Somerville, Mass., passes America's first polyamory anti-discrimination law. More cities likely to follow.
From left, Kimberly Rhoten, Dr. Heath Schechinger, Alexander Chen, Diana Adams, and Andy Izenson celebrated outside before the Somerville City Council signed the ordinance. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
By Meredith GoldsteinSomerville secured its place as a supportive hub for people in polyamorous relationships Thursday night when the City Council unanimously approved an antidiscrimination ordinance to protect people in polyamorous and other consensually nonmonogamous relationships.The ordinance — the first of its kind, according to those involved — prohibits [city] employment and policing discrimination against those in relationships of two or more people.Nearly three years ago, Somerville became the first municipality in the country to pass an ordinance on domestic partnerships that includes polyamorous relationships. It arose from a request by a resident for a policy on domestic partnerships, for example, to provide rights to people to care for their partners, such as paperwork that enables them to visit loved ones in the hospital.Somerville City Councilor J.T. Scott subsequently asked, “Why only one?” The language was changed to broaden the ordinance.Cambridge passed similar legislation in March 2021, as did Arlington, with a bylaw approved at an April 2021 Town Meeting.The Massachusetts-based Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition helped draft the language for the legislation in these communities. Polyamory — as opposed to consensual nonmonogamy — refers to having more than one committed romantic or emotionally intimate partner. Diana Adams, executive director of the Chosen Family Law Center, explained, “It might mean that you’re in a triad where all three people are committed to one another.”Consensual nonmonogamy is a broader term that might refer to two people in a loving, committed relationship who are also are intimate with others.Before the meeting Thursday, advocates for the ordinance — including Councilors Scott and Willie Burnley Jr. — gathered to celebrate and discuss its meaning.Burnley said he wants Somerville to continue to be an example for other cities and towns.“I’m a Black, queer, polyamorous person on the City Council,” he said. “I want Somerville to be a sanctuary.”Adams, whose New York City-based organization oversees the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, said the legislation will have a ripple effect. Adams said they know people outside of Massachusetts who, following the 2020 ordinance, registered with multiple partners in Somerville and have used the designation to get health insurance for a partner back home.Adams said policies on a municipal level can be the start of big change. That was one of the lessons of the same-sex partnership movement, they said; that once you can put your partner and family on paper, “that really helps change social attitudes.”“That gives you a stamp of legitimacy,” they said. “The government is saying this is a valid a relationship.”As of early 2022, nine people — three groups of three partners — were listed as domestic partnerships in Somerville. Three people have registered as partners in Cambridge, according to the city clerk’s office. There are also three people registered as partners in Arlington, according to the town clerk’s office. Adams said others in similar relationships might have hesitated to put their names on the books because of fear of discrimination — hence Thursday’s ordinance vote.“Employment discrimination is the most rampant kind of discrimination people experience,” Adams said, adding that they know of clients who have been punished at work for having a photo of their partners on their desk, or for being public about their nontraditional relationship structures. ”It’s a powerful precedent to establish this law — for respect.”An October 2022 Boston Globe’s Love Letters podcast featured an interview with one of the people who applied for domestic partnership in Somerville with two partners. The person appeared on the podcast using a pseudonym because they said they feared negative reactions from their employers, family, or other people in the community.Alexander Chen, founding director of the Harvard Law School LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, who also teaches “Gender identity, Sexual Orientation, and the Law” at Harvard Law School, said the new legislation’s specificity makes other antidiscrimination laws more effective.“Having legislation that is explicit is really important,” Chen said, adding that every law has to be interpreted, enforced, and adjudicated by judges, lawyers, and politicians.Chen, whose clinic supports the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, said this kind of ordinance shouldn’t be a partisan issue. A common “charge against liberals,” he said, is that they want to “look to the state” for care solutions, while conservatives want people to find private solutions. This, Chen said, is a case of people asking for permission to be responsible for loved ones.“If people want to take legal responsibility for each other, that’s a good thing,” he said.
By Dave Eisenstadter
...The ordinances... would prevent the city from firing or otherwise discriminating against any city employee, including teachers, firefighters and police officers, in romantic relationships with two or more people. They also protect people from biased policing.
Somerville City Councilor Willie Burnley Jr., who helped propose the ordinance, said he believes the city will also pass an ordinance in the next two months [currently in committee --Ed.] protecting polyamorous individuals from housing discrimination from landlords in Somerville.
“I think it’s very important people aren’t denied their basic rights based on who they love,” Burnley said. “This is such a crucial and important step forward in recognizing the diversity of our relationship structures.
Families and individuals in non-monogamous partnerships and relationships generally have little protection against discrimination in the workplace and other arenas, and many have been afraid for years, even decades, to be open about those relationships, he said.
...People have been fired from their jobs for mentioning they are in polyamorous relationships or for having photos of multiple partners on their desks, Adams said.
Adams has represented clients in New York in which a parent’s sexuality has become a key factor in whether they are allowed to have custody of their child.
...Heath Schechinger, a fellow cofounder of the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition and a psychologist, said the majority of non-monogamous adults experience some form of discrimination, including family rejection, difficulty accessing supportive mental health care, housing discrimination and workplace discrimination.
“For many, societal stigma can lead to increased psychological distress such as increased depression and anxiety and have a negative impact on their relationships,” Schechinger said.
...Burnley, who is polyamorous himself, said people in polyamorous relationships can be at risk of losing employment and even being in danger of losing their children.
“We have seen many people have to fight for custody based on the fact that people do not understand that having multiple partners does not create an unsafe home,” he said.
As a result, a great number of people in polyamorous relationships keep silent about their relationship status in many areas of their lives, Burnley said.
Burnley said the council can’t create an ordinance that would extend employment protections to those working for private companies in the city, but they do control policing, and that aspect of the ordinances is important for normalizing those relationships.
He said the ordinance directs police that they not use someone’s family or relationship structure as a pretext to escalate legal consequences against them.
“I am hoping that this is going to be the start of a larger conversation or movement toward stability and protection for all non-monogamous families,” he said. ...
From the transcript: Somerville bans discrimination against people in polyamorous relations:
By Juli McDonald
"For the longest time people in our community have lived in the shadows of the law in a lot of ways," Somerville City Councilor Willie Burnley Jr. said.
The city of Somerville is shining a light on protecting neighbors who love more than one romantic partner. A newly passed ordinance protects polyamorous people from workplace discrimination or biased policing based on their relationship structure.
"I've had people who I know live in this community reach out to me and say, 'I just heard the news. This is incredible. All of my partners are so excited," Burnley Jr. said.
Willie Burnley Jr. is a city councilor at large, but he's also been a part of the polyamorous community for about eight years...."For people especially with children, the fear of targeting by DCF or other child protective agencies in other states is real," said JT Scott, Ward 2 City Councilor. "So, this could be absolutely life-changing and allow them to actually live openly and not fear that their kids are at risk of being taken away from them."
Somerville city leaders say it's a big first step, but the real impact would come with other communities following suit.
By Annie Jonas
...Many kind of families and relationships are protected under the ordinances, such as: multi-partner and multi-parent families and relationship, step-families, multi-generational households, non-nuclear family structures, consensually non-monogamous relationships, and consensual sexual or intimate relationships including asexual and aromantic relationships, according to city officials.The ordinances were drafted by lawyers and activists at the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition – part of Chosen Family Law Center – as well as Harvard Law School's LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic....[Said] Dr. Heath Schechinger, counseling psychologist and Co-Founder of Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, “Every family, including polyamorous ones, should have equal legal protections, and it's heartening to witness this crucial step in cultivating a society that cherishes the liberty to love and form secure families without the burden of discrimination.”
...The Somerville legislation... is drafted quite simply. First, the City Council added the following two definitions to its Code of Ordinances:Relationship status. The words “relationship status” mean the actual or perceived involvement or noninvolvement of an individual in an intimate personal relationship or relationships. It includes an individual’s actual or perceived affinity, or lack thereof, for any given type of intimate personal relationship, regardless of whether the individual is currently in any intimate personal relationship(s).Intimate personal relationship. The words “intimate personal relationship” shall include any interpersonal relationship between two or more adult individuals that involves romantic, physical, or emotional intimacy. This includes multi-partner/multi-parent families and relationships, step families, multi-generational households, and consensual sexual relationships, including relationships involving consensual non-monogamy.Once those definitions were in place, the Council simply added “relationship status” to the section of its Ordinance mandating non-discriminatory treatment for city employees and job applicants—becoming the first jurisdiction to recognize a brand-new protected category.The simplicity of the Somerville ordinance makes it ripe for imitation. ...
By Jim Clark...The ordinance... prohibits discrimination in employment, policing, and more based on one’s family and relationship structure. The ordinances protect diverse families and intimate relationships in the city, including multi-partner/multi-parent families and relationships, step-families, multi-generational households, non-nuclear family structures, consensually non-monogamous relationships, and consensual sexual and/or intimate relationships, including asexual and aromantic relationships. ...
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Somerville Passes Historic Non-Discrimination Ordinance Protecting Polyamorous Families and Other Diverse Relationships
SOMERVILLE, MA - March 23rd, 2023 - Somerville City Council just made history by passing a groundbreaking non-discrimination ordinance protecting polyamorous families and relationships. This ordinance makes Somerville the first city in the United States to extend explicit legal protections to polyamorous and other non-nuclear families and relationships.
The ordinance, passed by a unanimous vote, prohibits discrimination in employment, policing, and more based on one's family and relationship structure. The ordinance protects diverse families and intimate relationships in the city, including multi-partner/multi-parent families and relationships, step-families, multi-generational households, non-nuclear family structures, consensually non-monogamous relationships, and consensual sexual and/or intimate relationships, including asexual and aromantic relationships.
The ordinance was drafted by lawyers & activists at the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, a project of Chosen Family Law Center & Harvard Law School’s LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, who previously passed their model ordinances for multi-partner domestic partnership in Somerville in 2020, as well as Cambridge and Arlington, MA in 2021. Similar non-discrimination laws and plural domestic partnership laws based on their model ordinances have been introduced on the west coast and are expected to pass this year. Councilmembers from the City of Berkeley, California, are working simultaneously to pass a similar non discrimination ordinance for non-monogamous families and relationships. "People should be able to love and provide support for each other without fear of discrimination," said Terry Taplin, the Berkeley City Council member sponsoring the Berkeley ordinance.
“As a polyamorous person, I'm grateful to live in a city that embraces rather than punishes people based on their family or relationship structure,” said Somerville Council member Willie Burnley Jr., who introduced the ordinance. “The protections we extend today not only cement Somerville’s legislative leadership and legacy on non-monogamous rights, they ensure that our neighbors know that they live in a community where they can be who they are freely and love whom they love openly without fear of government interference."
"We commend the Somerville city council for their leadership on this issue.” shared Dr. Heath Schechinger, counseling psychologist and Co-Founder of Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition. “Every family, including polyamorous ones, should have equal legal protections, and it's heartening to witness this crucial step in cultivating a society that cherishes the liberty to love and form secure families without the burden of discrimination.”
"With the passage of today's non-discrimination ordinance, Somerville is vindicating the promise it made to its residents three years ago when it passed the first multiple domestic partnership ordinance in the country that Somerville's government will not only legally recognize diverse family structures, but also protect them from unequal treatment," said Alexander Chen, Founding Director of the Harvard LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, who testified before the Legislative Matters Committee concerning features of the bill. “Children deserve to know that their families are protected no matter what shape they take.”
Diana Adams (they/them) is Executive Director of Chosen Family Law Center and an attorney who has been advocating for legal support for polyamorous & non-nuclear families since founding their New York firm in 2007, as described in their TED Talk. They commented: “Since 2007, I have represented thousands of clients in beautiful constellations of family beyond nuclear, including polyamorous families. I’ve represented many clients in child custody cases in which inaccurate stigma about being polyamorous was used against them. I’ve heard countless stories of discrimination, including being fired for just mentioning being polyamorous. In 2023 when the majority of American children and adults don’t live in a heterosexual nuclear family, we need anti-discrimination laws like this one in Somerville to protect and value families as they exist, so we don’t need to worry about losing our job or custody of our child because of how we build family.”
“Millions of Americans are in consensually non-monogamous relationships and non-nuclear families,” added Brett Chamberlin, Executive Director for the Organization for Ethical Non-monogamy and Polyamory (OPEN), which organized for passage of this and other bills. “These populations are increasingly organizing for the acceptance and protections that all families and consensual relationships deserve.”
Kimberly Rhoten, a socio-legal scholar who has written extensively on the current legal discrimination against consensually non-monogamous parents and Co-Founder of the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, noted, “Anti-discrimination legislation like this can protect diverse families and their children from harmful prejudices that would otherwise result in limiting or removing a polyamorous parent’s custody rights to their own children. By adopting laws that directly recognize these families as worth protecting, courts may think twice about these harmful actions.”
Chosen Family Law Center’s Senior Legal Director and Harvard LGBTQ Advocacy Clinic’s Clinical Instructor Andy Izenson agreed, “It is crucial that protection from discrimination advances hand-in-hand with relationship recognition. As we learned from the fight for same-sex marriage, relationship recognition alone is a hollow victory, when our community members can celebrate their relationship legally on Sunday and get fired for it on Monday. Discrimination protections are an important part of a comprehensive legal strategy that prioritizes the most marginalized community members instead of only serving the needs of the privileged.”
"This legislation is about more than polyamory," according to David Jay, founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. "As an asexual activist who's part of a three-parent family, I'm proud to be part of the coalition advocating for this legislation. Relationships and families built around nonsexual intimacy often don't fit the two-partner model. Asexual people need these protections, so do solo parents with communities of care."
This historic move is applauded by polyamorous individuals and organizations across the country, who have long faced stigma and discrimination. This bill passage is an essential step forward in the movement for family inclusivity and recognition of the increasing diversity of families in the United States.
OPEN is a non-profit dedicated to advancing cultural acceptance of polyamory and ethical non-monogamy. Our vision is a future where romantic and intimate relationships between consenting adults are accepted and protected from discrimination.Many local laws were written assuming all households were a narrowly defined nuclear family. Recent studies have shown that only 18% of households meet the model of a married couple and their biological children. We believe Somerville’s laws should be updated to reflect the lived experience of its citizens. These amendments address this inequality, expanding necessary protections to more Somerville families.In 2020 Somerville made history by passing an ordinance allowing more than two members in a domestic partnership, but it did not codify non-discrimination ordinances to match. Without legal recognition and protection, many families face significant obstacles when it comes to accessing basic rights and resources. Without these proposed protections registering a plural domestic partnership can open an individual up to further discrimination, the loss of a job, or housing.By expanding the definition of family and relationship structure to include non-nuclear families and relationships, such as polyamorous relationships, the City Council will be providing greater protection and support for these families. Recognition as valid and legal will help combat misunderstandings surrounding this relationship style, provide greater visibility and acceptance for all family structures and help reduce the social stigma and isolation that many individuals experience. This is an opportunity to create a more inclusive and accepting community that celebrates diversity and supports all forms of consensual relationships.Somerville is a proven leader in championing positive social change. We applaud your vision and encourage your continued support by amending Code of Ordinances sections 1-4, 2-326, 7-41, 7-44, 7-47, 15-31 and 12-102 to include nondiscrimination provisions based on family and relationship structure. Doing so will promote inclusivity, provide legal protection and recognition for these families, and help build a stronger, more vibrant community for all residents.1. Article by the Center for American Progress (CAP), an analysis of the US Census Bureau data in 2020 shows that only 18.4% of American households follow the traditional nuclear family structure. CAP calculations are based on Bureau of the Census tables from the “Families and Living Arrangements: Historical Time Series”: Table HH1: Households by Type: 1940 to present and Table FM-1: Families by Presence of Own Children Under 18.