I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do

The same-sex-marriage debate--and polygamy's rising cultural profile--has encouraged once secretive plural families to fight for recognition of their unions

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Peter Bohler for TIME

Joe Darger with his three wives, from left, Vicki, Val and Alina. Vicki and Val are identical twins.

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Kody Brown, a husband of four, is at the vanguard. He's launched a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Utah's bigamy statute. His attorney, a professor at George Washington University Law School, has already had some success. Utah County, the Browns' former home, announced on May 31 that it would not prosecute the Browns or any other polygamists as long as the spouses were consenting adults. But that policy change did not mollify Brown, who is still trying to get the law overturned on the grounds that it violates, among other things, his freedom of religion; the case was scheduled for a hearing on July 25.

Whatever the court decides, Brown's legal efforts may be less effective than his entertainment-related ones. He's the patriarch in the popular reality show Sister Wives, which just finished its third season on TLC, and a co-author of a memoir that in July hit No. 8 on the New York Times best-seller list. Studies have shown that gay characters on TV in the 2000s measurably decreased viewers' negative feelings toward gays. If that holds true for multipartner unions as well, then Brown and his ilk have reason to feel encouraged. There are screen representations of polygamous lifestyles aplenty, including other TV shows such as Polyamory: Married and Dating and The Girls Next Door and movies like the recent Oliver Stone film Savages and Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. There are even celebrity exemplars, some of whom aren't Hugh Hefner. Rapper Akon once boasted of having three wives but has recently kept quiet on the subject.

In 2010 the Columbia Law Review, taking into account both fundamentalist Mormons and the growing number of Muslim immigrants, estimated that 30,000 to 100,000 U.S. families practice plural marriage. Deborah Anapol, author of Polyamory in the 21st Century, puts the percentage of polyamorists at 0.5% to 3.5% of the population. That's a guess, but there are signs the figure is growing. Polyamorous groups report upticks in the number of local chapters and attendance at their meetings, conferences and marches. In May the American Psychiatric Association included a forum on polyamory at its annual meeting. Nonmonogamists are becoming increasingly vocal in defending their lifestyle. How fringe can a cultural practice be, after all, when it's part of the family history of both of this year's presidential candidates?

Perhaps nobody is as dedicated to being radically nonfringe as Joe Darger. A friendly, energetic, 43-year-old building contractor, he wants to be the guy people think of when they conjure up images of a polygamist. Or at least offer a counterbalance to the current poly poster boy: Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) leader who is serving life in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting children.

At first blush, Darger would seem an unlikely carrier of the torch of normality. Two of his wives (Vicki and Valerie) are identical twins. He dated, proposed to and married two of his wives (Alina and Vicki) at the same time--by the women's request, they say. Val was married into another polygamous family before joining the Dargers; the patriarch of that family became embroiled in a financial scandal with one of the fundamentalist Mormon churches. (The mainstream Mormon church bans polygamy.)

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