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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Have you ever heard of polyamory? ReligionWriter hadn’t until this summer, when a friend became involved with a man who insisted up front that he was simply not monogamous, and that any relationship they had would be based on the principle of multiple love relationships, openly pursued. Indeed, this man seemed very committed to the idea of non-monogamy — what he called “polyamory” — even in the face of great obstacles. To RW, this sounded almost like a conviction. And while not every conviction is on par with a religious belief, RW wanted to know how a “belief” in polyamory might overlap with religious life.

What the heck is polyamory?

Polyamory is “the general term used to describe all forms of multi-partner relating,” according to Loving More magazine, the 16-year-old Colorado-based publication devoted to the polyamorist lifestyle. But get ready, there is more: polyamory can take many forms. A long-time married couple might open their marriage to allow for extra-marital romantic relationships, as Montel explored on his show this year.

Or, you might have two married couples living together, involved with one another, like the family of “Mr. Big,” which ReligionWriter wrote about in an article published yesterday by the Seattle Times. And that’s just the beginning… to learn the difference between, say, “polyfidelity” and an “intimate network,” you’ll have to peruse the definitions at Loving More magazine. In other words, it’s no more easy to sum up the practice of American polyamory than it is to define something amorphous like “American dating.”

Polyamory is different from polygamy, in that polygamy is about marriage, legal or otherwise. [In the U.S., two separate groups practice polygamy — fundamentalist Mormons and a small fraction of Muslims. There is also a small Christian push toward polygamy, spearheaded by the group Truthbearer.org.]

Here’s a quick way to think about it: polygamy is multiple-partner living for those on the far right of the politico-religious spectrum, and polyamory is for those on the far left. (And RW will look forward to hearing push-back from those who bristle at this crude shorthand.)

Polyamory Up Close

In August and September of this year, ReligionWriter, in the course of writing her article on polyamory for the Religion News Service, interviewed a number of practicing polyamorists around the country and focused on how their romantic lives linked up to their religious values. These conversations were fascinating; here is one for you to consider:

Lisa Davis is a twice-married 40-something and a mother and step-mother of six children. She was living in a Southern state when her husband, a conservative-minded Air Force veteran, took a corporate job that involved extensive travel. Her husband, “John” asked Lisa if she would consider having John’s close friend (also a military veteran) step in to be a “surrogate husband” while John was away for a month or more at a time. Lisa, a convert to Hinduism, agreed, and the couple’s mutual friend, “Steve,” who was separated from his own wife at the time, began to spend lots of time with Lisa and her children, helping around the house, going out to movies together, having coffee on the patio. At the time, Lisa had never heard the term “polyamory” and had no idea there was a small, alternative polyamorous community scattered around country, which, like most small alternative communities, comes together online.

The relationship between Steve and Lisa gradually became both romantic and sexual — but only after John agreed to this step. Said Lisa:

None of this happened without my husband’s knowledge. We were always totally honest about what was happening. It was very beneficial. I was much happier having someone there when my husband couldn’t be there.

Indeed, Lisa was so pleased with the arrangement that she encouraged her husband — often living by himself in a rented apartment in a Northern state — to find a similar kind of companion. She began to search online, but was able to find only women who were “swingers,” that is, people interested in casual sexual relationships, while she wanted to find someone who was interested in her husband as a person. Ultimately, her husband remained alone while she continued her relationship with Steve, an imbalance that was sometimes difficult.

For Lisa, polyamory matched up with what she read in Hindu scripture:

It was very commonplace and normal in ancient Vedic society for kings to have more than one wife, because women needed to be cared for and looked after, and this was a helpful thing in society.

But, she warned, “Jealousy is the demon here.” It’s hard to find a way to balance time and emotions between partners so that no one feels slighted. Lisa said she felt at one point she was too involved with Steve, leaving her husband to feel left out and jealous. As for the couple’s blended family of children, the two oldest gradually pieced together what was going on:

Our son said he didn’t care, that he was just glad there was a guy around, so we could do stuff as a family. He saw the perk for him: that I was happy. Our daughter was more intrigued, but she was relieved to know that Dad knows everything.

Today Lisa and her children have relocated to live full-time in the Northern state with her husband, and she is no longer intimately involved with Steve, who has moved overseas to possibly reunite with his own wife. But Lisa and John were generally pleased with polyamory, and today are seeking polyamorous partners through social networks, online and otherwise, where they live, though she says it’s not easy for them to find partners they can both agree on.

Of course, almost all of this happens without the knowledge of Lisa or John’s family. “We can’t tell them — it would be too mind-blowing, too unorthodox.” Similarly, the corporate environment where John works is so conservative “he can’t even tell them he’s a vegetarian,” let alone that he has shared his wife with another man.

The Take-Away

What ReligionWriter discovered in Lisa’s story, as well as in the stories of other polyamorists she interviewed, is that polyamory for some is a way of creating an extended family and is, in some sense, a response to modern, nuclear-family-based living. It offers for some an alternative framework for family values. Said Lisa:

I’m not sure why our culture is so hell-bent on monogamy. It’s so impractical. Look at all the things you need to do with raising children. Some people have parents living with them, but that’s a rarity nowadays. I like communal living in general. That was my experience with Hinduism; I lived in a communal environment, where everyone could contribute and get the benefit of an extended family.

For Lisa, then, what started as a practical family arrangement opened her mind to the possibilities beyond monogamous marriage, and her religious tradition offered support for that step. What was surprising about her story was, of course, its normalcy, and the fact that her husband, who first suggested the arrangement, was a Bush-voting military veteran with conservative political views. Along similar lines, ReligionWriter also found out (and perhaps she was the last to know) that business legend Warren Buffett seems to also have engaged in polyamory, as this New York Times article describes. Could polyamory be more common than we realize?

Coming later this week: ReligionWriter shares more polyamory stories and reflects on how polyamory relates to the debate over gay marriage.

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