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A Marriage of Many? 
Is gay marriage a slippery slope toward legal polygamy, or are conservatives warnings a red herring? by Ryan Lee

http://www.sovo.com/2006/1-27/arts/feature/feature.cfm
Sunday, January 29, 2006

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People in polyamorous relationships aren’t officially organizing to gain marriage rights, but could their quest for recognition affect the movement for marriage between same-sex couples?

 

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A marriage of many?
Is gay marriage a slippery slope toward legal polygamy, or are conservative warnings a red herring?

By RYAN LEE
Friday, January 27, 2006

 

EACH TIME DANI EYER attends a forum to advocate marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, she knows the first question to expect at the end of her speech.

“What about polygamy?” an audience member inevitably asks Eyer, executive director of the ACLU of Utah. “Will gay marriage lead to legalized group weddings?”

Each time, Eyer answers affirma­tively.

“The ACLU of Utah has traditionally advocated that personal relationships between consenting adults are protected by the Constitution, and that freedom of religion and freedom of expression are fundamental rights,” Eyer says, citing the her ACLU chapter’s official stance on polygamy since 1989.

“Criminal and civil laws prohibiting the advocacy or practice of plural marriage are constitutionally defective,” she adds. “Neither the polygamists nor the proponents of same-sex marriage are wild about the analogy, but we do see the two as similar concepts.”

Mathew Staver, president of the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel, agrees that there is “an easy transition” from allowing marriage for gay and lesbian couples to legalized polygamy. But instead of considering them fundamental rights, Staver says neither gay marriage nor polygamy should be recognized by states.

“If you convert marriage to merely the placing of a license on consenting adults that are in a committed relationship, or who love each other, then there is no logical line that can be drawn between gay marriage and polygamy,” Staver says. “Gay marriage clearly opens the door to polygamy.”

But gay rights organizations have long refuted claims that acceptance of same-sex unions is a slippery slope toward marital anarchy.

“The right wing would love nothing more than for us to spend all of our airtime discussing distractions such as polygamy, bestiality and other — from their point of view — doomsday scenarios rather than engage the public about committed same-sex couples being discriminated against,” says Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, which advocates marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.

“The opposition to ending discrimination in marriage for gay couples does not turn on how you feel about polygamy,” Wolfson continues. “It’s just a diversion.”

THE FORM OF POLYGAMY MANY people are familiar with is the structure that at one point was practiced in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Mormonism: polygamy, when one man marries multiple wives. But a more communal, egalitarian form of group love called polyamory — “many loves” — has increased in visibility over the last few decades.

Polyamorous relationships can include heterosexual, gay and bisexual individuals who believe it is against their nature to have only one sexual and emotional lover. They are composed of many blends of multiple partners: a heterosexual woman with four bisexual husbands, a trio of gay men living as a single unit, or pairs of married heterosexual couples who live as a tribe, just to name a few of the possibilities.

A Dutch polyamorous relationship recently ignited a firestorm among conservative pundits and religious organizations in the U.S., after a married heterosexual couple entered into a “cohabitation contract” with their bisexual female lover. The “cohabitation contract” does not include all of the benefits and responsibilities that accompany Dutch marriages, but the trio celebrated their union by donning wedding regalia and holding a marriage ceremony.

Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, considers a polyamorous contract as “an unmistakable step down the road to legalized group marriage.”

“The use of cohabitation contracts was an important step along the road to same-sex marriage in the Netherlands,” Kurtz writes in the Dec. 26, 2005 issue of The Weekly Standard. “The popularity of cohabitation contracts among Dutch gays in the 1980s helped create laws in the early 1990s forbidding employer discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — including discrimination between married and unmarried couples in the granting of benefits.”

Kurtz argues that Dutch society is taking the same “small step” approach toward polyamorous nuptials as it did for gay marriage —offering symbolic recognition and limited benefits (such as domestic partnerships for same-sex couples) until the mainstream population is comfortable granting full marital rights to non-traditional relationships.

Kurtz’s treatise —the latest in a line of articles linking gay marriage and polyamory penned by the conservative scribe — drew a rebuttal from The New Republic’s Rob Anderson, who wrote that opposition to gay marriage is based on two variables: the “ick” factor and the “slippery slope” to man-and-monkey weddings.

“With the ‘ick’ factor heading towards irrelevancy [because of increased tolerance], the slippery-slope argument is all [conservatives] have left,” Anderson writes. “If the right can convince the public that an acceptance of same-sex marriage inherently means the acceptance of polygamy, the chance of same-sex marriage becoming legal will greatly diminish.”

Wolfson agrees that conservatives are “desperate to change the subject.”

“They make wild claims about Scandinavia falling apart; they make wild claims about Canada falling apart; and they make wild claims about polygamy,” Wolfson says. “Those are all distractions, and we really have to resist that bait.”

HARLAN WHITE UNDERSTANDS why Wolfson and other gay rights leaders don’t advocate on behalf of him and his dozen intimate lovers, but he’s disappointed that they claim not to see the link between gay rights and the acceptance of polyamory.

“What is kind of sad is the impression some gay leaders can give that they believe somehow monogamy is inherently better than polyamory,” says White, a heterosexual Seattle resident who has been in polyamorous relationships with women and male “co-lovers” since the early ‘90s.

“I notice when people of one minority group try to relate to the mainstream, there’s an unfortunate tendency to point to another minority group and say, ‘We may be different from the mainstream, but we’re not like them,’” White adds. “... we shouldn’t have to sell ourselves to society by being better than other people.”

For Wolfson and gay organizations like the Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, the issue boils down to “couples” being allowed to wed.

“Just as heterosexuals can marry a single person, so do we want that freedom to marry the person we want to build a life with, with the same rules, the same responsibilities and the same respect as heterosexual couples,” Wolfson says. “Gay couples are not saying ‘Let’s have no rules.’

“What gay couples are saying in the court cases, in the legislatures and in public discussions around the country is ‘Let us have what you have,” says Wolfson.

As a gay man, Justen Michael appreciates Wolfson’s work to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples. But as founder of the group Polyamorous NYC, Michael says efforts by gay groups to distance themselves from polyamory sometimes stings.

“I’d encourage people to keep an open mind — it wasn’t too long ago that gay relationships were completely ostracized,” Michael says. “All movements have a tendency to build on the movements that have come before them.

“It’s hypocritical for us as gays and lesbians to pretend we’re the only people who are treated differently because our relationships are not mainstream,” Michael adds. “Both [the polyamorous and gay] communities are concerned with love, and forming lasting relationships, and with our own liberation.”

IF THERE is polyamorous activism in the U.S., both Michael and White consider themselves as attuned as anyone. But both agree there’s nothing grand about the polyamorous agenda.

“We’re still a fairly new community, and our primary focus at the time being is building our own infrastructure —‑find out who we are as people,” Michael says.

Individuals in polyamorous relationships are more concerned about losing their job or custody of their children than they are about gaining legal recognition for their relationships, White says.

“In my experience of the poly community as a whole, there’s no strong or coherent movement to legalize plural marriages, and there’s certainly no poly movement waiting in the wings ready to pounce on marriage once gays can do it,” says White, whose 12-person polyamorous tribe includes one legally married couple.

“With many polys, we’d rather the government not be involved with certifying or recognizing our relationships,” he says.

Sasha Lessin, who founded the World Polyamory Association with his wife Janet Kira Lessin, says polyamorous units deserve “all the protections and rights a married couple receives —hospital visitations, shared property, insurance benefits, everything.”

But even the Lessins concede there is no vibrant polyamory movement. So supporting the gay rights movement is their “No. 1 priority,” because it opens society’s door of tolerance a little wider, Kira Lessin says.

“We’re all about freedom and choice, and we can maybe pool our efforts together and make this happen in our lifetime,” she says.

IN HIS WEEKLY STANDARD article, Kurtz also suggests that “bisexuality is emerging as a reason why legalized gay marriage is likely to result in legalized group marriage.”

Bisexuals won’t be satisfied until they can have a husband and a wife, Kurtz reasons, and so surely they’ll begin calling for multi-partner marriages.

There are no hard statistics on bisexuality, but many, if not most, bisexuals do not have relationships with men and women simultaneously, says Luigi Ferrer, president of BiNet USA and board member of the Bisexual Resource Center.

“I don’t think polyamory is necessarily tied to sexual orientation,” Ferrer says. “I think the detractors of same-sex marriage have used that slippery slope argument very effectively to scare a lot of people.”

But if some bisexuals want legal protections for multiple partners, that’s something so-called “LGBT” shouldn’t automatically dismiss, he adds.

“I think there are good arguments for bringing protections to family units that look different from the mainstream,” Ferrer says. “But gay and lesbian groups are highly unlikely to ever support that policy.”

IRONICALLY, BISEXUAL POLYAMOROUS couples might find an unlikely ally in religious conservatives, namely fundamental Mormons and variations of Islam that continue to practice polygamy.

On Jan. 16, a government-sponsored panel in Canada recommended decriminalizing polygamy, citing sensitivity to the customs of Muslim immigrants. Eyer from the ACLU of Utah says her organization is beginning to receive calls from Muslims seeking to continue polygamy.

But polygamy in Islam was restricted to the context of women losing their husbands to war, and having to join another family for protection and sustenance, says Ahmed Younis, national director at the Washington D.C.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council.

“There is no polygamy amongst American Muslims,” says Younis, who notes that 70 percent of the country’s Muslims were born in the U.S., and generations of Muslim immigrants did not transport polygamy to America.

Some Mormons are attempting to get polygamous marriage recognized by state governments, and they’re using the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that decriminalized homosexual sodomy, Lawrence v. Texas, as their primary basis.

“What Lawrence holds is that private, intimate sexual conduct between consenting adults cannot be criminalized, and Utah’s law violates that,” says Brian Barnard, an attorney representing a Mormon Utah couple challenging the state’s anti-polygamy statute.

A federal judge ruled against Barnard’s clients in February 2005. Barnard is appealing the ruling.

He asserts that his case is about freedom of religion, with fundamentalist Mormon men required to have multiple wives in order to enter heaven.

Like traditional marriage, Polygamy has a religious and heterosexual context that facilitates natural procreation, he says.

“If you’re slipping down that slippery slope, polygamous marriages should come before gay marriage because they more closely resemble traditional marriage,” Barnard says.

Even if gay marriage does lead to legalized polyamory, that isn’t bad, says Theresa Brennan, who runs a weekend campout in Washington State called PolyCampNW.

“The slippery slope argument is overused,” she says. “Giving blacks the vote, women the vote, contraception — it’s all a slippery slope to a place of better social justice and acceptance.”

 
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