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Massachusetts city officially recognizes polyamorous relationships

Consensual non-monogamy not "one big orgy"
Consensual non-monogamy not "one big orgy": CBSN Originals 04:19

The city of Somerville, Massachusetts, has passed an ordinance making it one of the first cities in the nation to officially recognize polyamorous relationships. The city no longer limits the number of people included in a partnership. 

The change, which was unanimously passed by the city council last week, required only a minor shift in language. Instead of defining a relationship as an "entity formed by two persons," Somerville now legally defines it as "entity formed by people." 

The Somerville Journal reports that the momentous revision actually came about as a last-minute addition. 

Councilor Lance Davis, chair of the Legislative Matters committee, was drafting new legislation to recognize domestic partnerships — something the city had yet to do. According to Davis, that ordinance was revised to bring requirements for domestic partnerships in line with those of other marriages. 

"During our initial conversations, a couple things jumped out," Davis said. "The first draft required domestic partners to notify the city of any change of address, which struck me as not in line with what married folks have to do, and required that they reside together, which again struck me as something I'm not required to do as a married person, so we got rid of those provisions."

Then, only an hour before the ordinance was set to be voted on, Councilor J.T. Scott asked why its wording confined a partnership to just two people. 

″[He] reached out and said, 'Why is this two?' And I said, 'I don't have a good answer,'" Davis told the Journal. "I tripped over my words a bit, and played devil's advocate, but I had no good reason. So, I pulled it out, went through quickly making whatever word changes necessary to make it not gendered or limited to two people."

The new language went before the council on June 25, and was signed into law by the city's mayor four days later.

It's estimated that 4% to 5% of people living in the U.S. are currently participating in polyamorous relationships, or what's otherwise known as consensual or ethical non-monogamy, a practice in which partners maintain more than one sexual or romantic relationship with each others' knowledge and consent. For comparison, that means non-monogamy is about as prevalent as the number of Americans who identify as LGBTQ, which is estimated to be about 4.5% of the American population.

Davis said that he's "consistently felt that when society and government tries to define what is or is not a family, we've historically done a very poor job of doing so... It hasn't gone well, and it's not a business that government should be in, so that guided my thinking on this."

Legal hurdles in non-monogamous relationships 10:02

It is illegal in all 50 states to be married to more than one person — which is known as polygamy, not polyamory. Polyamorous people who try different kinds of arrangements — such as a married couple with steady outside partners — run into their own legal problems. 

There is no legal framework for polyamorous families to share finances, custody of children or the rights and responsibilities that come with marriage. Likewise, there are no legal protections against people facing discrimination for being in a non-monogamous relationship.

Andy Izenson, senior legal director of Chosen Family Law Center in New York, told the Journal that Somerville's ordinance is a step in the right direction. 

"I think it's pretty amazing — strategies like this are the best chance we have of moving towards a legal understanding of family that's as comprehensive as it needs to be to serve all families," Izenson said. 

"I've seen a few other small-scale or local entities that have taken steps towards recognizing that relationships between adults are not only between two adults, but this is the first time I have seen this strategy brought to fruition."

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