“If You Allow Gay Marriage…” by John Erickson
… you have to allow polygamy, bestiality, and everything else!” The title for my post this week is a quote from an individual I used to associate with. This individual, haling from a conservative evangelical background, tried to explain to several others and myself the reasons why gay marriage would eventually lead to the repeal of anti-polygamy and bestiality laws across the United States.
The problems that I have with this particular argument are conflating gay marriage with religious freedom. Activists and scholars can draw comparisons to anti-polygamy cases such as the 1878 U.S. Supreme Court case Reynolds v United States and the 1882 Edmunds Act and 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act that disfranchised and led to the imprisonment of Mormon polygamists. But in the end, gay marriage is not about religious freedom but rather human rights.
I often feel that there is this need both within and outside religious communities to promulgate the idea that LGBTQ individuals want to get married within the sanctified walls of “the church” just as much as heterosexual couples do. Although I do not want to disqualify those who desire to see LGBTQ equality within their faith based communities, buying into a heternormative ideal of what traditional marriage should look like needs to result in LGBTQ individuals asking why marriage should be performed in sacred spaces in the first place The normative traditions that have often defined marriage have also served as shackles keeping LGBTQ couples in the mindset that to achieve fully marriage equality with their heterosexual counterparts is to fully immerse themselves within the same traditions and practices.
During the fight for LGBTQ marriage equality there has been a rise in the fetishism of polygamy and its inherent natural link to gay marriage because they both work off the defining characteristics that the individuals within these relationships are “in love,” and that people should be able to do what they want when it comes to who or how many people they want to marry. Television shows such as Big Love and Sister Wives have distorted the fact that gay marriage and polygamy are in fact two separate issues. They have turned the discourse around polygamy away from the issues of women’s rights and roles within families consisting of more than one wife into an idea and concept that is hip to be a sister wife rather than be in a plain, old, boring marriage consisting of only one man and one wife. Big Love and Sister Wives attempt to promote the equal relationships that wives share with their husbands in polygamist relationships by furthering the argument that people “in love” should be able to do whatever and marry whomever they want. Shows like Big Love and Sister Wives, while complicating the traditional monogamous view of marriage, actually recapitulate the idea that marriage, even in its “transgressive” mode, is still a relationship of consenting heterosexual adults.
Polygamy should not be compared to gay marriage because it stems from both a heteropatriarchal and heteronormative narrative where one man can take as many wives as he sees fit. The technical argument for polygamy remains strictly about one man taking many wives and does not promote the idea of a woman taking as many husbands or even a man taking as many husbands as he or she sees fit based off of their doctrinal beliefs. Legal gay marriage is about LGBTQ individuals having the right and ability to live together with their singular partner. Conflating the issue of legal marriage equality with the issue of polygamy opens up a floodgate of new problems. Although polygamists do still exist in the world, tokenizing them on television as a hip alternatives to the idea of one man and one woman only stresses the fact that although we may see a man with two to three wives on television, we still have yet to see any type of show that places married LGBTQ individuals in the same light. Popular shows like Modern Family do have a token gay couple as part of their cast but these characters still remain closeted in terms of actually being able to portray sexuality outside of the confines of heteronormativity. Polygamous marriage has become an acceptable form of viewing on TV, while gay characters and their lifestyles are still forced to show their affection offstage and ultimately out of mind.
Homosexuals and others who a normative culture defines as deviant are scapegoated. We need to start examining the underlying questions of counter-cultural relationships that view one man marrying many women to be hip because we begin to see that although a polygamist idea of marriage may be sexy from a popular culture standpoint, the thought of legally recognized gay marriage always gets the short end of the stick.
John Erickson is a doctoral student in Women’s Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University. His research interests involve an interdisciplinary approach and are influenced by his time as the director of a women’s center and active member in the GLBTQ and women’s rights movements. His work is inspired by the intersectionality of feminism, queer identity, and religious political and cultural rhetoric. He is the author of the blog, From Wisconsin, with Love and can be followed on Twitter at@jerickson85.