Framing Sexual Citizenship: Reconsidering the Discourse on African American Families

Article excerpt

Mr. Kirk: The first question [the Registrar] asked was did I have any illegitimate children. I said, "Not as I knows of If I has, I hasn't been accused of it. " The Registrar said, "You are a damned liar."

Vice-Chairman Storey: Said what?

Mr. Kirk: "You are a damned liar." I just smiled; I could still give the smile. Then she said, "I know you were going to tell a lie at the first place." Then she asked the question, "What were disfranchise mean?" I said, "Just like I am now, this is disfranchise from voting." She said, "That doesn't suit me"

Testimony of Joe Kirk before the United States Commission on Civil Rights, New Orleans, July 1960 (1)

Fathering a child out-of-wedlock may seem to be the most venial of pretexts to deny a citizen the right to vote. Yet the exchange reported above between a Louisiana parish registrar and a potential African American voter illustrates perfectly the interlocking ideas of race, family, sexual behavior, gender, and civil rights in the United States. Citizenship, as a status and as an identity determined by the state, is contingent upon race as well as sexuality; gender, nativity, and family status are also factors. State laws have consistently awarded rights and privileges based on skin color and gender, biological traits that undermine appeals to notions of human equality. But the measure used to disfranchise Joe Kirk awarded voting privileges based on alleged sexual behavior, not racial identity explicitly. As a behavior, sexuality is a product of many constructions, including law and policy. In this essay, I use sexuality to refer to the ways that individuals construct and organize their sexual lives, choose their sex partners, and discover erotic pleasure. The behavioral prescriptions--the "respectability" and virtue--that came with civil and political equality were only occasionally questioned by African American leaders, although they have been quick to denounce the criminalization of black men and sexual victimization of women. Equal citizenship, however, should include equality in social and sexual matters. (2)

The concept of sexual citizenship is one approach for framing a racial history of sexuality. Sexual citizenship means the adult right to organize one's sexual life and household as one desires, and to have one's privacy respected and recognized in law and social policy. Sexual citizenship means the right of mature adults to engage in consensual sexual relations without a marriage license (that is, the sanction of the state). Classic liberal framings of citizenship grant rights with responsibilities; sexual freedom requires the consent, safety, and health of one's partners. Sexual acts by citizens signal the willingness of all parties to exercise care in the prevention of pregnancy, and to take responsibility for any child born of the liaison. (3) Social scientists studying African American families historically tend to contrast "respectable" monogamously married couples with unorganized households headed by "matriarchs" or philandering men. I use this literature to reassess the ways adult men and women organized their households and lives, employing the concept of sexual citizenship to consider the ways they challenged the prescriptions for respectability. The consequences of their behavior included disfranchisement, criminalization, and expulsion from social welfare programs. Social science narratives of sexual independence and non-nuclear families fed racial stereotypes that black family values were "un-American." Using sexual behavior as a proxy for race, Louisiana officials chose to disfranchise the "disreputable" citizens. Joe Kirk lost his right to vote under a 1960 Louisiana constitutional amendment barring the registration of citizens of "bad character," which it defined as those participating in a common-law marriage or parenting children outside the bonds of marriage. (4)

CITZENSHIP STUDIES

Studies of citizenship based on the work of sociologist T. …