Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

June 16, 2008

In California, gay-marriage opponents cry poly peril

Same-sex couples in California have been marrying for nearly a whole day now, and the state hasn't yet crumbled and fallen into the sea.

But polyamory was very much in the news during the final days of the California countdown.

On June 12th, the Christian-affiliated Liberty Counsel filed a petition asking a lower court to put a stay on the California Supreme Court's decision allowing gay marriage. Their argument?

"To prevent a violation of federal and state law by opening the door to de facto polygamy and polyamory."

The group's petition included a diagram of a six-person polycule looking like a benzene ring (Exhibit 1; page 28). This structure, the petition argued, could be created if a group of people linked a same-sex marriage in California, via non-marriage civil unions in other states, to couples in traditional marriages — it would not violate laws against bigamy. The petition went nowhere (lower courts don't overrule supreme courts), and editorials and blogs derided the human benzene ring as ridiculous. Hmmm....

This happened during Gay Pride Week — two days before I was to set up a polyamory booth at the Boston Pride Festival, for Poly Boston, Family Tree, and the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense & Education Fund. As I installed our big, cheery "POLYAMORY!" poster (legible a tenth of a mile away) over our booth on City Hall Plaza, I wondered if we would get blowback. Would Pride people see us as the skunk at the garden party?

Nope. The folks who came by the booth all day ranged from friendly to squeeingly enthusiastic. What fun! We gave out lots of stuff, and I was surprised that most people (at least in this campy crowd) were already familiar with what poly is about.


Now about that benzene ring. I actually know people in a relationship sort of like that. But my experience is that when poly activists discuss legalized group marriage, the discussion quickly runs up on the rocks of how extraordinarily complicated any state recognition or regulation of poly relationships would be.

Same-sex marriage is simple. It maps exactly onto the legal regime that already exists for straight couples. (At least this has been true ever since the courts started regarding men and women as equals.) But how would the law mandate, for instance, property rights and responsibilities in partial poly divorces? What about the rights and responsibilities of marriages that merge into pre-existing marriages? Setting default laws for multiple inheritance in the absence of a will... allocating Social Security benefits... it goes on.

And because there are many different basic kinds of poly relationships, compared to only one basic kind of couple marriage, each would need its own legal regime — and we know how good the state is at regulating complicated personal matters.

Moreover, poly relationships can change from one kind to another while continuing to exist. An equilateral triad can become a vee or vice versa, or something in between. The flexibility to adapt — to "let your relationships be what they are" — is a core value in the poly groups I know. How would the state keep up with your particular situation?

I've also heard it argued that opportunities would abound for unscrupulous people to game the system in ways the law couldn't easily address: for people to pretend that their poly relationship is a different kind than it really is, or that they're in poly relationships when they're not. (For instance, could gang members group-marry to gain immunity from each others' testimony?)

The discussions quickly come around, instead, to business-partnership models for poly households, such as subchapter-S corporations or family LLPs. These are already well developed to handle a wide variety of contractual agreements between several people.

Looking farther ahead: good law follows reality rather than precedes it. Fifty or 100 years from now when poly households are commonplace and their issues are well understood, I'm sure an appropriate set of law will have grown up organically to handle the issues that arise. At least that's how it works when civil society is allowed to go about its business, free of religious or ideological compulsion.

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Blogger Anita Wagner said...

Nice analysis of this issue, Alan! (No surprise there, but I still wanted to say it.)

I'm one of those who advocates for the abolishing of laws that favor people who marry and relegating marriage to the private domain with government instead granting benefits to individuals only. I am a signer of the Beyond Marriage statement that came out a couple of years ago that addresses issues of fairness to families not made up of only two adults.


June 18, 2008 8:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had never considered the complications of poly legalities in such a way. Very enlightening and informative. It very much points to the preference of "liner" thinking; it's uncomplicated and most prefer the simplicity. I mean, who likes complications, right? Plus it's an easier way to control others for a variety of reasons. Excellent post.

July 03, 2008 9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ignoring the fact that I don't see anything wrong with the linked relationships, and that the same thing could occur *without* gay marriage (regardless of whether the civil unions are between same-sex or opposite-sex couples), wouldn't the obvious response be to put civil unions on the same level as marriage, thereby preventing this from happening? Like, "You get one civil union/domestic partnership *or* one marriage. You don't get both." And voila.

Anyway, that was a lot of rambling to state that I think they're idiots :)

August 14, 2008 10:36 AM  

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