Framing sexual citizenship: reconsidering the discourse on African American families.

Author:Chateauvert, Melinda

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)


Studies of citizenship based on the work of sociologist T. H. Marshall dramatize the tensions between sexuality, identity, and political status. Writing in postwar Great Britain, Marshall was concerned primarily with leveling the privileges of class in the democratic welfare state. In his view, class was defined strictly by a worker's relationship to the means of production; however, he believed that the Industrial Revolution, by adopting better technology, would reduce the need for heavy labor, allowing an opportunity for the intellectual development of the working class. He argued that universal education would ameliorate class differences, leading to a more just society. Marshall distinguished three types of citizenship--civil, political, and social--noting that each type had been granted in the centuries since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Civil rights and civil liberties were won first and allowed for the liberty of the person, freedom of speech, thought, and faith; property ownership, contractual rights, due process; all rights won through the civil court. Political rights granted in the last years of King William IV in the 18th century expanded political rights in the Reform and Abolition Acts, which extended suffrage and representation to new classes of citizens. "The whole range" of social rights granted in the 20th century included a modicum of social welfare benefits "to live the life of a civilized being, according to the standards prevailing in the society." Marshall's influence in Britain was tremendous, but his essays were not published in the United States until 1964, notably the same year as the Civil Rights Act granted all citizens equal access to public accommodations, federally-funded social welfare programs, and non-discrimination in employment. (5)

Marshall's use of citizenship as a means for evaluating equality across class lines inspired scholars in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe to employ his framework as a means for measuring the rights of women, immigrants, people of color, and gays and lesbians against the rights of white, heterosexual men. These analyses of identity-based rights arose as a method for assessing the strategies and limitations of the social movements of the 1960s. They are relevant in the United States on an expedited timeline. For African Americans, Marshall's centuries-long unfolding of citizenship rights can be collapsed into just thirteen months. Between 3 July 1964 and 30 July 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed bills granting all three types of rights: The Civil Rights Act, covering employment rights and civil liberties; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, extending political rights; and the "social rights" of citizenship through the anti-poverty programs of the Economic Opportunity Act, and the expansion of Social Security with Medicare and Medicaid. The breathtaking speed of that transformation threatened to destabilize the existing political order. Conservatives raised questions about the sexual responsibility of a newly empowered African American population, establishing the intent of political elites to impose discipline, particularly as nationalist rhetoric was blaring from both whites and African Americans. Conservatives challenged the citizenship rights of African Americans by focusing on perceived "un-American" values and sexual behavior. (6)

Unfortunately, social scientists and historians writing on race and citizenship in the United States have not drawn on Marshall's framework. (7) In African American historical discourse, citizenship was defined primarily by the lawyers working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), led by Thurgood Marshall, and focused on civil and political rights. Civil rights leaders sought "first class citizenship rights" in the public arenas of government, education, the economy, and public accommodations. The family, viewed as part of the private realm, was not considered a problem demanding serious political attention by civil rights advocates. Constance Baker Motley recalled that Marshall deliberately avoided any discussion of "social equality" in the Brown cases, nor did LDF challenge state anti-miscegenation laws, although they were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia (1967). The decision of Marshall and others not to address sexual issues was expedient and pragmatic given the fierce reactions of whites to anything hinting at interracial relations, but it created a vulnerable "wedge issue" that would later be exploited by conservative proponents of "traditional family values." (8)

If citizenship is defined by the democratic ideal of equal rights, policies that presume and privilege the nuclear family, dictate codes of sexual behavior, and articulate narrow gender roles for women and men clearly need interrogation. Early scholars writing about African American families such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Kelly Miller, E. Franklin Frazier, and Charles Spurgeon Johnson rarely questioned the European-derived nuclear family ideal, holding it as a standard by which to judge racial "progress toward civilization," in much the same way that they applauded the increase in the number of college graduates, practicing professionals, home owners, businesses, and charitable organizations among African Americans. But the family, viewed as a basic unit of society, represents "private" spaces that determine a person's political, civil, and social status. "What kind of family does he come from?" stands for more than a polite inquiry about the background of new acquaintances; it establishes a person's citizenship. (9)

According to feminist scholars who have criticized the sexist interpretation of citizenship pursued by T. H. Marshall and his students, the false dichotomy between public and private helps to maintain the subjection of women. Tracing the development of the liberal contract within the context of citizenship, feminists challenge the assignment of women and sexual matters to the private sphere. They dispute the claim made by social contract...

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