“Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality” by Katherine Franke— Marriage Equality and Emancipation


Franke, Katherine. “Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality”, NYU Press, 2015.

Marriage Equality and Emancipation

Amos Lassen

All of us can agree that there have been astounding number of victories for the gay rights movement and I am quite sure that there are others like myself who never thought we would see something like this in our lifetimes. However, we have not really thought about the questions that are raised by marriage equality about how we as gay people have been able to successfully deploy marriage to elevate our social and legal reputation, but also about what kind of freedom and equality the ability to marry can mobilize.

In “Wedlocked”, Katherine Franke looks to history to compare the same-sex marriage movement to the experiences of newly emancipated black people in the mid-nineteenth century, when they were able to legally marry for the first time.  She says that the greater freedoms that came with emancipation were both wonderful and a bit “perilous” for those just freed and emancipated. She gives stories of former slaves’ involvements with marriage and draws lessons that serve as cautionary tales for today’s marriage rights movements.  The theme here seems to be “be careful what you wish for” but we also see “how the rights-bearing subject is inevitably shaped by the very rights they bear, often in ways that reinforce racialized gender norms and stereotypes”. Franke says that the racialization of same-sex marriage has redounded to the benefit of the gay rights movement while contributing to the ongoing subordination of people of color and the diminishing reproductive rights of women.

Much like same-sex couples today, freed African-American men and women “experienced a shift in status from outlaws to in-laws, from living outside the law to finding their private lives organized by law and state licensure”. What we have learned of their experiences is the potential and the perils of being subject to legal regulation: rights—and specifically the right to marriage—can both burden and liberate.

Franke looks at the tangled genealogy of often-incoherent power in the American context. She aligns struggles for gay marriage rights with African Americans’ first access to the right to marry, smartly exposing a thin line “between intimacy and the untouchable.” Her book is cautionary about the risks of securing a ‘freedom to marry.’ She looks at original research about the complications that marriage rights carried for slaves freed in the 1860s and she warns that marriage rights are not the “unalloyed triumph” for gay people and same-sex couples that the Supreme Court and virtually all commentators have claimed. We need to be concerned about racism in America and reminded that it still exists. Franke provides us with a look at “the traps and tripwires that marriage, as a highly regulative and deeply gendered legal construct, imposes on non-normative communities”.

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