Shirlee still seemed to struggle with her ambivalence about the system into which she was born. “Patriarchal structures are horrifying for women, and that includes monogamy,” she said, as we walked around the town. “But if some people choose to live polyamory or polygamy and it works for them, hallelujah, right?”
It was a beautiful afternoon, and she pointed up at the great cliffs that surrounded the town. “Growing up around it, I did not appreciate it,” she said. “It was like wallpaper. After I moved away, it was triggering, because this was the place where so much horrible stuff happened. Only now, recently, I’ve started to really appreciate how beautiful it is.”
Joe Darger was confident about the chances for decriminalizing polygamy in Utah. He believed that, in effect, it already had been decriminalized, thanks to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, in 2003, which rendered a slew of state laws about cohabitation unconstitutional. “It was just a matter of getting the public to recognize it,” Joe said. He approached other fundamentalist Mormon families, urging them to become more politically vocal. It was hard, not only because people feared legal consequences but also because the many sects were often hostile to one another and resistant to forming a united front. “Early on, I realized this was going to require a three-prong approach—legislative, legal, and public relations,” Joe said. “The public sways the courts.”
Even before the Dargers’ book was published, Joe had started seeking out receptive Utah politicians. Rather than framing the issue as one of freedom of religion—an argument long rejected by Utah and federal courts—Joe framed it as a free-speech matter. “If we purported to be married, that was the felony, but I could call them mistresses—not a problem,” he told me. “Speech is our fundamental, most important right. Everything arises in language, and your identity is defined by language. If you can’t claim your identity, you grow up under a grave injustice.”
In 2008, he met Deidre Henderson, who was just entering politics. Twelve years later, it was she who, as a state senator, sponsored the successful decriminalization bill. (She recently became the lieutenant governor of Utah.) Another early ally was Connor Boyack, the president of the Libertas Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank in Salt Lake City. Boyack, a mainstream Mormon with no polygamous forebears, supported the decriminalization of polygamy on libertarian grounds. “As a practicing Mormon, I don’t think God has condoned polygamy, just like I don’t think that it’s O.K. to be injecting yourself with heroin,” he told me. “But that doesn’t mean that I should be supporting laws that punish other people who choose to do those things. I don’t drink coffee, but I don’t think Starbucks should be prohibited.”
To Boyack, the fact that the polygamy ban was generally unenforced offered a new way of pursuing the campaign against it. He went on a listening tour, documenting incest that had never been reported, interviewing women who had never testified to heinous abuse because they were afraid their children could be removed, meeting one woman who had never told anyone that she had an autistic child because she feared she would lose him. Henderson held public hearings at which polygamist victims of abuse told similar stories. Boyack said, “When we started talking to legislators in that light—not that this is freedom for polygamists but, rather, that the status quo empowers abusers—we very quickly garnered support.”
Still, the Bigamy Bill faced an uphill battle in Utah’s legislature, which is eighty-six per cent Mormon—although only about sixty-four per cent of the state’s residents are. The L.D.S. Church was thoroughly opposed to polygamy. Boyack believes that mainstream Mormons are embarrassed by the Church’s polygamist past.
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.’ ”
Eventually, the mainstream Mormon leadership, whose anti-gay policies had increasingly drawn outrage in Utah, concluded that it was fighting a losing battle on polygamy, too. Last February, when Henderson brought her decriminalization bill to the Utah legislature, Church leaders told legislators to vote their consciences. The bill passed nearly unopposed.
Still, even as polygamy gains legal standing, the institution itself looks harder to sustain. Kitchen notes that it’s neither environmentally nor financially viable, and that it requires inhuman energy. In this same period, Utah has seen an upswing in gay couples having babies. “They’re mostly nonmonogamous,” Kitchen said, adding that he hopes to have kids, but not in the context of a monogamous relationship. Kitchen and his husband, despite having won their case for marriage, are now divorcing. “To be completely frank, I don’t know that I’ll engage in marriage in the future,” he said. “It’s nice to know that I’m no longer prohibited. I think marriage entirely is going to fade away. As people feel empowered to take the question of monogamy into their own hands and iron out the displeasures or unhappiness in their lives, they’ll find polyamory.”
Tamara Pincus is a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., who works with clients who are exploring alternative sexualities, including polyamory, kink, and L.G.B.T.Q. relationships. She defines herself as a bisexual woman who has sometimes dated genderqueer people. Her husband, Eric, is cheerful and geeky and talks about his apostasy from conventional marriage with a nearly religious fervor.
They met in 2000, when Tamara, in her mid-twenties, was working with Eric’s mother at a Jewish community center in Washington. They moved in together within months and were married in 2002. For a decade, they lived a monogamous life, but after the second of their two sons was born they began exploring kink and going to sex parties. Soon, they opened their marriage. Eric accompanied Tamara on her first serious date and sat around awkwardly while his wife and the other man made out and started to remove each other’s clothes. But he recalled how happy and affectionate she was afterward.
The first person to move in with them was a girlfriend of Eric’s. There were other girlfriends, some more full-time than others. One had a jealous husband trying to control her; Eric had no idea how to respond to his intense aggression, and he and Tamara realized that they needed to manage the expectations—and the baggage—of others who entered the setup. “I’m in this committed relationship to Tamara, so if that’s something they can’t handle we have to go our separate ways,” Eric said.
When their younger son was in first grade, he drew a picture of his family on vacation—Tamara and Eric, the two sons, and Eric’s girlfriend. “He drew a car with the four of us in it,” Tamara said. “Then he put the girlfriend in a sidecar. She’s this extra person who came along and played games with them. But they could recognize that she was not in our car.”
Within a few years, Eric had established a relationship with a woman who had two children and was separating from her husband, who is himself polyamorous. Four years later, she and her children moved in. “I love her and wanted her to be part of us,” Eric said. “And Tamara was very happy with her.” Tamara has a boyfriend of nine years. Eric said, “When I was supportive of her doing things, it came back much stronger, because she was, like, ‘Thank you, you made that possible.’ I’m not a very jealous person.”
“The sexual relationship is just easier with newer partners,” Tamara said. “A lot of children of the eighties and nineties saw our parents split because of affairs. We are finding more sustainable ways of doing family. Often, monogamous married people feel like ‘This is what I have to do,’ not ‘This is what I choose to do.’ Every day, Eric and I make a choice to keep this relationship together.” They have both had pangs of jealousy, but less so with time. “Where I mostly get resentful,” Tamara said, “is when he’s fixing something at someone else’s house—because there’s always a huge list of tasks around our house.”