues we face and the way we organize to advocate for those ideas have necessarily shifted in response to our changed historical circumstances. Slate recently asked a number of feminist writers what “feminism” is, given its recent appropriation by various grizzly bear characters like Sarah Palin. Katha Pollitt, born 1949, expressed ideals that I think transcend recent American feminist generations:
Feminism is a social justice movement dedicated to the social, political, economic, and cultural equality of women and men, and to the right of every woman to set her own course in life.
What is different is how my generation tries to advocate for those issues. Rather than working in umbrella women’s organizations, women today are more likely to be dispersed in issue-based activism, often working alongside men. They also may be less visible “on the street,” since so much action today takes place online. As Courtney Martin wrote at feministing.com in response to Faludi’s piece:
If you want to find feminism-in-action,you need to go where some of the most dynamic work is–environmental justice meetings where young leaders are talking about the disproportionate effects of climate change on women of color, safe houses for former sex workers where young women are helping one another get out of “the life,” veterans who are bonding together to fight back against military sexual assault etc. There are young, feminist-identified women doing community and political work every single day, aware of their legacy and confident about their future.
Is this de-ghettoization just re-submission to the patriarchy? Funnily, while Faludi sees women as constantly evolving creatures (signaled by their ritual maternal defenestration), the men in her narrative stay static. While gender relations are still far from equal, I agree with historian Elaine Tyler May, who argues in America and the Pill that American masculinity has evolved with American femininity as a result of the feminist and sexual revolutions.
No matter, Faludi is still put off by blogs, depressed by Lady Gaga, because they are signs of betrayal and incoherence. But let’s humor her, let’s take a closer look at what this ideal mother-daughter unity looks like. Because it’s important to think about the fact that what Faludi is actually lamenting is our loss of the late 19th century reformist mother-daughter team:
By expanding their orbit of influence into the public realm, nineteenth-century female reformers set out to disrupt the male protection racket’s reign. They would deliver their daughters from both the rapist and the savior. Through temperance, abolition, and anti-prostitution campaigns, they took the male rescue fantasy and recast it as a mother-daughter emancipation drama.
But wait, wasn’t this relationship structured and sustained by a patriarchy that gave middle-class, white women few outlets besides maternalist reform? Wait, wasn’t this only a movement of middle-class, white women, which excluded working-class and women of color, who by the way, had long been working actors within the “public sphere”?
Details. Moving on. Who is to blame for the loss of this unity? Who committed the first act of matricide?
The legacy of the 1920s feminist betrayal haunts modern feminist life… The prevailing pageantry of the 1920s wasn’t simply an infantilization of the girl. It was, more ominously, an eviction of the mother… Even as the second wave appeared on the surface to reject the intrusions of 1920s commercialism—the second wave’s first big demonstration was, after all, a protest against the Miss America pageant—it retained another 1920s code, not as an oversight but as a founding trait: the driving principle of matricide.
So first, Faludi has an obvious problem with a consumer society and the fragmentary nature of modernity itself. Strange that she automatically genders it female. No not strange; rather: misogynistic. I could also raise some historical quibbles: part of the reason 1920s women no longer sought to fight their mothers’ fight was that there was no fight left to fight: women’s suffrage had been won, and many feminists were at a loss as to what to do next, or thought there was no next. Further, this was the era of the “lost generation” with over 100,000 American men dead in Europe, and millions of soldiers returning from an experience of industrial killing and looser sexual mores. The 1920s didn’t see matricide, it saw the death of an old regime that had at long last snuffed itself out. Here’s an example: In 1916 the membership of the Women’s Peace Party, one of Faludi’s women’s reform movements, totaled close to 40,000. By war’s end, membership numbered only 100. Not because of matricide, but because most of its members had gone pro-war.
But never mind history. What is most distressing is that in her exuberant nostalgia for the coherence of mother-daughter sisterhood, Faludi rejects the value of fragmentation and pluralism — things she obviously thinks characterize my own generation.
Why must we assume that “universal sisterhood” is a strength and fragmented pluralism an ideological and practical weakness? What if it’s the other way around?
In her excellent 2001 book, Making Babies, Making Families: What Matters Most in an Age of Reproductive Technologies, Surrogacy, Adoption, and Same-Sex and Unwed Parents, Mary Shanley outlines a series of principles for the regulation of reproductive technologies in the U.S. While countries like Great Britain and Germany regulate contract pregnancies (surrogacy), gamete (egg or sperm) donation, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, U.S. states let market forces determine who has access to these technologies, how much they pay, who the donor is, and so on. A “universal sisterhood” like Faludi’s might argue that women have the “right” to reproduction and if this imagined homogeneity of “women” wants to pay $8,000 for a 5’8”, ivy-educated, healthy white woman’s eggs, then that’s their right. But as Shanley points out, “the right to reproduce may mean that some people get the right to take advantage of others’ vulnerabilities.” This is important: Women have conflicting interests, and they’re not just generational. However, Shanley argues that pluralization doesn’t necessitate the failure of a coherent feminist program but instead allows the articulation of new principles to ensure greater equality.
Take egg donation as an example. Shanley thinks differential pricing in egg transfer should be prohibited as it validates the notion that some human attributes are “worth” more than others, which may result in the valuation of some women and their eggs over others. In terms of surrogacy, she fears that some women may become an exploited “breeding class” for their wealthier sisters and advises regulation of payments to surrogate mothers. A presumption of “universal sisterhood” might blind us to these conflicting interests of woman donor vs. woman receiver, leading us to negligently ignore how problematic it is to allow a dominant class of women to determine and constrain the options of other women. A recognition of pluralism forces us to hammer out a policy solution that addresses the concerns of all women involved.
Of course what is especially perplexing about Faludi’s piece is that the Second Wave also saw and worked to address the contradictions inherent in “universal sisterhood.” Let me take a moment to get warm and glow-y about the second wave women’s health movement again. In the mid-70s, Wendy Sanford, an author of the chapters “Sexuality,” “Body Image,” and “Women Loving Women” in Our Bodies, Ourselves responded to a letter from a woman who had decided to have an abortion because her child would have Tay-Sachs. The woman found the book’s chapter on abortion off-putting because it only addressed women who chose abortion for an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy, not those who decided to abort a very much wanted pregnancy. Sanford wrote back:
I feel very much humbled by your letter of August, and I appreciate the time you took to help us make the abortion chapter of Our Bodies, Ourselves more careful and compassionate. It is letters like yours that help us make the book better, but it is always a sorrow for us that someone suffered for what we did or didn’t say.
Working as Sanford did to relate across difference rather than through mimicry seems to me to be fundamental to any feminism able to encompass a pluralism of women whose experiences, as a result of both historical contingency and increased freedom, are multiple and thankfully divergent.
Now for the hell of it, and because she seems to so mightily discomfit Faludi, let’s end with some Lady Gaga, whose unexpected actions, whose potentially hidden penis, may be doing either great or terrible things for women. It depends who you talk to:
Update: Although, if we want to get a sense of what matricide actually looks like, we should end with Elektra’s “death dance,” the final scene in Richard Strauss’s opera, Elektra (libretto by Hugo von Hofmannstahl). After her brother kills her mother and Elektra’s thirst for vegeance is satisfied, Elektra dances herself into a frenzy and then collapses dead. Voilà:
I probably shouldn’t be taking the bait about stuff like this, but every morning on my way to the subway I peruse the daily tabloids. The last two days, the New York Post– everyone’s favorite populist tabloid run by a multi-billionaire—has been obsessing over the case of a public school teacher who is a feminist and was once a sex worker before she became a teacher. Now they’re on a campaign to fire her, enlisting the help of billionaire Mike Bloomberg, and writing outraged editorials explaining that “Teacher Tenure is Not for Hookers.” The New York Post is shocked! Shocked! that someone would dare try to use sex to make money. Its something they would never think about.
Now, lets swivel to the opinion page of the New York Post where …we see the smiling face of Dick Morris repeating today’s Fox News talking point. Dick Morris? The Dick Morris who is famous for having lost his job in the Clinton White House after it was revealed that he regularly hired prostitutes to suck his toes? Why yes. That Dick Morris.
You see this random 30 year-old deserves to be paraded in front of the entire city, publicly shamed, and fired for failing to realize that– having accepted an incredibly low-level public job– her sexuality (including her past sexuality) now officially belongs to the billionaires who run our newspapers and own our mayor’s office. How dumb of her. Dick Morris on the other hand, deserves to have money funneled at him in exchange for producing tired hackery that would embarrass a freshman college Republican writing on a deadline. His sex life is clearly a thing of the past. He’s moved on. All is forgiven.
There is a good reason though. You see, he’s a powerful wealthy man. Melissa Petro really should have thought about being born that way before she engaged in sex work.
Also, note the symmetry between the misogynism of the attacks on the Petro, the teacher, and the anti-union crusade that Bloomberg and the New York Post has been on. Today’s outrage is that Petro has tenure, protected, of course, by the Worst Monsters in Human History: The New York City Teachers Union. The Post has been falling over itself attacking teachers over the last month, giddy at the prospect of deprofessionalizing and underpaying one of the few types of employment which still pays a decent middle class wage. Here is one more story in their arsenal.
Anyways… as in most matters, we must turn to Public Enemy for the last word:
Here’s a letter to the New York Post
Ain’t worth the paper it’s printed on
Founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton
That is 190 years continuous of fucked up news
While Wiz has been training his eye on bright (artificial) foreign lights, I’ve been sitting in a small Bavarian town casting my gaze back toward the homeland, specifically the historic Prop 8 decision that was handed down by a federal court on August 4th. Now that we’ve had a moment to catch our breaths after the initial excitement over Judge Walker’s ruling that Prop 8 is unconstitutional, it’s time to take a look down that long, inevitable road toward the Supreme Court. Will the decision hold? Will the Supreme Court, on being called to judge one of the most fractious cultural arguments of our time, stick its neck out and declare all bans on gay marriage unconstitutional? I’m a bit wary, because I think this post risks taking on a tone of cheerleading optimism, but similar to Dahlia Lithwick over at Slate, the substance of Judge Walker’s opinion makes me think that gay marriage has a very good chance of winning over SCOTUS. Lithwick emphasizes the fact that Walker’s ruling uses much of the same language that Swing-Vote Kennedy has used to argue that morality is not a proper basis for discriminatory legislation against gays. But, in a blatant plug for my profession, what I think puts meat on the bones of this lofty language is the role historians played in the court room, clarifying what marriage and the state’s interest in marriage have historically been about, distinguishing between long-term structural features and the stuff of moral fluff.
Interestingly, gay rights orgs such as Lambda Legal and the ACLU initially criticized the two lawyers who brought the case to the federal courts a year ago. A lawyer for Lambda Legal warned that the non-civil-rights lawyers didn’t realize the obstacles they would face at the federal level. I remember being surprised by their hesitancy and criticism at the time and I think Judge Walker’s opinion has justified my skepticism. As civil rights orgs, Lambda Legal and the ACLU should have been the first to recognize the potential to win this fight on the constitutional level. After all, there’s been a history, particularly in the realm of home and bedroom, of SCOTUS pushing civil rights a few steps ahead of the zeitgeist. It was the ACLU that in 1963 filed a motion for the Lovings, an interracial couple, to overturn Virginia’s miscegenation law, resulting in a 9-0 Supreme Court ruling that the law violated the 14th amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. A married couple’s right to privacy in the bedroom (and to contraception) was established, again under the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, by SCOTUS in 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut (CT blue laws weren’t always just about no-beer-buying Sundays), and a similar right for unmarried couples was established with Eisenstadt vs. Baird (1972). Griswold first established a citizen’s right to privacy in a big way, and it has since become the foundation for reasoning in both Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas. The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment was key in all of these, as it was in Judge Walker’s ruling last week.
And then of course there are the historians. In Lawrence v. Texas, the historians’ amicus brief was key in clarifying that sodomy laws had historically not been intended to target only gay couples and that “the governmental policy of classifying and discriminating against certain citizens on the basis of their homosexual status [was] an unprecedented project of the twentieth century.” Given how much opponents of gay marriage like to throw around terms like “historically” and “traditionally” and “gay marriage will destroy the institution of marriage as we know it,” I thought it was about time that historians actually had a properly public forum to respond to the “historical purpose of marriage” soundbites that cable news commentators repeat ad nauseum. And I was especially excited when I heard that the court would hear testimony from George Chauncey and Nancy Cott, both of whom helped author the Lawrence vs. Texas amicus brief. Chauncey has had a long history of political activism, authoring Why Marriage: The History Shaping Today’s Debate over Gay Equality, and Nancy Cott literally wrote the book on American marriage: Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Having been a student in one of Nancy Cott’s seminars, I also just figured she’d be pretty badass on the witness stand (sadly since SCOTUS banned cameras in the courtroom, we can’t actually see her in action, but you can watch reenactments done by a bunch of crazy LA actors of the entire trial here). It was actually in Cott’s seminar that I first realized that Prop 8 supporters’ conservative-traditionalistic view of “what marriage is” isn’t just completely out of touch with what marriage is today, but doesn’t cohere with what marriage once was. Take one read through Clare Lyons’ Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830, where she describes how women could self-divorce their husbands simply by placing an ad in the newspaper, and all purported claims about the “tradition” of American marriage quickly take on a tinny sound.
And this is the point, this is why it made sense to go to the federal/constitutional level with the question of gay marriage. While assertions of “tradition” and “history” and “God” and “morality” may carry political weight, enough to overturn gay marriage in a state that had been allowing it without any great apocalyptic chaos, such abstractions either get clarified or become meaningless in a court of law dealing with constitutional questions. In his opinion, Judge Walker wrote, ““Tradition alone… cannot form the rational basis for a law.” But of course some sort of tradition must form the basis of law, particularly if a law addresses a fundamental right under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. After all, “fundamental right” sounds nice, but what exactly does it mean? To determine whether a right is fundamental, the Court inquires into whether the right is rooted “‘in our Nation’s history, legal traditions, and practices.” Thus the opportunity to clarify what features of marriage have and have not held constant over the centuries.
The media has emphasized that this was a trial of “expert against expert,” a trial based on 80 “findings of fact.” This raised the eyebrows of Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones who wanted more legal doctrine, since “that’s what’s going to matter when this case gets to the Supreme Court.” And I can’t say my own eyebrows weren’t initially raised, predictably as someone who likes a good helping of Foucault served with her history, but also as someone who’s been working on a pharmaceutical trial where competing epistemological claims to “fact” served to confuse rather than clarify justice. But I think Kevin Drum and my own Foucaultian-laced gut were wrong. Studies on “what type of household is best for the child,” even if the answer is Judge Walker’s “beyond any doubt… parents’ genders are irrelevant to children’s developmental outcomes,” will always make me cringe, but in the end the “facts” that mattered most in this trial were ones that deconstructed erroneous notions of “traditional marriage.” Studies on the effect of gay parents on children were a moot point, as the judge noted, since Prop 8 has never actually been about children (there is no distinction between gay and straight couples in Cali adoption law), and marriage has never been about whether a couple could procreate. Hence, Cott:
There has never been a requirement that a couple produce children in order to have a valid marriage. Of course, people beyond procreative age have always been allowed to marry.
And then, gloriously, something I’ve long been waiting for, Judge Walker cites from Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas to support his case:
If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is ‘no legitimate state interest’… what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising ‘the liberty protected by the Constitution’? Surely not the encouragement of procreation, since the sterile and the elderly are allowed to marry.
I wonder if Scalia is choking on his tongue now.
It was Cott, in the end, who provided the definition Judge Walker used to define the long-term structural features of marriage, which he emphasized have allowed for dynamic change in the institution. In summary, marriage is:
 A couple’s choice to live with each other, to remain committed to one another, and to form a household based on their own feelings about one another, and their agreement to join in an economic partnership.  The state’s primary purpose in regulating marriage is to create stable households [which help provide more stable, governable societies].
Ok, so two things. First, why do I think, contra Drum, that this finding of historical “fact” will provide some big doctrinal guns when the case gets to the Supreme Court? Mostly because I think, per Walker and contra Scalia, the Supreme Court no longer recognizes moral disapprobation as a reasonable state interest, particularly once such “moral traditions” are revealed to have been just the work of specific historical moments, rather than an innate thread running temporally and spatially throughout our society. Once it was established that discrimination against gays had a timeframe and couldn’t call lack of history as its alibi, the path was set toward gay marriage. Historicizing a discriminatory practice that categorizes a group of people and impedes on their private lives is essential to the deployment of the Due Process Clause in the 14th Amendment. And thus the importance of this moment in Judge Walker’s opinion, where he historicizes even that which, unlike the criminalization of gay sexual practices, has never not been part of our nation’s history (that is, there’s never been a time when two men or two women were actually able to marry):
The evidence suggests many reasons for this tradition of exclusion, including gender roles mandated through couverture, social disapproval of same-sex relationships, and the reality that the vast majority of people are heterosexual and have had no reason to challenge the restriction.
All of which have reached the end of their tether.
Second, I think this ruling is politically important because I do believe in the power of legal clarification to drive political change. When faced with the political, Prop 8 soundbite that “we must preserve the tradition of marriage,” opponents of Prop 8 now have their own legally-sanctioned soundbite that the only stable historical feature of marriage has been its role in tying together two committed, consenting adults and to support the state’s interest in stable households/society. I’m aware of the danger in emphasizing this fact too much, and bristle at the idea of pandering to conservative America’s idea of the domesticated home. This of course nudges us toward the question, “Why marriage?” As Louis Bayard at Salon writes, “The wedding trope is particularly nonsensical because, for several generations, gay couples have been showing America how marriages can be created without benefit of weddings,” (anyone who makes weekend sport of the NY Times wedding section can attest to this) and it’s important to recognize the danger of maligning both straight and gay couples/citizens who decide never to enter into matrimony. Intellectually, sentimentally, I’m on board here. But the trial itself demonstrated how much cultural weight marriage still holds in our society (as opposed to, for instance, many European countries), and marriage is still the institution that, legally and symbolically, most tightly binds two unrelated adults together. The political campaign for gay marriage, instead of running Apple-vs.-PC-ripoff ads and tepidly toeing around this idea, should start brazenly showing gay marriage as threading together the fabric of family and community. In entering the structure of marriage, gay couples will of course change some of its substance, but in a direction that pushes back against the extremely reactionary and gendered features that the religious right has been working to inject back into marriage, and which I would wager most Americans, when it comes down to it, are not on board with.
Hence the importance of the final moment in Walker’s ruling when he argues that one of the main problems with banning gay marriage is that it legally reinstates gender roles into an institution that since the 1970s has been defined only as the union of gender-neutral “equals.” The removal of gender from marriage, most markedly through the elimination of couverture laws that once subsumed a woman’s property and legal standing under her husband, is an obvious way in which marriage law has drastically changed over the centuries. Of course when talking about “tradition” or “biological parenting,” at root opponents of gay marriage have always been evoking traditional concepts of gender within marriage. But I think there’s a strategic discursive shift to be made in driving home the point that banning gay marriage isn’t just about sexuality, it’s about turning back the clock on gender roles for all American spouses. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but I think there are many heterosexual women who may feel apathetic or mildly negative on the issue of gay marriage, but who would be less willing to give up the legal ground that neutralizes and equalizes their marital relationship. Given my recent disgruntlement with the late Tony Judt’s take on identity politics, I’m a little surprised to be saying this, but I think in the end gay marriage supporters could benefit from taking a page from Judt’s book and thinking more in terms of the collective than the individual.