The Center for French and Francophone Studies

Kinship Trouble


 Read the review of  Annabel L. Kim, Postdoctoral Associate, Program in Literature.

“Kinship Trouble: The Equality and Difference Debates,” was organized by Ranjana Khanna (Women’s Studies), Helen Solterer (Romance Studies), and Anne Garréta (Literature), as a response to the debates in the United States and in France over issues of same-sex marriage. Five invited speakers reflected on same-sex marriage and its consequences for our current models of kinship and society. Over the course of the workshop, the subject was debated from the various vantage points of, among others, legal practice, legal theory, sociology, political science, philosophy, feminism, and queer theory. The liveliness of the conversation and the interventions of the audience made it clear that regardless of who one was and what sort of background one had, same-sex marriage and the questions that it poses was a subject of consequence for all.

The first part of the workshop featured the two legal experts on the panel: Maxine Eichner (UNC Chapel Hill), and Milan Pham, a local Durham lawyer at the law firm NicholsonPham.

Eichner pointed out that regardless of our feelings about marriage, we could all agree that if straight people had access to marriage, gay people ought to too. She acknowledged that marriage has historically been a heteronormative institution of exclusion that has supported models of gender complementarity and inequality and reinforced racial exclusion. She argued that instead of disestablishing marriage, however, we needed to broaden and democratize it. Eichner said that the state needed to support the good work marriage can do. She laid out four principles to guide the state in doing so: 1) expanding support for a broad range of caretaking relationships beyond marriage; 2) democratizing marriage so that individuals who have normally been disenfranchised by marriage or excluded from it could have equal access to the benefits of marriage; 3) expanding rights and responsibilities for those who are not in a formal relationship; 4) avoiding a zero-sum economy of benefits so that delivering benefits to couples does not take away from the basic benefits of unmarried individuals. Eichner made a strong argument for reforming marriage as an institution rather than abandoning it.

Pham described her clients’ strategies for forming families despite the law’s resistance. The LGBT community, as she put it, is the vanguard of legal innovation, and she cited the queer community members in Durham who have challenged legal practitioners like her to help them make families that are polyamorous. While recognizing the community’s capacities for legal improvisation, Pham pointed out two major areas that pose problems for them: property law and parentage. With regard to property, same-sex couples in North Carolina have no way of equitably dividing assets that have been acquired communally when relationships come to an end, and are thus left without the protections of divorce. One of the greatest benefits of marriage would turn out to be the ability to separate those lives from each other. Pham identified property as something theorists of marriage need to consider and called for an untangling of financial and property issues from marriage. With regard to parentage, Pham articulated the obstacles faced by same-sex parents who try to establish ties of parenthood to their child when the state presumes that parentage follows heterosexual, reproductive marriage. Pham closed by exhorting the academic community to remember that the community is more progressive than the academy, in terms of how people create families and support each other.

The second part of the workshop focused on identity (de)formation and subjectivity, with Michael Warner (Yale), Katherine Costello (Duke), and Eric Fassin (Paris 8).

Warner set out to demystify the ritual nature of marriage and articulate the geopolitical dimensions that inhere in gay marriage rights. He pointed out how in our culture, marriage has come to be a ritual transformation of status. Warner condemned the marriage equality movement for “voodoo[ing] people about the meaning of love” by making marriage an exclusive site for experiencing and accessing it, and by producing contradictory narratives about the relationship of marriage to love. Sharing his experience of marrying his partner of over twenty years to be able to enjoy the sickness and death provisions marriage provides, Warner recounted the impossibility of finding an employee of the state who was willing to file the marriage license without performing a ceremony.  Even in “secular, socialist Vermont,” the state was caught up in a romantic ideology of marriage. Warner called for an “unbundling” of all the symbolism that has been accreted to marriage, arguing that such bundling has colonized our historical memory and reduced our capacity to think about love as it exists outside marriage.  Warner then pointed out the similarly invidious consequences of framing nondiscrimination and marriage as universal rights in areas of the world that have large immigrant populations. Warner spoke of “pinkwashing”—the practice of such countries as the Netherlands and Israel embracing gay rights as a way of proclaiming superiority to other countries and to their more sexually conservative immigrant populations. In closing, Warner asked his listeners to consider the global consequences of advancing gay rights in the United States and to question the transcendental status people uncritically accord to marriage and the role the state plays in imbuing marriage with such sacred status.

Costello began her talk with a rehearsal of all the critiques she might bring to bear against marriage if she were “a good queer political subject.” Costello identified these critiques as being normative queer positions on the issue of same-sex marriage in the United States. While she recognized their value in helping us understand the epistemological framework in which marriage is articulated, she pointed out that the inevitability of gay marriage placed us in the position now of having to rethink our strategy of queer critique and queer worldmaking. Costello suggested we could turn gay marriage into a Trojan Horse that could dismantle the institution from the inside and create something queer instead. Costello gave two examples of such a strategy in practice: 1) a man and woman’s marriage, but one where the matron of honor is the groom’s lover and the best man is the bride’s top; 2) a married same-sex couple who take on a lover together. These queer configurations introduce, in Costello’s estimation, queerness into the framework of marriage so that it becomes a producer of queer pleasures. Costello suggested that perhaps the queerest strategy in response to marriage would not be to deny or avoid it, but to infiltrate it instead.

Fassin brought a comparative perspective to the issue of same-sex marriage. Fassin linked it to sexual democracy and pointed out that what was at stake in the fight for and against same-sex marriage was not just the lives and rights of gays and lesbians but also democratic societies’ claim to define their own rights and laws. He compared the debates in France and in the United States around marriage and called attention to the politics of national identity and the logic and rhetoric that nations use to construct it. Fassin pointed out that France was sacralizing filiation (a direct line of descent) and the United States, marriage. This difference implicated both nations’ racial politics: in France, filiation is important because it allows for the determination of who is truly French and who isn’t, e.g. the citizen who descends from pure French stock. Hence the panic in France is over the question of gay couples having children through artificial reproductive technologies that disturb the logic and clarity of filiation. In the United States, marriage is sacralized because it also performs a certain differentiation, in this case, between whites and blacks, operating on the stereotype of the black child who is born out of wedlock.  In comparing the American and French cases, Fassin articulated the need to pay attention to the rhetoric of sexual democracy and how race and sex can both work together or be at odds in the enterprise of forging a national identity.

In the discussion that followed, Fassin argued that there are two possible political agendas with regards to same-sex marriage: subversion, or the usual stance associated with queerness, and invention, which is more complicated and difficult than subversion. The challenge resonated with all present, and Anne Garréta responded by reflecting on what it means to be radical. Speaking to its etymological roots, she pointed out that our vision of political radicalism is different if we think there is one root to all problems or multiple roots. She reminded us that there is no one meaning to marriage, as was apparent in the five speakers’ presentations, and that there is no one root to all alienation, which means that our response must be as complex and heterogeneous as the oppressive ideas they respond to.  Our work is cut out for us as we try to engage in the task of, to use Garréta’s words, “a complex rewriting of scripts that account for our choices, our behaviors, and the things we want to signify.”

-Annabel L. Kim

 To watch the workshop: follow the links:

First part:
Second part:


Same-Sex Marriage; A Comparative Look at North Carolina and France:

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