I’ve just recently been thinking about polygamy and gay marriage.
This has come from a number of different directions — I’ve been watching HBO’s Big Love via the On Demand service that comes with our cable TV.
The series is about a polygamist family of fundamentalist Mormons living secretly in a suburb of Salt Lake City, and the various troubles and difficulties it brings to them, both personally, professionally and in terms of their religion.
The series takes an even-handed look at the issues raised, not judging in favour of or against the practice. Of course, it also makes for good television; conflict is the root of all storytelling, and the conflicts between the public personas and private lives of the family create a lot of conflict.
Another source of inspiration has been the interwebs, as usual: in a recent comment to a post on my wife’s blog, for example, Truthwalker posited the following in regards to governmental influence and involvement in the subject of marriage:
I personally think that civil union should be the law. For everybody. Any two people, male, female, straight, gay, or sexually inactive, should be able to enter a legal relationship with the consenting person of their choosing where one person is the primary bread winner and the other does more non-monetary work.
Leaving aside the problematic assertion regarding one partner being the breadwinner and the other the housekeeper1, this also brings up another question: why should it only be two people involved?
The final source of inspiration, of course, has been the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Connecticut regarding the civil rights of gay couples. In a divided opinion given on the 10th October, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the State’s Constitution required that the government extend marriage rights to gay couples, by virtue of the State Constitution’s equal protection clause in Article 1, Section 20.
One of the commonest tropes used against gay marriage is the assertion that it will lead to all kinds of horribleness, like polygamy, bestiality and even child marriage.
Leaving aside the fact that the slippery slope is a logical fallacy, let’s take a look at some of the countries which have created gay marriage rights in the past decade or so. The Netherlands enacted same-sex marriage rights into law in 2001, Belgium in 2003, followed by Canada and Spain in 2005, South Africa in 2006. Norway is due to follow in 2009, after 16 years of civil partnerships. The following countries have created civil partnerships: Andorra, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Uruguay. The status of civil partnerships in these countries varies somewhat, with some having only partial rights while others are identical in all but legal name to marriage, with entirely identical rights, such as the UK, where people routinely refer to civil partnerships as gay marriage, legal titles notwithstanding.
Opponents of gay marriage have, as we’ve said, predicted all kinds of social doom and gloom as a result of various court rulings and laws creating the appropriate rights in law; various groups are trying busily to reverse them, as in California Proposition 8, all of which efforts are happily meeting with fierce opposition.
No such terrible consequences have occurred in any of the countries which have enacted gay marriage or civil partnership laws. You still cannot marry your dog, three of your friends, or children; . It’s almost insulting, really, to think that opponents of gay marriage think that people will fall for this kind of stuff, and none of these mooted dire consequences are likely to occur; child marriage and bestiality both fall under the heading of cruelty and meaningful consent, to a degree that most people find the very idea respulsive.
Likelihood of its occurrence aside, how do we object to new concepts of marriage like polygamy while freely assenting to the concept of gay marriage? Isn’t that contradictory and even hypocritical?
I would argue that it is not. While the institution of marriage is by no means perfect and acts in some ways as discriminatory towards single people, it does perform a useful social function: it provides for at least minimally stable homes for children; allows for people to express a solemn commitment to one another socially with a formal commitment; allows for the pooling of financial resources and shared prosperity; allows for partners to make legally binding decisions on behalf of children and loved-ones in the event of need; allows for partners to provide for each other in the event that they die intestate, and so on.
The extension of marriage rights to gay people simply broadens the categories of people who may marry each other, in much the same way that extension of interracial and interreligious marriage did. It provides for more stable families and couples, and as such, carries benefits to both the individuals involved and the society in which they live.
Polygamy, however, does not do this. While gay marriage simplifies, polygamy complicates. All the benefits of marriage, such as stability, combined financial responsibility, power of attorney in difficult situations, simplified inheritance and so on, all of these are unneccesarily complicated by the addition of extra members. What if the wives2 disagree over who should have power of attorney when their husband is in hospital? Who decides who inherits what in the event of a death? While these are not insoluble problems, they represent a big enough sphere of difficulties to argue against enshrining officially recognised polygamy into law; they would create monstrous legal headaches, and the alleged benefits of polygamy would be far, far outweighed by the problems caused. That’s even leaving aside the issue, frequent enough in the past to remain a possible future concern, of young people entering polygamous marriages before the age of consent or even too soon afterwards.
While I’m concerned for the right of people to live as they wish, I can also see a valid point of distinction between leaving others alone to conduct their private affairs as they see fit and making them into legal entities. I cannot in all honesty see that the enshrinement of polygamy into law serves individuals or the society they reside in, practically or otherwise.
1This is troubling to me, I must admit; not only because it buys into the idea that there should be strictly defined roles within marriage, but also because it’s profoundly unrealistic. The “traditional” ideal of marriage which social conservatives most fervently posit as orthodox marriage fails to admit that this model was only true for a tiny minority of people across a short period of time, and it is even more irrelevant today, when two-income families are the norm.
2I say wives here because it seems that most advocates of polygamy seem really to be advocating polygyny rather than true polygamy per se.