“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.

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Categories: Activism, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Community, Ethics, Evangelicalism, Family, Feminism, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, Gendering Mormonism Course Dialogue, Human Rights, Identity Construction, Interreligious dialogue, LGBTQ, Men and Feminism, Mormonism, Politics, Power relations, Reform, Resistance, Scripture, Sexual Ethics, Social Justice

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24 replies

  1. Your opening quote is also pretty much what Rick Santorum has said. Several times. It seems to me that any expression of true and honest love is a good thing. In my novel Secret Lives, there’s an octogenarian sex scene. Later in the same chapter, one of the old women says, “I wouldn’t get married again even if he had a diamond prick.” True story! The grandmother of one of my friends actually said that! I’m not interested in marriage, either, but if gay or straight people want to get married and will do it honestly and without cheating, good for them!

  2. If we go back to the root of it, and define marriage as a patriarchal institution we should be clear in this. If we know the history of marriage throughout time, then I don’t think we want to go down that road at all. You can’t buy into a system that so exploits and controls women. Women are still changing their last names to the man’s last name. This should be outlawed–we have to get rid of this stuff.

    What we need is a true legal code for individuals. That means you need NO partner at all to get health care discounts, or you can decide who to pass pension and social security benefits to. Married in the heterosexual sense means that you should not get extra privileges in any way. If we treat the individual as a full legal unit, we won’t have to try to imitate that horrifyingly oppressive institution called the heterosexual marriage.

    No true radical feminist that I know of would ever advocate for the expansion of this oppression institution. Outlaw the last name change!

  3. When you study miscegenation laws that finally went away in 1967, there is the “Loving” case that has become a precedent that defines marriage that many are pulling from regarding the issue of gay marriage. In fact the label of homosexuality is a 20th century construct, though people seem to think it always existed. To intertwine polygamy and homosexuality (and especially homosexual marriages) is just another sign of ignorance. Maybe if we get back to basics and look at what the definition of marriage (i.e. partnership) is supposed to be about, one can see that heterosexuals (those that can freely marry) can often be flippant about the commitment (i.e. short marriages marriage for money, token wives, multiple marriages, etc). Marriage is sacramental and sex can be an act of prayer. It knows no boundaries, not even gender, it is sacred. Homosexual relationships are often more committed and sacramental. Hopefully we can continue the dialogue, continue clearing up the mid-education on constructed societal norms and literal biblical interpretation.

  4. While I do agree that conflating homosexual marriage with polygamy is not ideal, or even accurate, I think those worries by some are valid. I don’t agree with “polygamy” for the reasons you site in your post; it is one man to many women, and does not leave open to the possibility of any other structures. However, within the counter-culture of kink, polyamory is becoming more accepted and talked about. I belong to a forum and some of the posters there have been in long-term (ten years plus) poly situations, one is a man and his two “wives” and one is a woman and her two “husbands.” Though they cannot marry their second partner, they are just as committed to the relationships as any other married couple I have seen. I think that if/once homosexual marriage is accepted more and more, we will start to see other sexualities, such as kink and polyamory, come out of the woodwork and desiring to see more acceptance as well.

    I do not believe, however, that things like bestiality will ever be accepted because the “partner” cannot consent, and therein lies the invalidity of the argument which is your posts title.

  5. would that marriage had ever been “about” partnership in the history of marriage. it was “about” ensuring that a man’s childern were his, women were viewed as under the control of men, like children and animals, and generally marriages were arranged without the consent of the woman and sometimes also without the consent of the man, by the parents, with property exchanges involved. romantic marriage is a recent invention, and it hasn’t worked out very well either in terms of equal partnership actually existing within it overall, nor has it proved stable, once women became able to support themselves.

    because they knew this my friends judith plaskow and martha acklesberg decided not to get married when they could in mass. and put out a statement critiquing marriage. they also said that they felt a focus on marriage makes people who are single by choice or not by choice feel deficient, which it certainly does. judith and martha did have their own commitment ceremony.

  6. PS the polygamist photo makes me want to throw up. from what i know about polygamy, group sex has not been part of it, but rather the wives were “visited” separately. also, polygamy has often allowed older men to keep taking younger women, including in some cases, the children of their wives by other men. rarely would the wives all be the same age.

    • HI Carol, I think your statements about polygamy here are absolutely correct. The picture that John used is from the HBO series called Big Love – it was a promo pic. Have you seen the series?

      If not, I think you would be interested, particularly in the last season which focused on the women, their callings, and particularly the first wife’s calling to the priesthood.

    • Carol let me explain to you how polygany (In Islam it that) works. I have been married 20 years and have asked my husband to take another wife. (Reasons for my request secondary right now.) U are right, group sex are not permissible. We in fact have a schedule drafted by the two of us (wives) which hubby has to follow. He spent this weekend with me (Friday, Sat and Sunday). He will then spend Mon and Tuesday with my co-wife; Wed and Thursday with me and then the weekend with her. And then it automatically swaps around. It works for us and there is nothing covert, perverted or ugly about our marriages ( yes, there are two marriages).

  7. Marriage is about ownership of women, it is about men controlling their children. It has a 50% failure rate in the U.S. It also puts single people out of the norm, and it would create a class system even within the lesbian and gay community, which we don’t need right now. For centuries, marriage was forced on women, and was little more than legalized rape. Even now, it still sets up a free labor system in which women are still exploited for free labor, or trapped in relationships with men who could kill them, and many times do.

    It is not about partnership historically at all. So why are gay men so excited about this relic of patriarchal horror? Where does this come from? I’d say there are a lot of lesbians who are pretty sick of the marriage band wagon. Lest we forget the real history of this institution, and what makes people believe the state has any business granting anything to anyone in this way? Just what makes a married person under U.S. law get better benefits than me being me? Who wins with this?
    I don’t think women should be fooled by the propaganda. There is a reason I’ve supported lesbian nation all these decades, because I want places in the world where I don’t have to deal at all with heteronormativity, and its self importance and arrogance.

    Polygamy is just another type of marriage gone horror story. Another woman entrapping thing.

    We should take a hard look at the bandwagon. I get very suspicious when liberal het people start cooing their approval of anything in my life. A new statistic says that in the U.S., the largest number of divorces are being instigated by women in their 50s— straight women. I think we need to think about this. Just what kind of economic risk will this pose for lesbians, usually the last group on the train, the last group to win territory or even have power over our own private lands.

    I’d like to hear radical feminists weigh in on this one, because years from now, we’re going to be very sorry we didn’t sharpen our double axes of reasoning. We know this history of this institution, we know what it does to women worldwide… are we ever going to learn anything sisters?

  8. I have never understood the reason for gays wanting to get married. Being queer is a rejection of the traditional heteronormative lifestyle. Why would someone who is gay or queer want to live like a heterosexual with traditional values. Rather than a focus on “marriage”, members of the LGBTQ community need to find values and live lifestyle that meets the needs of that community, rather than fighting so hard to gain those same “rights” of that of the heternormative community. Carter Heyward mentioned about how sexism leads to heterosexism. Well then, promoting marriage for gays, being a heteronormative institution is too close to heterosexism, even if it is non-heterosexuals getting married. It would be a truly radical act to live life as you see fit, not join the marriage trend. Maybe the LGBTQ community can come up wit a new paradigm, not the failed institution of marriage. Divorce sucks, why get married? Isn’t a 50 percent divorce rate considered a failure by most standards of measurements?

    • Do you think it’s possible to queer marriage? I think that’s something that should be considered. I may be straight and able to marry my partner, but that does not mean I am heteronormative. I do not think one’s sexuality or acts like marriage “makes” one heteronormative. I am not discounting that possibility, I am just saying one does not have to equal the other.

      For example, my partner and I have been discussing marriage lately, and we haven’t decided between him taking my name, or us choosing a totally new name to take together. I know names are just one aspect of a giant package, but I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to challenge the norms and history of marriage.

    • I sorta agree with you Sose. I have never understood it myself.

      I always thought, since marriage is a religious thing, why not have two different marriages? But call the legal one something else. You have the religious marriage, where you are brought together before God in a church. And then you have a legal binding of some sort where two people can come together, regardless of sex, and get the same legal rights that current married couples get.

      My mother used to tell me that it doesn’t matter what we call the legal one. That gays will always want to “get married” in the religious aspect because they want to be accepted.

      I can understand wanting to be accepted, but I do think there are different ways to go about getting legal rights besides trying to go through a church.

  9. Sose, it is about benefits and money. So I say, give the benefits and money equally to individuals.
    Don’t have any laws that give one group more tax deductions than others. Base it on the duties itself. If you have kids, you get a free public school system, paid for by MY tax dollars. If I have a pension or social security plan, then I get to determine who gets the survivor benefits.

    Heteronormative is what marriage is. You can’t sugar coat it and say it’s not. Lesbian relationships have absolutely nothing to do with heteronormativity. So why would I want to imitate something that is not me, and something I’d wouldn’t want to be connected with at all?

    Liberals… they are going to be our death I swear :-(

  10. P.S.S. — The photo of the polygamists made me sick too!

  11. What do you mean if you “allow” — I don’t pay much attention to heteronormative anything, won’t let it rule my life, and I don’t “allow” it in my home!

  12. Love is love which is the point of partnership unions, at least in this day and age. Alternate unions are as much about love as is th econventional union of one male and one female. How we can legislate ‘love’ is beyond me.

    My brother and his partner have never desired marriage as they are content in knowing htey love one another and have no need of a civil contract to prove that. Yes, gay marriage should be legal for those who are desirous and it also ought to be blessed in religious sacramental ceremony as any other sanctified union.

    John is correct polygamy has nothing to do with any gay union, but again the ‘straight’ world misunderstands the gay world and instead of asking the necessary questions for deeper understanding makes inacurate assumptions basesd on the ‘heterosexual’ standards that ‘ungay’ society places on this alternative human condiiton.

    Homosexuality has been with us for as long as human history and it is about time that we come to terms with it as part of our humanity and that we all need love no matter who we are. God created all these variations of our humanity and we, as Christians and faith communities of all sorts, must embrace these variations because they are family–brother, sister, mother, father, cousin, niece, aunt, uncle and friend. Anyone who claims they do not have as a family memebr or not know someone who is gay; is not being truthful. So let’s embrace each other in all our diversity, including this one.

  13. Brenna, are you talking about a male partner or a female partner? I wasn’t sure from the context.
    If you walk down the street holding the hand of your girlfriend who is a romantic partner, you will not be treated in the same way as when you hold the hand of a male partner. So everything a male/female couple does is heteronormatively read by the general public at large. You are heterosexual, have heterosexual privilge, and fall into that way of life when you live romantically with men.

    When I’m out in public with my partner we face abuse, bad service, mean comments, and every now and then threats of violence. So here’s an experiment, go to a biker bar and dress down with your boyfriend…. then do the same thing with an “opbvious” non-passing lesbian. See if it’s the same then.

  14. I have watched the television show Sister Wives and I see this man married to these women as a man who has issues of being in control. It seems that with each new wife, the value of the last wife lessens. I can see this as the women’s self esteem goes down. Being married to one person and valuing them is highly important. Having equality, loyalty, and respect in a relationship is what’s significant. Many women, including myself have had wedding ceremonies in which they promised to “obey” their husbands, without reciprocal promises from their men. Needless to say, I am divorced now. As Eleanor Humes Haney states,
    “Women, gay people, minorities, and the earth itself have suffered in part because of the theology and ethics the church has articulated and lived.”

  15. First off, please accept my apologies for not posting sooner. I was detained.

    I want to respond to everyone but all the comments are just so amazing I don’t know where to begin.

    First and foremost I think that we need to address the issue of why join a corrupt system. I think at the end of the day, beyond looking at the “ownership” issue, marriage, partnership, unions, etc., come down to love. Love that you want to commit and love that you know you can be with an individual, in good and bad, for the rest of your lives. I think that is what marriage SHOULD be about. Now, does it get promoted that way most of the time? No! I think TW is right when she discusses ownership of women but in today’s world I believe that marriage is evolving into something more. More women and men are not getting married because a majority of the states have laws that exist for couples who have been together for a long time. You may not be “married” but you are legally bound in many instances (Florida is a great example of this.)

    I think for marriage to grow to include the idea of GLBTQ individuals to be involved, we need to take the sacrament out of marriage and not reinforce it with religious iconography in today’s post-modern pluralistic society. Marriage is not what is once was and it never will be again. Whether that is because GLBTQ individuals can marry or that a white woman and a black man (or vice-versa) can marry (something that was once illegal) is not up to me but removing the holy sacrament of marriage that connects it to these highly orthodox standards and beliefs is fundamental to breaking apart the shackles that keep individuals in the mindset that ALL marriage is either doomed to fail or that it is plain and simply meant to keep women at the command of their husbands.

    As we have seen on this blog, more and more women are marrying partners and if they happen to be good husbands, well that is just gravy then.

  16. John,

    I found your article very interesting, I Had no idea homosexuality is wrong. What makes no sense to me is that in the show big love it is ok for a man to have multiple wives. Honestly the idea of having more than one spouse creeps me out. As for gay marriage I am completely for gay marriage. I see gay marriage as a human and civil rights issue. I don’t think allowing gay marriage will lead to polygamy being legal again.

  17. I was reading the book “Feminist Theological Ethics” and I stumbled a cross a quote that says “when one of the parties tries to listen only long enough to tell the others what to do, to control,to obtain power or superiority, the result has to be alienation”. People are so caught up with trying to fit homosexual marriages in a horrible category, relating it to beastiality and other heinous activities, they end up alienating the LGBTQ community. If it is LOVE, why should they be punished and ridiculed for their feelings?

  18. It is interesting how you were able to make comparisons to the issues of marriage. I personally don’t know how I feel about marriage yet… I don’t like the social and religious aspects of what it means to be married. Like you have mentioned John, marriage has changed dramatically over the years, but like everything else it is a social construction implicated to dictate what people should or shouldn’t do. I think it is important that each person understands the underlying message and assumptions about marriage and if they feel that they could break away from these predetermined notions and feel that marriage is the path for them then so be it. Everyone deserves to be happy and if they have found the person that they feel happy with and can picture themselves building a life with, then they have the right to marry them. Marriage should be the bond between people, I am not in favor of polygamy or polyandry because I feel that it defeats the purpose of finding a person that you truly love and have fallen in love with and can be faithful. But then again in these polygamy relationships I don’t think that is what it is about, it is about power and the ability to manipulate people for your benefit. Marriage should be under each persons discretion, religion or state should stay out of it!

  19. I really enjoyed reading your article! Reading about gay marriage being compared to polygamy was weird (i never heard of them being compared) but it was interesting to see your argument. I agree with you about tokenism in the media such as Modern Family. I always hear people say how there is awareness on gay marriage on television and Modern Family is always used as an example! But the show stands by stereotypical of gay men being into fashion, and shopping. I really enjoyed your article!

  20. i really enjoyed reading your blog and i completely agree that polygamy should not be compared to gay marriage. i like the examples you gave about other forms of marriage that clearly go against the idea of traditional marriage. hopefully in the future our society can become more accepting and less ignorant.

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