The town of Somerville, Massachusetts has added legal protections to a series of historic ordinances recognizing polyamorous families, defining “family or relationship structure” as a protected class.
That means polyamorous families and other chosen family structures in the city of 80,000 outside Boston will be entitled to the same legal protections as straight couples.
In 2020, Somerville became the first city in the country to recognize polyamorous relationships with an expanded domestic partner ordinance. That legislation granted poly partners the same rights as married couples, including hospital visitation and conferring health insurance benefits.
The latest ordinances also extend specific anti-discrimination protections in employment and for police interactions, while a fourth ordinance under consideration addresses housing discrimination.
“These ordinances are a step towards us having a society that fully embraces people of diverse relationship structures,” Willie Burnley Jr., Somerville’s city councilor at-large told The 19th News. “People shouldn’t be punished because of who they love or how many people they love, as long as they’re all consenting adults. We should be celebrating the kind of care and community that builds.”
According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, an estimated four to five percent of Americans are polyamorous, while 21 percent reported some form of consensual non-monogamy in their relationships.
“In the law and in our society, there’s a singular definition of family that’s embedded in everything, in how our society and legal system work,” explained Andy Izenson, senior legal director at the Chosen Family Law Center, who helped craft the ordinances. “That impacted families who don’t look like that.”
According to Izenson, less than half of American kids live in a family composed of heterosexual, cisgender married parents who are genetically related only to them.
How children of non-traditional relationships are treated was a major consideration in crafting the new ordinances, said Burnley, who’s been in a poly relationship himself for the past eight years.
“There’s a deep concern within the community about children being taken away from families if disputes arise or if they’re in contact with law enforcement. There’s this idea that their family structures are immoral or unhealthy. Our legal system and our cultural consciousness has omitted the fact that non-monogamy is a real and vibrant part of our communities,” he said.
The first-term councilman was excited to be on offense in a climate currently so hostile to LGBTQ+ rights and progressive causes.
“It’s funny that right-wing types try to monopolize being pro-family,” Burnley said. “But ordinances like this are about being able to form a family in whatever ethical ways people choose. We will be seeing more drastic changes as we come together as communities.”