The gender question has been a cultural wedge issue for many years now, but there are signs that the media is moving onto a new topic: polyamory.
That the sordid details of Molly Roden Winter’s More: A Memoir of an Open Marriage have grabbed the attention of the Atlantic, New York Times, New Yorker and Washington Post suggests that marriage is about to be redefined again. But to appreciate that this is not fad, one has to look beyond the bedroom — or wherever More’s author was hooking up with her paramours, friends with benefits or other “ethical sluts”, as polyamorists sometimes refer to themselves.
More is the latest in a recent spate of books, TV shows and celebrities extolling the virtues of polyamory in the past few years. There is now a growing acceptance and normalisation of consensual non-monogamy, an arrangement that was, until recently, considered immoral and degenerate, and associated with kink, sex clubs and wife-swapping.
Following a game plan established by advocates of gay marriage and trans rights, polyamory is poised to be the next sexual identity to seek legal recognition. The leaders of this movement are ultimately hoping to win full social acceptance, a strategy that requires emphasising happy polyamorous families, preferably with well-adjusted children.
If this feels like déjà vu, it’s because the polyamory rights movement is consciously modelled on successful predecessors that erased wicked stereotypes with family-friendly imagery. The Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition points to the recent municipal recognition of polyamory as a domestic partnership in Somerville, Mass., and Cambridge, Mass., as important breakthroughs because that’s precisely how gay marriage began winning legal acceptance, which “led to massive changes in social attitudes”, before the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex unions in 2015.
The advocacy organisation is now collecting stories of discrimination against polyamorists for legislative advocacy, according to its website. The group is looking to litigate cases of housing discrimination, employment discrimination, denial of hospital visitation rights, denial of health coverage to more than one partner, and child custody challenges in courts that view poly partners as morally unfit for parenting. It doesn’t hurt the legal case that polyamory overlaps considerably with gay and queer sexuality, so that polyphobia has a disparate impact on LGBTQ people.
With legal recognition increasingly more likely, and with scholarly backing from social science journals and law journals, all that might be required to set off a national culture war would be for an enterprising Republican lawmaker to propose legislation outlawing polyamory. That’s how trans rights exploded on the national stage in 2016 when the Charlotte, North Carolina city council legalised trans access to public accommodations, and the state legislature responded with HB2, the infamous bathroom bill.
The transgender experience is an object lesson in the speed of cultural change in the age of social media, a lesson that should be kept in mind when it seems inconceivable that multi-partner marriages could become legal. It’s worth noting that in his dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the gay marriage case, Chief Justice John Roberts warned, “It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage. Why would there be any less dignity in the bond between three people who, in exercising their autonomy, seek to make the profound choice to marry?”
In 2022, a New York judge offered a glimpse of that future when validating a poly relationship in an eviction case. Opposing polyamory was not just a difference of opinion, but a type of bigotry motivated by a “majoritarian animus”.
Poly rights confer dignity on the marginalised to conduct their private affairs, but rights often implicate the rest of us in a new moral paradigm. If past is prelude, we should expect fights over poly-themed storybooks in grammar school, poly-affirming churches and liturgies, and a general polyfication of society. As we’ve seen with past invocations of the sacred word “rights”, once a social subculture wins protected status, areas of conjecture that used to be matters of opinion have a tendency to become reclassified as oppression and hate speech.