Last week, a federal judge decided that Proposition 8, the law narrowly passed in 2008 by popular vote in California that bans same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional. Naturally, there was much rejoicing, not only in the gay and lesbian community but among supporters.
Polyamorous people, however, remain in a bind. While many are happy to maintain a central partnership, often taking the form of a traditional marriage, and have other partners besides, there are some polyamorous people who choose to live as triads or quads or other polyfidelitous groups, and these folks have a heck of a time getting the legal protections and advantages afforded to more traditional families with the ease of signing a marriage license.
Some more vitriolic opponents of gay marriage famously argued that allowing gays to marry would start our country down a slippery slope where people would be able to marry their sisters or their dogs -- or, heaven forfend, more than one person at a time. And multiple marriage continues to be an issue that is barely on the table politically. One glance at the news archives on polygamy in the New York Times reveals the overwhelming negativity associated with this practice in the U.S. Multiple marriage in this country is most often associated with the FLDS Church and its incestuous, misogynist ways, or with other cultures that our media make sure to keep foreign to us.
What, then, are polyamorists, who by and large are practicing respectful, egalitarian multiple partnerships without a fanatical religious belief underlying them, to do about securing rights for their families?
Currently, there doesn't seem to be a strong movement toward legal recognition of polyamorous groups. Most seem happy to give gays and lesbians their victories as they continue to cascade across the country, and most also don't wish to be associated with the FLDS or other fundamentalist groups when fighting for their cause.
Instead, when polyamory is talked about in the media at all, it seems to be more in a context of dismantling the so-called "traditional family unit" -- the very thing the conservatives balk at when considering the gay marriage debate. The question is: Are polyamorous families seeking to redefine family altogether when they step outside the mainstream? Or will they ultimately fight to be accepted by it, as gays and lesbians have?
Adbusters recently did a piece called "Is Polyamory Revolutionary?" In it, Micah White suggests that polyamory, as an outgrowth of free love, might be the next, more grown-up step in the struggle against industrial-capitalist values. And Connecticut's Brookfield Patch did a profile of an intentional community in rural Virginia, whose members live in an entirely egalitarian community with very little ownership, and many practice polyamory. Sex At Dawn, the new sensation by anthropologists Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, finds overwhelming evidence of a pre-civilized world where humans lived in polyamorous groups with little conception of property, paternity or possession. In short, polyamory today seems to be viewed as a step away from so-called mainstream values and towards a type of family that is far older than most of us know.
According to Ryan's recent writings at Psychology Today, entitled "The Prehistory of Prop 8," "traditional marriage" as most people define it is a concept very much in the minority on this planet, both spatially and temporally speaking. Not only have there been many different concepts of marriage throughout history, but our ancestors apparently had no concept of marriage at all. Instead they lived in "fiercely egalitarian" groups, where sharing everything and depending on one another was not only encouraged but mandatory.
Bringing this vision into the present time and our present culture is a radical step, to say the least, and it's no wonder that those who embrace this vision tend to isolate themselves into organized communities -- many of which fail under the pressure of the overculture. Instead, most poly people seem to live alongside the mainstream -- not completely in its flow, but abiding by many of its rules and benefitting from many of its advantages. This choice makes poly families the next group likely to rise in opposition to the "one man, one woman" marital norm. It doesn't seem fair, for example, that one of a man's wives is covered under his health insurance, and his children from both women are also covered, but the other wife and mother is not.
Even for those who do choose to remove themselves from the larger society and live in a way more closely mirroring our ancestors might have something to say when one of them is hospitalized and visiting rights come into question. In short, poly people face the same questions any marginal group always has: Do we isolate, or assimilate? And if we assimilate, how do we make sure that our particular needs as people are accounted for by the larger society?
Any changes -- or even battles for those changes -- are likely to be a long time coming. The straight citizens of the United States are just barely starting to wrap their brains around the idea that gay people might be able to love each other in the same long-term, putatively monogamous way that they themselves are assumed to. Given that the way open relationships are entering the mainstream is via a concept called "new monogamy," it is doubtful that multiple committed partnerships are going to be considered something worthy of legal recognition anytime soon.
So do we dismantle the old ways and reinvent family structures entirely? Or do we fight the good fight to be accepted on the terms of the ordinary world? For the nonce, at any rate, most of us will dwell in the between-space. At least until the revolution comes.