Next, Plural Marriage?

This paper ponders whether one way to counter the hold that marriage might to extend it even further, working for non-monogamous marriage structures. In recent years, as same-sex marriage has taken up a large place in the national LGBTQ political imaginary, polygamy, and especially Mormon plural marriage, has also gained increased attention in US media and popular culture. It is presented both as harmless spectacles of otherwise normative white families, and as a looming threat. Several prominent Mormon advocates of plural marriage, or polygamy, have made connections between this practice and same-sex marriage, arguing that now that one is legal, the other should be, too. Perhaps it is time for queers to accept this implicit invitation to collaboration?

My presentation draws on my research about property relations in queer intentional communities and 19th-century and present-day fundamentalist Mormon groups. I show how, historically, the communal ethos of Mormon polygamous communities has been as much, if not more, of a challenge than has queerness to the individualist structure of state-sanctioned nuclear families. As queer scholars and activists have argued, monogamous marriage reifies a scarcity ideology. Health insurance, immigration, and love are portioned out to one person at a time. When someone who holds any of these three (and many other benefits attached to marriage) has given them to one spouse, they have been used up. A plural marriage model moves away from scarcity into abundance: there is always room for more spouses, more love.

I argue that reading queer family and marriage structures together with Mormon plural marriage enables us to critically interrogate the property relations underlying marriage. Unlike monogamous marriage, plural marriage has no inherent limit. Taking plural marriage seriously invites us to imagine how limits to welfare provisions can be radically reconsidered. As of now, because of the prohibition on more than one legally sanctioned marriage per person, benefits such as health insurance and immigration cannot be given to more than one spouse, communities engaging in plural marriage have found innovative ways of accessing state benefits (what is referred to within fundamentalist Mormon communities as “bleeding the beast”). Instead of condemning such practices as welfare fraud, we could look at them as a redistribution of wealth.

Of course, any collaboration – political or theoretical – between queers and Mormon polygamists has to take seriously the often virulently anti-queer policies and views presented by spokespersons from Mormon groupings, not to mention the faith’s investment in settler-colonialism and its history of anti-Black racism. In my presentation, I consider how present and past anti-polygamy campaigns end up hiding, rather than challenging, these discriminatory policies and practices; I argue that taking the queer possibilities of plural marriage seriously opens up space for a deeper interrogation of these policies and the functions that they serve.


Part of panel Poly Families, Cultural Representation, and the Law
October 2, 2016, 09:00–10:45