Progressive Pragmatism: Why I oppose polygamy


The scene was a familiar one to [C-SPAN][cspan] junkies: A hearing was taking place in a crowded chamber with a set of tables at the front. The tables were facing rows of elevated benches and microphones, at which state legislators sat. The president of some sort of conservative organization with the word “family” in its name had just finished being grilled by the state legislators and had come off seeming childish and surprisingly unprepared. The main thrust of the man’s argument against the proposed gay marriage legislation is that gay people are bad by definition. The legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, seemed to take a bit of pride in being able to slice and dice the inconsistencies in the man’s argument. It almost made me giddy to watch it.

And then Anne Stanback, President of a Connecticut marriage equality organization called [Love Makes a Family][lovefam], took to the stand to testify.

I have a great deal of respect for President Stanback and for the organization she represents. I am hopeful that their efforts will help to change the laws in Connecticut for the better. And most of Stanback’s testimony was spot-on. But during the first few minutes, while she was being questioned by Representative Lawrence Cafero (R-Norwalk), Stanback made an unfortunate error. As Representative Cafero beset her with honest questions about polygamous unions, incestuous unions, and other doomsday scenarios that might result if the floodgates of marriage equality were opened to same sex couples, Stanback choked.

Though she admitted that discussions of polygamy had come up on several occasions within her organization, she refused to entertain any questions about it. Rather than lay down any firm stance on the part of her organization, Stanback chose instead to say that two cousins or a grandfather and a son who wish to marry have no real need for legal protections because they can already visit each other in the hospital and do a number of other things through their blood connection.

I shook my head, turned the television off, and walked away.

Stanback’s blunder is not an unusual one. Many advocates of same-sex marriage make the same mistake. In their desire to keep the conversation focused on the current issue, ending discrimination against gay and lesbian persons with respect to marriage, they allow for a kind of ambiguity to form around how marriage should actually be defined. They refuse to make arguments for limitations out of fear for what those limitations might mean to the cause at hand.

And in fairness to this line of reasoning, it is mightily taxing to have to keep addressing hollow “slippery slope” arguments that are presented most emphatically by special interest groups for whom the bottom line is that gay just ain’t okay, no matter what some fancy-pants group of psychologists, psychiatrists, and other social scientists tell us.

The slippery slope argument is simply fantastic. There is nothing to indicate that allowing same-sex marriage would increase or decrease the number of [GLBT][glbt] people in our society, nor is there anything to indicate that other challenges to “traditional marriage” would come cascading down the pipe the second the first legally-recognized gay marriage takes place.

The folks who trumpet the slippery slope argument know this, but they continue to posit the argument anyway because they understand that the more often they can get the words “incest,” “polygamy,” “pedophilia,” and “homosexuality” into the same sound byte, the easier it will be to convince the half-listening masses that these things are actually connected.

Therefore, I sympathize with same-sex marriage advocates who feel loathsome to address questions assailed upon them by anti-gay zealots. One can only beat one’s head against a brick wall so many times before stopping and saying, “You really aren’t someone I can speak with logically, so I’m sorry, but for the sake of my own sanity I’m going to have to ignore you now.”

But the question should not be ignored just because the person who asks it is unreachable, especially since the question is a fair one. The slippery slope itself may be ridiculous, but the claim that opening marriage to gay and lesbian people will fundamentally redefine marriage is true. Marriage, as it legally stands in our society today, is a contract that is limited to a certain group of people. Any change in the legal definition of those limitations is a change in the society’s definition so long as we live in a society where church and state are distinctly separate entities. If we as a society choose to take away one part of marriage’s definition, what should stop us from eliminating those other distinctions?

In a secular society, where anyone can get married regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof, what is to say what marriage is for the society as a whole except for these legal limitations? If marriage is not a contract between a man and a woman, but rather just a contract between two people, then why have any restrictions at all on who those two people can be? Why not ten people? Or a hundred?

At its base, the question we are contemplating is this: what is marriage?

Many of us turn to our faith traditions to help us sort out this question. Christians of different sects, Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, Muslims, Hindus, humanists, and atheists are all going to come to this question with different presuppositions and objectives. In a pluralistic society, we have to be able to define our commonly held social institutions in such a way that the greatest number of ideas can have room to breathe without suffocating one another.

However, some sort of overarching definition is needed if we are to keep from spinning off into total chaos. Institutions that are as abstract and varied as marriage can only work in a pluralized society if they are defined at the highest level not just by what they are, but also, and perhaps even primarily, by what they are not.

We are a society that bases itself fundamentally on notions of freedom and equality. Though we have often failed egregiously to live up to these ideals, our story has been one of an evolution towards a more open, more just society. This is as true with marriage as with anything else. In the 1800s, fierce debates took place in state legislatures around the country over whether married women should be allowed to own property. Critics made the case then that allowing for this sort of contingency would muddy society’s understanding of marriage and ultimately lead to the collapse of the family. Similar arguments were made during the debates over interracial marriage in the late 1960′s.

In both cases, society’s legal definition was changed in such a way so that the greatest freedom and equality could take place without harming the fundamental principles of the institution. In both cases, the country and the institution of marriage were better off for having embraced this re-definition of what marriage is.

These examples are popular among gay rights activists, but there’s another example of a redefinition of marriage from our American history that gets less attention in the current debate. It’s the example of [Utah's open polygamy][utah] of the mid-1800s which was outlawed by a series of Congressional laws passed in the 1880s and 1890s. Faithful Mormon polygamists fought hard against the enactment of such legislation, claiming that their First Amendment rights were being violated by the prohibition of polygamy.

Those who argued most strenuously against polygamy, however, were often abolitionists and advocates for women’s suffrage. Many Republicans in the 1850′s referred to slavery and polygamy together as “twin barbarisms.” The reason for objecting to polygamy was not that it would be a good way to stick it to the Mormons. The reason was that polygamy, while expanding the freedom of those who participate in marriage, diminishes equality.

One of the underlying tenets of our society’s understanding of marriage is consent. Whatever religion or culture may dictate, two people cannot be legally forced to marry. There is an assumed equality among partners who enter into a marriage. Once this is understood, it becomes self-evident why a man cannot marry his 12-year-old daughter, or why a woman cannot marry her pet goat. These things immediately seem silly or grotesque to us because we understand that there is a power differential in each of these types of relationships that simply cannot be overcome. A 12-year-old cannot consent to be married. Nor can a goat. Even if someone does not accept the vast amount of social scientific data that says that pedophilia and beastiality are symptoms of great psychological illness, the issue of lack of free consent should seem obvious.

Polygamy does not always elicit for us the same instantaneous reactions that more extreme examples do. This is, no doubt, a result of a modern cultural imperative that says that anything that feels good or feels right, so long as it isn’t hurting anyone else, should be permitted if not encouraged. And here I agree wholeheartedly with my conservative friends who say that this line of reasoning will lead us right off a cliff as we follow the pied piper of individualistic excess.

But the reason for objecting to any of these things cannot simply be that they seem yucky. The reason that polygamy should be opposed is because it damages equality in a variety of ways.

In Utah’s system, as in most polygamous systems, a man could have as many wives as he wanted, but a woman could not have multiple husbands. [Contemporary proponents of polygamy][propolygamy] or polyamory propose that men and women have an equal right to as many husbands and wives as they can handle. Alright, fine. But how then do we ensure that each person in a multiple person partnership is getting equal access to the financial, legal, sexual, and emotional properties of the marriage?

Moreover, an allowance for polygamy raises major questions as to how our society would understand the boundaries of such unions. If Jane and Bob are married to Susan, does Susan then have a legal right to also marry Tim even if Jane and Bob object? If she does, then does Tim have equal rights to the assets that Jane and Bob hold in common with Susan? And if Tim later decides to divorce Susan, does Tim file suit against Susan or against all three who are still married? And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The level of complication that such scenarios present is enough to boggle anybody’s mind.

My friends who support polygamy would quickly object that these are just money and property issues. They would say that what really matters is that three people, or five people, or five hundred people have committed to each other in love. And I am not one to question the validity of someone’s feelings, however alien they may seem to my experience.

But the issues involved here are not simply economic. They speak to our very understanding of how family works. Let’s say that Bob and Jane and Susan are married and they choose to adopt a child. Then Susan decides to divorce Bob and Jane so that she can move in with Tim. Who has custody over the child? What if the child was biologically Susan’s but had been adopted by the other two as part of their partnership? Do they each have an equal share here? Most importantly, though, what would be best for the child in this situation?

The answer to this last question is that what would have been best for the child in the first place would be to have two parents, loving and committed, with equal rights and responsibility, who are bound by their marriage contract unless extreme extenuating circumstances take precedence. What’s best for the child is if polygamy is never made legal in the first place.

In truth, this is also what’s best for the people themselves. There is a great difference between a gay or lesbian person who is oriented by nature towards partnerships with members of the same sex and a person who feels that they are oriented towards partnerships with multiple persons simultaneously. Both the GLBT person and the polygamist may genuinely feel to their core that their sexuality is fundamentally a part of who they are and cannot be changed. But although both people may feel this way, that does not make it true. The GLBT person can go to the world of biology, psychology, psychiatry, and sociology to discover that their sexuality is an intrinsic part of them which is not pathological, not physically or mentally dangerous, and does not in any way inhibit their ability to function in other parts of their lives.

While the GLBT person may have other problems, perhaps even other issues of sexual distress, the social sciences have confirmed repeatedly that sexual orientation itself does not cause problems or inhibit growth. The polygamist cannot make the same claim. The study of polygamy and polyamory in western society has been limited and thus has yielded limited results. But the overwhelming consensus seems to be that seeking multiple partners, whether for emotional commitment or sex or both, is almost always related to some larger and more prescient psychological issue. Polygamy simply is not healthy.

Those who promote the rights of GLBT persons should not be afraid to make strong stands on what marriage is and what it is not. They should not be afraid to differentiate the struggle of GLBT persons with that of polygamists and pedophiles, who while equally valid in their personhood are not and should not be considered equally suited for the institution of marriage.

Gay rights activists should not be afraid of this distinction because it only serves to underline the overwhelming logic of their core arguments. Marriage is not a free-for-all. There are limitations that do need to be in place for good reasons. But the current definition is arbitrary and discriminatory against GLBT persons. There is no moral ambiguity here. Marriage needs a new definition.


Article © 2005 by Jonathan Ratican