Do you support the concept of gay marriage?
That used to be an unimaginable question. Not "unimaginable" in a negative sense, but "unimaginable" in the original, neutral definition of the word: "unable to be imagined," or "not imaginable." The concept of two people of the same sex being married wasn't even raised in the American conscience until the 1990s (or perhaps late 1980s -- I haven't researched the actual date, this is from my own recollection). After that point, of course, the idea has grown in prominence in the American political debate, both pro and con.
But now, mostly due to a Mormon running for president, the issue of polygamy is also inserting itself into the political debate. So the question must also be asked: Do you support the concept of polygamy? If so, why? If not, why not?
Mormon candidate Mitt Romney doesn't seem to be helping matters much, although it's admittedly a minefield for him to traverse when the issue is raised. His website, unsurprisingly, comes up with "no results" if you search it for "polygamy." But his great-grandfather, after all, did have five wives. When asked about it in the recent Republican debate, he obviously tried to place the issue squarely in the "unimaginable concept" category by the absurd (or just profoundly unimaginative) reply: "I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy." But then out on the campaign trail, he actually jokes about the issue with the stock line: "I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman... and a woman... and a woman." OK, it is a funny line, I'll admit. I even heard one late-night comic recently pointing out how laughable the whole situation is: "On the Republican side; you've got Giuliani, McCain, maybe Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich. How ironic is it that the only guy who has only had one wife is the Mormon?!?"
Lest I be accused of focusing on Romney in particular and Mormons in general, I am merely pointing out that his campaign has had the effect of forcing an uncomfortable conversation on American politics.
Because the conversation is ripe for discussion. The battle for gay marriage, if successful, will naturally give rise to other minority groups fighting for their own redefinition of marriage. Enlightened people who support gay marriage should begin searching their conscience for an honest answer to the question: if it is acceptable for two gay people to marry, why shouldn't it be acceptable for three (or more) people -- of any sex -- to be married?
I was astonished when doing my research to find a very liberal article written last year supporting the concept of polygamy from none other than the very (one might even say "ultra") conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. He sums up the argument nicely:
"In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one's autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement -- the number restriction (two and only two) -- is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice."
He goes on to point out an interesting development:
"This line of argument makes gay activists furious. I can understand why they do not want to be in the same room as polygamists. But I'm not the one who put them there. Their argument does."
But Krauthammer ends up supporting both gay marriage and polygamy:
"Call me agnostic. But don't tell me that we can make one radical change in the one-man, one-woman rule and not be open to the claim of others that their reformation be given equal respect."
As I said, when I found this article I was astonished to find myself agreeing with someone of Krauthammer's ilk, but then Libertarianism is often where the fringes of the right bump into the fringes of the left. And make no mistake about it -- it is a Libertarian argument: government should not be in the business of making such decisions about private citizens' lives. All should be equal and welcome by the law.
Although gay marriage is growing in acceptance and support, polygamy is only acceptable to a tiny fragment of Americans. What's strange about this is that while gay marriage is opposed on religious grounds by many, the same argument simply cannot be made about polygamy. Polygamy, unlike gay marriage, has a long pedigree in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While Judaism and Christianity have since renounced polygamy, in the Islamic world it is still practiced widely. But even in Judaism and Christianity, instead of being condemned as an "abomination," polygamy is referenced numerous times in the Old Testament, with God apparently approving of the concept. Mormonism, obviously, has its own history of polygamy that is much more recent. There are schismatic Mormon churches (called "Fundamentalist Mormons") who still endorse the practice today, although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e., mainstream Mormons) have renounced the practice and excommunicate any members who practice it. My point is, there is a case to be made today that there are people of faith in more than one religion who believe the practice is sanctioned by holy writ.
The concept of gay marriage didn't have that going for it, but it has made huge inroads into acceptance by mainstream America which polygamy hasn't (yet). Now, it must be admitted that gay marriage is still a hugely divisive issue itself, and to date has lost almost every popular vote on the issue (all the "defense of marriage" ballot initiatives); and furthermore has caused a federal law to be passed (the "Defense of Marriage Act") by Congress which will one day undoubtedly be held up by law students as a blatantly unconstitutional example of a "bad lawmaking" (much as we view miscegenation laws today), since it so obviously was passed and signed due to what Tocqueville called "the tyranny of the majority."
But who among us can't see a day in the future when gay marriage is as uncontroversial as, say, an African-American marrying a Korean-American? Although it still has a long way to go, the momentum is on its side (younger members of the public are much more tolerant of the concept, pretty much guaranteeing its eventual acceptance).
Part of this is what the right wing calls "Hollywood morals," and they do have a point -- the entertainment industry has advanced gay rights among mainstream America more than any other factor, I would be willing to bet. On television, in particular, homosexuality was present in the past, but unacknowledged prior to the 1970s. Liberace and Paul Lynde got on TV, but nobody ever pointed out the obvious. The closest Hollywood came to an actual gay character was on Three's Company -- and he was nothing more than a straight man pretending to be gay to fool the landlord who lived downstairs, so he could live with two women (as if any Southern California landlord would have cared, in the '70s, as long as the rent checks didn't bounce...).
Jump forward a few decades, and gay characters abound on sitcoms and dramas. It wasn't so long ago that Will and Grace was one of the top sitcoms on the air. Oscar-winning films portray gay life, love, and tragedy -- from Philadelphia (1993) to Brokeback Mountain (2005).
But recently, the show Big Love appeared on the air -- a look at polygamy as a serious subject (rather than merely being lampooned) which was also the show's core concept. I have to admit I haven't seen the show, but the fact that it exists at all should be seen as a polygamist-rights landmark.
Polygamy could certainly use some good press. Most Americans have a view of polygamy as being Mormon fundamentalists holed up in a town and marrying 14 year-old girls. This reputation is not entirely undeserved, as the recent case of Warren Jeffs, the FLDS church, and the domination of the towns of Colorado City, AZ and Hildale, UT proves. But while the ugliness of child-rape and forced marriage is undeniable, all polygamy simply cannot be tarred with the same brush. The gay rights movement has had to work long and hard to separate its cause from the public's misguided perception of its association with pedophilia, and the polygamy movement will have the same tough road ahead of it.
Now, many people read my columns and tend to think I am advocating a point, when I see myself as merely clarifying the issue in an objective way. I have to admit that I dislike baldly stating my own opinions as a general rule; as I would rather examine all sides of an argument and see which ones hold up to logical scrutiny and which do not (in my humble opinion, of course). But I also break this rule occasionally, and (due to the extremely controversial nature of this issue) I will do so now and tell you what I personally believe.
On gay marriage, I have evolved from my roots of playing a game in elementary school during recess which we called "smear the queer" (not even really knowing what a "queer" was, mind you, at age eight), to now fully supporting gay rights as strongly as the next liberal. I have known many gay people in my life, and think they should be treated equally and without discrimination in all things, up to and including marriage.
I personally think the term "marriage" should be reserved for religion -- each religious faith can decide however they want to define the term for themselves -- and people should only be able to get a "civil union" from the government. The term "marriage" should be banned from any official government documents, and "civil union" replaced instead. A civil union should be all about financial ties. People entering into a civil union should be treated like a corporate merger -- the civil union would spell out exactly what the financial consequences were, and no more. And for singles everywhere, I would also argue that no tax benefits be given to anyone in a civil union as opposed to single people -- everyone should be equally liable for taxes, single or not.
Not only does removing the term "marriage" from government sidestep the entire religious debate over the issue, it also strengthens and preserves the separation of church and state. A win-win solution all around as far as I can see, and if you don't like "gay marriage" then you can just join a church that doesn't practice it.
On the subject of polygamy, I also fully support the concept, while (of course) remaining virulently opposed to both underage marriage and coerced marriage. I am talking about the Big Love concept of polygamy -- consenting adults, entering into such an arrangement with eyes wide open, and of their own free will.
Now, most people misuse the term "polygamy" to mean "one man, multiple wives." But its true definition is "many marriages." One man, multiple wives is technically known as "polygyny," and it has a counterpart, "polyandry," for the opposite setup -- one woman, multiple husbands. "Polygamy" incorporates both concepts, as well as the even-more-controversial "multiple husbands, multiple wives."
I support them all. What business is it of mine how my neighbors live? More to the point, as long as minors or coercion aren't involved, what business is it of the government? But then on many privacy issues such as these, I am more Libertarian than most, I realize. Perhaps it was my reading Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress at an early and impressionable age which scarred me thus for life, it's hard to tell.
But I didn't write this to expound my position on the issue, I rather wrote this to provoke your reaction and to help bring this debate out of the shadows of "unimaginable" political thought. Romney's campaign has brought the issue into the light of day for the first time in at least 50 years, so it seems to be the perfect time to consider the issue. There are currently tens of thousands (estimates vary wildly, of course) of American citizens living this lifestyle who would be more than happy to have their unions legalized -- the same as gay couples.
So the question needs now to be asked:
If you support gay marriage, could you also support polygamy? If so, why? If not, why not?
[Full disclosure: While I support the idea on a purely conceptual basis, I am a married heterosexual male whose wife would kill him if he ever brought the subject of polygyny up....]
[Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.]