The coming struggle for polyamory rights: Caroline Giuliani's manifesto in Vanity Fair
Caroline Giuliani (Instagram)
By Caroline Rose GiulianiMost of the discoveries I’ve made on my path to polyamory have been transformational and uplifting. But since becoming a sex-positive activist and an outspoken advocate for the nonmonogamous community, I’ve also learned of a darker side of polyamory. No, I’m not talking about kinky sex in a dimly lit dungeon, as much as I’d like to be! ... I’m talking about the unwarranted shadow that society has cast over polyamorous people by forcing them to live in the closet.“Forcing” may seem like a strong word. But with the recent exception of residents in the progressive city of Somerville, Massachusetts, all other polyamorous people in America currently have zero protection from being blatantly discriminated against. They can be denied housing, prevented from advancing at work, and even fired, all without any legal recourse whatsoever. Relationship structure does not yet qualify as a “protected class” like gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation do. This lack of social and legal acceptance has compelled many polyamorous people to hide their true identity from their coworkers, family, and even closest friends.The danger of living openly means that—aside from the occasional celebrity nonmonogamy reference—polyamory hasn’t found a foothold in mainstream culture, which in turn has created a cascade of confusion about it that needs to be corrected. The most pervasive misconception that thrives in this void is that polyamory is just about sex. But for most of the polyamorous individuals I’ve met, this creative and expansive way of loving is about deep connection, committed partnerships, reliable family, and supportive community—things that everyone deserves to pursue free of discrimination.In the polyamorous tradition of clear communication, let’s start by defining some terms. “Polyamory” is the practice of having multiple romantic and often, though not always, sexual relationships at one time, with all parties aware and consenting. “Nonmonogamy” is the larger umbrella term under which polyamory falls, along with other nonexclusive relationship structures and practices like monogamish relationships or swinging. Nonmonogamy is often also referred to as “ethical nonmonogamy” (ENM) or “consensual nonmonogamy” (CNM), but I just use “nonmonogamy” because I prefer not to reinforce the idea that nonmonogamy is an inherently dirty term that requires a redeeming qualifier. It would feel more fitting to instead label all infidelity as “unethical nonmonogamy.”...One foundational myth I’d like to dispel is that polyamory is always a choice, or a “lifestyle,” rather than a deep-seated orientation. ......These questions of bodily autonomy and freedom of choice are more relevant now than ever in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s overturn. For many polyamorous people, the concept of “my body, my choice” extends beyond reproductive rights and deep into the fabric of their relationship agreements....The value of these creative family constellations became overwhelmingly clear to me after a friend of mine was tragically widowed and left to father a toddler. Because he and his late wife had already started living and coparenting with another couple, the three surviving adults of the polycule have been able to offer this young boy familial continuity and consistency. But even in the absence of such misfortune, polyamorous parents’ unique support systems often extend to and benefit their children. A poly couple, whom I have personally observed to be incredible parents to their highly intelligent 14-year-old daughter, explained that even past partners with whom they are no longer intimate remain part of their family’s long-term support network. The mother said, “It’s always been about bringing quality people into all of our lives. And we like that we’re able to introduce our daughter to the concept of alternative lifestyles, just as far as knowing that there’s not one way to do this life thing.”Nurturing this type of independent critical thinking and authentic self-expression is characteristic of many poly parents, which helps explain why I have felt so impressed by the emotional intelligence of the children I’ve met from these backgrounds. From a young age, they were taught to cultivate openheartedness while asserting and respecting boundaries, so these kids end up remarkably proficient in the language of complex human dynamics, much like children who learn foreign languages from birth. Critics often assume that polyamorous parents’ open approach to sexuality must negatively affect their kids. From what I’ve seen, it’s quite the opposite. The sex-positive attitude poly parents tend to maintain helps them model shame-free communication about awkward subjects, which only encourages their children to bravely share their fears and questions about the varied and often weird experience of being human. ...---------------------------Diana [Adams] has worked on a staggering number of child-custody cases where a parent is at risk of losing their children because of some form of sexual shaming. Whether the parent has adventurous desires listed on a FetLife profile, or is simply in love with more than one person, the decisions in these cases often end up boiling down to the prejudices of the presiding judge. In family law, definitions of terms like “best interest of the child” are incredibly subjective, so depending on how conservative a county is, Diana can predict with disturbing accuracy whether the judge will rule that a loving parent loses access to their child. Diana explained that attacking a coparent for their sexuality in an effort to restrict access to their child frequently maps with abusive relationship dynamics. Diana’s line of defense in those cases has been “refocusing on the fact that my client, however titillating their sexuality might be, is the one who’s actually focusing on the best interest of the child rather than trying to destroy their coparent out of spite.” Sadly, one of Diana’s main pieces of advice to victims of this kind of persecution is to move to a more progressive state if they have the means and ability to do so. Obviously, the vast majority of people do not, which is another major reason relationship-structure nondiscrimination policies are so urgently needed.At Diana’s New York–based nonprofit, Chosen Family Law Center (which I have recently joined as a volunteer board member), they provide the polyamorous community with free legal services and also advocate for legislative policies that will safeguard the rights of all different kinds of LGBTQ+ and nonnuclear families. Diana has been getting calls about employment loss nearly weekly for the past 15 years, and that’s just from the people who have the wherewithal to figure out how to contact them. ...The situation is the most dire for those who have additional barriers to equitable treatment, such as being low-income and BIPOC or transgender, which describes almost all of the clients whom Chosen Family Law Center helps. The stereotype that most polyamorous people are white and wealthy is unequivocally false....Regardless of demographic factors, when anyone reaches out to Diana because they’ve been fired due to being poly, there is still very little that can be done to help them. The Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition (PLAC), a project supported by Chosen Family Law Center and the Harvard Law School LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, is working hard to change that....PLAC intends to use its recent victory as a springboard to pass similar laws everywhere. It will follow in the footsteps of the same-sex marriage movement by implementing inclusive policies, first in blue bubble areas, and then expanding city by city. In a time of so much uncertainty and angst, these places will function as lighthouses to alert those who are currently being treated as second-class citizens that safe havens do indeed exist, and that a cultural shift is on the horizon. ......But the real plot twist here is that cultivating more acceptance of nonmonogamy will benefit everyone, not just those who practice it. Societies function better when citizens can be their authentic selves, and we can’t expect to learn anything from each other without first being able to see each other. Successful polyamorous relationships are living proof that love doesn’t have to fit within a predetermined structure, but instead can take any shape our imagination can dream up. And the simple yet powerful idea that we don’t have to do things the way they’ve been done before has the potential to spur meaningful change in a world that so desperately needs it.