Gay and Polygynous Marriages Are Out of the Closet and in Search of Legitimacy

by Debra Mubashshir Majeed

I am a recovering homophobe for whom questions regarding forms of partnering other than heterosexual monogamous unions first emerged in 1994 amid a "stress break" from exam preparation during my final year as a Master of Divinity student at Fuller-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Then, on a warm spring evening as we stretched out on the floor in my tiny campus apartment, one of my closest seminary friends (who, like me, was also a minister serving a local Protestant congregation) informed me that, although she was presently heterosexual, she had experienced the sexual love of a woman. Ten years later, words still cannot express the enormous shock, surprise and angst I felt hearing someone I had come to know and love speak so passionately and matter-of-factly about an encounter my conservative and fundamental Christian upbringing had clearly identified as nothing short of evil and definitely unbecoming of a clergyperson.

My level of comfort and trust in our friendship permitted my overly inquisitive nature to overtake my judgmental side—if only temporarily—and I eased into a series of questions about the nature of her relationship and the type of responsible loving I was convinced could not be divinely condoned. My friend gently ushered me through her "other world"—a foreign context to me. I came to understand that all individuals wrestled with the same concerns I did in my heterosexual environment—namely, issues of identity, agency, worth, along with vocational fit and calling. At the conclusion of our conversation, it was obvious that our friendship had reached a higher level of intimacy. We were ordinary people struggling to encounter one another in the situations of ordinary life.1 It was evident, too, that had I known the year before what I discovered then, she and I would not have become friends, and I would have missed out on one of Allah's great gifts to me.

In my own continuing journey toward fuller human and spiritual development, I have become less eager to categorize those whose worldviews and practices are contrary to my own, and more willing to attempt to encounter them on their own terms, to try to engage them with some sense of their own lived experience. Interestingly, my friend chose to meet me in a similar manner when, in 1998, I made a transition to Islam, and aligned myself with a local community in which some of the adherents engaged in polygyny, the ancient practice of a husband having more than one wife. (It is often confused with polygamy, which correctly refers to two or more wives or husbands.) By then, our conversing had moved from issues of sexualities to diverse forms of spiritualities and other types of partnering to attempting to appreciate what the other regarded as sacred.

With this essay, I endeavor to consider two forms of partnering that have become intellectual fascinations for me and have caused me to reevaluate the extent to which I acknowledge my Creator's omnipotence in regards to the value and legitimacy of other peoples' bonding choices. One form, same-sex marriages, has become a national "hot topic;" a recurring feature for just about every media. Perhaps the isolated practice of the other, polygyny, has prevented it from being ushered to the forefront of our television, radio, print or dot com news outlets. Nevertheless, both are practices that are illegal in most regions of this nation. Both call into question accepted norms of what constitutes family. Both make a case for advantages and disadvantages of the "one man and one woman" parental household structure that is privileged in contemporary society. Both can be used as an unnatural pawn when critics of one attempt to draw attention to the presence of the other as evidence of the attack on morality, decency and traditional family values. And, finally, the presence of both same sex and polygynous unions among black people challenge historians, sociologists, theologians, anthropologists, and other scholars of African American family life to be aware of the power we assign to our assumptions. The presence of both also makes us aware of the fallacies we may inherit in attempts to examine African American families in all their complex diversity from the singular lens of heterosexual monogamy.

This essay begins with a consideration of the contentious social political, religious and legal debate in the U.S. surrounding the question of whom or what has the power to sanction and define the structure of family in American society. It draws attention to the current same-sex marriage controversy which some proponents characterize as "a struggle for civil rights" and their detractors label a "counterfeit marriage." Further, the detractors view acceptance of one as prelude to the legalization of marriages with multiple spouses, such as polygyny. The reader is invited to appreciate the similarities and differences of these non-traditional forms of partnering and the ways in which their departures from the norm might teach us about the diverse forms of family and social bonding that exist in the twenty-first century, and with which religious and social organizations have experimented for the past 600 years.2 Like it or not, as one observer acknowledges, "the battle has been joined."

Same-Sex Marriages: Making History?

A turning point in the current cultural wars surrounding the rights of gays and lesbians to legally marry may be the realization that our understanding of what constitutes marriages and families in North America should include a serious debate about standards of justice and sexual ethics. This is in contrast to the narrow debates that range around the constitutional and legislative agenda set by the norms of our western industrial society and traditional Judeo-Christian worldview. In other words, is it morally acceptable to grant homosexuals rights already conferred upon the heterosexual majority? That is to say, to what extent do campaigns against the passage of a federal marriage amendment represent acts of social justice that provide the fundamental viewpoint shift necessary to celebrate human partnerships which differ from the idea of "the union of one man and one woman?" And finally, will the growing debate over the legit-imization of same-sex marriages open the cultural door to consideration of the practice of polygyny—apparently a growing phenomenon in the U.S. among African American Muslims?

Whether American society is ready to allow individuals to make the commitment of marriage regardless of gender is capturing our attention every day. Last November's vote by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to recognize same-sex marriages resulted in ordering the state legislature to draft a measure that would provide legal status to gay and lesbian couples—in May, the state officially began issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples. Since then, the state of New Jersey has passed a Domestic Partnership Act. Marriage is defined as a relationship between a man and a woman in 38 states; 12 others have no explicit ban on same-sex marriages. At the US Conference of Mayors in late June, mayors representing cities across the nation scheduled a vote on a resolution by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom that "condemns" Bush's proposed legislation. A Senate debate and vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment was planned to occur during the summer. The American Family Association reports receipt of an estimated 1.5 million signatures in support of the Federal Marriage Amendment. The topic is destined to become a 2004 Presidential campaign issue. Additionally, more than 1,600 gay and lesbian couples filed for and obtained marriage licenses in San Francisco during the 2004 President's Day holiday weekend, in what some characterize as "an extraordinary act of ongoing civil disobedience." Though they represented diverse ethnic, racial and religious sensibilities, each couple echoed the sentiments: "This is a right we have just like everyone else."

San Francisco, a long-time proponent of homosexual rights, became the first city in the nation to permit gays and lesbians to marry amid two court challenges and electoral decisions that all but appear to outlaw such behavior. In 2000, 61 percent of California voters approved a ballot referendum that read: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." Yet newly elected Mayor Newsom publicly assumed both a legal and ethical stand when he ordered County Clerk Nancy Alfaro to "provide marriage licenses on a non-discriminatory basis, without regard to gender or sexual orientation." Suits filed by anti-gay marriage organizations, the Alliance for Marriage and the Campaign for California Families, sought restraining orders to block the issuance of such marriage licenses. Both suits are pending.

Mayor Newsom cited the equal protection clause of the California Constitution as he laid out the merits of his position in a written directive to County Clerk Alfaro. Mayor Newsom explained:

Upon taking the Oath of Office, becoming the Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco, I swore to uphold the Constitution of the State of California. Article I, Section 7, subdivision (a) of the California Constitution provides that "[a] person may not be . . . denied equal protection of the laws." The California courts have interpreted the equal protection clause of the California Constitution to apply to lesbians and gay men and have suggested that laws that treat homosexuals differently from heterosexuals are suspect. The California courts have also stated that discrimination against gay men and lesbians is invidious. The California courts have held that gender discrimination is suspect and invidious as well. The Supreme Courts in other states have held that equal protection provisions in their state constitutions prohibit discrimination against gay men and lesbians with respect to the rights and obligations flowing from marriage. It is my belief that these decisions are persuasive and that the California Constitution similarly prohibits such discrimination.

The marriage applications issued by the City of San Francisco, encouraged "same-gender couples" to "seek legal advice regarding the effect of entering into marriage." According to city officials, the licenses confer new benefits in areas ranging from Social Security to health coverage to funeral arrangements. The licenses were issued along with a disclaimer, however. Officials conceded that the documents "may not be recognized as valid by any jurisdiction other than San Francisco, and may not be recognized as valid by any employer." Nevertheless, Mayor Newsom shared his hope in an interview Friday on ABC News' "Good Morning America": "I'm not interested as a mayor in moving forward with a separate but unequal process for people to engage in marriages," he said. "I think the people of this city and certainly around the state are feeling that separate but unequal doesn't make sense."

Same-Sex Marriage and Polygyny: Part of a Larger Agenda?

What doesn't make sense to many opponents of the legalization of same-sex marriages is that their challengers are seemingly unconcerned that national acceptance of gay and lesbian marriages would not be the final test of the vibrancy of traditional marriage. Instead, proponents of plural marriages would be next in line, and their goal, according to the Traditional Values Coalition is to introduce "polygamy and polyamory as 'families.'" Concerned Women in America, another conservative organization, shares a similar fear, and thus opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment now before Congress because the proposed legislation "would not prevent state legislatures from recognizing and benefiting civil unions and other such relationships, which would result in legalized counterfeit marriage." While supporters of same-sex marriage downplay the legitimacy of such concerns, at least one Islamic jurist, Azziza al-Hibri, sees the logic in a society in which 91% of Americans say polygyny is "morally wrong." Al-Hibri is professor of law at University of Richmond Law School and founder of KARAMAH, a Muslim women lawyers organization "dedicated to empowering Muslim women within an Islamic framework." Although long-time Mormon polygynists grab the headlines, she has observed the growing practice of polygyny in the U.S., particularly among African American Muslims.

It is reasonable to posit the same-sex marriage debate as a prelude to consideration of polygyny, according to al-Hibri, but the timing is not right. "The idea is a sound one," she explained during an interview from the second-floor offices of KARAMAH near Dupont Circle in the nation's capital, "but this post-9/11 atmosphere is not the environment in which Muslims should attempt to promote any practice that deters from the norm and draws further negative attention to our community. Though polygyny is spreading," she continued, "it is still a practice followed by a small minority of American Muslims. When and if it appears on the national agenda, its success will be determined by the force of women behind it." They are the ones whom society believes are objectified, disempowered individuals forced to adhere to a "patriarchal enterprise" that renders them invisible, voiceless and without power. Moreover, it is the perceived treatment—or mistreatment—of women and children, particularly as reflected in the recent sensationalized accounts of polygynists in Utah, which most often serve as the catalyst for media and governmental scrutiny. In fact, a leader of CHILD—Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc.—makes this argument: "A group controlled or strongly motivated by an ideology is prone to child abuse and neglect in my view. Children are not valued for their individuality, but for their contribution to the utopian goals of the ideology."3

Nevertheless, at least one clear distinction can and should be made in any discussion of both gay/lesbian and polygynous marriage arrangements. That is, regardless of whether one agrees with Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Henry Louis Gates, former presidential candidates Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun and other activists who promote same-sex marriage as a civil or human rights issue, polygyny is most often practiced in response to what practitioners believe to be a mandate or allowance of their belief system. Most practitioners make a conscious choice to revere religiously permissible practices more than secular laws as a way to redefine the definition of family in a way that maintains their communal culture and family structure.

Polygyny and African American Muslims

Historians estimate the polygynist population in the U.S. to be between 50,000 and 100,000, and growing particularly among African American Muslims—representative of the single largest ethnic group of the estimated 6 to 7 million Muslims who live in the U.S. The peculiarities of black life in America have historically distinguished the lived experiences of African American Muslims from other practitioners of Islam regardless of their nationality or citizenship. African American Muslims trace their roots to the arrival of Muslim traders, slaves and free people as early as the tenth century. Indeed, an estimated 17,000 African Americans become Muslims annually, and their increasing numbers have been cited as the force behind the resurgence of Islam on the North American continent.

To best understand polygyny, I agree with Carolyn Moxley Rouse that one must approach the phenomenon mindful of its multidimensional context.4 Those who practice polygyny do so because they believe they are following the directives of the teachings of Islam. They say that the conditions of twenty-first century black America mirror the social fabric of seventh century Arabia when the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) first received the revelation of the Qur'an. Then, as now, the lack of marriageable (i.e., single, heterosexual and available) men, and/or the high number of female-led households, and the continued economic disparity experienced by mothers and their children makes the practice of polygyny both mandated and permissible. Unlike Arabia's first Muslim women, their contemporary counterparts in black America are often more financially stable than Muslim men. Thus African American Muslim women may choose polygyny because they believe it to be the only way they authentically can practice half of their religion, since marriage and family life are believed to be integral to their religious practices.

While abuses do occur, research among 11 individual Muslim communities during the summer and fall of 2003 suggests that the mistreatment of women and children in Mormon polygynist communities is far removed from the family life experienced by their Muslim counterparts. In fact most of the co-wives I interviewed spoke of their home lives as challenging but healthy environments, though they acknowledged that polygyny is not for everyone.

African American Muslims practice polygyny both in secret and in public in a number of cities across the nation, and have done so as early as the formation of the early temples associated with the original Nation of Islam under the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Preliminary research suggests that polygyny is most prevalent among African American Muslim communities in Atlanta and along the Eastern seaboard, particularly in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Though the practice of two or more women intimately involved with the same man predates the twentieth century, the term man-sharing was first introduced within scholarly contexts and associated with black people with the 1986 debut of relationship expert Audrey Chapman's first book, Man Sharing: Dilemma of Choice, a Radical New Way of Relating to the Men in Your Life. Chapman draws attention to key factors negatively impacting black family life, namely the dearth of marriageable black men. Left unattended, she and other scholars have argued, this issue will escalate into a crisis in the preservation of black families that include the presence and support of both parents. For them, man-sharing is one solution.

Interestingly, sociologist William Julius Wilson argues that "non-elderly" African American women comprise more than 30% of the continually poor in America. To Wilson, the "non-marriage" and "lack of marriage" of these women locks them and their children in a "cycle of poverty." While these scholars clearly acknowledge the privileging and legitimating of monogamous relationships within the North American context, the reality of black life in America compels them to consider other relationship variations that might strengthen and support black families. Polygyny has yet to garner widespread support even among African American Muslims, however, and the challenges to healthy practice can impact other African Americans as well as the larger Muslim community. As anthropologist Robert Dannin has observed,

Plural marriage is one issue that divides African-American Muslims as much among themselves as from the rest of American society. African-American Muslims are unprepared for the prescriptive marriage systems of Arab-Muslim countries. They may favor these practices ideologically as revivals of the social forms lost during the Middle Passage or as statements of national identity but still cannot compensate for the absence of the traditional authority necessary to make such systems operate efficiently from one generation to the next. Consequently, the institution of Muslim marriage has been a source of confusion in the U.S. .. .Its practice perpetuates the unjust stereotype of black male lawbreakers, and its misapplication sometimes results in abuses that reflect negatively on the entire Muslim-American community.5

The strengths of polygyny rests in its perception as an "honorable" family structure that protects women without resources to care for themselves and their children and as a response to high divorce rates, changing social mores and an increase in the number of single parents, working mothers, latchkey youth, and the stigma associated with unmarried couples living together. The connections between same-sex and polygynous marriages are still evolving. As one commentator has discovered, both are "everybody's business," both have long existed alongside heterosexual monogamy, and both are worthy of continued scholarly inquiry.


1. I am indebted to Marcello Zago, whose discourse on interreligious encounters that foster the "dialogue of life," is foundation to my current research. See "Dialogue in Mission: Stance or Compromise?" International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 22, No. 3 (July 1998), 97.

2. Tyson Gibbs & Judith Campbell, "Challenging Definition, Legal and Social Considerations for the African American Community," The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Fall 1999), 144.

3. Internet correspondence with Rita Swan, Summer 2003.

4.  See Carolyn Moxley Rouse, Engaged Surrender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

5. Robert Dannin, Black Pilgrimage To Islam (Oxford: University Press, 2002), 218-219.

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Source: CrossCurrents, Summer 2004, Vol. 54,  No 2.