How to Be an Ally for Poly Marriage

merkley modOn Monday, Oregon celebrated a court ruling declaring the same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional, and gay and lesbian couples were able to apply for marriage licenses immediately that day.  The internet was full of wonderful, happy exclamations – many of which were along the lines of, “Now everyone can marry who they love,” and “Finally, all people have the freedom to marry,” and “Hooray for marriage equality!”  To be sure, I was delighted by the news of same sex marriage becoming a reality for my dear friends here in Oregon, and my heart was full as I saw announcements of engagements and received party invitations… but I was troubled by the declarations that everyone could now marry who they wished to marry.  It smacked of completeness and finality – that everything is now right with the world when it comes to marriage in Oregon, and there is nothing left to work for in the arena of marriage rights.

I felt invisible.  I still couldn’t marry who I wanted to marry, and that didn’t seem to matter to most people.  I mentioned my complicated feelings on Facebook – that even with the best possible outcome of same-sex marriage rights being extended to my gay and lesbian friends, that there is still a piece that is really hard for me.  My friends said well-intentioned things, like, “Every step forward is something to celebrate,” (yes, of course it is, but I think it’s okay to have complicated feelings about this sort of thing, especially if people don’t seem to recognize the legitimacy of your desire for similar rights to be extended your way), and “People just don’t know that poly families like you exist.”  Well, that’s probably true… but it doesn’t necessarily make me feel any better.  What it tells me is that there are too few poly people who are out of the closet – especially poly people with children who are in some kind of stable long-term non-monogamous relationship.  Supposedly, 4 to 5 percent of all relationships have some form of consensual non-monogamy.  That’s a lot of closeted people.  I also have come across quite a few poly people who claim that poly folk are uninterested in marriage equality, or at least that it isn’t a priority for the poly community.  Some say that marriage should be abolished outright (which seems unlikely to me), or that we shouldn’t buy into the institution of marriage if it is going to be so restrictive and (oh, the horrors) mainstream.

I have been accused in the past of not being “open” enough in my own relationships – as if being poly has the prerequisite of being willing to take on more people and more relationships at any given time.  (Really?  Am I the only poly person who is not a Time Lord?)  I have also heard that I have unrealistic expectations of my relationships lasting for the rest of my life – that I should simply accept that our love will die someday (well, thanks guys… that’s cheerful).  Perhaps I am a traditionalist in some ways, but I really value relationship longevity, commitment, and doing the work that is necessary to be happy together for the long term.  I believe stability is a good thing for families, and I believe that managing one’s time and commitments well is a sign of maturity (and for most people, that puts a limit on the number of deep relationships that one can take on).  I want to be attached to people who have known me for a very long time when I grow old.  I want a shared history, a shared love for our children and grandchildren, and shared memories to laugh about.  I want to be with people who remain beloved regardless of the changes in our bodies or our sex life or our level of grumpiness.  I want to celebrate our 50th anniversary and beyond with the same two men. Other people may want something different – and that’s fine, there are certainly many ways to have ethical, valuable relationships – but I’m not other people.  As a society, I think marriage is here to stay, and regardless of what other poly people have to say about it, I would really appreciate being able to marry both of my husbands legally.

I enjoyed my partner Mark’s response to the declarations of how equality has arrived for everyone – he altered Senator Merkley’s statement (as you can see in the picture above) to say “most” instead of “all” Oregonians being able to marry who they love. :)  I also appreciated friends on Facebook who asked, “How can we help?  How can we be an ally?  How can we help make marriage a reality for families like yours?”

I was really grateful and touched to be asked.  My answers to those questions are likely incomplete – I am not a legal expert.  The things I mention below may be refuted by someone who has more expertise than I do.  That’s okay, and I welcome additions or edits of this list.  I speak only from our family’s experience, and what seems to be true to me from a common sense perspective.

It would be nice to be able to marry both of my husbands, and have the state figure out how I could do this fairly (division of any benefits between spouses, for example, rather than a doubling of those benefits).  However, since I don’t see a polygamy bill as something that is likely to come up as a viable option in the near future (although I could be wrong – surprise me, people!) – here is where I’d recommend that you start if you want to be an advocate:

1. When people act as if all of society’s work around marriage rights is done with the advent of legal same-sex marriage, mention that not everyone is in a two-adult relationship, and mention your support of people who are in poly families who wish to be legally married.  Increasing awareness of poly families will probably go further than anything else we can do.  We can move public opinion much more quickly when people who are not poly support those who are.

2. Try to avoid “coupling” language.  If you are in charge of intake forms that gather family information for your business, consider “Partner(s)” in the space for spouse information.  If someone asks about it, “Who has more than one partner anyway?” – well, there’s a teaching moment.  Say “people” instead of “couples” when you can do so appropriately when talking about marriage.

3. Support third-parent adoption in your state.  We were able to make all three parents the legal parents of the children in our family.  This is really wonderful for us.  Support and care for children may be the first step towards making three-parent marriages a possibility.  After all, if you can have three people have legal responsibility for children, why can’t you have three people have legal responsibility for each other, too?  (I know people personally who have done third-parent adoptions in Minnesota and in California and here in Oregon… anybody have a list of other states that are already doing this?)

4. Check to see if your state has anti-cohabitation laws, fornication laws, adultery laws, or common-law marriage laws that would make poly families legally insecure.  (For instance, if referring to more than one person as your husband can potentially make you “married” by common law rules to someone – that carries the risk of making you appear to be a bigamist.  While it would be nice to get anti-bigamy statutes thrown out, it is likely that getting rid of these other “gotcha” laws will have to happen first.)  A good summary is here (no guarantees on it being up to date):

5. Don’t assume that poly marriage is necessarily legally complicated.  One example of a common argument against poly marriage is that “taxes would be a nightmare.”  I made that assumption about tax law, too, but when I went to UC Hastings in San Francisco to talk about nontraditional family structures, a tax law student in the class there did a spreadsheet that would be a workable and fair tax solution for multiple-adult families.  He said it was very simple.  He did it in about 30 seconds.  Okay then.

6. Remind people that morality and legality are not the same thing.  Just because something is illegal, does not make it morally wrong, and vice versa.  People make laws, people can change those laws – same-sex marriage being one example of this.  Also, the things that actually do harm to people in polygamous families (child abuse and forced marriage in religious fundamentalist groups, for example) may actually be easier to eradicate when women can report these abuses without fear of legal repercussions related to their family structure.  Abuse can happen in monogamous relationships, too – and it’s important to bring abuse into the light so it can be stopped.

7. Realize that poly marriage might benefit other kinds of families, too, and talk about that with other people.  For instance, there are many families who might like to be able to assign the benefits they receive from marriage to somebody else of their choice, who may or may not be attached romantically.  It theoretically wouldn’t be hard to assign one’s benefits in a simple contract, that says, “I assign my marriage benefits (or family benefits, or whatever you want to call them) to these people, with a 50/50 split as applicable,” etc.  This could help out people in all kinds of family structures that are not made up of one mom, one dad, and 2.5 children (so… a lot of us).  While it is possible to structure one’s legal prospects in a way that mimics the marriage rights that come automatically with a signed marriage license, it’s costly and complicated to do so – and it shouldn’t be.

8. Make yourself approachable for poly people to talk to you.  If the topic of marriage or family comes up (or you have occasion to express that you are LGBTQ-friendly), mention that you are supportive of alternative family configurations as well.  Refer them to this blog.  Refer them to Poly Family Support.

9. If you’re in a poly family, and can be out of the closet while maintaining reasonable levels of safety for you and your children, please do so.  I know this is hard.  BELIEVE ME, I know.  But it’s really important, and as a family with kids that is “out” everywhere we go, we’d really appreciate the solidarity.

I’m sure there are many other ways that people can advocate for poly marriage, and be a supportive ally for poly families.  Hopefully, this gives you all a start, and some food for thought.  Thank you, everyone, for reading this, and for caring about families like ours.  (As a final note, my youngest daughter just looked over my shoulder, saw my post title, and said, “Are we finally going to have a wedding?!?  If so, I want to be a flower girl.”  Guess we’ll see about that… I hope someday, we will.)

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3 Responses to How to Be an Ally for Poly Marriage

  1. Prune Wickart says:

    Thanks for the gentle nudges. I’ve been wondering the same thing, as I have a friend in a triad. I’m ecstatic that so many of my friends finally can get married, but melancholy for those who are still beyond the pale in marriage rights. In theory (I don’t have the background to claim anything in practice), many forms of poly marriage are *more* stable than traditional diads for the two basic purposes: security of the children and conservation of family resources.

  2. Miriam Katz says:

    As a poly person who writes about polyamory pretty regularly and who is engaged, I really appreciated your piece. I live in Toronto and we’ve had same-sex marriage for awhile but I wonder how long it will take before we have multi-person marriages. For many unmarried poly people, marriage can be an issue; I myself struggle with it sometimes. When marriage first became an institution, the woman was property. Many poly people, of course, object to that and don’t necessarily want to take part in that sort of institution. For myself, I feel very comfortable marrying my fiance. He lets me be me. We have talked about having a triad and I personally wonder what would happen if we asked someone to marry 3 of us. I’d be willing to challenge the laws here if we wanted to make that happen. Kudos to you for being out about all of this!

  3. Juniper says:

    At the moment in B.C. the crown (our language for “the state”) is trying to prosecute members of a fringe Mormon community named Bountiful for polygamy. Everyone recognizes that it is a desperate attempt to stop the illegal movement of teenage girls back and forth across the U.S. border for the purposes of marriage to much older men. The leaders of the community have found legal loopholes to get out of every other charge against them so in desperation the RCMP (the cops)are pulling up an archaic polygamy law and dragging them through the courts, again, no doubt in vain, again. My eyes widened when I read #6 above. You are so right. Perhaps these girls would be more likely to come forward if they didn’t fear charges against loved ones in the community who are committing no crime other than polygamy.

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