Are you all sick of talking about marriage yet? Yes? Well, too bad. The fact is that we have a lot more to talk about, and it’s gonna keep getting complicated. Also, between all the gay marriage hoopla and my own impending nuptials, it’s of particular interest right now.
If you remember, when I wrote my piece on gay marriage, I talked a bit about how poly marriage is still illegal and we can’t call it “marriage equality” since we aren’t really talking about equality. Here, I’ll quote myself.
One thing that the gang on Sister Wives do though, that most folks pushing for gay marriage try their best not to do, is compare their situation to the gay marriage struggle. The comparison is easy to make. Gay people do not have the right to marry legally in most of this country. Polygamists also do not have the right to marry legally, however they have the added bonus of being able to be prosecuted for living as if they were married! Wowza! If three adult people decide to enter into a marriage-like agreement, even if they do not seek any legal spousal benefits for the third spouse, they can be prosecuted for that. Think about that for a second, when I did, it was probably the first time that I felt privileged as a queer person. I mean, my fiancee and I may never be able to share insurance, but no one is going to take me to jail for calling her my wife.
(It bares mentioning that that was not always the case, and historically many gay people were in fact locked up for the crime of having “indecent” relationships.)
And yet, when conservatives bring up polygamy in that “if we allow gays to get married, what’s next?” sort of way, the vocal majority of those pushing for gay marriage have one clearly resounding answer: We are nothing like them. They are icky. We absolutely oppose polygamy. We promise if you just let us nice, clean, polite, monogamous, gays get married, you’ll never have to worry about polygamy being legalized.
And this is what we call marriage equality? Does that sound anything like equality?
This week, I saw two different pieces talking about this very issue.
First up is Slate, which published a piece simply called Legalize Polygamy! Here’s a quote:
As a feminist, it’s easy and intuitive to support women who choose education, independence, and careers. It’s not as intuitive to support women who choose values and lifestyles that seem outdated or even sexist, but those women deserve our respect just as much as any others. It’s condescending, not supportive, to minimize them as mere “victims” without considering the possibility that some of them have simply made a different choice.
Jillian Keenan does not discuss polyamory at all (it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t really either) she is exclusively talking about polygamy. More than that, she’s talking about a specific kind of polygamy, polygyny, marriages where one man is married to multiple women simultaneously. She doesn’t touch on polyandry (one woman married to multiple men simultaneously), the possibility of queer polygamist unions, or the idea that 3 or more people might want to all be married to each other. Put simply, the issue is complicated, and she is looking at only one facet of it. I know some polyamorous people were quite upset by this – they felt like they’d been passed over, and in a way they have been. Keenan talks primarily about Mormon polygamy, and mentions Islamic polygamy briefly.
What Keenan does well in her piece is to respond to some of the prejudices against this kind of marriage. She makes arguments that I have made myself (legalizing polygamy would make it easier to find the child abusers) and responds to some of the arguments that I have found myself responding to. Because if you think that polygamist marriage should be illegal because it is a sexist institution, then, well, you have to make the majority of traditional marriage illegal. You have to make the Duggars’ marriage illegal. It’s definitely worth a quick read.
Of course, I’ve also heard the claim that polygyny is the “ultimate feminist institution” because you know, sister wives means lots of ladies helping each other out. That kind of logic only works if you assume that women need to have children and that only women can do things like homekeeping and childcare. Which, do we even need to talk about how that is a sexist stance?
And then, coming in on the other end of the spectrum, is this piece on The Stranger, with the delightful title “You May Now Kiss the Bride and the Other Bride and the Other Bride and the Other Groom; Why Poly Marriage Is Never Going to Happen”
Mistress Matisse takes the exact opposite stance, she’s a polyamorous person, and she completely ignores the reality of polygamous marriage. Doesn’t even mention it, just like Keenan didn’t even mention polyamory. Mistress Matisse’s basic stance is this: poly relationships are far too complicated, and poly people far too unorganized, for a push for poly(amorous) marriage to ever happen. No worries! Gay marriage is as bad as it will get.
What I like about the piece is that she talks about many of the complexities that Keenan washed over. Ok, so you have three partners. Is that three separate marriages (all parties being married to each other individually)? or is it just one big marriage? Or what if one person wants to be married to two people but they don’t necessarily want to be married to each other? How would that work? And who gets to decide? And how will that decision bring more equality anyways? And then there’s this:
But being in love doesn’t have to include a ring or a big white cake. To be polyamorous is to let your heart grow to hold many loving relationships that come in different shapes and sizes. Once you’ve learned to do that, why would you try to squeeze it back down into a pattern built for two?
After reading both of these articles, I keep going back to how similar they are. Actually, they are completely different, they ignore opposite things, and they take very different positions. But they both start with a similar assumption: the institution of marriage is basically fine, and basically works well as what it is.
And I disagree. When conservative politicians cry “what’s next? poly marriage?” when we talk about gay marriage what they are really upset about is the idea that marriage, as an ideal, and as a civil institution, will be rethought. They are scared by the idea of people questioning what marriage means, what it’s role should be in society, and whether or not it should be elevated to the super-status it currently holds. They are afraid that we will look at “traditional” American marriage and say “hey wait a minute, this doesn’t make any sense! let’s take it apart and make something better!”
And that, in my opinion, is exactly what should be happening. Complete with complicated poly marriages, if people want them.