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Some U.S. cities are legitimizing polyamory

A Massachusetts town recognizes “partnerships” of up to six people

Supporters of the polyamorous relationships ordinance outside the council chambers in Somerville, Mass. Getty Images/Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe

Some U.S. cities are legitimizing polyamory

When city council members in Somerville, Mass., added polyamorous relationships to local nondiscrimination rules last month, they did so with little fanfare or protest. The council passed the ordinance unanimously without any debate. Local news reports did not mention any complaints.

The move builds on an earlier council decision to legally recognize polyamorous relationships. These decisions may show Somerville’s liberal leanings, but they could also be a sign that Americans are inching closer to broad acceptance of romantic relationships among three or more people.

In 2020, Somerville became the first U.S. city to recognize polyamorous relationships officially. They did so by simply changing a few words. The city council expanded the definition of “domestic partnership” from an “entity formed by two persons” to “entity formed by people.” It also replaced the word “both” with “all.” According to The New York Times, the language was approved at the end of a virtual council meeting “so quickly and quietly that you could have easily missed it.”

Within a year, two nearby Massachusetts municipalities followed suit. The cities of Cambridge and Arlington passed similar ordinances recognizing multi-partner relationships in 2021. The online domestic partnership registration forms in Somerville and Arlington now include spaces for up to six names.

The 2020 action followed a Somerville constituent’s request for a policy that would expand legal protections to “domestic partnerships,” which typically include most unmarried couples. Domestic partner policies often allow unmarried couples to take advantage of each other’s employment benefits such as health insurance.

When city council members discussed the ordinance, they questioned what constituted a “domestic partnership.” Council members challenged the notion that couples had to live under the same roof. So they struck the residency requirement. Soon, the idea that these relationships had to be between just two people fell by the wayside, too.

With input from the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, the city council drafted a definition that expanded domestic partnerships to include polyamorous relationships, typically defined as three or more people in a romantic relationship. The council members agreed to leave out other relationships such as people practicing “consensual non-monogamy,” which some people refer to as an open marriage.

In these cities, people in polyamorous relationships share some of the privileges enjoyed by monogamous couples. Cambridge now allows multiple partners to have visitation rights at hospitals and corrections facilities. Public school forms allow for more than two adults to be listed as guardians and give all of them equal access to a child’s school records. City employees can cover more than one partner under their health insurance.

But these residents still have to abide by state rules. Since marriage rights are governed by Massachusetts state law, polyamorous groups are not allowed to marry legally. At least, not yet.

A representative from the city of Cambridge told me that since it passed the ordinance two years ago, just one group of three individuals has applied for official recognition as a polyamorous domestic partnership. As of early 2022, three groups of three individuals had applied in Somerville.

Social stigma toward polyamorous relationships may explain the low registration numbers. But Christian experts warn that acceptance of polyamory is gaining traction, even among some church circles.

Branson Parler, a writer and advisor at the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender, said he hears more parents in Christian communities mention children considering polyamorous relationships. As politicians and courts redefine marriage, adults interpret romance, relationship, and commitment by their own self-satisfaction, he said.

“Polyamory is a prime example of the deeper story of individualism,” he said. “This is really about, ‘You do you.’”

Parler, who wrote a paper making the case against polyamory, said there are moral reasons to oppose it. He wrote that the Bible clearly supports monogamous marriage, but not all Christians realize it. Many point to polyamorous Old Testament heroes like Jacob and King David as justifications for polyamory. But Parler says just because these men were laudable doesn’t mean all of their behaviors were acceptable.

People who choose to be polyamorous, he added, probably don’t have strong justifications for their choice. He recalled a woman who was dating two men at the same time and didn’t want to break up with either one. She concluded that she was polyamorous, to which Parler joked, “You might just be bad at monogamy.”

Others worry that polyamory prioritizes the happiness of adults over the needs of children. Katy Faust, founder and president of family advocacy group Them Before Us, said introducing even one nonrelated adult into the home increases the risk of child abuse and neglect. “In our cultural imagination, marriage is simply a vehicle for adult fulfillment and totally disconnected from child rearing,” she said, adding that polyamory advocates ignore the consequences such relationships will have on children.

The Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition plans to push for similar policy decisions in Berkeley, Calif.

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a correspondent covering marriage, family, and sexuality as part of WORLD’s Relations beat. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three children.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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