Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Family and acceptance

I recently the Bodenheimer Lecture on Family Law at UC Davis delivered by Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, professor of law at University of Iowa. Professor Onwuachi-Willig examines the Rhinelander v. Rhinelander case of 1925 to explore race relations in the United States. Particularly, she wanted to impress upon the audience the importance of expanding our normative notions of family. She explains that it is detrimental to racial minorities, especially African American females, to perpetuate an understanding of family as mono-racial and heterosexual. I believe she is correct; and I additionally believe that such notions of family are inconvenient and even injurious to members of the LGBT community.

In Rhinelander v. Rhinelander, an extremely wealthy white man from one of New York's elite families (Leonard) sued his wife (Alice) for an annulment based on fraud. Leonard claimed that Alice had misrepresented her race (she was a black woman), and that he only married her was because he believed her to be of Caucasian decent. Legend has it, however, that the two were actually madly in love and that Leonard's family, particularly his father, pressured him to annul the wedding. In fact, that an all-white male jury ended up ruling in favor of Alice suggests to many scholars today that the jury simply bought the love story. For instance, there was evidence that Leonard frequently visited with Alice's black family in the lower-income areas of New York. After a quiet wedding, he moved to a modest apartment to live with Alice in relative secrecy, foregoing the extravagant announcements and ceremonies most men of his stature were due. He was obviously and simply in love. Although Alice won the lawsuit (and the marriage was not annulled), the relationship was destined to dissolve. Leonard died shortly after, many say from love sickness, alone and estranged from all friends and family. Alice lived until she was 87, but "living" may be too generous a word, because she too was alone, and mostly poor throughout the rest of her life.

Professor Onwuachi-Willig situates her research in the field of race relations, focusing on interracial marriage as a vehicle for breaking psychological and social boundaries to move towards acceptance and equality. Canadian sociologist, Dorothy Smith, however, argues that the idealized family that Professor Onwuachi-Willig describes, includes a gendered division of labor (a breadwinning father and a stay-at-home mother) which devalues women. I believe that it additionally creates an expectation and an acceptance of gendered roles to the detriment of members of the LGBT community.

Sociologic theories that aligns biology with normative behavior have the potential to confuse an observed relationship with a causal relationship. Moreover, these assumptions tend to over-generalize, and to consequently marginalize those who do not fit the mold. For example, the iconic family as being headed by a married couple excludes single parent families, divorced couples, separations and cohabitation. In California, unfortunately, it also excludes single-sex couples. This demonstrates how norms in our society can affect laws and associated privileges and protections. Today, there are 1,138 rights and responsibilities reserved for opposite sex couples who can legally be married in the United States, including social security benefits, spousal insurance benefits through one’s employer, Medicare, and family reunification for asylum seekers. I know this because my partner and I received an IOU from the activist County Recorder in Yolo County for each of the rights.

A dismantling of normative notions of family would advantage racial minority, as Professor Onwuachi-Willig explains, and would additionally undo prescribed gender roles, that may constrict the potential of women to contribute to society. By abolishing a picture of normality, it would signal acceptance of that which was previously considered abnormal. This includes interracial marriages, same sex couples, and a variety of other loving relationships that deserve legal, social, and psychological security.


Brown Eyed Girl said...

The family pressures that underlie Rhineland are palpable. I was reminded of the 1967 film, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" [1] In the film, a self-proclaimed liberal couple must face their own (unrealized) prejudices when their daughter brings home her fiancé for the first time. Throughout the story, they struggle to accept that her true love is an African-American man.

Interestingly, one of the key scenes in the film involves the soon-to-be-husband's father telling him that he would be breaking the law in a number of states if he were married. During the film's production, several states still enforced anti-interracial marriage laws. But by the time the film was released, this was no longer true. The Supreme Court had issued its ruling in Loving v. Virginia, striking down state laws that prohibited marriages based solely on race. 388 U.S. 1, 2 (1967). The Court recognized that marriage is subject to a State's police powers, but declared that "marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man' fundamental to our very existance and survival." 388 U.S. at 12. This case, I think, rightly established a progressive development of the law regarding race. But I also think the language was interestingly crafted to consider this right in the male/female context only, discussing the importance of marriage to our species' continued existence. This language further alienated those in the LGBT community.

While Rhinelander was decided in 1925, this film shows that America continued to struggle with racial stereotypes and "normal" family structures thirty-seven years later. Even today, some segments of society have difficulty with these notions. LGBT issues have slowly started to gain momentum since the 1980s, much more so recently. I hope it does not similarly take almost a half-century for our legal system to recognize the danger and/or harm of applying law based on these normal/abnormal labels.


AMA said...

In Family Law I learned that "traditional" marriage has been on the decline since the 80's, and that only 52% of Americans were married in 2008. Further, the "traditional" and idealized "nuclear family" is not representative of more than half of American families, and that there has been a huge increase in cohabitational, nonmarital relationships. To me this signifies that Americans are clinging to a false image of what the American family should look like. It is also ironic that the sanctity of marriage is always invoked as a reason to not allow for gay marriages, yet heterosexual couples are either divorcing at alarming rates or deciding not to marry at all.

I believe that by embracing a different (and more realistic) notion of "family" we will create a more tolerant and equitable nation.

tomindavis said...

Megan, what an interesting story of the two star-crossed lovers in New York. You told their story very nicely. But I really liked your thoughtful (and obviously personal) observations about how norms of marriage can make the myriad, and ever-evolving, alternatives to that norm so hard to sustain in society.

The race-meets-gender dynamic was also intriguing, and reminded me of the issues we discussed in class, where the essentialism of a woman's race makes her gender take a backseat -- or vice versa. I agree with AMA, that "traditional" marriage is a rickety table as it is, and I wholeheartedly embrace your call for a national notion of couples that is all-inclusive and evolving.

AMS said...

It disappoints me to know that serious legal voids still exist with respect to the protection of interracial Americans. My grandparents were an interracial couple--my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor from Poland and my grandmother is from Mexico. The two met in an ESL class and married in the early 1950s. They bought a house in Hollywood and raised their four kids in the liberal neighborhood.

After speaking with my father, their son, about discrimination he and/or his parents faced, I found the response quite interesting. Yes, he remembers kids at school calling him a "fat tamale." Yes, he remembers struggling to find the right group to hang out with in school. Yet, he said that people didn't really seem to have a problem with his parents or kids of his mixed identity. My dad explained that growing up in Southern California likely made his family easier to accept.

He went on, though, to emphasize the fact that serious discrimination accompanied situations with a black/white interracial couple, or a gay person (let alone gay couple). My dad also recalls that it was much more difficult for people to accept interracial couples where the white partner was a woman rather than a man.

As an aside, my dad mentioned that a country club only a few miles from where he lived had a sign that read "No Negros, No Jews, and No Dogs." He also mentioned that certain businesses in West Hollywood (of all places) posted signs that read "No Faggots" up until the mid-80s.

I—in fact, we—represent the next generation. As a highly-educated person, my exposure to, and identification with, diversity often makes it quite difficult for me to understand how and why such discrimination persists. I know that I must often to take a step back to realize that it was not very long ago when my parents and grandparents witnessed and experienced discrimination in Hollywood (we’re not even talking about the deep south!). Many of the people engaging in the discrimination back then are still shaping and influencing the biases of others today.

I agree that our society will benefit greatly from expanding our normative notions of family. I am also confident that, over time, our notions will change naturally. My guess is that the more “ambiguously brown” people there are, the more mixed-race leaders we have (like our current President), and the more LGBT people come out, the more our society will shift to accepting different people, cultures, and sexual identifications.

Maybe the question for now is how do we speed up the process? We know that media and education are quite influential. When our favorite shows represent non-nuclear and LGBT families/family members, and when our siblings, cousins, and children realize that their non-traditional, non-nuclear family is actually the norm, hopefully change will occur in a manner that treats us as equals. As that next generation of legal professionals, we can also make sure to utilize the law as a tool to reflect, perpetuate, and drive those changes.