A few weeks ago, an odd thing appeared on the New York Times weddings page. There were three wedding announcements, but the same husband appeared in each one. It took a few moments for you to realize that it was actually an ad for the premiere of Big Love, HBO’s new drama series on polygamy (which runs on The Movie Network in Ontario).
The series is created and produced by creative and romantic partners Mark V Olsen and Will Scheffer, two gay men who are rather obviously and provocatively riffing on the controversies around same-sex marriage.
The mock announcements nicely demonstrate the connection: the New York Times has been announcing gay and lesbian unions since 2002, two years before same-sex marriages were legal anywhere in the US. A wedding announcement in the New York Times is the ultimate sign of arrival, status writ large – even if there is nothing legal about it. The fake announcement of the three fictitious Big Love marriages played on the same gap between cultural and legal recognition.
The show’s creators don’t recoil from the association between same-sex marriage and polygamy. They seem to delight in playing on it.
There may be a lesson here for advocates of same-sex marriage, who often go out of their way to dissociate themselves from polygamy. This is not surprising since social conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage repeatedly try to whip up a frenzy of fear by arguing that recognizing gay marriage will lead to polygamy or, worse, bestiality.
Same-sex marriage advocates tend to respond by denying the association. We (yes, I confess to doing this, too) tend to argue that polygamy is an entirely different kettle of fish.
But there are ways in which we may need to think more deeply about polygamy; perhaps we should not recoil in horror from its association with same-sex marriage. (I’m sure Justice Minister Vic Toews is right now clipping this column for his files.)
There is no doubt that there are huge differences between polygamous and same-sex marriages. Polygamy, at least as it’s typically practised, may actually involve harm: there is a considerable amount of coercion, particularly of young women. By contrast, same-sex marriage doesn’t hurt anyone, least of all its participants.
But there is at least one important similarity between polygamy and same-sex marriage. Both often produce a reaction of disgust.
I don’t think that the “ick” factor deserves a place in legal arguments. We need to engage with the question of polygamy in more rational terms, just like we have forced (or tried to force) straight folks to engage with same-sex marriage in more rational terms.
What exactly is wrong with it? What are its social harms? What harms come from its criminalization? Is there something more at stake than the fact that it is, to many, disgusting? Is it something more than the fact that marriage has always just been about two people to the exclusion of all others, or so we tend to think? Is it enough to justify its continued criminalization?
I don’t think that gay and lesbian folks have to agree on the answers to these questions. But I do think that we may need to think harder about them. There are two things that we absolutely should not rely on: a reaction of disgust or the argument that it’s just always been this way. Because both of those arguments have been and are still being used against any and all gay rights.
Big Love provides us just the opportunity to rethink polygamy. We may not all want to so provocatively ski down the slippery slopes between same-sex marriage and polygamy. But the irreverence of the creators might help to create some space in which we can think about what is really at stake, forgoing the same arguments that have been used against us for years.