If gay marriage is really about legal rights and the government staying out of people's bedrooms, then why can't the same idea apply to polygamist unions? That's what Kody Brown, star of TLC's Sister Wives, presented in his case challenging Utah's ban on polygamy. The state is also struggling to reaching a unanimous decision on the legality of same-sex marriage.
Brown and his wives are the subject of the Sister Wives reality show, which began in 2010 and chronicles the many moving parts of their family's home life. Brown has four wives and 17 children. Now the family is based in Nevada, for fear of legal prosecution in Utah, writes the New York Times, but they hope their show has created a normalized depiction of polygamy.
Having attained a measure of celebrity, the Browns find that people seek out their homes and stop them on the street, expecting hugs. While the familiarity can be unsettling, Robyn, one of the wives, said, it means "they saw us as a family, and that's huge." Others, however, sharply criticize them in online forums for exposing their children to the prying cameras of reality television, among other perceived offenses.
They have also been put off by the avid interest in the specifics of their intimate lives and the questions they get. They do not "go weird" in the bedroom, as Meri, another wife, has put it; their sexual relations are separate. "These are wholesome, individual marriages," Robyn said. "It's actually pretty boring."
I posed Brown's question to my beloved Jezebel team and the reaction was diverse. One person thought marriage shouldn't be defined by the government at all, whomever you want to bury you and have all your earthly possessions once you're gone should be indicated on some form and that's that. Someone else thought, the government has to be involved in the legality of marriage or else shit — taxes and benefits and the like — could get crazy. Another thought legalizing multiple marriages might clear up the practice of "bleeding the beast" or taking public assistance as a single mother when in fact the recipient is part of a multiple-wife household. One of us thought consenting adults can do whatever they want and another said polygamist marriages shouldn't be illegal but doubted the practice is good for society. And finally, one of us thought polygamy itself is problematic, because where is the woman marrying scores of men and arranging month-long sleep schedules?
If we remove the morality argument from the marriage conversation, I don't see the problem with polygamy should all parties involved be legally old enough — read no child brides, forced unions or leanings toward Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leader and serial rapist Warren Jeffs. Ironically, as Brown promotes sitcom-friendly polygamy and the Mormon faith, the official Mormon church who denounced polygamy in 1890 can't distance themselves fast enough.
Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the mainstream church, said polygamists, "including those in reality television programs," have "no affiliation whatsoever" with the church, "despite the fact that the term 'Mormon' is sometimes misleadingly applied to them." Of the lawsuit, he said, "The current legal efforts will have no bearing on the doctrines or practices of the church."
Brown's continued reality TV career also ruffles feathers in his home church, the Apostolic United Brethren, though they're really upset about that other thing.
As for the Browns' own church, it promotes polygamy but does not condone homosexuality, and its leaders have quietly suggested that they are uncomfortable with the way the decision in the Browns' lawsuit has been held up by some same-sex marriage advocates as supporting the underlying issue of personal privacy.
So, who's right? As much as the conversation around gay marriage is about lifestyle choice recognition, it is also about legal rights, like who gets whose benefits when a partner dies. How that legal distribution of property and benefits would apply to a marriage of one man and multiple women, or vice versa, if a sister wife passes, I'm not sure.
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the Utah court and what that will mean for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Would they rescind their denouncement of polygamy because it would be legal?
I'll leave this here as food for thought.
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