Dan Savage: Could Gay Marriage Lead to Demands for Polygamist Rights?

Roundup: Media's Take

QUESTION: I fully support gay rights and wrote a letter to the prime minister—I'm up in Canada—supporting gay marriage. But whenever I get into debates about the issue with right-wing acquaintances, they bring up "the thin edge of the wedge" and insist that gay marriage will lead to polygamy. This leaves me stymied. I have no argument with adults who choose to enter into open relationships. My problem is with fundamentalist cults that indoctrinate their followers from birth and are building armies through the practice of one man having multiple young wives and many children. My feminist backbone shudders at the thought of these young women being bred and raised for the sole purpose of personal fiefdom building.

The argument goes: "If gays should be 'free' to marry, then why not 'religious freedom' for those who choose a polygamous lifestyle?" I'm curious to hear your opinion on this and am hoping you will supply me with an intelligent retort. —Stymied In Canada

ANSWER: "Her interlocutors are wrong, wrong, wrong," says E.J. Graff, author of What Is Marriage For?, a terrific, informative, and entertaining book about gay marriage. "They're assuming that we homos are making a claim to marriage under the libertarian argument that everyone should be free to do as s/he wishes. Wrong. We are arguing that we already belong to the West's contemporary marriage philosophy—for capitalist and for feminist reasons."

...[Says Graff:] "Once upon a time, the West had a 'traditional' marriage philosophy." The husband owned his wife, whatever children she bore him. But capitalism eventually came along—thank God!—and freed us from those confining sex roles. "Each of us now has to make a living independently, based on individual talents and efforts rather than traditional roles. Over time this led to gender equality in the job and marriage market. Between 1850 and 1970, every developed country struck down its sex-based rules, both in labor (i.e., women can be plumbers and legislators) and in marriage (i.e., married women can own property, hold jobs without hubby's permission, have custody of children, and even—gasp!—say no in bed). The result: Gender equality is today's governing public philosophy, in marriage and in much else. For 150 years, courts and legislatures have changed marriage law to fit this philosophy, under which same-sex couples fit just fine." In other words, heterosexual marriage is not one man taking ownership over one woman, but two individuals, as equals, committing to each other. "The only sex-based restriction left in marriage law," Graff says, "lies in the entrance rules, where it no longer belongs."

Letting same-sex couples make the same gender-neutral commitment that opposite-sex couples make doesn't open the doors to polygamy, where, traditionally, "One man owns many wombs and grows lots of household labor," according to Graff. "That is precisely the opposite of gender equality and of individual-based capitalism. It violates all our contemporary notions of fairness and democracy. Polygamy would mean heading backward into marriage's feudal history; same-sex marriage moves us forward into its equal and democratic future." Now get off the table, SIC, and go argue with your right-wing acquaintances. (Out this month is Getting Even, by Evelyn Murphy with E.J. Graff.)
Read entire article at Village Voice

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Matthew E. Mason - 10/3/2005

This argument is based not only on a strange stretch - connecting gay marriage somehow to gender equality - but also on the assumption that polygamy always involves force. In practice it might in most instances now, but that is not the same as in essence. Why couldn't a polygamist make the argument that her or his marriage is a series of "adults" entering into "open relationships"? Or that those relationships could be open if legalized?