Friday, March 1, 2013

Fighting For Polyamorous Marriage

My favorite podcast, the excellent Polyamory Weekly, just had a show on the subject of polyamorous marriage (so nice, I linked them twice) and whether or not it's something we should be fighting for as a movement. I always enjoy these kinds of discussions and I actually have strong feelings on the subject, so I was planning to just call in when I realized that I have one of those fancy blog things now. Suddenly I'm able to comment on things soapbox style, so I thought I would do that instead.

Most of Cunning Minx's points on this show come from an article by Mistress Matisse (Poly bloggers have the best names) called You May Now Kiss the Bride and the Other Bride and the Other Bride and the Other Groom so I'll be discussing those first.

 The Mistress' first point is about what constitutes Poly marriage
For starters, poly- marriage organizers would have to agree on a precise definition of what, exactly, poly marriage even is.[...] No matter how you phrased it, any workably pithy legal definition would necessarily exclude certain configurations of people. And poly people get uncomfortable at the idea of excluding people—it reminds us unpleasantly of monogamy. So that's a problem.
This concern echoes a larger concern about what relationships are supposed to look like. In Polyamory we've worked hard to break away from the idea that relationships have a set model or standard. When I speak to classes or do presentations on Polyamory (this is something I actually get to do now! People ask me to come and talk about things for an hour and I get to do that!) I talk about something I call Polyamorous Theory. Basically this refers to the broader implications of Polyamory as opposed to the day-to-day scheduling and dish-washing arrangements that actually fill the time when you're dating multiple people. Polyamorous Theory functions similarly to Queer Theory but focuses specifically on relationship construction. As a movement, if you can call us that, we aren't trying to make standard Monogamous relationships but with three people instead of two, we're trying to blast down the "societally approved relationships" box wholesale and let every individual decide what kind of relationship they want to be in. If we're approaching marriage we should be doing it the same way.

Instead of bumping our heads together trying to decide what Poly marriage would look like, how about we agree on some legislative goals that benefit people in every different kind of Poly arrangement? Instead of pushing for marriage right away let's start by fighting against the laws that make our current arrangements illegal. In Wisconsin for example both adultery and bigamy are class 1 felonies as of 2006. These laws and others are specifically constructed in such a way that they cause legal problems for anyone in a Poly relationship that is married or has a married partner.

Additionally there are numerous other legal battles we could be fighting that don't look like marriage but allow for Polyamorous marriages to exist. Fighting to make kinship for the purposes of hospital visits based on the patient's desires rather than legal marriage or biological relation only would be a great start. Instead of trying to hop on the assimilationist bandwagon to share insurance why not fight for universal healthcare like other "developed" nations? The battle to overturn oppressive cohabitation laws is as important to Polyamorous relationships as any piece of paper handed over by a judge should be.

This leads into Mistress's second point
But let's say the poly community comes up with a way of defining "poly marriage." Then comes the price tag: It costs five bucks to file an initiative, but persuading voters to change the law in favor of poly marriage would take a lot of skillful and extremely expensive political marketing. How many gay/lesbian bars have I been to where a drag queen or a leather daddy had a microphone in hand and was working the tipsy crowd like a carnival barker for marriage-equality donations? Too many to count. Unfortunately, poly people are not oppressed enough to have our own bars. We only have potlucks, and no one drinks very much at those (although I have very much wanted to on the few occasions I attended one). I shudder at the idea of Obama-esque daily e-mails from Poly Marriage Now begging me for money. But fundraising infrastructure is key—and queers have it, poly people don't.
 There are a couple good points here: we don't have the money and we don't have the infrastructure to fight a marriage equality fight. I think we all know some people that do, though. As a member of the Queer community, and quite honestly a radical marriage resister (strong feelings, I finally mentioned this halfway in), I've been vocal about trying to get the Gay and Lesbian rights movement off their assimilationist kick and towards a push for real equality that serves poor Queer people of color, old homesteading Polyamorists, and affluent white Gay professionals equally. I'm not alone in this call, and a mass of activist Polyamorists joining the ranks of those already seeking broader reforms in numerous areas could help to shift attention of those with the momentum to those fights. Kinship agreements, decriminalization of alternative styles of family-building, there are a lot of groups already fighting these fights and we can serve as a bridge between them. Popular opinion may take money to move but there is already money going into issues that could really use more people to publicize, inform, and work towards them.

Finally Mistress Matisse raises the specter of Polyamorous divorce.
Now, a mortgage isn't a marriage license—although I probably could have gotten a divorce faster and cheaper than I could have sold one-third of a house. But I'm extremely glad now that I didn't make a legal and financial commitment to two other people that I would have had to dissolve while going through an intense emotional upheaval with one of them.
I won't argue that divorce would just go away or stop being difficult if we'd only get over some particular cultural ideas. Okay, maybe it would, but even I don't have a solid idea for how that would come about. Instead I would argue that this still keeps the discussion in terms of the heteronormative marriage ideal, plus one. It's to no one's benefit trying to push people towards a shared house and a picket fence if that isn't what they want. It's to our benefit collectively to have that as an option available to us, but not to make it the only option that allows us access to whatever it is we expect to get out of marriage. Minx points out that she is personally too introverted to give up the free time she has living on her own. That's understandable, but she could still probably benefit from a law protecting her right to have sex with her married partner. She would probably benefit from a legal arrangement that allows all of the partners she chooses the ability to visit her in the hospital (as long as they gave her some free time between visits). She might even benefit from a multiple parents law if she decided that she has an interest in raising children. All of us should at least have these options available to us.

So should Polyamorous people be fighting for marriage? Probably not. Even aside from the points above marriage is already a broken institution for a lot of the people that are able to access it. Polyamorists would get far more out of addressing the inequalities inherent in laws based on family structure, expanding benefits given to married couples to more groups, and making sure that we aren't considered felons if we are married. Whether we're ready to become a real movement and fight for any of these things is an entirely different question.


  1. "Shoot at the moon and hit an eagle. Shoot at an eagle and hit the ground."

    There is no question that all adult relationships, esp. those involving kids and property are complicated, but in most cases of poly, many of those complications are externally created by the very illegality or criminality of the family structure. Fighting for de-criminalization will go a long way to solving those problems. But like the Same Sex Marriage question, posing it in the first place does redefine the dialogue. There is little doubt that America, and possibly Canada, is one of the few places in the Western World that will actively push back against legalizing and legitimizing poly families. However, not to make that the goal, and instead settle for a lesser one of 'tolerance' or 'live in peace' or 'normalizing' will simply mean even less of the equal rights polys should enjoy will be achieved.

    Like Same Sex marriage, Poly marriage should be the only goal that everyone rallies behind. Any victories that come will fall short of that, but there will be more than if the bar is set lower. And our insistence on our equal rights can only help increase the general public's views of what that means, despite how angry that will make some of them. They won't be happy unless we are all gone anyway, so you can't appease them anyhow.

    1. Trey,

      I do agree that to aim too low would be to sacrifice both momentum and potential. My argument is that seeking a Polyamorous equivalent of Monogamous marriage would actually be the lower aim you're describing. As many critiques as I have for Minx and Mistress Matisse's dislike of a Poly marriage push I'm still not comfortable with defining what Poly marriage looks like or with supporting marriage generally. I feel that the ultimate goal of Polyamory as a movement needs to be a complete destabilization of the system of marriage in order to allow everyone to live in the family structures they choose without benefits being provided to some and not to others.

      Same sex marriage is a terrible goal for the Queer movement to be putting first. Can it help people? Yes. That's why I never act in opposition to it and I vote in support of it at every instance. However, as a vanguard to some sort of equality it fails in almost every regard. I'll be doing a longer post about this soon, but the jist of it is that the lives of the 40% of homeless people in this country that are LGBTQ (and the other 60% for that matter) should be more of a concern for the LGBTQ "community" than making sure that affluent, white, gays and lesbians have the opportunity to fully participate in affluent white social circles and receive benefits equal to affluent, white, straight couples. Same sex marriage doesn't offer any benefits to anyone too poor to qualify for most of those benefits as a single person, and Polyamorous marriage (however we'd define that) can only offer a slightly modified allocation of those same benefits to equally affluent people. I'm in the debtor class, I'm probably the most well-off financially I'll ever be right now because the money I spend hasn't come due yet. I'm one of the people whose interests fall be the wayside in any argument that we should be buying in to the marriage system.

      Additionally a single fair criticism from those who oppose Polyamorous rights generally is that implementing marriage "equality" for us requires a vast set of law changes while same sex marriage basically requires equal enforcement of contracts. I'm in favor of making those vast law changes, including changing the way we allocate health care based on spousal insurance, how we define wealth amongst couples/triads/groups as a unit, and how citizenship would be allocated through marriage (and let me be clear that my vision of these changes is a radical one). Every one of those issues already has a group of people invested in making those changes, and we should be invested alongside them rather than trying to push those concerns into a singular entity ("legalize Poly marriage!") that denies the work already being done by other activists.

      So what I'm saying is, yes, let's shoot for the moon, but let's not get caught up on what society right now seems to think the ultimate goal of living should look like.

  2. As long as there is something offered by the government, such as marriage, equal protection principles require that it extends to all. I recently blogged about this; the polyamorous (or polygamous) freedom to marry WILL happen. I'm trying to make it happen sooner rather than later. I also believe in the freedom to NOT marry. Basically, an adult should be free to share love, sex, residence, and marriage/partnership/union with ANY and ALL consenting adults. Equality just for some is not equality. And, poly people should also be free to NOT marry, and not be punished as a result.

  3. I'm in Canada. The marriage laws here are largely homogeneous, except for Quebec, which is based on French common law rather than English.

    That's why the poly law is so discriminatory. Common law and marriage are treated as identical according to tax, inheritance law, etc. Except maybe Quebec, I would't know. Marriage has always been a legal property contract. Once the contract is signed, those laws are in place until annulment (they never existed) or divorce (in which case, some still apply. Like your gf doesn't have the same legal rights over your body as an ex-wife.)

    Common law is proven in Alberta by accepting mail as one last name, for example, or mingling money, or having kids, or living together for a certain period, etc. Then one has all the benefits of marriage, including widow's pension if your partner dies, say. But with common law, those benefits are not continued after the partnership terminates. If you go your separate ways, you all go back to 'single' in legal status, and your association no longer continues, except where you've signed contracts together. (Leases, etc.) Your common law spouse trumps your ex-wife over your body or lack of Will, but your common law ex-wife isn't squat, though she can get spousal support if she proves it.

    Yes, there are alot of laws already in place for marriage and common law. There is nothing in them that makes them any different for more than two partners; nothing more confusing than it already is now...

    Partners are generally recognized as different from lovers almost entirely due to financial intermingling, not how intimate they are or how much time they spend together. This isn't surprising, as marriage has always been a financial and legal arrangement, not a love one. However, I find that successful poly does almost automatically imply a household sharing. I believe that really is the reason why we use the term primaries and secondaries: not because we spend less time or energy on someone, but because they live apart and don't mingle their bank accounts.

    So it's still pretty easy. In Canada, if 2 ppl were living together and not mingling money in any way, like making any big purchases or insurance or their names weren't together, and they weren't married, they would have to prove common law status. It wouldn't be assumed. If any of those requirements applied, then common law would be the default. If two ppl weren't married, and lived apart, again, common law would have to proved, and it would be tougher without some sort of money mingling. If they were married, then they wouldn't need any money mingling and could live apart and still they'd be partners. Marriage laws are already pretty well-established. Applying the same criteria to more than one isn't rocket science.

    I know Americans are generally miffed about their marriage laws and many are pressing to have them scrapped entirely with a bunch of new, fair, and equally applied laws in place for all your citizens. Since all of your States are actually legal states according to international law and have their own Constitutions, that task may be impossible to do. Fighting for equal rights under your own State laws may be the best you can manage, without a completely new federal/state arrangement...

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