Serena Freewomyn

Better Know a Contributor: Nancy Polikoff

Filed By Serena Freewomyn | July 26, 2008 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Entertainment, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Against Equality, feminism, marriage, Nancy Polikoff

Editor's Note: You've seen Steven Colbert's "Better Know a Lobbyist," but our version is so much gayer! Each weekend, we spotlight a different TBP contributor. In case you've missed any of our previous interviews, I've got links at the end of the post.

This week's featured contributor is Nancy Polikoff. A gay rights activist and American University law professor, Polikoff is the author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law, published by Beacon Press in 2008. The book is the first in Beacon's "Queer Ideas" series, edited by Michael Bronski.

Nancy has been working on issues involving lesbian and gay families for more than 30 years and is a member of the National Family Law Advisory Council of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Before joining the faculty at American University Washington College of Law, she was one of the founders of a feminist law collective and she directed family law programs at the Women's Legal Defense Fund.

I really enjoyed talking to Nancy this week about the "f-word" and her views on marriage. Follow me after the jump for all the juicy details!

1. How did you get involved with TBP?
I first started reading Alex Blaze's posts. After he reviewed my book he contacted me about becoming a guest contributor.

2. What was your coming out experience like?
First I became a feminist in the early 1970's. In that context I realized how I had been channeled into heterosexuality. It took about a year for me to find a woman I wanted to be with. By then I had lesbian friends, and coming out was natural.

3. Which book has had the most impact on your life?
Well I suppose the books I read then had a huge impact, among them The Dialectic of Sex, by Shulamith Firestone; Sisterhood is Powerful, edited by Robin Morgan; and Lesbian/Woman, by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. More recently, family law professor Martha Fineman's The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family, and other Twentieth-Century Tragedies was huge.

4. Speaking of books, tell us more about your new book Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law. What inspired you to write the book?
I was among the many feminist lawyers who believed as far as back as the 1980's that marriage was the wrong fight, and part of what was wrong with it was that it failed to value the diverse family forms in which gay and straight people live. Feminists were rebelling against marriage as male-dominated; women were demanding the ability to raise children without husbands; poor people often lived in extended families; lots of progressive people were experimenting with collectives. I didn't want to fight for the privileged status of marriage and leave everyone else out. Then in 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court handed the gay rights movement a win that made demanding marriage in court a plausible strategy, and pretty soon Congress and the country were voting up or down on marriage for same-sex couples. Well, in an up or down vote like that I'm always going to stand with the gay rights movement. But I became alarmed by the strategy of fighting for marriage by blaming all the problems suffered by gay people on our inability to marry. I knew that left out too many people and too many relationships that really matter to people, gay and straight. So the book reclaims the history of the gay rights movement as part of a movement in support of family diversity, exposes American readers to how much less marriage means under the law of the countries whose gay-friendly policies we admire (like Canada), and lays out a law reform agenda using a number of laws I found in isolated states and even in federal statutes that meet all the needs of gay couples and of other family forms as well.

5. If you could meet one person, living or past, who would it be and why?
That's easy. Nelson Mandela. I have a small picture of him that's an ANC poster I brought back from South Africa in 1997. I keep it on the bulletin board outside my office. Sometimes I touch it as I'm entering my office. It gives me inspiration.

6. What's your favorite thing to do in the summertime?
I love to travel anytime I can. This summer I'm going to Peru with my partner and my 25 year old daughter. It's our first family vacation in awhile and I'm really excited about it. My favorite thing to do when I travel is snorkel (won't be doing that in Peru, of course!). My favorite place in the world is Kauai, Hawaii.

For more information about Professor Polikoff's book, log onto

And don't forget to check out previous interviews with TBP Contributors:
Alex Blaze
Don Sherfick
Sara Whitman
Brent Hartinger
Jessica Hoffman
Cathy Renna
Waymon Hudson
Kate Clinton
Bruce Parker
Jerame Davis
Mercedes Allen
Monica Roberts
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Steve Ralls

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These interviews are always so interesting! Serena, I am grateful that you take the time to do them and share them with us.

Supporting families which aren't "traditional" is important - so many children are raised in non-traditional families (I'm one). I ordered Nancy's book and am looking forward to learning more about the legal status, and possible future, of diverse families.

Dale, I'm glad that you've enjoyed reading the interviews. I've had a lot of fun doing them.

Nancy is one of my favorite contributors. Her posts are always fascinating and informative.