Monday, July 4, 2011

Same-sex marriage and polygamy in the same breath? Two (plus one) New York Times debaters think so

Yesterday's "Room for Debate" in the New York Times is about "Marriage: The Next Chapter." I found it interesting that two of the six commentators used the opportunity to mention polygamy. Philosophy professor John Corvino notes that opponents of same-sex marriage "continue to predict a slippery slope to polygamy, polyamory and other “untested, experimental” family forms." He continues: "The grain of truth in their prediction is this: recent progress reminds us that marriage is an evolving institution and that not everyone fits in the neat boxes that existing tradition offers." (That's before remarking that polygamy is actually quite traditional). Law professor Rick Banks predicts that "over time, our moral assessments of [polygamy and incest] will shift, just as they have with interracial marriage and same sex marriage."

Advocates of marriage equality typically distance themselves as far as possible from polygamy. Those most averse to a discussion that includes both ideas in the same conversation may be troubled by the latest book from a third of the New York Times debaters, sociologist and long time gay rights ally Judith Stacey. Her comment in the Times debate does not mention polygamy at all; it's about the unfairness of privileging marriage and the importance of family policies that respond to the needs of all the ways people live (with a special shout-out to me that I deeply appreciate).

But Stacey's new book, Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China, places the connection between gay couples and polygamous families front and center. Stacey's research on gay men in Los Angeles occupies the first part of the book, presenting pictures of the complex lives of 50 men born between 1958 and 1973 and those connected to them. She conducted the first interviews between 1999 and 2003 and then followed up in 2008 with the 29 men she could still locate. I am especially appreciative of Stacey's attention to the men raising children (about half of them) including those in what she calls poly-parent families.

The next part of the book presents the field research Stacey conducted of polygamous families in South Africa. The women Stacey describes agree to a family structure of one husband and more than one wife, not as their first choice, but as the best choice among their available options. Their options were pretty bad, and the picture Stacey paints is not an attractive one. Yet she strongly opposes criminalization of polygamy and believes that legal recognition in the US would make it easier to regulate abuses (underage marriage, rape) and could "nudge" polygamy towards gender equality. She also hopes her book will make it easier for feminists to both "fathom and countenance" polygyny. While that might be too much to expect, Stacey's arguments against criminalizing polygamy are strong. And her two fellow New York Times debaters also resist separating entirely the legal claims for marriage equality and polygamy.

Judith Stacey has been an expert witness for marriage equality and a tireless supporter of the ability of gay and lesbian parents to raise healthy children. The legal rights of gay and lesbian families are farther along today because of her work than they would have been without it. But like all those who tell the truth about families, she does not simplify what is complex. In the process, she has publicly articulated views that make gay rights advocates uncomfortable.

She wrote in 2001 that there were differences -- not deficits, but differences -- between children raised by lesbian mothers and those raised by heterosexuals. This confounded those whose legal strategy had been dependent upon arguing that lesbians should not be denied parental rights because there were no such differences. Unhitched makes the case that legalizing same-sex marriage is not a demand completely divorced from the legal status of polygamous unions. From the looks of yesterday's New York Times debate, she's not the only gay rights supporter willing to say this out loud.

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