Like most supporters of gay marriage, I couldn’t wait for the June 29 episode of The Daily Show. Of course, the announcement of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision on Friday, June 26 was the main event. The day a long overdue verdict came down, and same-sex couples were no longer barred from marriage. But June 29 would be a fun day, too. The day Jon Stewart would undoubtedly skewer all those conservative spokespeople crying that the sky was falling and tear apart their flimsy arguments against marriage equality.
Three minutes into the show, one of those flimsy arguments came from Fox News’ Martha MacCallum, who asked the question, “Suppose three people say ‘we wanna be a marriage. We’re three people and we love each other and we wanna be a marriage.’ What’s to prevent that?”
Then the camera cut back to Jon Stewart making a trademark are-you-kidding-me face. “Because … people … aren’t … born … polygamists,” he said, drawing out each word as the audience laughed in the spaces in between. Then, pretending to be a polygamist, he said, “You know, I knew even when I was five I was different. While the other boys played with trucks and army men, I was figuring out bed-sharing schedules.” (You can view the clip by skipping to the 2:44 mark at http://thedailyshow.cc.com/full-episodes/uzokdu/june-29--2015---taylor-schilling). It was a good joke and a funny moment, but I still found it a bit jarring.
I’ve always felt polygamy should be legal, and it’s a political topic where I just sort of assumed gay marriage proponents agreed with me. But I often forget that, on this issue, I am the outlier. The person with a fringe political belief others find laughable at best, and disturbing at worst. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 63% of Americans find gay or lesbian relationships to be morally acceptable, while only 16% feel that way about polygamy.
Obviously, plenty of people who oppose gay marriage also oppose polygamy. I get that. If you feel threatened by allowing one type of marriage that is different from what you consider “normal” or “correct” or “moral,” then I fully understand why another type of unconventional marriage might similarly threaten you. But I struggle with understanding the anti-polygamy sentiment from supporters of gay marriage. If you feel everyone is entitled to have the marriage they feel is right for them, then if someone wants to wed multiple partners, shouldn’t the government allow that?
(Before we go any further, I should explain that I am not using the term polygamy, as many people do, solely to refer to one man marrying multiple women. The term for that is polygyny. I am using the most literal definition of polygamy: a marriage between one person and two or more other people, gender unspecified. However, I acknowledge that, were polygamy legalized, the vast majority of marriages would fall into the polygyny category.)
Discussing this topic with supporters of gay marriage is jarring for two reasons. One, I am using the same argument that I had thought we both agreed upon: If people want to marry each other, then that should be their right. And if you have some sort of problem with that marriage, but their union being legally recognized in no way hurts you or anyone else, then your problem is completely irrelevant.
Two, many of their arguments against polygamy are the same ones we both made fun of when they came from opponents of gay marriage. I see people who support same-sex marriage suddenly start using phrases like, “But that’s not what marriage is” or “marriage is defined as being between two people.” Jon Stewart even used the people-aren’t-born-that-way-they-choose-to-be-that-way argument. And then there are the people who think it should be illegal because they find it freakish.
I had thought we agreed that we didn’t care how marriage was originally defined. That those definitions were written by people who couldn’t imagine a wedding different from their own.
As for the issue of whether or not people are born polygamists, who cares? The idea of tying someone’s marriage rights to whether or not they chose their sexual preferences has always struck me as something we were duped into caring about. Opponents of gay marriage argued that you choose to be gay, therefore you shouldn’t be allowed to marry someone of the same gender. Then, we proponents of gay marriage argued that you are born this way, so therefore you should be allowed to marry someone of the same gender. And so somehow, without even thinking about it, we had tacitly agreed to the notion that whether or not you choose your sexuality should be a deciding factor in whether or not you can marry the person you love. But in reality, even if people did choose to be gay, shouldn’t they be allowed to marry people of the same gender anyway? Why does it matter whether it’s a choice or it’s just how you’re born?
And then there’s the freakishness factor. To some people, the idea of multiple spouses is just wrong and aberrant. I understand that my belief structure may differ from yours on the question of whether or not polygamy is gross. Heterosexual, homosexual and polygamous marriages all strike me as choices stemming from love, commitment and (often) a desire for family, and I find those values beautiful, not unnatural. But even if I agreed that this was freakish, haven’t we just gotten through a decade of arguing that just because somebody outside a union calls it gross, that it shouldn’t mean the people inside the union can’t call it love? That general discomfort with a relationship shouldn’t be grounds for denying the members of that relationship the right to marry?
Why we want the marriage we want is a tricky question. Just as you don’t come out of the womb planning bed-sharing schedules, you also don’t come out needing to find someone to love and pledge your singular commitment to in front of your friends, family and state. Our ideas of what a marriage should look like come in part from our DNA, but they also come from the society in which we grow up. Most people alive in America today have spent their formative years seeing marriage portrayed as an act between two people of opposite gender who fall in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together in monogamy. Personally, this is what I want for myself someday. And while I would like to believe that desire is something I came up with all on my own, it is impossible to deny the fact that it probably has a lot to do with my upbringing. That seeing this endlessly reinforced as the ideal ultimately shaped what I wanted for myself. It is, after all, the path my parents have chosen for themselves, and they have a deep, beautiful marriage that I hope to emulate when I find the right partner.
But of course that doesn’t mean it is the only “correct” form love or marriage can take. Marriages have had many different shapes in other cultures and religions and time periods. And some people have long believed that marriage can be between one person and multiple partners, including small factions of various religions here in America today. It seems unfair to say that the format I was raised with is more valid than theirs.
For others, the idea of loving multiple partners reached them later in life. It was not an ideal reinforced by their culture, yet it was something they came to want all the same. Over the last few years, I have met more and more people who define themselves as polyamorous. Before adopting this label, they had accumulated a string of failed monogamous relationships. Either because they found themselves cheating on their partner or because they couldn’t commit to just one person and so never saw a potential relationship through. Eventually, they discovered people out there just like them. People who wanted an open relationship where they and their partners could have a strong bond, and also find love and pleasure in the arms of someone else at the same time. These people made new relationships in this new world, and figured out the rules that worked for them. They are now in committed, loving relationships with multiple partners and the understanding that their love for one person doesn’t diminish their love for someone else.
In my experience, it is very rare to hear people in polyamorous relationships discuss marrying multiple partners, but it is an extension of this choice that I suspect is coming as the idea grows. After all, as the gay marriage movement has taught us, there are certain legal benefits only afforded to people who are married.
These are not the only arguments against polygamy, just the ones I am the most surprised to hear. There are, admittedly, additional complications. For example, how exactly these marriages would work legally is a tricky question. Marriages to multiple people are different from what our system is used to. There would be new questions to be answered as far as the implications of both those relationships and any divorces that might ensue. Big, difficult questions with complex answers. So this is going to take a lot of effort, and I don’t know exactly what final form everything will take. But if there are groups of people who want that recognition in the eyes of the law, I think it’s our job to figure out a way to make it work.
I just assumed you’d agree.