Some celebration-worthy news in the midst of challenging times: On March 8th 2021, the Cambridge City Council approved a domestic partnership ordinance that seeks to recognize and protect polyamorous and other multi-partner families and relationships. Put together by the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition (PLAC), this ordinance stipulates that a domestic partnership can include more than two partners.
Researchers estimate that as many as one in five people in the United States have engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point in their life. Yet while polyamorous and multi-partner relationships have been increasing, legal protections for these groups have been slow to follow.
“Non-nuclear families—such as single parents supported by relatives, step-families, open adoption families, multi-generational families, multi-parent families, and polyamorous families—have changed the landscape of American society, and yet, many of these diverse family structures are not protected or recognized by the law," said Alexander Chen, Founding Director of the Harvard Law School LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic.
“The lack of legal protection makes non-nuclear families especially vulnerable to stigma and discrimination in employment, health care, housing, and social life," Diana Adams, Executive Director of the Chosen Family Law Center recently wrote. "I have represented hundreds of clients who have been discriminated against because they’re polyamorous, whether that meant being unable to visit their life partner in the hospital, losing child custody in court battles, or losing their job. Legal recognition of these families reduces social stigma and provides families with the stability we all deserve.”
This is an important step forward for multi-partner families because domestic partnerships provide many important benefits.
In Massachusetts, the legal benefits of domestic partnerships include rights to:
- Hospital visitation
- Family healthcare coverage/employment benefits
- Correctional facility visitation
- Access dependent kids' school records
- Remove a child from school for emergencies
- Bereavement leave
- Sick leave to care for a partner
In addition to legal benefits, domestic partnerships help recognize commitments between people in multi-party partnerships.
While certainly rare, this isn’t the first domestic partnership ordinance in the United States that recognizes polyamorous and multi-partner relationships. In July 2020 Somerville, Massachusetts legalized domestic partnerships between three or four people. The urgent need to expand access to health care during the COVID-19 crisis helped catalyze the change and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the unique vulnerabilities non-monogamous families face.
However, the Somerville statute contained "provisions that made it difficult to be utilized in practice,” according to Diana Adams, Executive Director of the Chosen Family Law Center. The legal team at PLAC drafted a model ordinance that incorporated those learnings. For this reason Adams hopes it “may have much greater practical impact."
While these ordinances only apply to Somerville and Cambridge, they mark an important step forward in legal protections offered to polyamorous and multi-partner families. People deserve to know that their love relationships and family structure can be recognized and protected under the law. They shouldn’t have to fear that they won’t be able to visit their loved one in a hospital –– or that their community will only recognize one of their partners as being valid. I hope that these ordinances will provide inspiration and a framework for other cities, including San Francisco, to pass similar laws.