Political Polygamists Coming Out of the Closet

Salt Lake Tribune/December 11, 2000
By Greg Burton

Anne Wilde, mother of three, graduate of Brigham Young University and second cousin to one of Utah's most influential religious and political leaders -- the late Ezra Taft Benson -- climbs the marble steps inside the Utah Capitol. Few notice. Fewer still understand the significance.

In a moment, Wilde will walk into a legislative committee room. She won't speak, but she will stand, jaw set firm, before roughly 40 Republican lawmakers who offer only awkward smiles to the announcement of her forthcoming book, Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage.

This woman -- who was married in the Los Angeles LDS Temple and later sealed in a polygamous marriage -- will turn, walk out of the room and exhale.

Not often does a Utah polygamist stroll sure-footed into the halls of state government. But on this November day, Wilde is not alone. She comes with a handful of polygamous husbands and wives wielding a book and a hope that activism and openness can alter the course of political history in Utah.

"Polygamists are here and we are not going away," Wilde's co-author, Mary Batchelor, told The Salt Lake Tribune. "This is about breaking stereotypes."

Wilde, Batchelor and co-author Marianne Watson accept comparisons to other civil objectors. They understand the plight of gays and lesbians whose protest call -- "We're queer and we're here" -- in a way echoes their own.

"All we want is equal civil rights," Wilde says. "We want to live in a home or trailer and not be asked to leave because we're polygamists. We want to walk and pray and live without persecution."

This month's release of Voices in Harmony, a book about polygamist women written by polygamist women and praised by a handful of scholars, could be a stepping stone for a political movement by Utah's roughly 30,000 men, women and children who live in polygamous households.

It is a constituency driven to secrecy by years of legal setbacks. Coming out now, though, could be a mistake, says Sen. Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park, who has led efforts at the Capitol to fund investigations of child abuse, sex crimes and welfare fraud among Utah polygamists.

Allen points to Utah's constitutional ban on polygamy, to laws against bigamy and to a culture that he says is ripe for abuse. "If what I hear about this book is true, I hope the public will remember the last 20 years of negative stories about polygamy -- the shootings, murders, child abuse and fraud," he says. "I hope people won't be taken in because three people paint a pretty picture."

Such reaction is reason enough for Wilde, Batchelor and Watson to decline to name their husbands. They are careful about personal details, knowing Utah's bigamy law -- a felony -- has been newly leveled at polygamists in recent years.

Still, overnight, with the book's distribution, a call for political warfare has been sounded. On one Internet discussion group, scores of responses have been generated by an e-mail that addressed the book. Under the heading, "Polygamists Unite!!!" one supporter wrote: "Can you imagine if polygamists had . . . a panorama of black and white photos, professionally done, of their children displayed at the Capitol building during the next legislative session? Showing them in scenes of life, you know? . . . Let [lawmakers] walk past those little innocent faces every damn time they leave or enter their chambers!"

A network of polygamists has discussed hiring a lobbyist for the 2001 Legislature -- putting Utah's most dispossessed on equal footing with child advocates, teachers, unionists, lawyers, police, banks and even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which disavowed plural marriage in 1890 and excommunicates members who practice polygamy.

It is an intriguing thought, says Dan Barlow, mayor of Colorado City, Ariz., headquarters of the largest polygamist community in America. "People who know us, as a rule, don't have a problem," Barlow says. "It's the people who are influenced by the press and the misinformation that is out. A lobbyist and this book might soften some of that. At least make people see there is another side to this thing."

Three years of news reports about welfare fraud, child abuse and incest -- including the trial of an incestuous leader of the Kingston polygamous clan for sex abuse -- and the recent trial of Tom Green for bigamy, child abuse and criminal non-support have divided polygamous leaders. Some have responded with openness. Others have erected fences.

Earlier this year, religious leaders in Colorado City and its twin Utah town, Hildale, asked members to withdraw from public schools and public professions. The move has crippled efforts to normalize relations between Washington County, Utah, officials and leaders of the two towns.

Former members maintain the southern Utah polygamists are preparing for the end of the world. Barlow says they just want to preserve their spiritual purity. "We pretty much know where we are going and what we are doing," he says. "We certainly don't want to convert everybody. And we don't want to be converted."

Taking a different approach, Owen Allred, leader of the Salt Lake County-based United Apostolic Brethren, encouraged a series of meetings with Utah leaders hoping to dispel negative stereotypes. Hiring a lobbyist might be the next logical step. "Sure," Allred says. "We are citizens just like you. We pay taxes and drive the streets." Who would stump for Utah's polygamists?

The person most often mentioned is David Zolman, the soon-to-be former lawmaker from Taylorsville who frequently defended polygamists at the Capitol. Zolman attributes a narrow loss in November's general election to his outspoken support of the plural lifestyle. Many in Utah's polygamist underground view Zolman as a sort of monogamous martyr.

"I can see him being valuable in the role of lobbying," one person wrote in a reply to the "Polygamists Unite!!!" e-mail. "Are polygamists well enough organized to lobby?" That's a good question, Zolman says. "If they came to me with an offer to lobby, I would find somebody who could do it," he says. "I would encourage that because this is my deep-felt American feeling for freedom."

Decriminalization of polygamy is key, sympathetic observers agree, and a prime target of any organized effort. Since 1935, when Utah lawmakers turned bigamy into a felony instead of a misdemeanor, and added a clause that makes an outlaw of any person who "cohabits with another person," polygamists have been forced to hide their marriages.

That theVoices in Harmony book could drive such discourse is surprising to its authors, whose intent was to shine a positive light on plural living. "I've always considered that I had a fairy-tale childhood," says Watson, who grew up with seven mothers and 60 siblings. "I had more close friends and family than most people have acquaintances. It was warm and supportive. You knew you were loved. You knew it was a wonderful world."

Now that these stories -- including passages written by 95 plural wives -- have been published, the season for politically active polygamists may be here.

"We're not afraid of seeing and shaking hands [on Capitol Hill]," Batchelor says. "We want to elevate this discussion so it's not just about the latest scandal, but that it's about the real people living plural marriage. If that takes action, I'm not afraid. I'm not opposed to activism."

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