New York – The courtroom battle over same-sex marriage makes for a great story.
That’s the idea behind a new seminar at Columbia Law School that looks at same-sex marriage from both legal and literary points of view. Indeed, the intersection of both worlds is more seamless than it might first appear.
“Marriage is such an important social institution pretty much anywhere in the world, and it figures so heavily in literature, why not look at the two together?” said Professor Katherine Franke, Director of the Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.
Franke will teach Topics in Law and Sexuality: Gay Marriage with Katherine Biers, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
“From my perspective, this is not just about law shaping society, but society shaping law,” said Biers, who noted the long history of authors trained as lawyers, from Charles Dickens and Washington Irving to John Grisham and Richard North Patterson.
One aim of the seminar, according to Franke, is to use legal texts and literary works to frame the debate over same-sex marriage by looking at the history of marriage as a social institution. That includes the evolution of marriage as both a civil and fundamental right. Students will examine such landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases as Loving v. Virginia, which struck down Virginia’s ban against interracial marriage; and Griswold v. Connecticut, which voided a ban on providing contraceptives.
The seminar’s enrollment of 20 will be divided evenly between law and English students. Franke, whose Gender and Sexuality Law Blog was recently named one of the top 50 reproductive health blogs by the website The Health Hawk, said she will provide a primer on each case so those in the latter group won’t be daunted by the rulings.
“I also think it’s interesting for fresh eyes to read them,” Franke said. “We indoctrinate our law students to read in a particular way, and to be persuaded by certain types of arguments. But I’ll be curious to see what the non-legally initiated see in the arguments.”
The class will also inevitably focus on the Proposition 8 case in California, the most visible and vibrant forum yet for the discussion of same-sex marriage. Students will read some of the trial transcripts aloud in class, similar to the filmed re-enactments posted on YouTube of the proceedings that were prompted by the Supreme Court’s ban on televising the trial.
“Part of why a trial is so important is that it makes people who want to limit marriage to different-sex couples come forward and explain why,” said Franke, who recently lectured on same-sex marriage at the Chautauqua Institution. “And they just can’t say we hate gay people. They have to come up with a justification, and it has to stand the light of day.”
Biers approached Franke about doing the class, after she felt that discussions in literature classes about same-sex marriage could be enhanced by knowing more about the history of marriage and gay-rights activism. Often, that history has been written in the courtroom.
“We’re going to be looking at legal and literary texts side by side. We’re going to be asking how they are similar, how they are different,” said Biers, who like Franke, is on the executive committee of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. “I’ve been looking at the novels more in terms of how is the law being presented, or how it is designed to provide a challenge to a particular law.”
For her part, Franke said the interdisciplinary approach will be exciting for students and teachers alike.
“It makes me a more learned person to be reading things I wouldn’t have otherwise read,” Franke said. “It also makes me think about these issues that I thought I knew in a fresh way, and that’s what I’m really looking forward to.”
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