Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012 | 11 a.m.
The following is an excerpt from the UNLV panel discussion with the Kody Brown family from TLC's reality show "Sister Wives." The discussion, which was Monday, Oct. 15, has been edited for clarity and brevity:
How were you raised?
Janelle: I grew up in a traditional Church of Latter-day Saints home and didn't know polygamy existed until I was 18. But in my early 20s, I began to consider the Fundamentalist Mormon faith and realized this is where I belonged. When I left the LDS church, my family had a lot of trauma. It severed relationships. Through the years, we've been able to mend those bonds, but it took time.
Meri: My family was in the LDS faith, but converted when I was about 6 or 7 years old, so I grew up in a plural family with five mothers and 25 brothers and sisters. My parents never pushed me into this lifestyle though.
Christine: I was raised in a plural family and had two moms. My grandmother lived a plural marriage as well. So I wanted to have sister wives, more than a husband actually. I didn't want to be married to one guy because I thought it would be a lot of work. (Audience laughs.) I'm a third wife and I love it.
Robyn: I was born into a plural family, but I always had a choice. I decided this was what I wanted to do. My first marriage, which was monogamous, ended in divorce. I had three children from that marriage, so our family is plural but also blended. It's been a growing experience, but a love and life experience as well. This was the family I was meant to be in.
Kody: My parents were struggling with the dichotomy within the Mormon faith over plural marriage. When I got married at age 22, this was a choice we came by out of true conviction and seeking knowledge from the All Mighty.
Is there a certain characteristic or personality it takes to be in a plural marriage?
Christine: It's very much a faith-based decision. You need a firm connection with God.
Meri: It's not for everyone. It's not an experiment. … Not to be tried at home. (Audience laughs.) We couldn't do this if we didn't have our own conviction.
Robyn: You have to know the rules and boundaries. You have to respect the other wives and value them just as much as my relationship with Kody. But a guy who has a lot of wives can't be a wuss either.
Kody: We don't want to make this seem easy, because it's not. You can't trifle with other people's hearts. You need two things in a plural marriage: conviction and commitment.
Are most people out like you are?
Kody: Almost all of our friends who are in plural marriage are closeted to some level. People are careful not to flaunt it, even in small and remote towns.
Meri: We did keep very quiet before we went extremely public. There was a time when some co-workers and friends knew, but there were some co-workers who never knew.
Why did you go public?
Kody: I felt like there were so many stereotypes about plural marriages, with Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints. There was so much negative press – child brides and abuse on the compound – that I hated being identified that way. Warren Jeffs is not our poster child. When I talked with my children about doing the show, I said we have an opportunity to not only change our world, but to change the world for everyone else.
Christine: We have a story that needs to be heard. We're a normal, healthy and happy family. That's why we decided to show you our family.
Meri: The decision to go on the show wasn't that quick and easy for us. It took time for all of us to get on board.
What did you hope the show would do for plural marriages?
Christine: We're looking to be normal – when the ratings go down, and we become just another normal family.
Kody: When our peers can be public – not as public as we are – but can send a wedding announcement when they get married and claim all their children as theirs. We thought if we open up, other fundamentalist families could open up.
Meri: And for all the moms to be able to go to a high school graduation, instead of Kody and a mom and the rest of us sitting elsewhere, trying not to be seen. For so many years, we couldn't even do that.
How do you like Las Vegas? How is it different from Utah, where you lived before?
Janelle: We've been in Las Vegas two years and we've really enjoyed it. We've had no issues really. When you're living right next to a stripper, what's it to live right next to a polygamous family? (Audience laughs.)
Kody: But that's also a stereotype. We've found grace in Sin City, where there's a lowering of hypocrisy. In Las Vegas, you feel like you can own who you are. (Audience applauds.)
Are there many plural families in Las Vegas?
Kody: I haven't met any plural families in Las Vegas. We've associated with plural families in Wyoming and Utah.
What's it like having sister wives?
Janelle: In many ways, they're like sisters.
Robyn: Which means, we fight sometimes. But having a sister to gripe with about your husband or to celebrate the triumphs is great.
Janelle: We're very sensitive to emotional relationships in the family. We've very much cheerleading of each other, because tension in the family very much affects me. Especially now that all five of us are in business together.
What are your views of patriarchy and feminism? Polygamy is often seen as a patriarchy and bad for women.
Janelle: Patriarchy has a very negative connotation for me. It's true that Kody is the glue that holds us together, but I definitely have my voice. I feel very liberated. I have a career, my independence and freedom. I've never had to stay at home with sick kids or worry too much about what's for dinner. I can have my cake, and eat it too.
Meri: I agree. I've become so independent in some ways.
Christine, a homemaker: I feel our family is very patriarchal, but it's exactly what I wanted. I just want to be a princess in life.
There are negative stereotypes about polygamy. How are you different from Warren Jeffs and FLDS?
Kody: We are Fundamentalist Mormons, not the LDS or FLDS. Jeffs – who was the leader of the FLDS – built up a fiefdom around him. He took the voice away from his wives and children. My belief is that my wives should have their voice and should be able to make choices. As a family, we make choices together.
Janelle: I was able to choose my family. In some Mormon sects, marriages are arranged. In our community, we don't assign spouses. We also wait to get married after we turn 18 years old. The only common thing is we worship from the same scripture as the LDS.
Christine: We also have access to the outside world, the Internet and TV. We want the world for our children, for them to go to college and travel.
Meri: I recently ran a 5K in Utah to get people out of the FLDS. (Audience applauds.)
Janelle: Secrecy is bad, because it allowed people like Warren Jeffs to abuse. That abuse persists, because people were more afraid of the government than Jeffs.
Kody: We're don't mean to criticize the FLDS. That is a community that needs our empathy and support. We can save our criticism for their leadership.
What are your views on gay marriage? The gay and lesbian community face similar struggles when it comes to marriage.
Kody: I believe that I was able to choose our family structure. It should be the right of every citizen in this country to be able to choose their family structure. (Audience applauds.)
Janelle: We want people to openly live their truth without repercussion.
Robyn: I have a gay friend. We talk about this often, how he doesn't have legal rights if his partner is on life support. His partner's family has more power than he does.
Meri: I'm the legal wife, so I have the power to pull the plug. But I take into account what my sister wives have to say. I don't see me having any more power than they do.
Christine: We don't see her having any more power, either. (Audience laughs.)
What has the support been like for plural families?
Janelle: For years our community was underserved.
Kody: We've struggled to trust people with our story.
Christine: We were told social workers and teachers were the enemy. I hated hairdressers. Why do they have to be so nosy? (Audience laughs.) But fear is the truth in our community. My grandfather was put in prison because of his beliefs and all of his wives were separated. My father was 12 years old when this happened, and his family never got back together, even when my father got out. It was tragic. That truth has to end.
What can our community do to be more supportive of plural families?
Christine: This forum is a start.
Meri: We don't need special treatment. We need to be treated as equals.
Robyn: It's hard because we're raised in a monogamous society. There aren't Hollywood movies or songs depicting plural marriages. There's not just one true love.
How do you identify yourselves? Polygamous? Plural family? What don't you like to be called?
Robyn: I'm not OK with "polygamous." I like plural family," "plural wife," and "plural marriage."
Janelle: Kody sometimes jokes that we have "polyg kids" or "polyglets," but it's offensive to a lot of our friends. It's a slang term that's derogatory.
Meri: Qualifiers. "I support you, but you're crazy."
Christine: Don't come up and say, I want to be your fifth wife. That's offensive. But saying your best friend is like a sister wife is a compliment to us.
Robyn: I agree. It's so offensive, because we take our vows so seriously. The depth of our commitment is so important in our faith. Every day we work on our relationships and we take this very, very seriously.
It must have taken a lot of courage to live openly as you do. Who or what inspires you?
Christine: We're a very religious family, so Jesus. Jesus loved people. He is the most courageous man I know.
Kody: I'm inspired by these four women and often by my children.
Janelle: Anyone who changed society or made social change in history. Those stories inspire me.
Meri: God. Without God, we wouldn't be together.