'We are not brainwashed': A rally is organized to counter a negative image conveyed by those who have fled the lifestyle
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Youth from polygamous communities spoke of family, friendships, faith and their hopes for the future in a historic gathering Saturday in Salt Lake City in defense of the banned life-style.
They offered one another encouragement, provided glimpses into their lives and appealed to the public to stop fearing their families.
"We are not brainwashed, mistreated, neglected, malnourished, illiterate, defective or dysfunctional," said Jessica, 17. "We are useful, responsible, productive members of society."
About 300 people from four fundamentalist Mormon communities attended the rally held at the Salt Lake City-County Building.
"I was so proud of them. I had no idea what to expect. They wrote all their own stuff," said Joe, a Salt Lake City polygamist whose children were among the 15 speakers. "It was inspiring. There is something about seeing young people being actively involved and speaking up for their rights and constitutional freedoms."
Principle Voices, a pro-polygamy advocacy group, and a coalition of polygamous groups organized the event to counter negative portrayals of the life-style offered by women and children who've fled some communities, particularly the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The FLDS, based in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., has been under fire by government and anti-polygamy activists for sanctioning underage marriages and forcing hundreds of youth, particularly boys, out of the community for minor infractions. The FLDS did not participate in the rally.
One speaker said most of what is shown in the media does not reflect her own reality.
"I have never experienced any of these horror stories I have heard in the media," said Katherine, 16. "Nor do I know anyone who has. I was raised in the Salt Lake Valley by parents that gave me a wonderful childhood, teaching me strong, moral beliefs about freedom of choice and respect for others."
A public rally featuring youth is a first for Utah's polygamous communities, whose members tend to keep family connections secret to avoid government prosecution and persecution from disapproving employers, neighbors and, for children, peers.
For that reason, those who spoke - and many who offered comments afterward - used only their first names. To signal unity, they also did not disclose their group associations.
Similar gatherings have occurred just twice. In January 1870, some 6,000 women gathered at the Salt Lake Tabernacle for what they dubbed the "Great Indignation Meeting," to protest anti-polygamy laws. In 2001, a mixed group of fundamentalists lobbied the Utah Legislature as it debated marriage laws.
Saturday's event, however, also was momentous in bringing together four major fundamentalist Mormon groups: the Davis County Cooperative Society, Centennial Park over the border in Arizona, the Apostolic United Brethren and independent fundamentalists. The groups have carved out different approaches to fundamentalism and plural marriage since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly abandoned polygamy in 1890.
"They have always had common ground in terms of their reverence for the old-time religion of pioneer Mormonism and their determination to continue plural marriage, but the authority claims that have divided them have made them live separate ecclesiastical and social lives," said Michael D. Quinn, an independent historian.
Rally organizers expect bridge-building to continue, with other gatherings and cross-community service projects already under discussion.
"This is the dream I had back in 2001 when our work started," said Linda Kelsch, a co-founder of Principle Voices. "It's an important step forward."
Some children said it was fun to be exposed to others who have grown up in families like theirs.
"I thought it was way cool to see other youth stand up and talk about their experiences," said Katie, 13. "I didn't know there were that many polygamists."
The rally drew criticism from anti-polygamy groups, who suggested it be ignored and said organizers were manipulating youth to promote the illegal life-style while downplaying abuses they say are inherent in it.
"We have concerns that the children are being exploited to serve the polygamists' political agenda to legalize or decriminalize polygamy," said Vicky Prunty, director of Tapestry Against Polygamy.
The rally drew local as well as national media attention, from CNN to MTV, which talked to teens about their views of the modern-music scene. Two women also filmed the crowd for costume designers from the hit HBO Series "Big Love."
Paul Murphy, spokesman for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, attended the rally "to learn." A handful of curious members of the broader community also stopped by.
What Tyler, 19, wanted them and others to know was that he was making his own decisions about his lifestyle.
" I have lived in a polygamist culture for most of my life," he said. "I have made the choice to someday live this principle and I don't expect you to understand the reasons for this choice. But I do expect you to defend my right to make that choice."
Parents said seeing their children speak out publicly was wonderful - and bittersweet.
"I felt like they were saying what I wanted to say my whole life," said Carlene Cannon, member of the coalition and Davis County Cooperative.