Maggie Gallagher, the force behind the National Organization for Marriage and the parody-friendly “Gathering Storm” ads, wasted space in the National Review this week, to argue, “Polygamy is not worse than gay marriage, it is better. At least polygamy, for all its ugly defects, is an attempt to secure stable mother-father families for children.” It’s not a buried quote. It’s her lede. Comparisons between gay marriage and polygamy are often made, but Gallagher, who is the national face of the anti-gay-rights opposition is the first to ever argue that polygamy is better than gay marriage. What exactly does she mean by that?
While Queerty has asked in the past what is so wrong with polygamy, we’re a diverse group here and having seen the realities of plural marriage up close, Gallagher’s comment is incomprehensible.
One of my favorite pastimes is a sport known as canyoneering. Essentially, it involves rappelling into slot canyons, which can be hundreds of feet deep, but at times only a few feet wide and exploring them by hiking and swimming. The best place in the world to do this is southern Utah’s Colorado Plateau, an awe-inspiring alien place that’s home to some of the world’s most impressive natural features — and is the heart of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the world’s leading polygamist sect.
Located on the border of Utah and Arizona is the twin town of Hildale and Colorado City. By virtue of geography and design, the town is isolated from law enforcement and the modern world. It’s also directly on the way to some of my favorite canyons. Driving through the town is like riding into the Twilight Zone, hundreds of well-kept suburban tract homes spread out neatly with no commercial district or stop-lights in sight. The shear size of these homes give away their secret that they are where multiple wives reside with their children. You see them in their driveway, in pioneer dress, sweeping away the vermilion dust that covers everything in this part of the state. Linger too long and they’ll quickly run inside, but you can’t deny the fact that many of them are clearly still girls. And most of them are married.
My semi-annual experience of traveling through polygamist territory made me curious about the practice. My profession requires me to be open-minded, and it’s always been easy for me to see the other side of any issue. I became a devotee of Salt Lake Tribune journalist Brooke Adams’ blog The Plural Life, which covers everything from the trials of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs to the lives of the “lost boys” who are kicked out of the compound to maintain a gender imbalance. I’m a huge fan of HBO’s Big Love (of which Dustin Lance Black helps write), which deftly handles the question of whether polygamy can work in a modern context. While completing a a documentary on religious roadside attractions across the U.S., I interviewed Later Day Saints representatives about the polygamist life.
To begin with, in theory, there really is nothing wrong with plural marriage, from my perspective. This is a contentious issue all to itself, but my first thoughts were that consenting adults who wish to form committed relationships with a group of people as opposed to one person had no inherently immoral tint, especially if there was a religious impetus to do so.
In practice, however, it is hard to see polygamy as anything less than a patriarchal system used to abuse women and perpetrate unconscionable acts of child abuse. Sure, there’s the family living in Salt Lake that quietly lives “the principle” while otherwise acting as law-abiding citizens, but they are the exception. The harsh reality of polygamy is that, in practice, it is an institution of child-bride slavery.
We’re a liberal and tolerant nation, and that’s one of our strengths. But in our desire to let families run according to their own beliefs, we do the children living in polygamist communities a grave disservice. Consider 14-year-old Ruby Jessop, who was forced into a marriage with her step-brother in 2001. She tried to escape and the authorities were deceived into returning her to the compound in Hildale, where at 16, she had her first child. If you want to know more about Ruby, I recommend John Krakauer’s excellent book, Under the Banner of Heaven.
I don’t mean to say that the people in plural marriages are evil people. They are not, and many of them are living their lives out of deep and passionate religious beliefs. But when these beliefs are used to isolate them from the realities of modern life, it’s no longer a decision that can be said to be one that’s freely made.
Now, asshats like Gallagher would call this hypocrisy. How can I judge a polygamist family and say that people like her ought to respect gay marriage? Well, the answer is simple: When a child is clearly in danger and being abused, I’m against it, politics be damned. If a gay couple was abusing their child, I would be against it as well, obviously.
But for Gallagher to have the audacity to say that polygamy is better than gay marriage, she’s nominated herself for categories including “Most Ignorant Person to Ever Live” and “Most Vile.” Her tacit support of child abuse, molestation, and sexual slavery is beyond any sort of understanding, but to say that a child in a same-sex couple family is better off than one in a polygamist one is deeply disturbing. I’m sure, if she were allowed to speak, Ruby Jessop would agree.