The Soapbox: In Marriage Equality, Three Shouldn’t Be A Crowd

When a public notary in Sao Paulo, Brazil, authorized a civil union between one man and two women, neither she nor the triad expected to make headlines. Now, three months after their three-way relationship was formalized, it has become an international news story with flashy headlines like “‘Big Love’ In Brazil.” The members of the triad have refused to speak to the press. But the notary, Claudia do Nascimento Domingues, has come forward in light of backlash to explain why she made the decision to authorize the three-way union (or “thruple”). As she told the UK’s Telegraph:

We are only recognizing what has always existed. We are not inventing anything … for better or worse, it doesn’t matter, but what we considered a family before isn’t necessarily what we would consider a family today.

What we know about the two women and one man in the triad is limited: they have reportedly lived together and shared living expenses for three years and wanted the legal protection of a civil union to secure their relationship in case of death or separation. We do not know if the members of the triad are romantically or sexually involved with each other, or if they would have opted for marriage if that had been an option. But we do know this: the legal recognition of this relationship is a sign that acceptance of polyamory – and, by extension, polygamy – is on the rise.

Polygamy and polyamory get a bad rap in the United States, where we tend to associate such relationships with religious fundamentalists and reality television. But is there anything innately wrong with a multiple-partner marriage between consenting adults? As Jean Hannah Edelstein noted in the UK’s Guardian, “Plenty of marriages have three people in them. They’re just not legal ones.” Of course, the notion that monogamy doesn’t work for every relationship isn’t groundbreaking. When couples that struggle with monogamy don’t realize that open or polyamorous relationships are an option, the result can be cheating – and deceit and betrayal really what really ruins the “sanctity of marriage.” If we want marriage as an institution to continue to have relevance, it needs to catch up to where contemporary couples are at. For many, monogamy isn’t part of the picture. Opening marriages and expanding what makes a marriage, for those who want those options, may well end up saving relationships and the institution as a whole.

Marriage is a constantly evolving institution. At the start of the 21st century, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere in the United States; today, the Democratic Party Platform specifically details its support of marriage equality and opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act. When I sat on my couch and watched the first night of DNC 2012, I was blown away by how many speakers openly expressed their support for LGBT rights, and marriage rights specifically. Any suggestions of separate-but-equal institutions like domestic partnerships and civil unions for gay couples are long in the past for liberal politicians. That’s a sign of progress. So who’s to say that in another decade from now, “marriage equality” won’t be a term exclusive to couples? Couldn’t it include triads, or other exclusive groupings of polyamorous partners?

A big problems is that the mainstream discourse surrounding marriage equality distances itself from polyamory as much as possible. When some members of the Australian Green Party proposed including polyamory in its marriage equality platform, LGBT activists balked. And in the U.S., when conservative politicians like Rick Santorum challenged the morality of marriage equality by comparing it to polygamy, queer folks take offense rather than defending the notion that, yes, a relationship between Adam and Eve and Steve is also valid. What’s even more infuriating is when “polygamy” is uttered in the same breath as “pedophilia,” with no sense of the distinction between responsible unions between consenting adults and child abuse. In order for that knee-jerk association against polyamory to change, we need to broaden the conversation about what is sexual “deviance” and what isn’t and recognize that monogamy, while the norm, should not be presented as the only option. I grew up in Massachusetts, and I was a senior in high school in 2003, when the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Nearly a decade later, the sky still hasn’t collapsed over the Charles River. If it ever does, I doubt it’ll be because two men or women decided to exchange rings and combine finances. Same-sex marriage doesn’t ruin society — it just makes it more inclusive. And the same could be said for polyamory.

Believe me, I’m not some undercover agent trying to bring down the institution of marriage from within. If anything, I feel so strongly about marriage equality including polygamy because I love marriage. Marrying my husband was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I applaud anyone who chooses to make that leap. Just as I wish that same-sex couples in the 44 states that currently prohibit marriage equality were able to take advantage of the same benefits as I do, I wish that polyamorous partnerships could access those rights as well.

Marriage equality shouldn’t be an exclusive club. Claudia do Nascimento Domingues understands that. Here’s hoping that some public notaries in the U.S. understand it, too.