(Hemant’s note: This is a guest post from frequent commenter and forum admin JulietEcho. She is a polyamorist.)
As atheists, many of us have faced some level of negative reaction from those around us, on account of our deviation from our culture’s expected norms. I’ve found that atheists, in general, tend to support GLBT rights and other civil rights issues despite opposition by an offended religious majority. After all, atheists have no religious inhibitions that lead them to view certain deviations from the norm as anything immoral or harmful to society. Atheists know what it’s like to be demonized and hated by those who fear us for our differences. I’d like to call your attention to another group of people — a group even deeper in the “closet” than atheists — who could use your support: polyamorists.
Polyamory is a catch-all term that describes any relationship that involves more than two “loves” in a romantic/sexual context. It includes polygamy in both its traditional forms (polygyny and polyandry), as well as other patterns of relationships, such as those that only include people of the same sex and those that involve all partners being sexually linked to one another. Having multiple significant others is usually associated with fundamentalist Mormon groups, at least in America, as various polygamists who illegally marry underage girls make the news now and again. It’s easy to forget that polygamy isn’t unique to Mormons — it’s still practiced in many areas of the world, including Middle-Eastern and African countries. Still, there are stigmas attached to those practices too, due to their association with the abuse of women and their incompatibility with most modern Christian beliefs about relationships.
What many people don’t know is that there is a fairly secretive population of people in the Western world who practice polyamory — not for religious reasons, and not for the purposes of having orgies, but rather because they have found that it’s the kind of relationship that makes them happiest.
While the term “polyamory” is broad, I’m not focusing here about people who have “open relationships,” a relationship style that allows partners to have outside sex as an agreed-upon part of their relationship. I would like to concentrate on so-called “poly-fidelitous” families who are committed to one another for the long haul. Groups of three or more people who are attached by romantic and sexual bonds (although not all people in the relationship are necessarily sexually involved) exist as strong, stable units. They raise children together, they often all share a house, and they usually have to hide their relationships to at least some degree. These relationships can include a wide variety of formats — two couples where the women are both sexually involved with both men (or vice versa), two men involved with the same woman but not with each other (or vice versa), three members of the same sex all sexually involved, and many more configurations.
Polyamorists cannot legally marry more than one of their partners (and if all members of the relationship are of the same sex, they probably can’t even get that much recognition), because our laws don’t accommodate such arrangements. People in relationships with multiple partners are sometimes left without access to health insurance, visitation rights, and even custody rights due to cultural prejudice and current laws. Would new laws have to include limits to avoid abuse by people trying to “cheat the system” in areas like citizenship and health care? Certainly. Is it possible to recognize and legally legitimize these relationships while blocking opportunities for that kind of abuse? Again, I think the answer is yes.
Some polyamorists see themselves as having a polyamorous “orientation,” but I would guess that’s a minority position. Most simply acknowledge that humans are complicated animals who aren’t always fulfilled by or equipped to handle monogamy. Different people will find that different types of relationships make them happy — some people can’t stand the thought of sharing their partner, and others are completely happy to see their partner in love with another person, with most people falling somewhere in-between. Polyamorous relationships form in many ways, with some people knowing from a young age that they want more than one partner in life, and others deciding to include someone new in an already long relationship.
Most members of polyamorous relationships and families aren’t activists for reform — they would be assuming too much risk by being publicly “out,” and they are often too busy with the demands of extra spouses and children to spend time organizing rallies or writing petitions. They are likely to be “out” to their friends and families about their unusual relationships, but they fear letting co-workers, employers, teachers, and other public figures find out. They have to face a difficult choice: face the ramifications of telling someone their secret, or lying about something that’s very central in their lives. Many poly families pass one or more members off as “friends” or “housemates” which can become painful and limiting over time.
The legalization of polygamy is something that’s often mentioned by gay rights opponents as the next step of a slippery slope that leads to people marrying their pet lizards or underage children. It’s not something that most people see as a serious civil rights issue, but it’s taken quite seriously by those of us who live in such relationships. We’re consenting adults, choosing our own path in life, and we have nothing to be ashamed of ethically. Still, we’re often essentially forced to hide in a culture that considers us adulterous, immoral and dangerous.
I know that the legalization of polygamy in America won’t happen for a long time — if it ever happens. I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll be old and gray if I live long enough to see the day when I can be married to both my partners, but the first step towards that ultimate goal is awareness. Legalization aside, the important issue here is tolerance (and hopefully general acceptance) that the poly community hopes to gain in society. We’d like to be honest about our relationships without fearing hate or reprisals at work. We’d like to be seen as perhaps a quirky, but normal part of our neighborhoods and our countries. We don’t want to be demonized.
What I’m asking here is that you will remember, in your conversations about civil rights, the struggle facing polyamorous families, and bring up the topic of plural marriage — not as part of a slippery slope, but as a rational extension of marriage rights and a way to make our society a more equal place for those who choose to live in ways that might not match the religious right’s morality. I hope that when topics like relationships, marriage and family come up you’ll spread the knowledge that polyamorous families exist. Every person who learns about polyamory and comes to accept it as something non-threatening brings us one person closer to a world where polyamorous people won’t have to “come out” or fear exposure — a world where we’ll just be another accepted part of society.
If anyone is interested in learning more about different forms of polyamory practiced today, the challenges that polyamorous relationships face, the benefits they bring, and the general facts about the polyamorous population, take a look at this website‘s FAQs about polyamory, this Newsweek article, and a post that I made on our Friendly Atheist Forum a few months ago, outlining some key definitions and distinctions within polyamory. I would also recommend the book Opening Up by Tristan Taormino as an excellent resource for people interested in practicing polyamory or understanding polyamory better.