Arnon Grunberg



On polygamy, money, minor discontents and the future – Andrew Solomon in The New Yorker:

‘Fifteen years ago, when Rich Austin was in his early forties, he and his wife watched the HBO show “Big Love,” about a polygamous family of fundamentalist Mormons in Utah. “I kind of got hooked on it,” Rich told me. “I had a string of broken relationships, so I was joking, ‘Well, maybe if I was a polygamist, I wouldn’t have that problem.’ ” He had a daughter, from a fling a few years earlier, whom the couple were raising together. They were swingers, but Rich wanted more than unattached sex, and broached the subject of polygamy with his wife. The marriage soon broke up.
In 2008, Rich met Angela Hinkley, and soon told her how much he liked the show. “I felt I had to have Angela on board from the start,” he said. They got engaged, and, around the time Angela became pregnant, they started looking for another woman to join them. Online, they met a nineteen-year-old, Brandy Goldie, and after months of chatting she visited them at their home, near Milwaukee. Then she stopped communicating; her mother temporarily thwarted her plans to enter a polygamous union, but, six months later, Brandy called Rich and said, “If I asked to come back, would you ever take me back?” He said, “In a heartbeat.” When Brandy became pregnant, she realized that the arrangement was now permanent, and was scared. She became emotionally distant, and Rich started to realize what he had taken on. He was working odd jobs, Angela worked part time, and Brandy was looking for a job. A Navy veteran, Rich drew disability payments, but for a while the whole family was subsisting on about twenty-eight thousand dollars a year.’


‘Before getting married, Rich and Angela converted to Mormonism. Julie, who also began the conversion process, recalled, “We were talking about how we’re going to set the family up, and the early Mormons already had a road map.” But the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has forbidden polygamy since 1904, and the practice endures only among originalist communities, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (F.L.D.S.). So Rich began telling people that Brandy was a cousin who had become pregnant by accident. “I didn’t like having to deny who I was, what type of relationship I was in,” Brandy told me. When Julie started writing a blog about their life, Rich was excommunicated.’


‘At the family’s largest, Rich had four wives, but when I met him, a couple of years ago, he and Angela were divorcing, and another woman, April, had come and gone. Rich, Brandy, and Julie were living with their kids—six, including Rich’s and Julie’s from earlier relationships—and saw Angela’s two every other weekend. The children, who now number seven, ranging in age from one to twenty, view one another as full siblings. “We almost need a chart to figure out which kid’s which some days,” Rich said. Julie laughed. “We already told him that, if he wants to add another wife, Brandy and I have to find her,” she said. “It’s not just going to be someone who Mr. Eternal Hope thinks might work. We’re the ones that have to live with her all the time.” The Austins would like one day to enjoy the legal benefits that married couples take for granted. Brandy and Julie take heart from the success of the gay-marriage movement. “I’ve got a wedding invitation on the way from a friend who’s transitioning from female to male,” Julie said. “I’ve got classmates that came out almost twenty years ago. They’ve been lucky enough to get married. I wish people would be as accepting with us as we try to be of everyone else.”’


‘Polygamists have become more vocal about achieving legal rights since the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide, in 2015. So has another group: polyamorists, whose lobbying runs in parallel but with scant overlap. Unlike polygamy, which is usually religiously motivated and typically involves a man with multiple wives who do not have an erotic relationship to one another, polyamory tends to be based on utopian ideas of sexual liberty and may involve a broad range of configurations. In the end, however, the real difference is what term fits people’s paradigms; as with much of identity politics, affiliations are self-determined. In the popular imagination, polygamists are presumed to be right-wing misogynists and polyamorists to be decadent left-wingers, but the two groups share goals and, often, ways of life. In the years I’ve spent talking to members of both communities, I have found that it is usually the polygamists who are more cognizant of common cause. “But people can’t seem to unite under one platform,” Rich said.’


‘But legal scholars take the argument seriously. In an anti-poly paper in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law, John O. Hayward wrote, “Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, the only remaining marital frontier—at least for the Judeo-Christian nations of the West—is polygamy.” Another law professor, Jack B. Harrison, wrote that state bans against plural marriage were sure to be challenged, and that anyone who wanted to maintain them would have to “develop a rationale for them, albeit post hoc, that is not rooted in majoritarian morality and animus.”

This is no longer merely a theoretical matter. In February, 2020, the Utah legislature passed a so-called Bigamy Bill, decriminalizing the offense by downgrading it from a felony to a misdemeanor. In June, Somerville, Massachusetts, passed an ordinance allowing groups of three or more people who “consider themselves to be a family” to be recognized as domestic partners. Last week, the neighboring town of Cambridge followed suit, passing a broader ordinance recognizing multi-partner relationships. The law has proceeded even more rapidly in recognizing that it is possible for a child to have more than two legal parents. In 2017, the Uniform Law Commission, an association that enables states to harmonize their laws, drafted a new Uniform Parentage Act, one provision of which facilitates multiple-parent recognition. Versions of the provision have passed in California, Washington, Maine, Vermont, and Delaware, and it is under consideration in several other states. Courts in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Texas, Arizona, and Louisiana have also supported the idea of third parents. American conservatism has long mourned the proliferation of single parents, but, if two parents are better than one, why are three parents worse?’


‘The campaigns of both polygamists and polyamorists to have their unions recognized point to the larger questions that swarm around marriage battles: what are the government’s interests in marriage and family, and why does a bureaucratic system sustain such a relentless focus on who has sexual relationships with whom? Surveys in the past decade have consistently found that four to five per cent of American adults—more than ten million people—already practice some form of consensual nonmonogamy, and the true number, given people’s reticence about stigmatized behaviors, is almost certainly higher.
Consensual nonmonogamy is hardly a new invention. Jewish polygamy peppers the Old Testament, even if the marriages tend not to be portrayed in positive terms; the Hebrew word tzarah means both “second wife” and “trouble.” Today, polygyny—the subset of polygamy that involves one man and multiple women—enjoys legal status or general acceptance in more than seventy countries. (Its rarer obverse, polyandry, persists in certain communities in Nepal, Tibet, India, and Sri Lanka.) In the West, champions of polyamory have included Mary Wollstonecraft, George Sand, Havelock Ellis, and Bertrand Russell. Still, a particular ethos, rooted in Christian, European values, has created a presumption that monogamy is superior to all other structures. Immanuel Kant saw marriage as emblematic of Enlightenment ideals, claiming that it was egalitarian, because spouses assigned ownership of their sexual organs to each other.’


‘Roo said, “I like the word ‘caucus.’ We caucus with polyamorists, you caucus with trans-masculine folk, I caucus with trans-feminine folk. I’m independent from that, but I’m on your side.” There are various romantic configurations among the four partners, but only Andy is in a romantic relationship with all three of the others. In addition, they all have “comets”—lovers from outside the group who blaze through and then are gone. “It’s a more stable structure with more people,” Andy said.’


‘The question is: what does marriage mean? “I remember reading the list of eleven hundred and sixty-three federal benefits that marriage gave, and one of them that just stuck out to me was ‘family discounts at national parks,’ ” Roo said. “If the federal government says you’re a family, you get the family discount, but we wouldn’t. It’s fucking everywhere.” Andy talked about a watershed moment for gay rights, in 1989—the case of Braschi v. Stahl. Miguel Braschi was being evicted from the rent-controlled apartment he and his partner shared, after the partner died, of AIDS. The landlord contended that the lease was transferrable only to family, and that Braschi wasn’t family. Braschi sued. The judge issued a stunningly progressive ruling saying that family should be based on the reality of daily life—these two men lived together, shared finances, took care of each other—and not on “fictitious legal distinctions,” such as marriage certificates. In Andy’s view, the subsequent campaign for gay marriage represented a missed opportunity. “In 1989, he said that a marriage certificate was a fictitious legal distinction,” Andy said with wonder. “The gay-rights movement took that and said, ‘Actually, no, we’re just going to throw that out and try and get married. That seems like a better plan.’ Imagine if we had taken that idea—that legal protections for family should be granted based on the reality of daily family life and interdependence and networks of mutual care rather than on fictitious legal distinctions—and run with it.”’


‘The criminal case was closed after a month and the family-services one two months later, but the automatic suspicion that the family encountered marked a turning point for Joe. “I was, like, We’ve lived in this fear and it doesn’t work,” he said. It was an inauspicious time to start campaigning for plural marriage. In the early two-thousands, Tom Green, a fundamentalist Mormon, was convicted of bigamy and child rape; he had married one of his wives when she was thirteen. In 2006, Warren Jeffs, the leader of the F.L.D.S., who had turned the community at Short Creek into his personal fiefdom, was placed on the F.B.I.’s most-wanted list, for arranging marriages between adult followers and underage girls. In 2011, after two trials—on charges including rape, incest, and sexual assault of minors—Jeffs was jailed for life.’


‘The practice began around 1835, when Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder, took a second wife after receiving a revelation about polygamy; he eventually had more than thirty. The 1856 Republican Party platform railed against “those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery”; the South and the West were both deemed immoral, and a line was drawn between “civilized white society” and that of “backwards savages.” In 1862, Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. By the late eighteen-eighties, it was clear that polygamy would prevent the Utah Territory from securing statehood. In 1890, the Church’s president, Wilford Woodruff, also prompted by a revelation, issued a manifesto renouncing polygamy—a decision that fundamentalist Mormons dismiss as political expediency. The practice became a felony in Utah in 1935. In 2013, it was temporarily decriminalized—not by the legislature but by a judge, who ruled, in a case brought by Kody Brown, that the state’s anti-bigamy statute was unconstitutional. But three years later the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, because Utah did not actually prosecute polygamists unless there were other crimes, the plaintiffs did not have standing, so the practice became criminal again.
By February, 2020, the Bigamy Bill had the cosponsorship of Derek Kitchen, one of only six Democrats in the Utah State Senate and its only openly gay member. Seven years before, he and his partner had sued the state in a case, Kitchen v. Herbert, that challenged its ban on same-sex marriage. They won, and the case led to the legalization of gay marriage in the Tenth Circuit and influenced the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, eight months later. “The L.G.B.T.Q. movement and, in particular, a lot of gay men really embrace polyamory,” Kitchen told me. Many Mormon polygamists were more than happy to make common cause with the gay-marriage activists. “A lot of our first allies were L.G.B.T.Q., and that was brave of them,” Alina Darger told me. “I’ve come to an appreciation for their struggle, and I am a very firm champion that rights are for every person.” One detail of Kitchen v. Herbert has remained out of the press. “During that time, my partner and I were involved in a polyamorous dynamic,” Kitchen said. “We feared we would jeopardize our case if people found out about us having a third, a boyfriend. But we were with him for three years.” So Derek Kitchen was in hiding about his sexuality even when he was the most visible gay person in Utah. “It took time to recognize that human sexuality is not as square as we make it out to be,” he went on. “Polyamory and even the single life are just as valid as a heteronormative, husband-wife, picket-fence, three-children conversation. I sponsored the Bigamy Bill because there’s plenty of relationships made up of three and four people. When we were debating it, I asked the primary sponsor and our legal counsel, ‘This also means non-married multiple partners, like a polyamorous situation?’ They said, ‘Didn’t think about it, but yeah.’ ”’


‘They went on, “We’re seeing a movement away from parenting being defined by DNA and toward its being defined by intention. Getting out of the model of a two-person monogamous marriage as the basis of family is the next frontier.” They note that in earlier eras monogamy was expected of women but not of men. “When we were deciding to make this more equitable, it could have gone in a different direction,” Adams said, adding that they wished society, instead of pushing men toward monogamy, had allowed women nonmonogamy. They went on, “Divorce specialists will tell you we have an epidemic of people saying they’re monogamous, then breaking up families with lies and infidelity. What is harmful is that that infidelity breaks a covenant. What if we think about what we would actually like to create?” Adams thinks that platonic co-parents, too, should be entitled to some form of recognition. They described a woman who became disabled and whose sister moved in and became the primary parent of the disabled sister’s child. Adams drafted a complex trust so that they could make hospital visits, have shared finances, and buy a house together. “Family is really about people who want to take care of one another because they love one another,” they said. In another case, two male-female couples bonded as a polyamorous quad and were living together. In giving birth, one of the women had a massive heart attack and became severely disabled. Her husband spent the next year taking care of her in rehab centers while the female partner in the other couple became the primary parent of the baby. The husband of the second couple became the breadwinner for all of them. “Despite that horrific and tragic incident, they’ve been together eight years in that format, and they’re a beautiful family,” Adams said.
Adams and their husband both identify as queer, and their relationship has been polyamorous from the start. In addition to their husband, Adams is in long-term relationships with two women and also has a boyfriend; Adams has a five-year-old daughter with their husband and has considered parenting with a gay male friend. Though they live with just their husband and daughter, they are open to cohabiting with another romantic partner. Their work both reflects and facilitates the complexities of their own life.’


‘The three of them opened a joint account for child-related expenses and contribute to an educational-savings account for Tavi. They have noticed that, if Zeke and David take Tavi out for a walk around their neighborhood, people usually assume that the two men are a married gay couple. It’s an assumption that no one could have made a generation ago.’

Read the article here.

In the spring of 2019 I wrote a reportage on sexuality and love in the US (my girlfriend at that time took the pictures) – we met extensively with polygamists in Utah and with polyamorists in Washington state. (You can read it in my collection ‘Slaughters and psychiatrists’ – unfortunately only available in Dutch yet.) We met also Tom Green, a nice chap I would say, at least he came across like one.

Monogamy or the illusion of monogamy will remain the preferred strategy for most people is my guess, especially for heterosexual couples, because the fear and insecurities are just too big.
But for growing minorities other options will remain attractive, will be a serious option. (Let’s take a second husband. Life is too boring.’)

And indeed, I don’t see why same-sex-marriage can be legal, while polyamorous or polygamist relationships are outlawed.

It’s only a matter of time before you can have three husbands and two wives, and perhaps if you forsake sex, you can get married to a donkey.

Why not marry a beautiful mammal? If I were a donkey I would rather marry a man than being eaten by him.

And yes, let’s caucus, by all means.

My girlfriend invited two of her friends and me for tacos tonight. We will caucus. But we will keep our clothes on. That’s how I am. That’s how we are.

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