The city of Somerville, Massachusetts, has just passed a domestic partnership ordinance that includes polyamorous partnerships
of more than two.
Somerville is a progressive, densely populated of 81,000 bordering Cambridge and
Boston. From the Somerville Journal today (July 1), via
|(Somerville High School, next to City Hall)|
By Julia Taliesin
On June 29, Somerville quietly became one of the first cities in the nation
– if not the first – to recognize polyamorous domestic
The historic move was a result of a few subtle language shifts. For example,
instead of being defined as an “entity formed by two persons,” Somerville’s
ordinance defines a domestic partnership as an “entity formed by people,”
replaces “he and she” with “they,” replaces “both” with “all,” and contains
other inclusive language.
On June 25, the City Council passed the ordinance recognizing domestic
partnerships unanimously, and on June 29 Mayor Joe Curtatone signed it into
municipal law. The city is in the process of changing the application to
include space for more than two partners, but polyamorous partners will be
able to file soon.
Ward 6 Councilor Lance Davis, who chairs the Legislative Matters committee
that reviewed the ordinance, said this began by
just wanting to draft an ordinance recognizing domestic partnerships.
Somerville didn’t have one,
and a constituent request moved the council to work with the city on an
“During our initial conversations, a couple things jumped out,” said Davis.
“The first draft required domestic partners to notify the city of any change
of address, which struck me as not in line with what married folks have to
do, and required that they reside together, which again struck me as
something I’m not required to do as a married person, so we got rid of those
About an hour before the June 25 council meeting, he heard from fellow
Councilor J.T. Scott.
″[He] reached out and said, ‘Why is this two?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have a
good answer,’” said Davis. “I tripped over my words a bit, and played
devil’s advocate, but I had no good reason. So, I pulled it out, went
through quickly making whatever word changes necessary to make it not
gendered or limited to two people.”
The ordinance passed unanimously.
“I’ve consistently felt that when society and government tries to define
what is or is not a family, we’ve historically done a very poor job of doing
so,” said Davis. “It hasn’t gone well, and it’s not a business that
government should be in, so that guided my thinking on this.”
Leading the way
The changes are small, but powerful: If you put the Cambridge and Somerville
ordinances side-by-side they appear nearly identical save for a few
differences, namely that the Cambridge ordinance defines a domestic
partnership as including only “two persons” and requires partners to live
It’s the first time that family law attorney Andy Izenson has seen a
municipality do anything like this. Izenson is the senior legal director,
vice president, and secretary of the nonprofit
Chosen Family Law Center
in New York. The center also has an initiative, the
Poly Families Project,
which offers direct, affordable legal support to polyamorous families across
“I think it’s pretty amazing – strategies like this are the best chance we
have of moving towards a legal understanding of family that’s as
comprehensive as it needs to be to serve all families,” said Izenson. “I’ve
seen a few other small-scale or local entities that have taken steps towards
recognizing that relationships between adults are not only between two
this is the first time I have seen this strategy brought to fruition.”
Izenson noted states recognizing third-parent adoptions action that is close
to offering broader rights to families, but pointed out that most gains in
“marriage equality” have all been carefully defined as between two people.
“There’s a reflexive flinch away from families including more than two
partners,” they said.
Izenson called out mainstream media, certain sects of Christianity, and the
bottom-line of capitalism for maintaining this cultural flinch. For example,
health insurance companies are incentivized to limit the definition of
family so they do not have to cover more people.
Regardless, Izenson is hopeful that this move indicates even a small change
in the way we think about the legal rights of families.
“There are two kinds of legal advocacy: the bottom-up kind and the
Top-down meaning law that comes from the Supreme Court...which, in terms of
day-to-day life is more reflective of culture change than leading the way.
This type of bottom-up work – local people making policy regarding their
neighbors – that’s the sort of thing that’s not only reflective of a culture
shift, but a shift towards acceptance and support of a broader variety of
(July 1). A sidebar notes that under Massachusetts law, domestic
partners are not legally considered family
and do not have many of the
rights and responsibilities of the married. For instance they do not inherit a
partner’s assets by default; the partner must write a will.
Activists are already working with elected officials
in more than a dozen local governments, especially in California, to
expand local anti-discrimination ordinances to include a new
protected class, “relationship structure,” said Berkeley psychologist and
poly activist Dave Doleshal.
Most efforts are at the informal stage but the city of
Berkeley did consider a formal proposal
to extend protections in housing, employment, business practices, city
facilities or education to swingers, polyamorists and other
stalled last year amid concerns that it would have required employers to
provide health insurance to numerous sexual and romantic partners outside
The Boston area has had a notable polyamory scene for at least 25 years,
though it remains more scattered and unorganized than in many other
progressive cities. Cambridge and Somerville, sometimes informally called
"Camberville," have long had a significant poly presence along with their
suburbs just to the north.
So about that ordinance: Cambridge, are you next? And how about those suburbs,
Medford and Malden?
By Jeremy C. Fox
...The city had never had a domestic partnership ordinance before, [City
Councilor Lance] Davis said, unlike Boston, Cambridge, and many other
Massachusetts cities that introduced such policies before same-sex
marriage became legal in the state in 2004.
The issue arose recently because of the coronavirus pandemic, as
Somerville residents in committed relationships who aren’t married
approached Davis and other councilors with concerns about being able to
visit sick partners in the hospital, he said.
The inclusion of relationships between more than two consenting adults was
added just before the meeting at the suggestion of Councilor J.T. Scott,
according to Davis. ...
...So far, the public response to the measure has been entirely positive,
“I got an e-mail from someone at my church that said, ‘Wow, this is
amazing. Thank you so much for doing this,’ " he said.
Ronaldo Schemidt/ AFP
By Ellen Berry
Under its new domestic partnership ordinance, the city of Somerville now
grants polyamorous groups the rights held by spouses in marriage, such as
the right to confer health insurance benefits or make hospital visits.
[JT Scott said], “Here in Somerville, families sometimes look like one
man and one woman, but sometimes it looks like two people everyone on the
block thinks are sisters because they’ve lived together forever, or
sometimes it’s an aunt and an uncle, or an aunt and two uncles, raising
He said he
knew of at least two dozen polyamorous households in Somerville,
which has a population of about 80,000.
“This is simply allowing that change, allowing people to say, ‘This is my
partner and this is my other partner,’” he said. “It has a legal bearing,
so when one of them is sick, they can both go to the hospital.”
...Under the new ordinance, city employees in polyamorous
relationships would be able to extend health benefits to multiple
partners. But it is not clear, Davis said, whether private employers will
follow the city’s lead.
“Based on the conversations I’ve had,” he said, “the most important aspect
is that the city is legally recognizing and validating people’s existence.
That’s the first time this is happening.”
He said he had considered the possibility that a large number of people —
say, 20 — would approach the city and ask to be registered as domestic
“I say, well what if they do?” Davis said. “I see no reason to think that
is more of an issue than two people.”
...[JT] Scott, the councilman, said he had been inundated by calls and
messages all day, including from lawyers interested in pursuing a similar
measure at the state or federal level.
Under the ordinance, domestic partners, whether in groupings of two or
more, would not necessarily be romantic partners.
"Folks live in polyamorous relationships and have for probably forever.
Right now, our laws deny their existence and that doesn't strike me as the
right way to write laws at any level," said Davis. "Hopefully this gives
folks a legal foundation from which to have discussion. Maybe others will
follow our lead."
A 2-minute video report from Boston's NBC News-10:
A left-leaning Massachusetts city has declared it will recognize polyamorous
relationships following a unanimous city council vote, according to reports
Also USA Today, CBS News....
and as far as New Zealand
Somerville City Hall
By Zoe Greenberg
A new domestic partnership policy in Somerville that recognizes
polyamorous relationships is a powerful symbol, advocates and academics
said, though the specifics of its protections remain limited.
...“The Somerville ordinance is an exciting turning point
for people who are polyamorous or in multipartner families,”
said Diana Adams,
the executive director of
the Chosen Family Law Center
in New York. “There has been tremendous momentum and energy and hope for this
for many years.”
Adams said the law center hoped to push similar ordinances in other
small, progressive cities, in a strategy similar to the one that
secured the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country.
Polyamory refers to people in consenting relationships with multiple
While it broadens and reframes the idea of who counts as a family, the
legal protections conferred by the ordinance seem to be narrow, said
Kimberly Rhoten, an attorney and graduate student at Boston University
who focuses on how the law relates to gender and sexual minorities.
Any benefit that the city provides to domestic partners — like
hospital or prison visits — can now also apply to multiple partners in
a domestic partnership. But private employers aren’t required to
provide health insurance for domestic partners. So one of the primary
concerns that prompted the ordinance, accessing health insurance
during the coronavirus pandemic, remains unaddressed, Rhoten said. And
the question of how the ordinance might affect state and federal
family leave is unclear, she said.
“It’s a signaling boost for this community that the city is
recognizing more than two partnerships,” Rhoten said. “However there
are legal pitfalls involved with the ordinance. We’ll wait and see
...Under the ordinance, people qualify for a domestic partnership if
they “consider themselves to be a family” and are “in a relationship
of mutual support, caring and commitment and intend to remain in such
a relationship.” It does not require that domestic partners be in a
...Some described it as one piece of a much broader movement for LGBTQ
“I would say that polyamory and consensual non-monogamy in general is
riding on the coattails of queer liberation,” said Elisabeth ‘Eli’ Sheff, an international expert on children growing up in polyamorous
families and author of the book “The Polyamorists Next Door.” “I
definitely see it as a trend towards greater recognition of existing
That recognition is one of the crucial parts of the new ordinance,
said Jay Sekora,
who runs the group Poly Boston,
which has about 500 members and hosted dinner outings and discussion
group in pre-pandemic times. ...
“I was really excited that a town in my state would recognize the
fact that families can’t be defined by government restricting the
number of people, or the genders of the people involved, or anything
like that,” said Valerie White, the executive
director of the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund,
which is based in Sharon. White said she has been practicing
non-monogamy since the 1960s.
Update July 8:
Somerville's other newspaper, the Somerville Times,
has published a very detailed account of the process by which the ordinance was written. Nothing new of interest, but here it is for anyone researching the details: City approves polyamorous domestic relationship recognition
It includes a link to an official City of Somerville page
linking to the ordinance itself and listing the six, mostly one-word little amendments that were made late in the game to include multi-partnerships, turning a barely noticeable bit of local city business into landmark news that has flown around the world.
Labels: Boston, legal, Somerville