Great balls of fire!


Great balls of fire, Jerry Lee Lewis is dead!

But his legacy lives on. What legacy, you might ask? Well, the legacy of marriage. 

Lewis had two famous cousins, televangelist Jimmy Swaggert and Myra Gale Brown.

But it was his relationship with Brown that captured the headlines. 

Lewis made her famous in 1957 after marrying her when she was just 13. The scandal destroyed his promising rock and roll career. But he later rebounded with a series of successful country tunes.

Apparently, country fans aren’t as hung-up about family trees that don’t fork.

But the state of Illinois does have such a hang-up. 

In fact, cousins can’t marry in Illinois unless at least one person in the union is sterilized or they are both past the age of 50. That law is based on a cultural taboo and faulty science. 

And it makes no sense. None. 

Once upon a time, there was a worry that the offspring of two cousins were at a higher risk for birth defects. But recent medical studies indicate it poses little risk. In fact, cousin marriage is common in much of the Middle East and Asia. 

The prohibition against cousins marrying is deeply rooted in American racism, Martin Ottenheimer, a retired anthropology professor at Kansas State University, told me recently.

“White settlers came to this country and encountered Indians, who often married their cousins. By attacking cousin marriage, they were depicting their enemies as savages.” 

He also said during an interview with me eight years ago, "People think that cousins marrying is an animal-like, savage thing to do and that their children will be stupid. They think it will lead to the downfall of civilization. It's all based on faulty genetics from the 19th Century. Americans shouldn't object to gay cousins marrying because genetics isn't even an issue."

Gay cousins? Yes, even though the Illinois’ law is supposedly rooted in genetic concerns, even two biologically male cousins or two biologically female cousins cannot marry – unless they are older than 50 or one of them is sterile.

"The United States is the only Western country that restricts cousins from marrying," Ottenheimer noted. 

He said he became interested in cousin marriage when he was doing anthropological research on remote islands in the Indian Ocean with his wife.

“We lived with the people and it was a culture where cousins frequently married. But their children were absolutely beautiful. So, we started asking why our own society disapproved of cousins marrying.” 

Cousin marriage is prohibited in 23 states and remains something that carries a stigma in all 50. Former state Rep. Greg Harris drafted the original same-sex civil unions legislation, which was the basis for the law allowing same-sex marriage.

He told me in 2014, he drafted the bill to reflect all the benefits and restrictions of a traditional marriage.

Harris said the cousin provision was discussed when the bill was drafted and deliberately left in because he did not want those people engaging in same-sex unions to have more rights than heterosexual couples who marry.

"We wanted this issue to be about civil unions, not whether cousins should marry," he said.

Harris, who was one of the first openly gay members of the General Assembly and eventually rose to be House majority leader, has long prided himself as a champion of marriage equality. 

But do we really have marriage equality if cousins can marry in some states but not others? 

Some famous cousin marriages include: Naturalist Charles Darwin and his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood. Physicist Albert Einstein and Elsa Lowenthal, his first cousin on his mother's side and his second cousin on his father's side. Bank robber Jessie James and his first cousin, Zerelda Mims. Author H.G. Wells and his first cousin, Isabel Mary Wells. Rocket scientist Werner Von Braun and his first cousin, Maria Von Quirstorp.

Some folks believe there is a biblical prohibition to cousins marrying. While the Hebrew Bible, or Christian Old Testament, prohibits many types of relatives from marrying, cousins are not on the list.

In fact, the Biblical character Jacob married the sisters Leah and Rachel. They were not only sisters but also his first cousins. 

Am I advocating that cousins marry? Not particularly. But I certainly don’t see a compelling state interest in Illinois preventing such couplings. 

Who knows, someday instead of heading to the bars, lovelorn singles may head to family reunions. 

Scott Reeder is a staff writer for Illinois Times and is not married to a cousin. He can be reached at [email protected].   

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