Category Archives: legal rights

Further Thoughts on DOMA and Polyamory

It's only when you marry two goats that things really get out of hand (via Cyanide & Happiness).

It’s only when you marry two goats that things really get out of hand (via Cyanide & Happiness).

As promised, I’d like to elaborate (ramble) a bit now about my thoughts on poly marriage and DOMA.

I’ve always responded to the slippery-slope argument by asserting that poly marriage is not, in fact, anything to be terrified of. I’ve occasionally seen responses from other poly folks that are more along the lines of “everyone should calm down, we’re not interested in marriage right now, anyway.” That might be true, but it’s not really the line I’m interested in taking when it comes to defending the idea of poly marriage. My point has always been that from an ethical perspective, you can’t defend same-sex marriage and then not extend that thinking to plural marriage as well. As for pedophilia and bestiality, it feels absurd that I should even have to point this out, but it seems pretty simple to draw the line at consenting adult humans being free to marry one another. Children and goats are not capable of meaningful consent. Now, some people argue that adult women in fundamentalist polygamy type situations aren’t really provided with the opportunity to give meaningful consent, either. But unfortunately, the same thing is true for a lot of women in fundamentalist religious monogamous marriages as well, and we don’t use that as a reason to throw marriage out all together. The fact that some plural marriages, like plenty of monogamous marriages, happen in a problematic way is not a moral argument against the entire institution. I don’t believe that poly marriage is right around the corner. But if I’m going to defend the ethical implications of it, I’m going to do so in a way that says “if this happened tomorrow, so what? Have you stopped and thought about whether there’s really anything ethically different about this than about monogamous marriage, gay or straight?”

I think that the repeal of DOMA does pave the way in our general direction at least in the ethical sense. I’m inclined to agree with law professor Mark Goldfeder, quoted in USA Today as saying: “It’s one hundred percent likely that these polygamist cases will come, but they will no longer turn on whether a relationship is immoral. The court will look at whether these relationships cause third party harm.” Of course, my personal dividing line of whether or not something is immoral is really no different than the question of whether it causes third party harm. But that aside, I think Goldfeder makes a good point. I think that when polygamist cases are brought before courts in the future, the DOMA decision will have some impact on the outcome. And unlike Wesley Pruden at the Washington Times, I think that’s a positive thing.

While I am all for boldly asserting the ethical acceptability of poly marriage, though, and also genuinely hopeful that either poly marriage will come to pass or the whole government-marriage business will be disbanded one day, I am not particularly interested in placing marriage at the center of poly activism.

Part of my reluctance to place marriage rights at the forefront is really similar to the critiques of the assimilationist nature of the same-sex marriage movement. While a lot of us poly folks (myself included) do have two or more “marriage-like” relationships, a lot of us don’t. Plenty of poly people choose to share a home with only one–or even zero!–partners. Plenty of us who do have two or more cohabiting, life-committed partners also have other lovers outside of that. Part of the beauty of polyamory is its ability to take many different forms, to be many different things, to reject very narrow preconceived molds of what romantic, intimate relationships should look like. And I’m afraid that if marriage becomes our central focus, we’ll put forth a public image of poly that erases all of that wonderful, liberatory variation.

Another concern I have is about the narrowness of marriage as a focus. I address this at a bit more length in a piece that’s forthcoming soon over at Modern Poly, but to put it briefly, I think that if we really look at what compulsory monogamy is and where it comes from in our society, we can talk about patriarchy. We can talk about capitalism. And I feel like we can say “you know, I really just want to marry two people and live in the suburbs” and leave it at that. Or we can have these conversations about radically challenging the dominant power structures. And I think we can do both of these things at the same time; I’m living with my partners in the suburbs, after all. But I think if we allow marriage to become the entirety of the conversation, we’re really missing out on a much larger and more important opportunity to situate ourselves as part of a broader system of hierarchies and oppressions.

I know that in the wake of the DOMA ruling, we’re going to be called on a lot by people from all over the political spectrum to talk about our own feelings about marriage. It’s potentially a great opportunity. I just hope we can make sure the conversation is a nuanced and inclusive one.

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So, What Does This DOMA Repeal Mean For Us?

First of all, I want to say that while repealing DOMA is obviously a huge victory for gay and lesbian folks, there’s a lot more to LGBTQ rights than marriage equality. Queer and trans* folks need equal access to things like housing and employment and healthcare; a staggering number of queer and trans* youth (especially queer and trans* folks of color) are currently homeless. Trans women and gender non-conforming male-bodied people are more likely than any other segment of the LGBTQ population to be victims of violent crime, including murder. Marriage rights matter to a lot of people in a lot of very real ways, but they’re not the only thing that matters, and we need to keep sight of that as we move forward.

That being said, onto a bit of a look at polyamory’s place in all of this!

I’ll have a longer post with more of my own thoughts on the matter coming soon, but right now I just want to offer a few links to some of the conversations that are already happening.

Over at BuzzFeed, an article went up about polygamists celebrating the DOMA ruling. Though polygamy only technically means multiple marriage, we all know that it’s traditionally associated with certain fundamentalist religious practices. As more articles like this appear, it’s going to be important for polyamorists to make our voices heard as well, and to clarify how we differ in practice from one-sided patriarchal polygamy.

Over at Poly In the Media, Alan offered a little round-up of his own, featuring a handful of articles about multi-partner marriage that have cropped up in the past few days.

At Modern Poly, several new articles with a variety of perspectives on the theme of marriage were published in June, just ahead of the court’s ruling.

As I’m in the early stages of planning my own (non-legal) wedding with one of my partners, this is all a very timely discussion for me. The jury is still out among poly activists as to whether marriage rights are really something we consider a pressing issue, though the majority of us seem to feel we’d like to have that right (or to see marriage de-regulated entirely) someday.  But regardless of whether we’re interested in having this conversation right now, it seems that in the wake of the DOMA ruling, this conversation is seeking us out. I’ve definitely seen a spike in my google hits these past two days here on the blog. I only hope that as we do move forward in this discussion of poly marriage rights, we can keep that conversation from becoming the central focus of our movement. If this particular historical moment offers us a unique opportunity to be seen and heard, I think that’s fantastic. I just hope we can bring a balanced agenda to the table, rather than one that’s narrowly focused on marriage rights as our only desire or need.

Some of my own past musings on poly and marriage can be found at Modern Poly, Role/Reboot, and here on this blog by checking out the “marriage” tag. More coming soon!

Bisexuality as an Argument for Plural Marriage?

A few days ago, I stumbled on an article by Cary Tennis over at Salon arguing that bisexuality should be seen as an argument for plural marriage. He says “I am for maximum human freedom under the law. If being lesbian means one wants the right to be partners with women, and being gay means one wants the right to be partners with men, what does being bisexual mean if not that one wants the right to be partners with both sexes?”

Of course, there is a backlash to this, because many bisexual folks are offended by the suggestion that they’re incapable of monogamy (because unfortunately, in our society, being non-monogamous is something that one is “accused” of). To this, Tennis states “One can of course be bisexual and make the choice to marry monogamously. But must one? Why?”

As someone who’s long been interested in connecting the rights of poly folks with LGBTQ struggles, I find this argument tremendously interesting. But there are also some reasons why I find it worrisome.

I’ve definitely said in the past that bisexuality can be a compelling reason to engage in polyamory; while I totally recognize that many bi folks are perfectly capable of monogamy and don’t feel that their orientation manifests itself as a desire for two partners simultaneously, others do feel that they need both male and female partners to be completely fulfilled. And that should be embraced as a valid desire, not frowned upon as something that makes all bisexual people look bad or incapable of monogamy. I think what this comes down to, though, is not so much about bisexuality, but about the fact that some people—of all sexual orientations—are polyamorous, and others are not. When someone is both bi and poly, it only makes sense that they generally want to have both male and female partners. But in my mind, this desire is ultimately a feature of their poly-ness far more than their bisexuality.

I’m concerned that if we essentialize bisexuality as a “legitimate” argument for polyamory, we will find ourselves in a place where we only validate plural relationships that are bisexual in nature. Personally, I tend not to label my sexual orientation, because it feels too nuanced for any of the available labels. But “bisexual” would be the closest to accurate, if I was forced to choose one. And yet, my interest in potentially being in relationships with women was never a particularly driving force in my desire to live polyamorously. I’m in love with and deeply committed to two men, and I can easily conceive of a life in which I only had relationships with those men, but I cannot conceive of a life where I was forced to choose between them. Similarly, even most people I know who do feel that bisexuality was a strong factor in their desire for polyamory still want to be free to form relationships with people of both (or all) genders, not only people who are a different gender from their current partner. I’m sure that there are some people who feel that they specifically need one male and one female lover in order to be happy, nothing more and nothing less. But it seems that for the majority of us who for whatever reason feel compelled toward polyamory, we are far more interested in being able to form meaningful, loving relationships with multiple people in an organic and authentic way, which is not circumscribed by a rule that says “you can be involved with other women, but not other men.” If we argue for plural marriage on the basis of bisexuality, does that mean that we are arguing for plural marriage only in cases where one desires both a male and female spouse?

Tennis says that “It seems only logical that a bisexual person is capable of having equal and simultaneously deep, committed relationships with more than one person.” But why is it logical that all bisexual people are capable of this, and that no strictly heterosexual or homosexual people are? Being attracted to both men and women and being capable of deeply loving either a man or a woman says nothing about one’s capacity to deeply love two people simultaneously, and being capable of loving only men or only women does not mean that someone isn’t able to form simultaneous deep, committed relationships with more than one person. Again, to me this is a question far more of whether one is more “oriented” toward monogamy or polyamory, not a question of how many genders one sees as potential partners.

I am definitely interested in a stance that says bisexual people shouldn’t have to be limited to only one partner; even though many might make the choice to have only one partner, that should be their decision, not something forced upon them. But this is exactly the way I feel about all discussions of monogamy vs. polyamory, not only those which involve bisexuality. If we’re going to talk about maximum freedom under the law, then we need to give all people the ability to freely choose whether to be with one or more than one deeply committed partner, regardless of gender. If we actually recognize polyamory as a form of sexual orientation in its own right, we don’t need to rely on bisexuality as an inroad to validate polyamorous relationships. Regardless of the genders of their desired partners, some people simply are polyamorous. To me, that’s all the argument we should need for the recognition of plural relationships.

Hell Freezes Over: Rush Limbaugh Briefly Makes Sense

Earlier today, Rush Limbaugh had a call from someone who wanted to debate same-sex marriage with him. And Limbaugh challenged the caller by asking what would then be wrong with allowing three people to marry. Of course, Limbaugh was trying to catch the caller in a slippery slope argument designed to make same-sex marriage look bad, but the content of what he actually said was really quite reasonable. And the pro-same-sex-marriage caller, frustratingly enough, responded by insisting that marriage could only be between two people:

RUSH:  Why?  If you love one, you can love two. What if all three people love each other and they want the benefits and all that, who among us should deny those three people their love?

CALLER:  I think they can be loved, I just don’t think you need to give it a legal status because —

RUSH:  Why not?

CALLER:  Because two people would make a family, they could raise kids, adopt kids, do whatever they want, I don’t think —

RUSH:  Wait a minute.  But why can’t three people do that?  In fact, if you have two of the same sex and one of the opposite sex, you’ve handled the adoption issue. You don’t need to adopt. You can have one woman and two guys in a marriage, and the woman could be impregnated by the two, and, voila, you got a family.

CALLER:  I don’t see that.

RUSH:  You got a lot of love and what could possibly be wrong with that?

CALLER:  I think society’s determined that two spouses, two people —

There is something deeply wrong with the way the majority of folks are handling this “slippery slope” when, for even a brief moment, I find Rush Limbaugh to sound more logical than a same-sex marriage advocate.

I’m vehemently supportive of same-sex couples’ right to marry, and excited that DOMA appears to be on the way out. I just wish supporters of same-sex marriage would actually think critically about this “slippery slope” business instead of just responding defensively and throwing poly folks under the bus. If you don’t think my relationship is as valid as yours, then we have different notions of what “equality” means.

Orientation or “Lifestyle Choice”?

Among polyamorous folks, there is no real consensus as to whether being polyamorous is a choice or not. Some feel like they chose it, while others feel that it was something undeniable within themselves. I’m not big on talking about what’s “natural” and what isn’t, even when it comes to the so-called “nature” of particular individuals, in large part because I think it’s nearly impossible to separate any kind of “natural” self from the social context we live in. Personally, I do feel like being polyamorous is an undeniable part of who I am, but I have little interest in the origins. I’m not terribly fond of essentialist notions of sexual orientation generally; I don’t believe that “I was born this way, I can’t help it” can or should be the only defense for people with non-normative sexual identities. I don’t wish to minimize or deny the fact that certainly many people do experience these desires as an innate feature of who they are; as I said, that’s how polyamory feels to me. But it shouldn’t matter whether something is “in-born” or not when it comes to arguing for equal rights. I don’t like defending rights only on the ground that people are not “to blame” for their sexual orientations, as if queerness is something to apologize for. I’m as concerned with defending the right of people to love (and have sex with) whoever they desire (so long, of course, as the feeling is mutual!), regardless of whether that desire is born of “nature,” free choice, or some hazy combination of the two. So when it comes to polyamory, the point, to me, is that whether it was a choice or not, here we are. Someone might choose to argue with me about whether or not I as an individual can claim being polyamorous as “an identity,” but they cannot deny the existence of my family. And when I consider the kind of recognition and validation I’d like us to have, I don’t see why those things are at all dependent on the question of whether we chose this life or not.

Back in 2010, Ann Tweedy wrote an excellent paper on polyamory as sexual orientation with regard to discrimination law; it’s a lengthy academic piece, but I highly recommend reading it in its entirety if legal scholarship on poly is of any interest to you. To summarize, though, Tweedy aims to sidestep the essentialist vs. choice debate, and instead puts forth an argument that polyamory should be considered a part of sexual orientation because of the degree to which it is embedded in one’s sense of self. This method of defining what qualifies as a central part of identity makes all the sense in the world to me; even if polyamory is a choice, it’s far from a casual decision like what to eat for breakfast this morning. It forms a core part of our lives, like the choice of whether or not to have children, to give just one example of something else which is at once a “choice” and yet also respected as a very essential part of our lives. Even aside from my whole-hearted agreement with Tweedy’s reasons for leaving aside the choice-or-not debate, though, I think she’s really on to something here; striving for a more expansive definition of “sexual orientation” is probably a much quicker route to recognition than attempting to gain widespread recognition and protections for polyamorous relationships as a separate category, and under the criteria she sets forth, I certainly think poly relationships qualify.

Personally, when I try to resolve the question of whether our relationships are a choice or not, what it comes down to for me is a matter of consent. It might seem strange to think of consent in that way, but I like to compare it to the idea of active, enthusiastic consent of the “yes means yes” variety advocated by sex-positive feminism. We should be actively consenting not just to specific encounters with specific individuals, but to the way our sexualities are constructed in a broader sense. Even if traits like sexual orientation are somehow inherent, there is still the question of whether we actually live authentically, or whether coercive social forces prevent us from doing so. Viewed from that angle, “choice” and “orientation” are not in any way mutually exclusive categories. Certainly, countless people have suppressed same-sex desires throughout history out of extreme social pressures to do so. Regardless of whether our desires are “choice” or not, we still must “choose”–we must enthusiastically, actively consent–to live authentically to those desires. Regardless of whether I could choose to be in love with more than one person simultaneously, I had to choose to live this way. And as human beings who (hopefully) value autonomy and free will, why should admitting the role of choice in our intimate relationships be viewed as such a bad thing?

When people were fighting to abolish prohibitions of interracial marriage, the argument was never made that certain people were innately “oriented” toward members of another race, only that individuals should be free to be with whoever they happened to fall in love–and choose to spend their lives–with. Love and any accompanying long term commitment seem to me to always be some murky combination of choice and something else inexplicable. Falling in love is more than just finding compatibility in a strictly logical sense; I imagine very few people would say they simply made a rational choice about who to become smitten with. And yet we still must make an active choice about who (if anyone) to form commitments and share our lives with. In other words, though the idea of flippant choice has long been tossed around as an insult on the right, isn’t the reality that we all must make choices about our relationships? Long-term commitments, marriages–these things don’t just happen to people because of forces completely outside of their control, but the fact that they are actively chosen is taken completely for granted when they happen in a “normal,” socially acceptable context. It’s not until someone loves or desires someone of the same gender, or more than one person at a time–or anyone else outside the bounds of social normativity–and chooses to be true to those desires that “choice” suddenly becomes a dirty word. Rather than responding to opponents by denying that we make active choices, I think freedom of choice is exactly the thing we should all be fighting for.

 

Will Poly Marriage Ever Be on the Agenda?

Over at The Stranger recently, Mistress Matisse wrote a piece about why poly marriage is never going to happen. She began by discussing the legal complications of poly marriage, and then went on to talk about her own personal feelings about whether poly marriage is desirable. I found plenty to agree with there; I’ve written about my own uncertain feelings about poly marriage–and whether or not we want it–in the past. And in fact, I have rather complicated feelings about the institution of marriage in general. Honestly, I would rather see marriage completely de-institutionalized. But it’s impossible to deny the fact that marriage does currently offer a tremendous number of benefits to those who enter into it, and equally impossible to fault anyone for wanting the legal protections for their relationships that marriage provides. I’ve read some really excellent critiques of the fight for same-sex marriage equality written by radical queer folks, and there’s so much I respect and relate to within those critiques. But personally, I always come back to the idea that it should–unless we do away with legal marriage entirely–be a matter of personal choice. I agree wholeheartedly with critics who argue that same-sex marriage needn’t be such a central issue for LGBTQ activism, and that fighting for things like housing, employment, and health care equalities for queer folks belong on the center-stage. But I still can’t bring myself to say that marriage equality is meaningless.

It is in that frame of mind, then, that I consider the possibilities of polyamorous marriage equality. Mistress Matisse is probably correct that there will never be a strong enough push for it from the poly community, and she’s certainly right that it would bring up a new set of legal questions about how such marriages are defined. But I have to say that I disagree with her personal reasoning for concluding that poly marriage will never happen. I respect and can empathize the reasons why she would never choose marriage. But that doesn’t have to translate to making that choice for everyone else. Myself, as someone who is in more than one “for the long haul” relationship, who will soon be cohabiting with both of my partners, I’d be lying if I said I never feel frustrated by the fact that one of my relationships is granted more legal rights and protections than the other. I don’t know for certain that I would make the choice to legally marry my other partner, but I do know I would rather that choice was mine to make (at least, in the context of the current system of marriage we live with). And I know other poly families who would definitely choose legal marriage if they had the option. As long as at least some folks want it, I think it’s unreasonable to completely rule out the possibility that poly marriage might at some point be worth fighting for.

At the moment, I think we’ve got enough work to do just trying to be recognized and de-stigmatized in our communities; poly-marriage, if it’s ever an issue we take seriously, is many years away. But the same could have been said in the not so distant past about the status of gay and lesbian folks in our society. We have a long way to go before there’s even a remote possibility of poly-marriage achieving the necessary public support, and I’d honestly prefer to see the rights and privileges of all legal marriage stripped away before that day comes. But I do want to someday live in a world where relationships like mine are seen as equally real and valid as monogamous ones, regardless of where we all stand in the legal sense.

In closing her piece, Mistress Matisse states: “To be polyamorous is to let your heart grow to hold many loving relationships that come in different shapes and sizes. Once you’ve learned to do that, why would you try to squeeze it back down into a pattern built for two?” I think that’s a really meaningful sentiment, and I also think we have to resist the temptation to “water down” our relationships, to try to make them more palatable to a society that’s more ready and willing to accept the relationships that more closely resemble the accepted norm. But I think there will always be some of us who legitimately desire relationships that look a little more “normal,” even when we’re outside the bounds of monogamy. Personally, my goal isn’t to deviate as much as possible from the normative. My goal is just to live and form relationships in a way that’s authentically right for me and my partners, and to try to create a world where others are free to do the same. Real marriage equality, to me, would mean that all consenting adults had access to the same kinds of recognition and protections for their families–however they choose to form them, however they choose to define them, and however many people they include. Anything short of that will, in my opinion, never be “equal” enough.