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Archive for Friday, May 25, 2001

Is polygamy just a lifestyle?

May 25, 2001

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— You might say he is "overcommitted." You might say, for that matter, that he is guilty of four counts of bigamy.

This was the verdict of a Utah jury last week. They found that the Mormon father of 29 had been married to a quintet of women. If the appeal fails, he may face another sort of commitment: as many as 25 years in prison.

None of this however, has dampened the self-righteous ardor of the poster papa for open polygamy. In Utah, an entire subculture of closeted Mormon families is said to practice polygamy under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But Green sprung the closet door open, appearing on everything from "Judge Judy" to "Jerry Springer."

This is what is so fascinating about Green. On the one hand, he is an old-time patriarch. On the other hand, he is a man of the modern age who is pushing to have his "lifestyle" publicly accepted. One can almost hear the psycho-lingo: no more secrets, no more hypocrisy, no more living a lie.

Indeed in some peculiar way, Tom Green reminds me of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Not merely because Giuliani tried to entertain paramour Judith Nathan in Gracie Mansion where estranged wife Donna Hanover resides. (Donna isn't a "sister wife" kind of gal.) But Rudy also seemed to justify this in the name of honesty and openness. I can imagine Rudy and Tom singing at the top of their lungs: "I Gotta Be Me."

Green's demand to have his private relationships publicly acknowledged doesn't seem all that different from Rudy's or from those of gay couples who want the right to marry. Or live-in lovers where cohabiting is illegal.

For a long time, marriage was one man, one woman, forever. In American history, opponents fought against divorce, calling it legal polygamy. The Nation magazine once described the South Dakota divorce mill where couples remarried on the spot as "practically polygamy."

Yet, when Utah was forced to ban polygamy as a condition of statehood, Elizabeth Cady Stanton huffed at hypocrisy, saying that the legislators themselves were polygamous in practice, with both wives and mistresses.

Now we live in an era of routine divorce and serial marriage, of domestic partners and unwed parents, older men and trophy wives, gay commitment ceremonies and old-fashioned adultery. We may have traditional views about marriage itself, but not about our own behavior, or for that matter, our neighbors'.

In the current array of marriage and its alternatives, what's the difference between a polygamist and a serial husband, a committed marrier and a casual philanderer? Twenty-five years in prison?

In fact, this true-believing polygamist didn't have a valid marriage license. Utah had to build its bigamy case (there's no state law against polygamy itself) by proving his relationships were really common-law marriages.

Meanwhile, Green said of his "wives," "In essence they are all mistresses. Am I the only man in America to have a mistress -- or several?" He's got a point. Sort of.

Let me assure you that Tom Green is not my kind of guy and polygamy is not my alternative lifestyle. As E.J. Graff, who wrote "What is Marriage For?" says, "This is a guy with a bunch of wombs at his service. He's making a tribe, not a marriage." His tribe not only has five women and 29 kids; as a magazine salesman, he can't fully support them.

Nevertheless, in the end, the state is on shaky ground when it tries to criminalize sexual relations or the consensual living arrangements of adults.

The only solid ground for intervention is that Green wed his quintet while they were teen-agers. That's where any plea for acceptance should fall on deaf ears. That's where the "alternative lifestyle" defense stops.

Indeed, Green is to be tried next for child rape, for marrying one of his wives when she was only 13. For that crime, I'd throw the book at him, at his wife's parents, and anyone who gave their blessing.

If Utah wants to stop the abuse of polygamy, the most important thing to do is raise the age of marriage up from a childish 14, the age when some girls first enter plural marriages.

In the meantime here are the most chilling words uttered by this committed man: "Legally, I'm single and available."

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

ellengoodman@globe.com

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