Marriage: Race, Sexuality, Citizenship – A Critical Issue in America


A pair of wedding bands symbolize marriage - but for whom? IStock photo.

The subject of marriage – specifically what constitutes a legal marriage – has become an increasingly controversial issue in the United States. Much of the debate centers on the issue of same-sex marriage, as in California, where Proposition 8 (the “California Marriage Protection Act”), which amended the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, was overturned this summer by a federal judge – although his decision was stayed pending further appeals. At the same time, talk show hosts foment about “anchor babies” being used by illegal immigrants, usually from Latin America, to gain a toehold in the United States. News stories tell of families being torn apart when an undocumented parent is deported, leaving behind a spouse and children who are citizens. And even though interracial marriage is at an all-time high in the United States, according to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trust, the election of a biracial President whose parents’ interracial marriage would at one time have been illegal reminds us that issues of race and marriage have a complicated history in this country.

It was the timeliness of these issues, all in some way related to marriage and intimate relationships between people, that led the Department of Feminist Studies to organize a year-long series of academic discussions and public forums around the subject of Marriage: Race, Sexuality, Citizenship – A Critical Issue in America.

“These questions are at the heart of what we teach in the Department of Feminist Studies,” says Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and chair of the department. “Feminist studies is about the ways that gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and other differences affect every aspect of society. The ‘Critical Issues’ series will help see what happens when private matters - marriage and intimate and family relationships – become part of public policy based on race, sexuality, and citizenship.”

Each quarter of the academic year will focus on marriage as it relates to one of the three areas, beginning in fall 2010 with "marriage and race", followed in winter by "marriage and sexuality", and in spring by "marriage and citizenship".


Judith Stacey, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and Sociology at NYU, gives the series keynote address on October 4, 2010. UCSB Photo.

The fall quarter’s events began on October 4 with a keynote address entitled “Forsaking All Others: Race, Sex, and Marriage Politics" by Judith Stacey, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and Sociology at New York University. Professor Stacey set the tone for the year when she told the packed house that the ideal of marriage and the nuclear family of a husband, wife, and children excludes many members of society. Her research on different subcultures throughout the world, including gay men in Los Angeles, polygamy and same-sex marriage in post-apartheid South Africa, and the Mosuo people of southwestern China, demonstrated the normality of different family models and challenged the “one size fits all” model of family ideology that is dominant in the United States. So did the country’s own history throughout which race had been a core issue in the politics of marriage.

The series will further explore issues of marriage and race with two more events this fall:

  • On October 28, Tera Hunter, Professor of History and African-American Studies at Princeton University, will deliver the annual Hull Lecture on the topic of “God Made Marriage but the White Man Made the Law': Slavery and Marriage in the Nineteenth Century." Professor Hunter will discuss the dilemmas and entanglements produced for slave, free black, and ex-slave intimate relationships throughout the nineteenth century.
  • On November 16, a panel discussion on “Race, Ethnicity and Marriage” will feature Valerie Matsumoto, Professor of Asian American Studies, UCLA; France Winddance Twine, Professor of Sociology, UCSB; Aída Hurtado, Luis Leal Professor and Chair of Chicana and Chicano Studies, UCSB; Arcelia Hurtado, Executive Director of Equal Rights Advocates; and Edwina Barvosa, Associate Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies, UCSB, who will be the moderator. The panel will address ways that different racial and ethnic identities affect marriage and family life, drawing from research on anti-miscegenation legal cases and Japanese Americans, interracial families in contemporary Britain, and Chicanas and marriage rights.

Details of the events for the winter and spring quarters are still being finalized, but the “marriage and sexuality” program will include a panel discussion on marriage equality activism and a conference on “Queer Perspectives on Marriage: Intimacy Beyond Marriage”, to be organized by the UCSB New Sexualities Research Group. The spring quarter’s focus on “marriage and citizenship” will include a panel discussion and a closing lecture by Linda K. Kerber, May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences and Lecturer in the College of Law at the University of Iowa, and past President of the American Historical Association. The final lecture will tie together various ways that marriage and citizenship have defined each other in the past—and present.

“The winter events will feature the diverse perspectives on marriage within the gay and lesbian community, including those working for the right of same-sex couples to marry and those who argue that the state should get out of the marriage business altogether,” says Leila J. Rupp, Professor of Feminist Studies and Associate Dean of Social Sciences. “We hope the year-long series of events will spark interest in rethinking the role of marriage and intimate relationships in contemporary society.”

In addition to the lectures and panel discussions, several Feminist Studies courses will address the series’ theme during the year, including a graduate seminar taught by Professor Boris on “Intersectional Perspectives on Gender, Social Politics, and Social Policy”, an upper-division lecture course by Professor Rupp, “Sex, Love, and Romance, ” and a freshman seminar, which will introduce the general themes to first-year students.

Critical issues in America is an annual program sponsored by the College of Letters and Science, in collaboration with an academic department or program, that allows a year-long discussion centered around a single topic of contemporary significance. Information about future events during 2010-11 may be found at

October 2010

News Date: 

Friday, October 1, 2010