Why I left a polygamist colony but stayed in my plural marriage

BY SARAH BERMAN |  VICE.COM

When Twyla Quinton was growing up in southeastern British Columbia, she was pretty sure everyone had “lots of moms.”

“When I was really small, I thought the only difference between us and the rest of the world was the way we dressed,” she told VICE. It wasn’t until the late 90s, when media started pushing into her rural fundamentalist Mormon community, that she started to understand other families were different, and hers was technically against the law.

When I recently visited Bountiful, the polygamist colony where Quinton grew up, people joked that they’ve got the same divorce rate as anyone else on the planet. Some research says splits are even more common for “plural” families, so I was especially surprised by Quinton’s story. During the past decade, she’s left nearly everything about her old life in Bountiful—her church, her siblings, her friends, her home—but kept her three-person marriage.

Polygamy has been illegal in Canada since 1890. Just this summer a BC court upheld the right to charge Bountiful leader Winston Blackmore with polygamy, and three other polygamists faced trial for child trafficking this month, with a judge’s decision expected by February next year. In the case of fundamentalist Mormons across North America, the practice is strongly linked to forced marriage and the sexual exploitation of children.

Quinton’s story highlights the strange and slippery legality that justifies a ban on a particular family arrangement. “I recently got a new job and they’re like, ‘We can’t hire anybody if they’ve broken any laws,'” Quinton recalled to VICE. “And I’m like, maybe I did? Is it illegal for girls, or is it just the guys that go to jail?”

Lawyer Tim Dickson found this out quickly when he argued polygamy shouldn’t be a crime in a 2011 legal reference. He made a case that the law should target specific harms, like statutory rape.

In an era of open relationships and cheating websites, he says it’s increasingly hard to understand why the marriage part matters to lawmakers. “You can have a man who has another family in secret. And there’s nothing criminal about that. He can lie to each side, hiding the existence of the other family,” Dickson told VICE. “The odd logic of section 293 is that it’s only a crime once those multiple relationships are brought into the open and formalized by way of a public ceremony.”

Dickson says the reason Chief Justice Robert Bauman upheld polygamy as illegal was because of the cultural baggage that comes with it. “Part of that was a cruel arithmetic idea: the idea that in a small community you are going to have to force out men, that you’re going to have to compel women into marriage, and that polygamy cannot arise by way of free and informed choice,” he said.

Quinton’s experience certainly supports the baggage theory. She says the pressure to marry young was very real, and the only thing she knew. She was taught not to ask questions, to put her feelings “on a shelf” and to obey her parents and religious leaders no matter what. To her, it was “a matter of life and death.”

Quinton remembers she was first asked if she was ready to get married at age 14. Though she blushed and declined at the time, two years later decided she was ready. “We had been told that the world would end in the year 2000, and I wanted to be a mother before I died,” she recalled. “I was like ‘Mom, I want to move on with my life! I’m like 16 and I only got like two years left!'”

In Bountiful, religious leaders arrange marriages, and brides often didn’t meet their spouses until their wedding day. Quinton was married on Halloween night, a few hours after she was told who her husband would be. Two years later, Quinton asked Bountiful leader Winston Blackmore if her sister April could join the family.

“April and I were very close, we were sisters, and we spent all our time together anyway,” she told VICE. “I thought how cool would that be if April could just be part of our family?” Though it felt like a third-wheel thing at first, Quinton says they figured out their own way of coexisting.

Quinton says it was her husband that decided they would leave the church and start a new life outside of Bountiful. At the time, she and her sisterwife went along with the move for the sake of their kids. “It was like landing on the moon—nobody lives the way you had lived your whole life. We moved 30 minutes down the road, but it was so different,” she said. “We didn’t know how to make decisions for ourselves. The church decided everything.”

Though a scandal at the time, Quinton has settled into her new community of Yahk, where she works with autistic adults and volunteers as a firefighter. “It took me a long time to stop wearing the dresses and change my hairstyle,” she said. “I didn’t cut my hair for years.”

Managing two houses full of kids comes with its obvious headaches, but Quinton is quick to highlight the benefits. “I feel like I’ve had a lot more freedom with my kids, especially when they were young and I lived with my sisterwife,” she told VICE. “We actually shared a job. We didn’t have to worry about babysitters or daycare.”

Even though she rejects the way the church controlled her life, she hopes polygamy will be decriminalized. “If you find yourself like I did, that was what I knew, we stayed together, and I feel like we should have the right to stay together.”

It’s a sentiment that rural BC seems increasingly open to, at least judging by Quinton’s interactions with her kids’ public schools. “Families are so diverse. It’s 2016,” she said. “Sometimes when the kids say they have two moms other kids think that we’re lesbians. But we’re not and that’s normal, and it should be normal.”

Even though the courts struck down his argument in 2011, Dickson doesn’t think that push for decriminalization is going away.

“Regardless of the decision in the reference, the issue remains unsettled for some people, I think, because they continue to see the criminal prohibition as being overbroad. They come back to that basic question: if three or more people want to live polygamously and that is truly their choice, then what is the problem?”

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