Published Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012 | 11 a.m.
Updated Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012 | 1:49 p.m.
Plural marriage is not for everyone, but it can be a healthy and happy one, according to the Kody Brown family, stars of the TLC reality show "Sister Wives."
Kody Brown and his four wives – Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn – spoke frankly about their plural marriage, family and life in Las Vegas at a panel discussion Monday night at UNLV. About 300 people attended the event, which was co-sponsored by UNLV's Office of Civic Engagement and Diversity, and the Office of Diversity Initiatives.
The panel discussion was borne from a family and marriage counseling class taught by UNLV assistant professors Markie Blumer and Coreen Haym. The licensed therapists and teaching assistant Ashley Tybor invited the Brown family to speak to the larger UNLV community after they spoke to three psychology classes as part of a student project.
"Everyone's house is different," Blumer said, whether it's because of sexual orientation or cultural, economic and religious backgrounds. "We believe it is a community value to welcome diversity in all its forms."
There are more than 850 societies around the world that practice polygamy, and an estimated 30,000 or more plural families living in the United States, Blumer said. However, because of a negative cultural stigma and legal concerns, most plural families live largely in secrecy.
When the Brown family came out to their monogamous friends relatives some 20 years ago, it strained relationships and broke some bonds.
The Browns also suffered repercussions when their family made national headlines after "Sister Wives" first aired. Meri lost her job, Kody lost a couple of advertising clients and Robyn had a difficult time finding work.
For a couple of years, the family also faced legal prosecution. That was a major reason why the Browns relocated to Las Vegas, where they felt the diversity of the city would welcome them.
"We've found grace in Sin City, where there's a lowering of hypocrisy," Kody Brown said. "In Las Vegas, you feel like you can own who you are."
During the two-hour discussion, the Browns touched on a variety of topics, from what it's like to be a sister wife to differences between Fundamentalist Mormonism from other sects in the Mormon faith. The Browns also shared their views of what it means to be a feminist in a plural marriage and how they empathize with proponents for gay marriage.
"I believe that I was able to choose our family structure," Kody Brown said. "It should be the right of every citizen in this country to be able to choose their family structure."
The family also shared the decision to come out about their plural marriage.
"I felt like there were so many stereotypes about plural marriages," Kody Brown said. "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."
Monday night's discussion was taped by the producers of "Sister Wives," presumably for inclusion in a future episode. After the discussion, the family met with UNLV students and took pictures with audiences members.
Family members said they enjoyed coming to speak at UNLV, adding they were impressed with the caliber of questions asked. Monday night's event was the family's largest public speaking engagement and their first major one in Las Vegas.
"I liked how (the audience) was very open-minded and respectful," Christine Brown said. "It was wonderful."
The Brown family has spoken at universities before, primarily in Boston. It's a inviting environment for the family because of the open atmosphere, Janelle Brown said.
Many audience members seemed to enjoy the panel discussion as well, laughing and applauding with the Brown family. The student union ballroom, the event venue, was packed.
Las Vegas resident Tracy Enriquez, 47, watches "Sister Wives" regularly and said the show changed her views on plural marriage. Seeing the family in person solidified her views, she said.
"At first, I thought it was crazy, but when I saw how much they love each other, it kind of changed my views," she said. "If they don't force people into their lifestyle, I don't see anything wrong with it. I respect them."
UNLV senior Rebecca Koonce, 23, said the Brown family was relatable. As a part-time nanny, Koonce said she could see the benefits of having more than one mother around for childrearing.
"It takes a village to raise a family," she said. "This was a cool way to see the reality of how plural marriage works."
UNLV senior Megan Kolvenbach, 20, said she was a "huge fan" of the Browns and their show.
"Their family is really inspirational because they draw attention to the multiculturalism that exists in families," the psychology major said. "It makes you appreciate diversity more, that there are other forms of family as well. It was very insightful."
Kolvenbach added she appreciated how welcoming the UNLV community was to the Browns.
"That's what I love about UNLV, we're so diverse," she said. "I feel bad (the Browns) got kicked out of Utah, but I'm glad they came to Las Vegas and can make themselves feel comfortable here. I just think it's great."
About 'Sister Wives'
The popular "Sister Wives" show – now in its third season – chronicles the day-to-day life of the Browns, a Fundamentalist Mormon family that is composed of Kody, his four wives and 17 children.
Kody is legally married to only Meri, but he has a spiritual marriage with his other three wives. Kody has been married to Meri for 22 years, to Janelle for 19 years, to Christine for 18 years and to Robyn for two years.
The Brown family moved two years ago to Las Vegas to escape Utah's more stringent law banning polygamist marriage. Utah authorities began investigating the family soon after the show premiered in September 2010. The family was fighting the criminal ban in court until the case was dropped this past summer.
Since moving to Las Vegas, the Browns have a new family business selling jewelry, clothing and their book, "Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage." Their eldest son Logan is a freshman nursing student at UNLV.