PLURAL MARRIAGE EQUALITY

Is Polygamy the Next Gay Marriage?

Should we really care if more than two consenting adults want to marry each other, or if polygamy advocates see the LGBT movement as an inspiration?

09.12.14 9:45 AM ET

A few years ago, when I was rushing my daughter to pre-school one morning, a similarly tardy and exasperated-looking mom passed us on the stairs. My daughter took this as an opportunity to announce, “I have two moms.” The exasperated mom picked up her hunched shoulders to turn to Willa and, after a sigh, say, “You don’t know how lucky you are.” 

This has happened to us a lot. On more occasions than I can count, overwhelmed straight parents have proclaimed how much they wish their family had two moms and, thus, extra help. This conversation often bleeds easily into a “the more the merrier” logic followed by some joke about polygamy. Like, “I’d sleep with 10 wives and husbands as long as it meant I could actually sleep in once in a while!”

And if most parents are being honest, the idea of more hands on deck is mighty appealing, even if we may not understand the emotional arrangements of open marriages and might legitimately be skeptical about the gender imbalances often found in polygamy.

Back in the early days of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement’s push for marriage equality, this slippery slope to polygamy was pragmatically taboo. After all, arguments about gay marriage leading to polygamy were lobbed almost entirely with the purpose of derailing the gay rights agenda. And there was also something inherently offensive about making the connection, along the same lines of suggesting that gay marriage would lead to people marrying goats. Never mind the fact that opposite-sex goat-human marriage had been looming as a dangerous temptation all along…

Still, people often mention polygamy and gay marriage in the same sentence (not to mention the same essay). Recently—in, surprise, Utah—a judge struck down a part of that state’s anti-polygamy law. Mind you, the Utah law makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison when someone “cohabits with another person” to whom they aren’t legally married. This makes me wonder whether Utah also outlaws the combustion engine, the Internet and other realities of modern life, but anyway there you have it.  

The legal challenge came after the state sued the stars of Sister Wives, a TV show that follows the real life of one husband, his four wives, and their 17 children. Now here’s the thing: Sister Wives premiered in September 2010, but Kody and Meri married in 1990, Kody and Janelle married in 1993, and Kody and Christine married in 1994. In other words, all those marriages predate even the earliest adoption of gay marriage in America, which was in Massachusetts in 2004. And second, in the Sister Wives family, Kody married each of the women, but the women didn’t marry each other.  

In other words, polygamy, as it generally is practiced in the United States, is a predominantly heterosexual enterprise—like heterosexuality (or the male ideal of heterosexuality) on steroids. After all, while the percentage of married women who have affairs has risen in recent decades, married men still do most of the cheating. Conservatives concerned about the high rate of divorce in America should stop blaming gay marriage but instead heterosexual infidelity—a prime culprit in 55 percent of divorces.

If couples want to bring cheating out of the deceitful shadows and instead incorporate it openly into their relationship—plus have more hands on deck for kids and more earners in the household in a tough economy—who are we to judge?  

Seriously, I’m a bit too traditional and jealous for that sort of thing, but I’m also too traditional to wear jeggings outside the house. Still, you (mostly) don’t see me judging anyone else for doing so.  

In 2013 when the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples, pro-polygamy groups heralded the ruling as a step away from the conventional one-man one-woman definition of marriage and, thus, as opening the door to polygamy. I get that, and to an extent pro-polygamy activists may be trying to latch their still-widely unpopular cause onto the increasingly victorious rainbow bandwagon.  

But while it’s mildly understandable that some see these conversations as conceptually linked—“If we’re changing the marriage laws to include gay couples, how else might we change them?”—polygamy doesn’t inherently flow from gay marriage. If anything, what polygamy does flow from is a general opening up of options.

We increasingly allow Americans to define their own families for themselves while removing coercive public policy and judgmental social norms. And this idea, which is at the heart of everything from increasing access to birth control to the striking down anti-miscegenation laws to so much more, is exactly what conservative religious extremists have always opposed.  

There are interesting arguments to be made for legalizing polygamy, from protecting children from secretive non-consensual multiple-marriage situations to how being “feminist” actually means not protecting women from these marriages but letting them choose for themselves. All compelling points. But the truth is, I don’t really care.  

I won’t be entering a polygamous relationship anytime soon. I live in New York City, so I simply don’t have the space for more wives. And just like I don’t have the ass for jeggings, I don’t have the heart for non-monogamy.

But I do have a soft spot for allowing consenting adults to make their own decisions, and to be supported by their government in doing so, not constrained.