Therapeutic Culture and Marriage Equality: What Comes Naturally and Contemporary Dialogues about Marriage

Article excerpt

With its breadth of subject material and depth of analysis, Peggy Pascoe's What Comes Naturally inevitably prompts historians with myriad research interests--from race and gender to the law and the American family--to employ the book's insights in order to gain a more nuanced understanding of recurring themes in their own work. (1) Accordingly, I would like to consider the ways in which What Comes Naturally can influence historical and contemporary understandings of marital success and failure. First, I will extend the book's discussion of miscegenation law and interracial marriage in order to consider how these issues interacted with the rise of therapeutic culture in the twentieth century. While most "experts" in the years after World War II acknowledged that men and women should have a legal right to marry whomever they wanted, they nevertheless opposed interracial (and interfaith) marriages on the grounds that such unions were bound to be less successful than those between same-race couples. (2) In doing so, they provided Americans who were hostile to interracial marriage with a seemingly legitimate (and race-neutral) language with which to continue their opposition. Second, I will consider divorce and the legal entanglements that ensue when there are questions about the validity of the marriage in the first place (be those unions interracial or same-sex). As Pascoe's book elucidates, a relationship's end can tell us just as much about the law, and legal attempts to prevent certain types of unions, as the beginning of that same relationship can.

Several recent cases illustrate the connections that still exist among therapeutic culture, race, and marriage. In October 2009 Louisiana justice of the peace Keith Bardwell refused to issue a marriage license to Beth Humphrey (a white woman) and Terence McKay (a black man). Bardwell offered two justifications for his position without any solid evidence beyond personal observation. First, he strongly believed that any child born to Humphrey and McKay would face discrimination and would not fit "in" with whites or with blacks. (Bardwell disregarded the fact that the couple certainly did not need to be married in order to procreate.) Second, he felt that "most interracial marriages don't last." He adamantly maintained that he was not a racist and attempted to prove his point by telling a local newspaper that he had willingly married African American couples in the past. (3) Many Louisiana politicians, including Republican governor Bobby Jindal and Democratic senator Mary Landrieu, sharply criticized Bardwell's actions, which were, in fact, illegal. Many social commentators, including Peggy Pascoe, also called for Bardwell's removal from his office. (4) Under fire Bardwell ultimately resigned.

The swift and negative reaction to Bardwell's position demonstrates the distance that many Americans have come since the 1960s in accepting interracial relationships and viewing opposition to them as racist. And yet, when the story of Tiger Woods's marital infidelities came into the public eye about a month after the Bardwell scandal, any number of men and women--especially on blogs and in anonymous online forums--opined that the breakup was inevitable, precisely because the marriage was interracial. (Woods, while multiracial, is often identified as African American; his wife, Swedish-born Elin Nordegren, is white.) In this instance the opinion that interracial marriages were more likely to fail than same-race marriages came not only from whites but also from blacks. In a blog post for BV Black Spin, for example, Boyce Watkins reported the positive reaction of black audience members to a caller who slated, "If he [Tiger] had been with a sister, none of this would have happened." (5) The backlash against Woods's marriage is particularly ironic, given that a good number of online commentators had pointed to the successful marriage and golfing career of Tiger Woods--as well as to President Barack Obama, baseball player Derek Jeter, and actress Halle Berry, among others--in order to rebut Bardwell's position that the offspring of interracial relationships were disadvantaged in some way. …