Friday, May 23, 2008

The Polygamists' Stonewall

In light of how trendy it's become to talk about gay marriage as though it were a civil rights issue on par with Jim Crow, I find it increasingly astonishing that people continute to ignore the question as relates to polygamists. The link goes to an article by William Saletan that charges that the state has a right to ban polygamy because it's "not in our nature." Which rather does raise the issue why homosexuality is in our nature? Sure, for some people it evidently is - so why the blanket, across-the-board assumption that there are no people who can form healthy polygamist unions? It's simple prejudice. Surely this, like gay marriage, is a decision that should be left to the consenting adults themselves and not to William Saletan's personal experiences of what is and isn't in his nature. And yet, it is the normal practice among same-sex marriage advocates to distance themselves from polygamists.

It's been almost 40 years since Stonewall, and gay rights have come a long way. Thankfully, the government is no longer allowed to police private, consensual sexual practices, and homosexuals can go about their business. But "Stonewall" incidents continue for polygamists.

Consider the recent case in Texas. The linked article tells the story of a tearful phone call from a 16-year-old girl to a woman's shelter San Angelo that she'd been beaten and raped by a man she was forced to marry at the FDLS (a Mormon offshoot) compound YZR in West Texas. The government dutifully informs us that this is a pervasive pattern at the compound and promptly seized over 400 minors in a raid. Of course, no one thought to ask why they needed this phone call to go in if they already knew, as Texas Child Protective Services officer Lynn McFadden assures us, that "There is a pervasive pattern and practice of indoctrinating and grooming minor female children to accept spiritual marriages to adult male members of the YFZ Ranch resulting in them being sexually abused." Apparently we're just supposed to shrug our shoulders and go "you know - 'these people' are just like that," and not worry about the due process issue. And it took a while for people to start worrying, even after the raid failed to turn up the girl who made the heart-wrenching phone call. And why couldn't they find her? Well, because it turns out the call was really probably from Rozita Swinton, a 33-year-old woman living far away in Colorado with no connection to FDLS other than trying to frame them. Now to get an idea of the kind of attitudes and prejudices we're dealing with - here's an interview with Flora Jessup, an anti-polygamy activist who had been talking to Swinton on the phone for two weeks under the false assumption that Swinton was a 16-year-old being systematically abused by her father. Incredibly, Jessop says that "I would like to point out that the system absolutely worked in this case. When -- as hotlines get calls from children purporting to be abused, just as I do, it's not my responsibility and my job to decide whether those calls are legitimate." Well, right, not her responsibility to decide if they're legitimate - she just reports on to the police. But sure it is the police's responsibility to make some kind of decision there, right? To not just assume that every accusation they get is true? How is it an example of "the system working" when the police allow their prejudices to get in the way of doing normal investigative background checks resulting in hundreds of bogus custody seizures? Even more incredibly, Jessop goes on to admit that Swinton is disturbed, but nevertheless that "... in a little bit of a way, want to give her a hug because she's protected hundreds of children from the abuses, the widespread systematic abuses they were suffering in this group." Has she indeed? Jessop, who lives in Florida, knows for a fact, then, that systematic abuse was going on at the YZR ranch in Texas? And if she knew this all along, why didn't she simply tell the police herself? Oh, right, because she doesn't know any better than you or I do what was or wasn't going on at the YZR compound in Texas - she just hears "polygamy" and instantly loses all concern for due process protections. The same way that a disturbingly large number of people heard "poor black accuser, rich white defendants" in the Duke Rape Case (link goes to some of KC Johnson's excellent coverage) and decided due process was a quaint distraction.

Look - the reason we have due process protections at all is for precisely the reason that people think with their stereotypes. It's in our nature, I suppose. As The Onion satirically points out, stereotypes are a real time-saver. Except when they're wrong - and it's for THOSE cases that we have due process. We have due process because people's impressions about things AREN'T science, AREN'T reliable, and certainly aren't anything in the ballpark of "fair and just." If the state wants to go snatch a bunch of kids from their parents, you and me and every citizen in this country needs a better process of justification for that action than "well, you know, polygamists, religious kooks, um, yeah."

If it had been a raid on a gay neighborhood seizing all the adopted children because of a bogus phone call from a 33-year-old in a another town purporting to have been sodomized by his gay dads, this never would've gotten this far. In the 1960s, obviously it would have, but times have changed, and society is now confronting its prejudices about homosexuals. The times are past when the police can go on TV and say "well, you know, gays" and count on everyone to collectively forget about the Fourteenth Amendment. What troubles me is that we continue to have to fight this battle with each new group. Isn't it enough, after having exposed unjust treatment of blacks and gays, that people should be able to start actually embracing diversity and actually tolerating members of groups different from their own? Why does it seem we have to go through and catalogue all the classes of people who need "protected group" status one-by-one before anyone gets their rights?

Thankfully, the system "absolutely worked" in this case in the end, if I can steal Jessop's thunder, and the Appeals Court told the police to go back and reread their basic training manuals. But I'm seeing disturbingly little realization from the media that it was largely prejudice that got us here. If anyone needs proof that there is systematic discrimination against polygamists, this case should do the trick. Like with any other legal issue, we need to think with our heads and not our hearts on this one. So you don't like polygamy. I myself am not lining up to join. But surely whatever distaste people feel about it is not a legal issue. And surely, anyone who feels that gays have the right to marriage because "they're in love" has no grounds to doubt or oppose the legal claims of polygamists who feel the same way. Polygamists are people too. We just can't see it yet because discriminating against them is still in fashion. Even for large numbers of gays who themselves claim to be the special victims of "marriage discrimination." What a world.

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