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February 2007 Email this to a friend
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Bedfellows Strange & Plenty
It's as if polygamists broke into the headquarters of Gay Agenda, Inc., and stole all the Five Year Plans. If imitation is flattery, why are gay leaders gritting their teeth?
By Bill Andriette

Isn't it great how everyone benefits when people fight for their rights? Build ramps for the wheelchair-bound, and folks pushing strollers or shopping carts-- not to mention skateboarders-- gain too. Then why are campaigners for gay marriage uneasy as polygamists burst out of the closet and demand recognition and rights?

Maybe it's because homosexuals have long been beaten over the head on the question by people spewing anti-gay bile. Legalize sodomy, said then-Senator Rick Santorum in 2003, and soon bigamists, incestuous lovers, and those whose tastes run to "man-on-dog" will be clamoring for rights.

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Maybe it's because Santorum's prediction has turned out partly true. A cadre of polygamy activists-- many, women-- seem to be modeling themselves on the gay movement-- with whom, as fundamentalist Mormons or hard-line Christians, they ordinarily share little love.

Yet the resonance between the two causes-- one spectacularly successful, the other awaiting its first clear legal victory in the West-- are unavoidable.

Polygamy proponents cite broadening concepts of marriage and the downfall of sodomy laws as stepping stones in the decriminalization of plural marriage. "We are the next civil-rights movement," declares Mark Henkel of a Christian polygamy website TruthBearer.org. In Canada-- a trailblazer on gay marriage-- a report commissioned by the Justice Department recommended in January 2006 legalization of polygamy. And in Utah, the place in North America where polygamy law hits home most, attorney general Mark Shurt-leff calls his avowed policy of not prosecuting plural marriages among consulting adults "Don't ask, don't tell."

Shurtleff's carrot comes with an accompanying stick. Utah's attorney general is throwing the book-- up to life in prison-- at polygamist men who cohabit with or arrange the betrothal of young women who would normally be legally marriageable but are under 18. In 1999 he pushed the Utah legislature to raise the legal age of marriage from 14 to 16.

Allegedly running afoul of those provisos is what got Warren Jeffs, iron-fisted "prophet" of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (the main Mormon church denies any relation to the FLDS), on the FBI's most-wanted list. Arrested while on the lam in August, Jeffs faces life in prison on charges stemming from bigamy, and on the accusation of making a 14-year-old girl consummate a marriage with her 19-year-old cousin.

As well, Jeffs's church-- based in and around Hillsdale, Utah, with an outpost in Bountiful, British Columbia-- faces suits from the so-called "Lost Boys"-- mostly young men thrown out of FLDS communities for petty infractions. Some of them end up rooming together in "butthouses"-- crash pads for "parking one's butt"-- in towns around Hillsdale. The estranged youths usually eke out a living at menial jobs, with some heading to Las Vegas to hustle.

Another stripe in the rainbow?

But as if in counterpoint to all the recent bad press, activists are drawing another picture of polygamy: one of contented adults-only spouses, and burgeoning families nestled in hard-working, mutually supportive communities-- remarkably like those households touted by GLBT folk.

With signs such as "Intolerance Hurts Kids" and "I Love ALL My Moms," someone chancing upon the "Youth and Family" rally August 19th in downtown Salt Lake City could be forgiven for thinking it was lesbigay pride running a little late in the calendar. Rather, it was the first rally polygamists have staged in anyone's memory.

"I'm your brother and your friend no matter who you are or where you come from and I won't judge you," stated Christian, 19, in a press release before the event.

At the rally, youngsters spoke of their positive experiences. "I do not know right now if I want to live polygamy in the future, but I do want to have that as an option. My parents encourage me to make my own decision," declared 13-year-old Sylvie to a cheering crowd. "The polygamist families I have met are very good people.... The anti-polygamists trying to break up these families do not think of the families' best interests, but only of what they want. And that hurts people."

Sponsored by the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices, the demo centered on questions of rights, privacy, family values-- with controversial precepts of Mormon theology kept offstage.

"Public officials and people at large simply don't want to hear the religious angle," Marlyne Hammon, a spokeswoman with the Centennial Park Action Committee, another campaign group, tells The Guide. "However, the fundamental reason that polygamy is lived-- outside of the black community-- is that it is regarded as a righteous way of life, sanctioned by the Bible and modern revelation."

More typical media self-presentations of late run like this: "I'm a soccer mom. My kids are in music lessons. They go to public school. I'm not under anyone's control," a woman named Valerie was quoted in the Washington Post in November. Valerie's husband has two "sister-wives," and she lives in a house with 21 children, eight of them hers. Marrying a man who's already another woman's husband is like the pleasure of new shoes without the blisters of breaking them in. "You really have a good frame of reference when you marry a man who already has two wives," Valerie relates.

The just-folks impression of polygamy hit prime-time last March with the debut of the HBO series "Big Love," which fits the triumphs and travails of a polygamist clan into the framework of soap opera. Between paterfamilias Bill Henrickson, his three wives, and an ever-increasing roster of offspring, there's lots of lather.

Activists with Principled Voices have been consultants to the show, helping clarify the themes: the necessity to stay closeted to neighbors and authorities, the bonds and jealousies among sister wives, the tensions that attend a man's taking on his nth spouse, the sometimes authoritarian rule of a community's "prophets," and a certain tendency to cast off boys and men as unwelcome competitors to established patriarchs for the hearts and wombs of marriageable girls.

The breakaway Mormon polygamists (the mainline Mormon church officially denounced the practice in 1890) are taboo-smashers and sex criminals. But they're also imbued with a religion steeped in long-skirted, caffeine-free, teetotaling propriety. With this combination of modesty and outrageousness-- now that their gaze is focused here-- the media can't get enough.

"But there are things she does not talk about at work," writes the Times of London December 30th about one Vicky (last name also withheld to protect her family), who looks "every inch the archetypal young working woman after a day at the office." What unsayables are about to be whispered to millions of readers? "Things such as the house she grew up in with her 39 brothers and sisters. Things such as the 21 children, six of them her own, who run around the house she lives in now. Things such as the two other 'sisterwives,' one of them her blood sister, with whom she shares her husband, taking turns to spend the night with him in strict rotation. 'It's not a thing we generally publicize,' she says shyly."

Buttfuckers blush

But if anyone's shyer talking about polygamy, it's mainstream gay groups, who hesitate even to utter the word.

"We're fighting for the freedom for same-sex couples to have access to the exact same thing that opposite couples have," Samiya Bashir of Freedom to Marry, tells The Guide. "We're not seeking a different kind of scenario."

When a reporter for a news magazine called Boston's Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders for a comment on polygamy, spokeswoman Carisa Cunningham told them, "I frankly would not love to see an article in Newsweek because this is the connection that our opponents make, and we feel it's a specious one."

Gays with a background in Mormonism-- the American sect with the deepest historical bond to "plural marriage"-- don't necessarily feel more comfortable. "Those of us in Affirmation, who are in favor of same-sex marriage," says Olin Thomas, executive director of the gay Mormon group, "don't want to make any connection between that and polygamy, because for gay marriage it would be the kiss of death."

Denmark legally recognized same-sex partnerships in 1989, with other Scandinavian countries quickly following suit. Today, the ship of gay marriage sails under a handful of flags, including those of Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, and-- as of November-- South Africa. While four US states (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Vermont) recognize civil unions, the only one offering same-sex marriage is Massachusetts. (At least for now: in January, gay marriage proponents lost a battle to keep Bay State voters from deciding a constitutional amendment on the question.) In 26 out of 27 states, US voters getting the chance have plumped for state-constitutional bans on same-sex marriage (Arizona last November being the one exception so far). The Right's mass mobilization around the issue was such that some argue George W. Bush 2004 re-election came on the coattails of anti-gay-marriage sentiment.

When a prize recedes from reach-- as gay marriage is increasingly in the US-- the tendency is to treasure it more, and perhaps lose sight of larger goals.

Look what happened to (openly lesbian) California state senator Carole Migden. In December she proposed expanding California's domestic-partnership law from covering only same-sex couples and elderly heterosexuals (looking to preserve pensions and health insurance) to young and middle-aged heterosexuals. Migden touted the proposal as giving young families more options-- especially considering that the mothers of four out of ten babies born in the US are unmarried.

For her efforts, Migden was condemned-- from the Right, of course, but also by groups supporting gay marriage. "Domestic partners are a separate and unequal institution," Geoff Kors, director of the gay lobbying group Equality California, told the San Francisco Chronicle, arguing that the only thing needing fixing was the prohibition on same-sex nuptials.

The pursuit of gay marriage in the US has become, for both sides, a matter of status and honor. Some gay commentators today wax eloquent about the sacred bonds of monogamy as if they were nuns teaching ninth-grade health at St. Mary's School for Girls. For gays, such paeans are salve to the homophobic insult that gay relationships are deficient, debased, rooted in debilitating promiscuity. Viewed through that stained glass, marriage is a boon in part because it's the antithesis of polygamy. Marriage broadened to encompass plural partners would be, on this view, damaged goods.

There are of course gay voices raised, like Migden's, worried that the marriage movement is fighting the wrong battle. Even if marriage laws treated same-sexers equally, that would only further short-shrift singles-- especially in the US, where access to healthcare often depends on having a well-employed partner. And has the failure to mount a broader critique of kinship thwarted alliances between gays and other groups ill-served by institutionalized matrimony?

"Since more than half of marriages fail over time," notes Bill Dobbs, a New York activist, "why are gay organizations pushing to prop it up, when marriage is in serious need of reform?" Dobbs argues for doing away with it altogether and instituting civil unions in its stead. "People want change, not to be slammed into the same old cookie-cutter of hetero marriage. We need to provide options for kinship so that people can put their lives together, whether there's two or many people involved." Dobbs is a signatory to a manifesto from Beyondmarriage.org, issued last summer, seeking acknowledgment for family relations of diverse kinds (see "Beyond Same-Sex Marriage" ).

Beyond Marriage's statement doesn't explicitly mention polygamy. But as the complexity of queer family relationships increases, scenarios less vanilla than state-enshrined monogamy might gain official status. This January, the highest court in Ontario embraced the concept of a three-parent family, granting the lesbian partner of a boy's biological mother parental status, in addition to the lesbian couple's gay male friend, who was the boy's biological father. All three now count as a fully entitled co-parents.

Though gay families may be spreading in plural directions, there are only a few instances of gays reaching out to polygamists.

This Valentine's Day at the Salt Lake City Public Library, a photo exhibit opens called "Families-- it's all relative," organized by the Utah Pride Center, Salt Lake's GLBT community center. In December, curators invited families to step forward to be photographed and profiled for the exhibit-- not only plain-Jane queer ones, they said, but "married traditional families, non-married families, polygamist, polyamorous, interracial, single parent families, and multi-generational families are all sought." So far no polygamist families have stepped forward, but the invitation provoked criticism from Utah state representative Christine Johnson, who told the Deseret Morning News that the mention of polygamy "makes me stop and evaluate what I think of as family." Johnson, a lesbian who is raising a daughter with her partner, said that her conjugal relationship is inherently different from polygamy. "We're saying we want to be monogamous-- we want to be respected by society by saying we made this commitment," the paper quoted her.

But one other gay gesture toward polygamists has already made a splash. The co-creators of HBO's "Big Love" turn out to be a gay couple-- Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer-- bound by ties both romantic and writerly. "If there's a group more ostracized than polygamists, then I don't know who it is," Olsen told the Washington Blade last March. "Will and I have watched the country become divisive with an increasingly strident debate about the culture wars and what is and is not a family and what should be an accepted family," Olsen went on. "Let's take a look at people as people and find the values of family that are worth celebrating separate of who the people are and how they're doing it."

A polygamist in your mirror?

How gay folks are "doing it" fascinates the people paid to fix troubled heterosexual relationships, contends Michael Bettinger, a (now retired) San Francisco psychotherapist and author of It's Your Hour: A Guide to Queer-Affirmative Psychotherapy. "There's a huge interest among straight family therapists in gay and lesbian relationships because they want to know what happens when there are no societal rules or conventions."

And what happens?

"The default in the gay community was, is, and always has been polyamory," asserts Bettinger, granting that the term is not in everyone's vocabulary. "Historically, and in the present, the dominant pattern is for gay men to have open relationships, to have some degree of commitment to those secondary relationships in addition to their primary relationship. And that qualifies as polyamory."

"Something like three-fourths of the men and a third to a half of the women," Bettinger goes on, "now acknowledge having other sexual contacts outside their primary one. A lot of these are enduring. So the model that we have of heterosexual marriage is a fantasy."

Bettinger isn't against marriage-- indeed, with a summer home in Barrington, Massachusetts, he and his partner Bob are among the some 4000 same-sex couples in the state who have officially tied the knot. "We've been together 20 years now," he says. "The first 11 years we were monogamous, and then we decided to have an open relationship. Bob, if he wanted to have outside sex, would go out to a sex club. And I would have affairs."

The celebration of monogamy sung from pulpits and gay advice columns has a core of truth-- people really do bond for life, Bettinger argues. But the erotic and emotional machinery that makes monogamy work often involves an occult third gear.

"For a lot of heterosexual marriages, as well as for a lot of gay relationships, the outside sexuality stabilizes the primary relationship-- and enhances it," he says. "So we each get all the benefits of a stable home life because one or both of the partners are having sex outside the relationship. In heterosexuality, that's the wife-mistress pattern."

The mistress as guarantor of home and hearth? It sounds like a Buddhist koan. "I think sophisticated people," Bettinger says, citing Old Testament stories of plural marriage, "wise people of all eras, have always understood this."

For now, advocates of gay marriage and proponents of polygamy eye each other warily, like sister wives vying for the attention of a stingy patriarch.

But perhaps a more realistic re-evaluation of the resurgent fetish of monogamy will give way to a world in which the two causes can nestle together-- among a gamut of relationships enjoying recognition. Offered a shot at winning a bevy of adoring spouses-- if he could attract them-- maybe even ex-Senator Santorum would soften at the idea.

Author Profile:  Bill Andriette
Bill Andriette is features editor of The Guide
Email: theguide@guidemag.com

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