Monday, June 04, 2007

Mormons Were So Queer

Mitt Romney’s ability to have any air time in the presidential arena baffles me. I only arrived in Boston at the tail end of his governorship, but it was clear that almost everybody in Massachusetts considered him a failure. Now he is running a campaign based on the premise that he hated the majority of the people in the state that he governed.

All that aside, his religious choice to be Mormon has drawn a great deal of attention. Where there are Mormons, there are going to be nagging questions about polygamy.

Personally, I think it really was a miracle that Brigham Young convinced one woman to marry him, much less 52. Have you seen pictures of Young? He wasn’t exactly a prize catch. Only divine intervention saved his sorry ass from being alone in the desert.

Regardless, the LDS Church officially ended polygamy within their church in 1890. In that year, a “miraculous vision” to church leaders conveniently coincided with the Federal government’s threats to seize Mormon properties. God sure had impeccable timing as it also lowered the last hurdle for Utah to become a state in 1896. Yes, even though it was filled with religious extremists who practiced polygamy and wore funny underwear, the U.S. still preferred making it a state over New Mexico. That territory, in the U.S. since 1848, wouldn’t be granted statehood until 1912 because of its Mexican-majority population. Of course, 1912 would also be the same year that Romney’s ancestors would return to the U.S. after fleeing to Mexico to keep up their polygamous ways (Something, btw, that didn’t thrill Mexico).

Romney’s own family tree has a number of, shall we say, deviated branches. One of his great-great grandfathers had twelve wives. His great-grandfather had five wives. They all believed that polygamy was not only right, but actually ordered by God.

One might imagine that such a family history would make Romney a bit more sensitive to contemporary people who wish to change the idea of marriage. On the contrary, Romney sees nothing inconsistent in his own family history and his support of “traditional marriage.” Indeed, he is so comfortable that he even jokes about it, saying “I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman … and a woman" (a quip he made on the now infamous Don Imus radio show).

For a religion that really hates the modern gays, Mormons have a rather queer past. I don’t mean queer in the man-on-man sex way (which the nineteenth-century Mormon church clearly didn’t support either). Rather, queer meaning that their sexual practices were defined and denigrated against what was imagined as “normal” (marriage as one woman and one man). In many ways, modern Mormons are still considered queer based on myths and legends about their sexual decisions.

Despite Romney’s attempts to laugh it off, the media is obsessed with polygamy and the Mormon church. Even though the official LDS Church hasn’t condoned polygamy (or “plural marriage”) in over a century, Romney is still fielding questions about it. Seemingly people are expecting that he has a couple extra wives secretly stashed away somewhere or that the whole LDS church is going to announce “gottcha” at any moment on an unsuspecting monogamous public.

Indeed, the U.S. has such a love/hate voyeuristic relationship with Mormon polygamy that HBO has an entire show devoted to the premise. Big Love features a rebel Mormon family that broke off from the LDS to create a polygamous family. Think of it as the modern Brady Bunch. Well, except that Mike’s first wife didn’t die and, instead, became friends with Carol. And Alice serves more than applesauce and pork chops to Mr. Brady.

Do we, though, really still care about polygamy as an issue? Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of problems with the historical ways that the Mormon church construed polygamy. It was based on a sexist premise that kept women in subordinate positions. I am also certainly horrified by the creepy modern version practiced by “Mormon fundamentalists” that seemingly involves a lot of brainwashing and bartering of children

As just an issue by itself, though, does polygamy still matter? What taboo is at stake anymore? Is it really a major issue for us, as a society, if three or more adults negotiate a mutual relationship (as long as all the parties are honest about it)?

The truth is that many people (of all forms of sexuality) are already organizing their lives in this way. The legal system doesn’t recognize it, but that doesn’t mean it is not their reality. Beyond the most extreme of Christians, few people seem concerned about an individual having multiple sex/romantic partners throughout their lifetime. What is the big deal about having two (or more) at the same time if everybody involved is down with that? If we are really interested in sexual freedom, shouldn’t all adults be able to create the types of relationships that they want? Beyond making inheritance easier, what is the investment in upholding an exclusive notion of marriage?

That aside, I think that radical Christians are spooked by Mormon polygamy because it exposes the arbitrariness of some of their own religious beliefs. Mormons, after all, claimed to be following God’s orders as they pursued their kinky, kinky relationships just as radical Christians claim to be following God's orders to pursue their own sad, unhappy monogamous marriages.

If radical Christians are really interested in defending one-man-one-woman traditional marriage, I say that polygamy might be the key for them. It sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out.

Let’s be honest, hetero people aren’t having great luck keeping their marriages together. Divorce rates are sky-high these days. With polygamy, it could increase their odds that at least one of those unions would stick. It would be like the lotto – You could have a “Quick Pick Five.” By the end of the first decade, I guarantee that only one of those spouses is going to still tolerate you. Eventually it would be whittled down to the one-man-one-woman ratio that Christians believe is critical to civilization as we know it.

Lawyers are the other group that should really support polygamy. If divorce is making them rich now, just imagine how wealthy they would be if polygamy became the rule of law. Each lawyer could build their entire career just following around one polygamist family.

For myself, though, I have no plans to become the gay version of Brigham Young. I am not even sure I could manage 52 friends at the same time, much less finding time for all those spouses. Not to mention all the little annoying things that you have to put up with when you have just one spouse. I can’t imagine coming home and finding that a dozen of my spouses had left their dirty underwear sitting on the floor.


Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I had a Mormon woman in a class where the history of the LDS church was discussed. She claimed that the idea that the church reversed its position on polygamy is wrong, that (her church, anyway) still believes in the practice but that obeying man's laws is more important.

tornwordo said...

I've never really seen anything wrong with it, live and let live and all that. One of my friends is in a seemingly successful polygamous relationship, while my aunt is stuck with a man she loathes because it is forbidden to divorce.

It's funny, if I try to imagine spouse and I taking on a third, I think, "Who would want us?" lol.

Anonymous said...

Arizona still has a huge wilderness Mormon group, and they are still polygamists. In Sholo, you'll have one old man come in with multiple wives to the stores, then go back out to the mountains. No accounting for taste.

It definitely does tie into the religious right's fear of gay marriage, polygamy, and women's sexual pleasure. They HOPE god would forbid anyone to enjoy something.

Anonymous said...

Call me mysogynist, but any guy who wants two wives is out of his f-ing mind. One was enough for me.

vuboq said...

I had a Mormon roommate my freshman year of college, and, from him, I learned that Mormons believe: Coffee is bad. Polygamy should be OK. Alcohol is bad. Coca-Cola bad. Ginger Ale good. Pre-marital sex with pretty much any willing woman OK (especially at 2AM when your roommate is trying to get back in the room to go to bed because he has an exam the next day. Not that I'm bitter.)

Tenured Radical said...

I partly grew up in Southern Idaho, which is loaded with Mormons. One of the things I found peculiar was that although we were raised to abhor prejudice against blacks, Jews, Catholics, etc., etc., it was part of "normal" life out West, as Protestants, to be awful about the "strange ways" of Mormons. And no one ever pointed out the sexism -- it was always the soda pop, the revelations, the wives and the kind of embarrassing "over-religiousity" of Mormons that was despised. I now realize that this should have prepared me for the culture wars and for "Don't ask, don't tell" - that religion is ok if you keep it at home and don't bug other people with it. Kind of like homosex.....


Earl Cootie said...

If we are really interested in sexual freedom, shouldn’t all adults be able to create the types of relationships that they want?

What do you mean "we," degenerate?

In my candy-coated, 1970s-flavored dreams of the future, sexual freedom and equality were right around the corner - no, even closer, actually resting in our fingertips. But something happened. (Or somethings happened, St. Reagan among them.)

You have to keep in mind, half or more of our country do not want sexual freedom. They want sexual oppression and repression, continued subjugation of women, an eternal underclass. They were raised to believe that sex is dirty (but that men can't be held to blame for giving in to sexual urges; women can), they raise their children to believe the same, their children will likely continue the cycle.

Someday sexual freedom may come back within our grasp, but I don't expect it anytime in my remaining middle years.

Anonymous said...

I saw a documentary about this a while back, and the creepy (and saddest) thing was that the newer wives of the 40 something man profiled, were both very young girls who looked frightened and withdrawn. How much choice were they given? None, I expect.

Anonymous said...

First you post my hometown as an (incorrect) option for your birth city, now you post about my dissertation topic.
Such stalking as this is bound to raise doubts about just who is in fact the most desirable man in the blogosphere. Or do you still desire yourself more than you apparently desire me?

GayProf said...

Lyle: I am no theologian, but from the outside it does seem that Mormons haven't fully resolved this matter. Some suggest that men who married more than once in this life (because of the death of a spouse) will live with all of their wives together in the afterlife... It sounds like polygamy to me.

Torn: For me being in a threesome sounds inconvenient for driving. Somebody would always end up in the backseat...

Glenn: Alas, though, those same wilderness Mormons probably see no common cause with the (other) queer folk.

Marlan: Men or women, I think that a LTR relationship with anybody can be ... challenging.

VUBOQ: I couldn't live with anybody who didn't drink coffee.

Tenured Radical: Protestants might be feeling smug about their Mormon neighbors, but it's one of the fastest growing religions in the world. That overt religiosity is clearly doing something...

Earl: We can bring back that candy-coated optimism from the 1970s -- The degenerates shall inherit the earth.

Cooper: Yes, the way that polygamy is playing out in secluded "Mormon fundamentalist" communities is disturbing. Young girls are not given agency over their lives which means that they are not in a position to choose what type of relationship(s) they want.

Moreover, if Mormons want polygamy it's going to have to include both polyandry and polygyny.

Jefe: You were born in Idaho Falls, Idaho?

Like any good grad student, I hope that you realize now that I have written about your dissertation topic (Mitt Romney?) you will have to start over from scratch.

Doug said...

I would have commented earlier, but I was busy imagining coming home to find the discarded underwear from my 12 hot male spouses, who were, of course, sitting around sans underwear anxiously awaiting my return so they could pleasure me.

On a serious note, I am a very live-and-let-live kind of person. The thing(s) I disagree with are always related to control and the right to choose. The stories about subjugated Mormon women get my ire up.

I really really want to know why we can't just love and respect one another, why we always have to degrade and oppress each other. What ever happened to "our better nature?"

pacalaga said...

Chances are, though, that one of the other spouses would find it as annoying and would have cleaned up the other 17 pairs of dirty underwear before you get there. Everyone is happy!
Besides, it would be, like, two months before it was my turn to cook dinner again. So as long as all my other cowives were of an appropriate age, BRING EM ON.

Horace said...

I have less to say about stable polygamous households or Mormonism per se (while I have no problem in theory with either, I think I conceptually like the idea of consensual polygamy at least more than I like the idea of Mormonism).

I wonder, though, if an important component of anti-polygamy laws today is their function in policing non-consensual polygamy--either the sort of coerced wives reported above, or two households that spouses (most often husbands) maintain in secrecy from each other. In many ways, my sense is that actual consensual polygamy is the far rarer phenomenon than scenarios that benefit an exploitative patriarch.

Anonymous said...

Whenever questions about who benefits from the maintenance of a particular status quo come up, my instinct is to follow the money. I'm not sure, but I'm guessing it's easier and more profitable to market to and profit from the traditional one-man, one-woman-based family. The unholy genius of Republicanism of the last forty years or so has been to pair capitalism and religious fundamentalism by playing to people's fear and ignorance in ways that are difficult to justify Biblically, but which have been heartbreakingly successful.

Mormons are "queer" in just the way you say, but can only be allowed into the matrix if the unorthodox aspects can be kept under wraps to avoid scaring the horses. Romney seems willing to play along, but show me a politician who isn't willing to slough off inconvenient truths in order to advance. And he's very, very rich.

Clio Bluestocking said...

When my parents first moved us to Texas from New Orleans, I had no idea what a Mormon was. I thought everyone was Catholic except us and maybe some Jews, who I heard existed somewhere. The Mormon families in our Texas neighorhood were all so mild mannered and upright. Very "Leave it to Beaver." Imagine my surprise to find out the polygamy thing! And that they were such sexual radicals for their time! Who knew? (Well, aparently everyone but me until I was in college.)

What is interesting is that this queer sexual behavior with the poly part is also the part that is the most sexist in that is allows a single man to subordinate more than one woman in what I am assuming is a very traditional marriage.

Roger Owen Green said...

I'd say that I'm suspcious of any faith that has been so blatantly racist in its near past (see, e.g.,, except that there's been racism in most of the mainline religions.

ZaPaper said...

The key to the media fascination, I assume, is that it is all polygyny, never polyandry. Personally, I think polyandry has great potential (in all kinds of ways...), but polygyny is generally a giant step backwards for womankind. But I guess I'm just doomed to be out of step with what everyone else is interested in....

dykewife said...

don't forget that he not only had those 52 women (coincidence that is also the number of cards in a deck) but he also supported them and their children. the women had very little say over who they were married off to and he would have been a primo catch as he was very rich and very powerful.

i certainly wouldn't want that many spouses. being around that many people would have me squidgey in no time at all. ewww..

i don't have issues with polygamy (or polyamoury either so long as it's not expected from me) when it's only adults invovled and they're making the decisions. however, arranged marriages of young girls and adult men is totally wrong.

Antonio said...

The fact that Mitt Romney is a frontrunner does seem unusual to me. Mormons pretty much only make headlines about the polygamy thing, which doesn't fly with the Christian Right despite the fact the Bible never makes an explicit condemnation of the practice. I'm not saying I support polygamy, but if a practice that was common in the Old AND New Testament is looked down upon today, someone should be able to give a solid canonical reason. And let's not ignore the Mormons views on blacks, which I'm sure they'd all like us to ignore.

BTW, I love "U + Ur Hand". Such a damn catchy and fun song.

Anonymous said...

Momentarily delurking....a few opinions from a ex-Mormon Utahn....

"Mainstream" Mormons here are extremely hostile to polygamous groups, which are largely regarded as cultish offshoots of the "true church" and as an embarrassment. But Mormons also claim it historically and to a degree theologically (very convenient prophecies help). And Mormons want to be seen more and more as mainstream a la Mitt, so the attitude is let's just not talk about it and have lime jello with carrot shavings instead.

There aren't many polys left in Salt Lake, but you know them when you see them - if you are from out of the area you might think they were Mennonites. (And some of them still look like that pic of Brig.)

And even when polygamy was practiced institutionally, Mormons did not see themselves as pathbreakers to a better future. They looked at it as restoring some Biblical past; although truly deviant, their mindset was (is) conservative. So few Mormons would see any parallel between polygamy and gay marriage: Restoration vs abomination.

That is life behind the Zion curtain! But that Mormon hostility to gays and lesbians and to gay marriage has also lead to a quite visible, politically active, and well organized gay community in this funny place.

GayProf said...

Doug: I think that politicans have found that they can get into power by appealing to our worst nature. If we had leaders who did the opposite, I think Americans would respond just as actively.

Pacalaga: But when it did become time to cook dinner, it would be for dozens of people. Doing the dishes alone could take a month.

Horace: You raise a good point about the protective angle of the laws. Still, there are many people who manipulate monogamous marriages (abusive, economically exploitive, etc) and nobody ever talks about outlawing those.

Huntington: I am not sure about the economic/sales model that you propose...

As for Romney, I would be very surprised if Evangelical Protestants embrace him regardless of what he says.

Clio: There is no doubt that the version of polygamy that Mormons historically proposed was very, very, very sexist. Indeed, it seems that the religion is still premised on the notion that men are superior and dominant over women.

ROG and Antonio: Yes and let's not forget how opposed the Mormon Church was to racially "mixed" marriages.

ZaPaper: I don't know if polygamy necessarily means a step-back for women. Historically, though, I think that you are right that it has been that way.

DykeWife: There also seems to be a lot of coercion involved in "Mormon fundamentalists" visions of polygamy.

Todd: Hail, Amazon sister! Thanks for delurking.

I have no doubt that Mormons (then and now) did not see themselves as striking a blow for sexual freedom. Indeed, they would probably shudder at my comparisons. Still, the rest of the U.S. saw them as very, very queer.

Anonymous said...

You still read the comments from the 23rd person to post, don't you? Because it seems like I always get here after the party.

Something tells me if I had 23 husbands I'd probably be feeling the same way.


I am surprised that Mormons (i was one for 20some years) still get away with their anti-polygamy public statements. Nobody ever does any logical reasoning about this stance.

The truth of the matter is that Mormon doctrine STILL supports polygamy. Men are still free in the Mormon church to have a temple marriage with a second wife if their first has passed away. (Women may marry a second time as well but their second marriage can only be of the 'til death do you part' variety)

Men who marry twice in the temple are, according to Mormon doctrine, married to both women for "time and all eternity"


the Mormon church still believes in it whether they practice it or not and whether they diss it in public or not.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

ah yes nothing compares with going to smith's (one of the local grocery stores) and seeing a flock of girls all dressed like they stepped out of the 1800's (ie - little house on the prairie). that's life in oo-tah. my personal fav is when they come to my neighborhood in a big van (i mean BIG) seelling homemade bread/brownies/foods. polyg's make me chuckle and run the other way as fast as possible.

as per todd's statement - queer life behind the zion curtain can be interesting to say the least.

Cynthia Rayne said...

There's only one reason those poor Mormon women are agreeing to be a 2nd, 3rd, 4th...yikes 52nd wife! They don't receive much education.

I have enough time dealing with one man at a time in a relationship, but adding in 51 other women to contend with? No thanks.

More or less, sexually speaking I'm live and let live. Hey, if it makes you happy, go for it. You want to lick sheep? Okaay, but rock on with your bad self. You like to look at feet? Go for it. But I think they aren't choosing that life, they are falling for it.