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 city of 81,000 bordering Cambridge and Boston. From the Somerville Journal today (July 1), via WickedLocal.com:
(Somerville High School, next to City Hall)
The Somerville City Council unanimously approved an ordinance with language inclusive to polyamorous domestic partnerships.
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 partnerships.
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 ordinance.
“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 provisions.”
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 wayThe 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 together.
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 the country.
“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 adults, but 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 kind. 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 families.”
The original article (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.
More ambitious local efforts have been bubbling elsewhere. As that article in Real Clear Investigations reported on April 22,
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 non-monogamists. The proposal stalled last year amid concerns that it would have required employers to provide health insurance to numerous sexual and romantic partners outside of marriage.
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 nicknamed "Camberville," have long had a significant poly presence and so have their suburbs just to the north.
So about that ordinance: Cambridge, are you next? And how about those suburbs, Medford and Malden?
Update next day: The story made this morning's Boston Globe: Somerville recognizes polyamorous relationships in new domestic partnership ordinance (online July 1). For a while it was the paper's second-most-read story online.
There's little in this brief piece that's new from the Somerville Journal story, but here are bits that are:
There's little in this brief piece that's new from the Somerville Journal story, but here are bits that are:
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, Davis said.“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.
And now in the New York Times: A Massachusetts City Decides to Recognize Polyamorous Relationships (July 2)
Ronaldo Schemidt/ AFPBy Ellen BerryUnder 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 two kids.”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 partners.“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.
And CNN: A Massachusetts city will recognize polyamorous relationships as part of new domestic partnership ordinance (July 2):
"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:
Fox News: Massachusetts city recognizes polyamorous relationships in new domestic partnership ordinance (July 2):
A left-leaning Massachusetts city has declared it will recognize polyamorous relationships following a unanimous city council vote, according to reports Wednesday. ...
Also USA Today, CBS News.... and now as far as New Zealand and Vietnam.
The Globe has just followed up with a short feature quoting some well-known poly community leaders locally and elsewhere: Somerville’s new polyamory-friendly policy a ‘turning point' (July 2):
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 partners.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 what happens.”...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 romantic relationship....Some described it as one piece of a much broader movement for LGBTQ rights.“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 diversity.”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 (July 8).
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.