About Me

Michael Yarbrough headshot

Welcome! I am an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where I teach in the Law & Society major. My research studies how law shapes the ways we understand marriage and other relationships in our daily lives. Through this and other lenses, I explore how law helps produce intersecting inequalities of race, class, gender, sexuality, and more.

I’m currently writing a book on South Africa, the world’s only society that has recently expanded laws for two forms of marriage: same-sex marriages, and marriages under customary systems of African law. Through interviews with LGBT people and with members of a community governed by African law, I explore how South Africans experience and understand marriage in the aftermath. This project has produced articles in Social Politics, Law & Social Inquiry, Sexualities, and other journals, and it has received the 2019 Law & Society Association Article Prize and other awards.

I also co-edited the After Marriage Equality series with Angela Jones and Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis, which explores how queer families, activism, and political priorities are changing after same-sex marriage. These three volumes build on a conference of activists and academics I co-organized while on the board of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies. With Steven Boutcher and Corey Shdaimah, I am now co-editing the Handbook of Law, Movements, and Social Change, in which law and society scholars from around the globe will examine how the relationship between law and activism is changing in these volatile times.

Working with undergraduates is central to my scholarship, and I have received awards from John Jay for both teaching and service to students. My Law & Society colleagues and I jointly facilitate the Legal Disruption Project, a student-led research project that examines the different ways law disrupts John Jay students’ lives. In 2019, I was recognized by the CUNY Academy of Humanities and Sciences as one of CUNY’s outstanding Assistant Professors. I hold a BA in sociology from the University of Chicago and a JD and a PhD in sociology from Yale.

Research & Publications

When governments change their marriage laws, how do people on the ground respond? And what are the implications for inequalities of race, class, gender, sexuality, and coloniality? My work thus far has explored these questions through two major projects. 

The first project looks at marriage in contemporary South Africa, which in recent decades has opened its marriage laws to both same-sex marriages, and marriages under customary systems of African law. As the only place in the world that has recently expanded its marriage laws for two major groups of people, South Africa makes possible a unique comparison that I use to re-theorize how the official law of marriage translates–or doesn’t–into daily practices and understandings. I have published several articles from this project and am currently drafting the book manuscript.

The second project, the After Marriage Equality Series, is a collection of three co-edited volumes (with Angela Jones and Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis) exploring how queer families, movements, and political priorities are shifting after same-sex marriage. Published with Routledge in 2018, these volumes build on a conference I co-organized and hosted at John Jay. The chapters include academic papers, interviews with activists, and edited transcripts of key conference panels. Collectively, the After Marriage project emphasizes marginalized queer voices, helping translate critiques from the marriage debate into research and activism frameworks for this new era after marriage. [You can preview and buy the books at routledge.com; use code FLR40 for 20% off.]

My publications are listed below in reverse chronological order. More detailed pages on both projects are forthcoming.

Edited Volumes

cover of Queer Families & Relationships volume

Michael W. Yarbrough, Angela Jones, and Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis, eds. 2018. Queer Families and Relationships After Marriage Equality. New York: Routledge.

Across thirteen chapters, this volume argues that same-sex marriage will have an impact on all queer families, not just those couples who marry. Even more importantly, this impact could be harmful for queer families who don’t fit the homonormative mold. Research and activism must address this, so we can carve out space for all families to flourish.

Read the pre-publication version of the introduction chapter here.

Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis, Michael W. Yarbrough, and Angela Jones, eds. 2018. Queer Activism After Marriage Equality. New York: Routledge.

Lead edited by Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis, this volume asks what happens when a mainstream movement achieves its central goal. Using both academic analyses and interviews with activists, the volume suggests that a distinct Queer Liberation Movement has long operated in the shadows of the mainstream gay rights movement, and that it stands ready to pursue a more intersectional and liberatory agenda in the US and elsewhere.

cover of Unfinished Queer Agenda volume

Angela Jones, Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis, and Michael W. Yarbrough, eds. 2018. The Unfinished Queer Agenda After Marriage Equality. New York: Routledge.

Lead edited by Angela Jones, this volume explores the full range of issues faced by queer and trans people but that were largely overshadowed by the mainstream focus on marriage. The volume centers the most marginalized members of queer communities, including sex workers, undocumented immigrants, homeless youth, and others, and argues for a vision of queer politics focused on dismantling white supremacy and capitalist oppression as well as cisheteropatriarchy.


first page of "New Twist on the 'Un-African' Script"

Yarbrough, Michael W. 2020. “A New Twist on the ‘un-African’ Script: Representing Lesbian and Gay African Weddings in Democratic South Africa.” Africa Today 67(1): 48-70. doi:

This is a cultural studies essay that closely analyzes the media coverage of two black South African weddings, one gay and one lesbian, that included African cultural elements. This coverage was overwhelmingly sympathetic, and took direct aim at the common myth that “homosexuality is un-African.” However, I argue that the coverage reproduces the myth because it portrays the gay and lesbian couples as “new” Africans who teach their families to unlearn their homophobia. Telling the story in this way erases the history of same-sex marriage and coupling in the region, and it distorts the ways gay and lesbian Africans today are embedded in African communities.

Paywalled published version

Open-access preprint version

screenshot of first page of Very Long Engagements article about the persistence of lobola

Yarbrough, Michael W. 2018. “Very Long Engagements: The Persistent Authority of Bridewealth in a Post-Apartheid South African

Community.” Law & Social Inquiry 43(3): 647-77. doi:10.1111/lsi.12275.

This article examines how bridewealth–called lobola in South Africa–continues to command authority in black South African communities, even though many blame it for major declines in marriage. Adherence to tradition is part of the answer, but my argument emphasizes another factor: that to many young people today, lobola also represents romantic love. For some young women, it even represents the best tool they have to pursue “50/50” gender equality in marriage. These other meanings keep young people, and especially young women, invested in lobola, helping it to survive but in subtly changed form.

Winner, Law & Society Association Article Prize, 2019

Paywalled published version

Open-access preprint version

screenshot of Something Old, Something New article about connections between same-sex and African marriage struggles

Yarbrough, Michael W. 2018. “Something Old, Something New: Historicizing Same-Sex Marriage within Ongoing Struggles over African Marriage in South Africa.” Sexualities 21(7): 1092-1108. doi:10.1177/1363460717718507.

This article uses 21 interviews with black lesbian and gay South Africans to argue that current struggles around same-sex marriage in South Africa are best understood as part of much longer, ongoing struggles over African marriage. These struggles have long turned on tensions around the role of gender and generation in African marriage. As more egalitarian and individualist understandings of marriage have gained legitimacy, these past struggles have helped prepare the way for contemporary gay and lesbian marriages. At the same time, some now see these marriages as the fullest, most threatening expression of a broader shift away from patrilineal understandings of African marriage and kinship.

Paywalled published version

Open-access preprint version

screenshot of Toward a Political Sociology of Conjugal-Recognition Regimes article, about the making of South Africa's same-sex and customary marriage laws

Yarbrough, Michael W. 2015. “Toward a Political Sociology of Conjugal-Recognition Regimes: Gendered Multiculturalism in South African Marriage Law.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 22(3): 456-94. doi:10.1093/sp/jxv016.

This article traces the processes that led to the two new marriage laws in South Africa, and that have so far failed to produce a similar law for Muslim marriages. I argue that in both the African and same-sex marriage debates, gender-rights activists presented “culture” in more dynamic terms while traditionalists presented it as more static. While the gender-rights activists won several substantive concessions in both cases, each reform was also enacted as a separate statute that tended to support the timeless understanding of culture advanced by traditionalists. This principle has become more entrenched over time, enabling some Muslim traditionalists to prevent the enactment of a bill for Muslim marriage.

Paywalled published version

Open-access preprint version

Yarbrough, Michael W. 2015. “South African Marriage in Policy and Practice: A Dynamic Story.” South African Review of Sociology 46(4): 5-23. doi:10.1080/21528586.2015.1100095.

The lead article in a special issue of the South African Review of Sociology focused on family, this article reviews several decades of southern Africanist scholarship that touches on the relationship between family and law. Many of these findings are fragmentary and scattered, contained in studies focused on broader issues. The paper’s chief contribution is to gather them together and provide an introductory roadmap to the literature. I argue that this scholarship collectively reveals not a top-down imposition of family policy, but instead a complex (and unequal) interplay between state policy and the response of the governed.

Paywalled published version

Open-access preprint version

Yarbrough, Michael W. 2006. “South Africa’s Wedding Jitters: Consolidation, Abolition, or Proliferation?” Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 18(2): 497-521. Available at http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlf/vol18/iss2/5/.

Published in Chinese Translation: [ 美 ]迈克尔· W. 亚伯勒 (Michael W. Yarbrough) 2018 [2006]. 南非的婚姻震动:巩固、废除或再生.  杨俊菲, 译 (Yang Junfei, trans.). Review on Law, Shanghai International Studies University.

This is the first piece I published on South African marriage, a Comment I wrote while in law school. It analyzes the new South African marriage statutes as they were in the process of multiplying. Written between the Constitutional Court’s 2005 judgment that excluding same-sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional and Parliament’s 2006 passage of the Civil Union Act, this piece highlights a tension between the Court’s push for a “consolidated” marriage framework and Parliament’s more “proliferationalist” approach. Although the piece includes writing choices I would not make today, I continue to agree with its broad outlines, and it remains the most extended analysis I have published of the Court judgment.

Open-access published version