Obama and Romney both have grandparents who practiced polygamy, yet both have said (and one’s still saying) that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Some think it odd that they both reject the practice when they’ve each got a family history. But I, too, have grandparents who practiced polygamy yet I don’t like the practice, either. This brings me to the concern that marriage equality is a slippery slope to polygamy.
If you hold marriage to “two consenting adults” the problem goes away.
At the same time, while I have a personal distaste for polygamy, I’m not sure that decriminalization would be a bad thing.
First, the problems with the practice.
Gender inequality can be created by simple supply and demand, with “the one” having more power, whether polygyny (one man, many wives) or polyandry (one wife, many husbands). In the polyandrous Lahaul Valley of the Himalayas women have great say over matters. As one young man in this community explained, “The wife’s voice is the dominant voice in the household.”
Typically, polygamy is practiced under patriarchy (as polygyny) so the power of “the one” man becomes intensified. As one New York Times letter writer observed in response to Jonathan Turley’s insistence that polygamous families should be free to live their religion and values:
(In highly patriarchal families) this is not ‘the right to live your life.’ The men have rights, but not the girls (who are) brainwashed, uneducated and mothers while in their teens.
In polygyny it can seem that women make all the sacrifices so that men may take unlimited pleasure. A Sufi who agreed to be a third wife of her teacher (the article title “My Husband, My Teacher” suggests additional inequality of relationship) described her experience this way:
I went through, as did the other wives, all of the usual feelings of jealousy, fear, and insecurity.
She had to learn to let go of attachment, or seeing her spouse as property. Yet her husband didn’t need to learn any of these lessons, enjoying greater freedom and sexual variety than any of his wives ever will.
The addition of a new wife may even be used as a threat in polygamous cultures. Not surprisingly, 86 percent of Afghani women are against the practice.
Moving to larger societal problems, at marriageable age women and men are in equal number so girls in polygamous communities must be married at younger and younger ages, and are often forced into marriage. Their youth further disempowers them. Meanwhile, teenaged boys may be thrown out of these communities via trivial charges like watching “inappropriate” movies.
Joseph Henrich, a University of British Columbia professor whose expertise lies in psychology, anthropology and economics says higher levels of polygamy are tied to higher crime rates, lower GDP per capita, and worse outcomes for children.
And, fewer available women may mean more frustrated bachelors who support the sex trafficking of girls and women. These young men are also vulnerable to recruitment by extremists in some parts of the world.
There is plenty that is not pretty. So why legalize polygamy?
When the practice is illegal and stigmatized, those who live it end up isolated from the rest of society. That means its practitioners hear few alternate voices, and are less aware of the possibility of living differently. Or, choices become limited as others ostracize them and reject their friendship. In other words, they’re more stuck.
Oddly, adherence to “plural marriage” might actually decrease if it were made legal and destigmatized.
I don’t know if legalization will ever destigmatize polygamy, which is an important step in freeing people to hear different voices and to help them to have more options.
Regardless, I doubt legalization will bring people flocking to the practice. The notion of sharing your husband or wife while being forced to be monogamous, yourself, just isn’t that appealing to most people. In the U.S. polygamy is pretty much only practiced for religious reasons, so it’s not likely to catch on. And where it does, it would be more likely voluntary and not coerced.
If you fear gay marriage because polygamy might come next, I doubt there’s really much to worry about.
And if others’ responses shifted, so did my own. The more I was treated as a woman, the more woman I became. I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself becoming. If the case was too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself.
Women treated me with a frankness which was one of the happiest discoveries of my metamorphosis. But I also found men treating me more and more as junior. I discovered that even now men prefer women to be less informed, less able, less talkative, and certainly less self-centered than they are themselves; so I generally obliged.
The above lines were penned by a woman who had transitioned from being, bodily, a man. Certainly there is plenty to learn from our sisters, brothers, and others who live in-between, all of whom have transitioned away from the gender they were assigned at birth. One of the most obvious is the difference in how women and men are perceived and treated. Another is the experience of oppression for daring to cross accepted gender lines.
The passage was written in 1975, early in the movement for gender equality, so I wondered if things had changed. And then I came across artist, Joelle Circé, a woman of transsexual origin, and asked her about it. Here’s what she said:
I’ve always felt that I am a woman in my heart and my brain, but after I transitioned everything about my life changed. I noticed a very marked difference in how I was treated in public. The important parts of it are wonderful and beyond great. But some changes have been troubling.
Men are more likely to talk down to me as if I were a child. I get challenged by young male art supply clerks about the materials I want. I have over 20 years experience as an artist but they seem to think they know better, grrrrr.
And when I lived in a male body I seldom gave thought to my personal safety as I walked around, day or night. Now I do. Some aspects of my life have become dangerous and frightening.
At first I thought it was solely due to the transitioning and how I presented to others, especially men, but it didn’t take long to figure out that it was because I now look female that I’m harassed by some men, who look at me as if I were a piece of meat.
I’ve also gained weight due to hormones and eating when stressed, happy or sad. So now, like many other women I have felt yucky about my body’s size. I began thinking about self-loathing and of saying no to the media’s insistence we all have a certain body type. I had a friend of mine pose in our bathtub that was surrounded on three sides by mirrors with a sledge hammer in her hands and making as if to hit at her reflections in the mirrors. I call the piece ‘Smashing Images.’
And only after surgery did I begin to fully appreciate my body and those of other women. As a female born in the wrong body I speak to female eroticism, the beauty I see in my sisters, the joys and power of being a woman.
Being a woman of transsexual experience has permitted me to better understand oppression and prejudice, even as a woman by other women. I am conscious of myself, my sexual identity, my gender and my orientation. I am aware of communicating my hopes and fears, my joy and my anger as well as my sadness, my chaos.
My paintings maintain this constant in that I celebrate women, those who are empowered, those who are downtrodden, those who are invisible and those who are despised, hated, feared and oppressed, beaten and abused.
If anything, my art, is a reflection of my path and I hope it has some impact, brings some pleasure and happiness but also introspection and much questioning.
Thank you, Joelle Circé, for sharing your experience. You can go here to see her gallery.
June is LGBT Month
When will people understand that tradition is just a stumbling block in the pursuit of progressive thinking? My dog and I are very much in love. She has been my friend, protector and lover for eight years. I firmly believe that we are both deserving of a legal domestic partnership, too. If the gay/lesbian community can be granted such a thing, then why can’t we? Heck, I’d be willing to bet that there would be less uproar over me kissing my dog on the front page.
This was an actual letter written by Joe Freeman and published in the San Jose Mercury News on May 21, 2008, on the cusp of gay marriage becoming legal in California, and amidst visions of husbands kissing husbands and wives kissing wives.
While some feared immanent bestiality, others worried that if gays could marry, next thing you know, adults would be marrying kids. It’s all the same, right?
At the very least, what about consent?
An adult man can give consent to marry another man. An adult woman can give consent to marry another woman. But children are too young to fully understand what they would be getting into by agreeing to marriage — if they were asked their opinion at all. Children cannot give consent. Neither can dogs or cats or birds or lizards or cows… Bestiality and child marriage are nothing like gay marriage. Funny that ol’ Joe couldn’t make the distinction.
Joe is also worried about going beyond tradition, or traditional morality that is based in religion. But after all the atrocities committed in the name of religion, whether the Crusades or 9/11 or cutting women’s genitals from their bodies (female genital mutilation), I don’t find religion to be the best guide to ethics.
So religious morality can seem hardly moral at all, and too often the opposite.
Better to base morality on whether someone is being harmed.
I can see how homophobia hurts people. Gay bashing harms victims. Homophobia inflicts emotional suffering, sometimes so severe that gays and lesbians take their lives. At the least self-worth can greatly suffer. But those who bash also lose their humanity.
When parents can’t get married, children cannot visit a sick parent in the hospital, they can lose out on social security or inheritance if a parent dies, they aren’t guaranteed child support if parents separate. These kids miss out on the support and stability that other kids take for granted.
On the other hand, I don’t see how homosexuality harms anyone.
We would all be better off extending love instead of hate and contempt.
October is LGBT History Month.
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