What does polyamory have to do with gay marriage? On the surface, not much: polyamory, by definition, is about love, not marriage, and in researching her article on faith and polyamory, ReligionWriter didn’t encounter a single polyamorist either in person or online who advocated changing the laws of their state to allow more than two adults to enter into a marriage or civil union. (In Holland in 2005, however, three polyamorists legally registered a civil union — a step that, ReligionWriter supposes, makes them polygamists rather than polyamorists.)

As Robyn Trask, editor-in-chief of the polyamorist magazine Loving More, put it to ReligionWriter, long-term polyamorist relationships do exist, but many polyamorists see nothing wrong with short-term ones either:

I know people who have been together 30 years, like one woman in [a city in the InterMountain West] who is high up in the educational community, and she’s been in a 28-year triad. Like any other relationship, polyamory is about commitment. But is it harder to make it last? Yes, it can be. If you look at monogamy, how hard it is for two people to stay together, and then you add another person — all three people have to grow together. But longevity is not necessarily a good measure of quality.

[If you don’t know what a polyamorist “triad” is — a relationship involving three adults — then you probably don’t know what a polyamorist “quad” is, and, like ReligionWriter, you’ll probably need to consult some definitions.]

So polyamory is not necessarily about lifetime commitment and “marriage rights” doesn’t seem to be on the agenda of the polyamorous community. Is polyamory then relevant to the gay marriage debate? ReligionWriter believes the answer is yes.

What Unitarian Universalists Have To Do With It

Just as there are a disproportionate number of Pagan polyamorists, so Unitarian Universalists are over-represented in the polyamorous ranks. According to Harlan White, a medical professional in a Western city, a number of people belonging to an email list-serv called “Poly Active” in the late 1990s began to talk about organizing to “foster the civil rights of poly people.” [Note: Polyamorists sometimes refer to themselves as “poly people” or, more commonly, “poly folk.”]

The group discovered that “a fair number” of them identified as Unitarian Universalist (UU), and in 2001, polyamorists UUs held an event at the UU general convention; over the next year, White and others founded the group Unitarian Univeralists for Polyamorous Awareness.

Before the reader grows weary of denominational organizing, let ReligionWriter say: It is the UUPA where, thus far, the issues of polyamory and gay marriage have most overlapped, in large part because the UU church itself has been outspoken in favor of gay marriage. As ReligionWriter described it in her article for the Religion News Service:

For polyamorists in the liberal Unitarian Universalist church, the reception has been mixed, according to Kathleen Reedy (photo left), a cold-weather physiologist who heads the Washington D.C.-area chapter of Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA).

While most leaders at Reedy’s congregation have been respectfully curious about the group, which is not formally affiliated with the national church body, other D.C.-area church leaders have refused to advertise the group’s meetings in their bulletins.


“Ironically, some resistance has come from members of the gay and lesbian community, who have said we are ‘muddying the waters’ and diverting people from the goal of legalizing same-sex marriage,” said Reedy, 71, a divorcée who now has a “primary” male partner in addition to several “secondary” relationships.

The church’s national body, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has no official position on polyamory, according to spokeswoman Janet Hayes. Hayes noted in an emailed statement, however, that the church “support[s] responsible adult relationships based on mutual love and respect.”

Now, the first thing UUPA leaders will tell you is that they are not asking for polyamory marriage rights. Said Valerie White, a UUPA founder (and sister of Harlan White:)

The UUPA is very supportive of marriage equality [for same-sex couples.] We didn’t want to do or say anything that would impeded denominations in pursuing that goal. There may be UU poly[amorist]s who would like to see the legalization of multi-partner marriages, but this is not, I repeat not, a platform plank of UUPA. Our organization is a ministry for [polyamorist] UUs [who need support.] We are principled, ethical, thoughtful intentional people, who practice relationships with scrupulous care and compassion. We are not in the campaigning business.

White’s strong words were in part a reaction to Stanley Kurtz’s 2005 article in the conservative Weekly Standard, where he concluded that the Unitarian church is

holding the polyamorists at arm’s length only until gay marriage has been safely legalized across the nation. At that point, the Unitarian campaign for state-recognized polyamorous marriage will almost certainly begin.

Kurtz and others have argued that opening the legal door to same-sex marriage will lead to a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lies polygamy and polyamory. (Question for readers: Is the “slippery slope” philosophical argument inherently conservative? See Leon Kass’ fears over physician-assisted suicide.)

So Who Is Right? Does Multipartner Marriage Follow Logically — and Legally — from Same-Sex Marriage?

While appreciating the current position of the UUPA is not, as (Valerie) White said, about pushing legal rights for polyamorists, it is hard for ReligionWriter to see how polyamory at some point will not become a civil rights issue.

The very fact that so many polyamorists she interviewed wanted to remain anonymous to protect their jobs, their child custody arrangements or their children from bullying demonstrates that open polyamorists in the U.S. today can face, at the very least, some pretty severe discrimination. The case of April Divilbiss, a polyamorist involved with two men who lost custody of her young daughter as a result, certainly demonstrates how polyamory can tangle with the law.

White herself is raising two children in a polyamorous family of three, and sometimes four, adults:

I live in an open quad, and three of us have been together for almost 13 years. About a year ago, we included a fourth primary partner. The first three of us live together and share in raising our five-year-old twin boys.

White already had grown children from one of her previous three marriages, but Judy, the other woman in her “triad,” decided in her late 30s that she wanted to have children as well. Due to infertility issues, the twins were finally conceived via IVF using sperm from Ken, the man in the triad, and eggs from a close relative of White’s; Judy gestated and gave birth to the babies. The children are thus related either genetically or via pregnancy and birth to all three adults.

While Ken and Judy are listed as parents on the birth certificates, White was able to become the twins’ legal guardians as well. She said the legal process was fairly straightforward:

We presented ourselves [to the social worker] as an intentional family of three. She didn’t ask us who slept with whom, and we didn’t volunteer. We did say I was genetically related to the children, and also that I was going to be the primary stay-at-home parent.

White, who is a lawyer by training, remarked that “hardly any family court judge would refuse [such a] request [for legal guardianship] if all the adults agree. After all, it’s an extra pair of hands.”


While parenting as a triad seems to be going smoothly for White and her two partners (plus their fourth partner, who lives separately,) one can easily imagine such legal issues become more heated elsewhere (and it may be more than coincidence that Divilbiss had trouble in a Southern state, Tennessee, while White found less resistance to her family arrangements in Massachusetts.)

Will polyamory be the next same-marriage battle? It may depend on when or if there are any high-profile legal cases that capture the public’s attention. Until then, polyamory remains an “alternative lifestyle” that challenges mainstream norms.

As Timothy Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas who studies new religious movements, put it to ReligionWriter: “There is always five percent of people who don’t want to do things the way everyone else does; that’s not new, and it’s not going away. The only difference now is unconventional sexual practices are more socially acceptable.”

Related on ReligionWriter:

Polyamory’s Faith and Family Values,” Oct. 29, 2007

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1 Comment so far

  1. Annette Tester on November 2, 2007 8:14 am

    I like this article. It is clear to understand that the UU church is not at this time promoting multiple marraige. Years ago in the 60s this issue came up. The money gets complicaed and the government in my opinion just wants to keep it simple for tax purposes.
    An interesting idea would be a town who all “got married” together to get child education tax breaks,ect..LOL. Great idea for poor single women with children.Marry each other and have 6 kids, rather than each have 3. The youngest ones would get WIC and the overall income for a family of 8 would keep them qualified for medicaid and food stamps.Housing vouchers as well. (LOL, Maryland counties are at limit and vouchers not being given)

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