Polyamory has been gaining publicity over the last few years, from Newsweek’s “Polyamory: The Next Sexual Revolution?” to Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer’s open marriage, to Benedict Smith’s article in VICE about growing up in a polyamorous household. The recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage opened floodgates of alarmed and snarky speculation from detractors about whether it sets a precedent for the legalization of polyamorous marriages, and the Internet has largely responded in the affirmative. And there is a growing community of polyamorous people in the Pacific Northwest—including here in Corvallis—many of whom want legal recognition of their relationships and are considering what legal polyamorous marriage might look like.
One local man, Mike, is currently in a relationship with two long-term partners and one new partner. He said, “The subject of marriage often comes up when thinking about legal issues. Emotionally, I consider both of my long-term partners wives but legally I am only allowed to marry one of them. This has caused some emotional distress.”
It’s true legalizing polyamorous marriages would be very complicated. Would a person married to multiple partners have multiple marriage licenses? Bigamy is currently illegal everywhere in the US, but even if it weren’t, how would those different marriage licenses acknowledge each other in order to avoid disputes of property distribution and decision-making? Or would three or more people need to be married under one marriage license, even if they are not all romantically involved with each other, such as in a polygamist* relationship?
Currently polyamorous people have a few legal options open to them: distribution of property can be assigned through wills and trusts; more than one person can be given power of attorney for medical decisions. But only one, legally married spouse can participate in the other spouse’s insurance coverage, and insurance companies would almost certainly oppose expanding coverage to an indefinite number of partners.
Additionally, custody arrangements might be complicated if children are involved, and polyamorous parents are disadvantaged in a number of ways. One woman I spoke to, Julia, said she had difficulty compromising with her ex-husband on how to introduce new partners to their children. Smith, in his article, writes about the time a disapproving neighbour called CPS on his parents. Polyamory itself is not a reason to remove children from their home, but it has caused parents to lose custody of children during divorce and post-divorce proceedings. As practitioners of an alternative sexual expression, polyamorous people face suspicion and discrimination, and children of polyamorous people face bullying.
Though he has not faced overt discrimination due to his polyamory except from some family members, Mike asked for anonymity because he works in the area. Julia’s ex-husband outed her without permission to her family, and she has found, “all in all, my family’s reaction has been the most difficult part of being polyamorous.” She is lucky, however, that she is able to be open about polyamory at her work.
In Portland there are several groups dedicated to polyamory that meet regularly, and fairly openly, each boasting hundreds of members. The Corvallis community is much smaller, and many of those I spoke with did not want to be named.
Perhaps a first step for polyamory activism would be to fight for anti-discrimination laws. Besides facing alienation from some resources monogamous people have access to (it can be very hard, for instance, to find a relationship counsellor who is willing to counsel a poly couple), poly people face discrimination because polyamory is not a protected class. There is disagreement, even among polyamorous people, about whether polyamory is a lifestyle choice or a more fundamental identification.
Attorney Ann E. Tweedy has argued that polyamory should be considered a sexual orientation. She writes that bigamy and adultery laws** (and yes, in some states adultery is still a crime) reinforce monogamy and disadvantage polyamorous people unfairly. There are also laws limiting the number of unrelated people living together than can be applied against polyamorous households.
During the fight for marriage equality the LGBTQ community distanced itself from the idea of polyamory so as not to give ammunition to the oppositions fear-mongering (“first gay marriage, then polygamy, then the cat lady will be marrying her cats!”). But advocating for more thorough anti-discrimination laws is a place where the polyamory community, often fairly quiet, could potentially join forces with the LGBTQ community. The question of marriage equality for polyamorous people can proceed slowly. It is a complicated conversation to have, but one that is worth having and has, in fact, already started.
Some names have been changed.
*The website Loving More defines polyamory – sometimes called ethical non-monogamy – as “romantic love with more than one person, honestly, ethically, and with the full knowledge and consent of all concerned.” Polygamy (or, technically, polygyny) is a particular relationship structure within polyamory in which a man has multiple wives.
**In Oregon there are no statutes against fornication, adultery, or cohabitation. Oregon does not recognize common-law marriages.
By Kelsi Villarreal
Viewpoint: Why This Matters, How It’s Hard
Our society has moved forward vis-à-vis its evolving treatment of same-sex marriage, but poly relationships and marriages will be more difficult. The structure to accommodate the traditional couple has long existed in terms of practical considerations like benefits, child custody, and the like. However, equality and protection for poly people will require whole new structures and protections, which means more endemic institutional change and cooperation than what marriage equality for gay couples has required.
Also, there are stigmas and misunderstandings; this paper has never had problems finding LGBTQ people to quote, whereas poly individuals have always insisted on anonymity. Misconceptions fueled by a media that portrays polyamory as mere titillation or a harbor for abuse and those with low self-esteem may be to blame for this stifling fear of talking, let alone coming out.
But then, these stigmas and structural challenges pale against two of the most inexorable propositions of our current society: the right of consenting adults to choose as they will so long as nobody is harmed, and the expectation that in so choosing they will still have the same rights and protections as anyone else on their block. Some in the position to do so have recently become more vocal about their poly experiences, yet it remains to be seen if acceptance and equality will come as quickly as it has for LGBTQ folk. In the interim, one can only hope there will be kindness.