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Redfern Jon Barrett: Polyamory and the New Struggle for Civil Rights

Why we need to recognize the changing face of Western families.

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Image from Flickr user Kumar's Edit

It is tempting to suggest that our generation’s struggles over marriage and civil unions have already been won. Even for those of us outside the United States, the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Obergefell vs. Hodges was a historic moment: to witness the legalization of same-sex marriage across the entire country, and barely a dozen years since homosexual sex itself was legalized with Lawrence vs. Texas. The Irish referendum brought a similar sense of jubilation, as did legalization in Britain in 2014, Spain in 2005, and the Netherlands in 2001. Decades of campaigning brought the greatest fundamental shifts in marriage law for generations.

Yet this achievement stretches only so far. Despite the media’s assimilationist portrayals of queer relationships, same-sex marriage does not cater to every individual in every LGBTQIA community. The image of the happy, monogamous, clean-cut same-sex couple can never represent the plethora of relationship forms which have long been part of queer culture—a culture dating back to the “molly houses” of 18th-century London, whose clientele represented the same diverse types we find among queer groups today: from mimicking heterosexual institutions by performing mock marriage and childbirth ceremonies, to engaging in group sexual behavior.

There has never been a single “gay culture,” and so a single set of rights can never cover everyone equally.

I am a queer man in a three-way relationship. I am also an author and campaigner for polyamory rights. With the current legal situation surrounding polyamorous relationships, these aspects of my life go hand-in-hand: raising awareness around polyamory may not have been something I ever intended to do, but became a natural consequence of the social, legal, and political difficulties which inevitably surround families like our own. Despite current inequalities, I do not oppose monogamous relationships, nor do I call into question the rich and fulfilling monogamous bonds formed by the majority of my friends and family. Many people feel no need to expand their relationships beyond a single person, and I fully support their right to do so. But by definition, we do not have equality until everyone is beneath the equality umbrella.

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My partner Darren and I met a decade ago, in the socially conservative city of Swansea in South Wales—his native home, to which I relocated from England in order to pursue my studies. Though our relationship was initially established as monogamous, after a while we began exploring. We started by having threesomes together and surprised at how loving and intimate such scenarios could be. Feeling comfortable with our relationship we moved on to separate sexual encounters with others. Despite Swansea’s strong moralism and religious fervour (which, alongside polyamory, is a topic explored in my novel The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights Darren and I each found lovers, surprised this time by the warm joy in seeing someone we loved made happy by someone else. We never pushed ourselves, and took each new step when we felt comfortable with it.

Together we formed our three-way partnership (the lack of an agreed term for such bonds highlights how rare they remain: sometimes referred to as a “throuple,” sometimes “triad,” we use the term “trio”).

We were each happy sharing ourselves, and polyamory was the natural consequence. Eventually we moved from south Wales to the misfit capital of Europe, Berlin. It was in Berlin—a city housing many thousands of open-minded queers—that we found our current partner Alex, an exuberant and lovable American. Together we formed our three-way partnership (the lack of an agreed term for such bonds highlights how rare they remain: sometimes referred to as a “throuple,” sometimes “triad,” we use the term “trio”). After a few months Alex moved into our apartment in the noisy district of Kreuzberg, but with few precedents to observe, we were on our own.

We live in a monogamous culture, one full of instructions and guidelines on how to go about relationships: whether in television shows, literature, music, films, or poetry. This is not true for the polyamorous, where cultural space is still lacking. We’ve had to make our own way, a process that has required continual use of imagination, intuition, and compassion.

For example: time management is a common obstacle in poly relationships, and one of the issues we faced was in balancing how much time we spend with the three of us, and how to schedule time one-on-one. If any of us felt neglected, we’ve had to sit down, talk it through, and come up with our own solutions. Our relationship has been a perpetual learning process, and one we engaged in together. For me, that’s the most beautiful part of polyamory: the trust, commitment, and communication it so often requires. Opening our relationship brought us to new levels of honesty and intimacy.

A common truism is that knowing someone from a particular group makes a person half as likely to harbor prejudices against them (familiarity, it seems, does not equal contempt). At first, many of our friends and family members were hostile. But our relationship challenged many of their culturally imbibed misconceptions. It was no domineering sexual power play; it was just us, people they knew who made each other happy. Darren and I were both nervous when we met Alex’s parents, but once they saw how much we care for their son, we were greeted with open arms—his father welcomed his son’s gentile partners into the family with a Rosh Hashanah toast. We’ve even gone on vacation with them.

Much of this may seem strangely familiar, as many of the issues surrounding civil rights for multi-partner relationships directly echo those which dominated debates on monogamous same-sex marriage.

This might all sound idyllic, but it was not enough. We do not exist in a social vacuum, and the warmth of our amorous explorations met the cold reality of the world outside our home. Not everyone is as accepting as our family and friends, and misconceptions still dominate public discourse around multi-partner relationships: to those who don’t know us personally, we are perceived as deviant, our relationships are unworkable, and we subvert the natural order of human relationships. As we would soon discover, this hostility is backed by a legal system that provides no protections to polyamorous households.

Much of this may seem strangely familiar, as many of the issues surrounding civil rights for multi-partner relationships directly echo those which dominated debates on monogamous same-sex marriage. In my experience this is the case for those presenting both pro and counter arguments: sadly—and ironically—this means many monogamous LGBTQIA people will oppose multi-partner unions using the exact arguments as those used against their own relationships in the recent years.

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As a man in a relationship with two other men, unsurprisingly my focus so far has landed on those in same-sex bonds. Yet although the LGBTQIA community has a long history of non-monogamy, the practice of having multiple partners is not limited to sexual minorities—in fact, the number of heterosexual polyamorists is growing. In my experience, many of those accepting of same-sex polyamory have doubts when it comes to mixed groupings of men and women. What’s to stop our society’s unequal gender dynamics imposing themselves on multi-partner relationships?

One thing we need to keep in mind is that this exact practice already happens, and has for millennia: it’s called polygamy.

For many polyamorous people, the confusion with polygamy is a frustrating one, and it’s important when discussing non-monogamy that the two models are not confused for one another.

For many polyamorous people, the confusion with polygamy is a frustrating one, and it’s important when discussing non-monogamy that the two models are not confused for one another. Whilst polygamy is the practice of a single man having multiple wives (and which, like monogamy, ensures a patrilineal line of descent), polyamory is the practice of loving multiple partners regardless of their gender. Whilst polygamy is most commonly practiced by conservative religious sects, polyamory has a heavy presence not only among queer communities, but also feminist and left-wing groups. The two are distinct both practically and culturally.

With regards to monogamy, our current society does not do well when it comes to problematic romantic relationships: one in three women (and one in four men) will encounter physical abuse from a partner in their lifetime. Though contributing factors to domestic abuse are complex and numerous, one important indicator is isolation. Not only is isolating a partner from loved ones and peer groups an act of abuse in itself, it also perpetuates an exclusionary environment in which abuse is less likely to be witnessed, reported, or confronted. By increasing the amount of people present in an individual’s daily life, polyamorous groupings not only expand an individual’s immediate support network, they also have the potential to combat social isolation.

In fact, there’s much monogamous couples can learn from their polyamorous peers: the increased emotional communication skills polyamory so often brings can also help disrupt destructive relationship patterns.

Of course, as with any aspect of our society, it is impossible for polyamory to be completely free of toxic gender dynamics. But polyamorous communities are adapting their own methods for combating them: one issue poly groups face comes in the form of “unicorn hunters”—male-female couples who have heard about polyamory, and join poly groups in search of another woman in order to satisfy the man. Poly individuals I have spoken to take the time to educate such pairings, explaining why “polygamy lite” is not condoned among those practicing polyamory. The information we have on this remains largely anecdotal, but generally such couples learn and themselves adapt—or they wind up leaving polyamorous communities entirely.

As notable polyamorists Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy make clear in the their well-known text The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, polyamory also “queers” gender, sexual, and relationship dynamics. Heterosexual men and women will adopt members of the same-sex as part of either their family or relationship constellation, increasing intimacies with other men and women, and even allowing for nonsexual romantic exploration (the nonsexual components to polyamory are highlighted by its increasingly popularity among asexual communities).

In many ways evangelizing for or against polyamory makes little sense: there are increasing debates among the polyamorous as to whether it is an act or an orientation—that is, whether polyamory is something we do or something we are.

In many ways evangelizing for or against polyamory makes little sense: there are increasing debates among the polyamorous as to whether it is an act or an orientation—that is, whether polyamory is something we do or something we are. Should polyamory be another form of romantic or sexual orientation (as one of many in our increasingly complex understanding of human relationship drives) then there is no need to convince people toward or away from it. Though the question is far from settled, from my own experience I can say polyamory is part of who I am: for the simple fact that was I to be single, I would still consider myself polyamorous. Alongside being queer, it is part of my identity.

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For those of all genders and orientations, being polyamorous makes it increasingly difficult to ignore this simple fact: polyamory is political. Sharing our stories is vital to changing our society, yet alone it is not enough. Alongside polyamorous fiction I began writing articles, petitions, conference papers, and giving talks on university campuses. It has caught the attention of the press, and resulted in no end of hate mail.

All of this has been in the pursuit of a single goal: civil unions for registered households. Household registration would ensure that cohabiting families receive the same rights and protections as anyone else, regardless of their shape. As we have come to discover, these rights and protections are sorely needed.

Though there are many ways in which monogamous relationships enjoy privilege over their polyamorous counterparts, as two Brits and an American living in Germany, immigration law presented our most immediate legal problem. Whilst monogamous couples can deal with visa restrictions via marriage (and the lifting of DOMA helped many friends of mine in this regard), we have no such option. Without unions that can incorporate all three of us, our lives remain precarious, subject to the whims of migration policies and visa offices. As was so long the case for same-sex couples, multinational polyamorous relationships are under continual threat of forced separation: it is only Germany’s relatively liberal migration policies which allow our family to be together—a status which needs to be renewed every two years.

Yet those in single-nationality relationships also face considerable challenges, with polyamorous households facing legal discrimination in employment, services, and housing. It remains perfectly legal to fire someone for being in a non-monogamous relationship in every single US and EU state. We can be refused hotel rooms, turned out of restaurants, and thrown out of taxis. Landlords can openly evict us for being together, with little hope of legal repercussion. If you believe this level of hostility unlikely, then I urge you to take the hands of two lovers and walk down the street. Any street. Sadly, not everyone in our society is indifferent to the lives of others, which is why these legal protections exist, and why it is vital that they cover everyone.

As with same-sex relationships in the past, emergencies are worsened by a lack of legal recognition. If a member of our family were rushed to hospital, the other two would have no right to visitation. Should the very worst occur, we could be barred from the funeral of the man we love. A lack of recognition regarding inheritance rights means poly families risk losing their homes, all whilst still grieving.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking issue, however, is that surrounding child custody. My public role with regards to polyamory means corresponding with polyamorous families across the world, many of whom reach out in need of help. It is dreadful to hear from those who have lost access to their children because of how many people they love. Sadly this practice is not uncommon: polyamory is frequently brought up in child custody cases (again, as was the case with same-sex relationships until recently), penalizing people for engaging in consensual, adult relationships in the cruellest way possible: by taking their children from them.

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As I’ve found during the course of my campaigning, calls to reform civil unions are met with strong opposition from conservatives, many of whom fear what they perceive as an attempt to redefine marriage (again echoing familiar arguments over rights for monogamous same-sex couples). Yet marriage itself has changed considerably in the modern era. Until the 18th century it was not attached to notions of love, nor romance: a spouse was for joining houses (in the case of the upper classes) and creating children (in the case of everyone). Prior to this shift, love was reserved for same-sex friendships, meaning the person most people loved was not the person they married. Linking love to marital unions only came about with much championing from middle-class figures such as Daniel Defoe. In Britain, marriage itself was only legally codified with Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753.

This is another moot point, as neither my family nor I care what the arrangement is called, so long as we are afforded the legal rights and protections we need. Equality before the law is paramount. Of course household registration will not solve all the issues mentioned above, and we face a number of questions relating to equality legislation—but the recognition of our relationships would go a long way toward combating such problems.

The registration of multi-partner households once again brings up the issue of polygamy: one argument is that if polyamorous relationships are legally recognized, then inevitably polygamous ones would be as well. This is true. Though I and most other polyamorous people don’t condone gender-unequal arrangements such as polygamy, such unions remain throughout the West, and arguably it is better that wives are given legal rights and protections instead of allowing the legal system to leave a woman with no claim on her household’s finances or property should she and her ‘husband’ separate. The practice is best challenged via education, not by depriving women of security.

It may seem surprising, but some polyamorous individuals I have spoken to argue that household registration is itself too conservative, as it prioritizes cohabiting partners over those who live apart. Though this is a valid point, cohabitation is the only foreseeable model of legally registering relationships whilst ensuring they are genuine in the eyes of the law. Living with someone implies a level of stability and commitment, sharing both assets and day-to-day lives together. Unions for registered households would help protect the increasingly diverse range of family types that make up our society in the 21st century.

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Hope is on the horizon: at a recent conference in Lisbon a member of the city government announced their intention to press for equality for the city’s polyamorous citizens. When I raised this issue with the Green Party of England and Wales it caught the attention of the national British press, who conducted polls, which showed roughly half of respondents to be in favor of civil rights for poly families. Slowly but surely, our relationships are growing more visible, and will continue to do so as long as polyamorous people come out to friends and families, and share their stories with society at large.

Whilst Obergefell vs. Hodges may have been a momentous moment, it is vital we remember that the struggle for equal unions is not over: legal recognition of polyamorous relationships is a looming civil rights issue, and one which will gain ever-greater prominence over the coming years. In the meantime, my family and I remain optimistic in our generation’s tolerance and open-mindedness, and its capacity for real change. Civil unions for multi-partner households may not bring equality overnight, but it would be a very good start.

Redfern Jon Barrett is author of polyamory-themed novels The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights (shortlisted for the 2016 Bisexual Book Awards) and Forget Yourself (Lethe Press). He has a Ph.D. in literature from Swansea University examining queer relationships in the early modern era, and his polyamory rights campaigning has been featured throughout the British and international press. He currently lives in Berlin with his two partners. Read more at redjon.com, or follow him on Twitter: @redfernjon.

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