Ivo is a partner in Obermayer’s Labor Relations & Employment Law Department. He focuses his practice on representing employers, including advising companies on how to handle employee issues, and defending employee claims...Read More by Author
A New Protected Category: Somerville, MA Passes Polyamory Antidiscrimination Ordinance
On March 23, 2023, the City of Somerville revised its ordinance to protect people in multi-partner relationships from employment discrimination. In doing so, this Boston suburb of about 80,000 people became the first U.S. jurisdiction to grant legal protections to employees in polyamorous and other consensually non-monogamous relationships.
What is Polyamory?
Polyamory, commonly defined as the practice of engaging in multiple loving relationships with the knowledge and consent of all people involved, is part of the larger umbrella of consensual non-monogamy (CNM), which also includes open marriage and swinging. CNM communities have existed in the United States since at least the 1930s, but became more visible in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when they overlapped with the LGBTQ+ community and “free love” ethos. Today there are polyamorous communities across the world, and countless books, conferences, and online resources, devoted to helping people engage in relationships with multiple partners in a caring, intentional, and ethical way. According to the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition (PLAC), “[m]ore than one in five people in the United States have engaged in a CNM relationship at some point in their life and approximately 4-5% of people are currently in CNM relationships.” Many people consider polyamory as part of their identity, like gender or sexual orientation.
Polyamory is notably different from polygamy, the often-coercive practice of one man having multiple wives who cannot themselves have multiple partners. In contrast, modern polyamorous people span the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation—in fact, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to participate in CNM. Polyamorous parents often share childcare responsibilities in much the same way as blended families after a divorce. In 2013, Dr. Elisabeth Sheff published the results of her fifteen-year ethnographic study of polyamorous families, concluding that many of the relationship skills practiced by these parents benefit children. In 2018, the American Psychological Association created the CNM Task Force, a group of researchers, clinicians, and educators working to promote awareness of CNM issues.
Polyamory and the Law
While there are only scant legal protections for polyamory, advocates have made substantial progress in the past few years, with Massachusetts leading the way. In June of 2020, Somerville became the first municipality to include polyamorous relationships in its definition of domestic partnerships. In 2021, similar laws passed in Cambridge and Arlington, MA. Advocacy groups such as PLAC, the Chosen Family Law Center, and OPEN, have been active in legislative campaigns and providing direct legal services (such as drafting agreements between multiple partners). However, until this latest legislation, no U.S. jurisdiction has addressed workplace discrimination—a concerning issue for many polyamorous people.
The Somerville Ordinance
The Somerville legislation, developed with assistance from PLAC and Harvard Law School’s LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, is drafted quite simply. First, the City Council added the following two definitions to its Code of Ordinances:
Relationship status. The words “relationship status” mean the actual or perceived involvement or noninvolvement of an individual in an intimate personal relationship or relationships. It includes an individual’s actual or perceived affinity, or lack thereof, for any given type of intimate personal relationship, regardless of whether the individual is currently in any intimate personal relationship(s).
Intimate personal relationship. The words “intimate personal relationship” shall include any interpersonal relationship between two or more adult individuals that involves romantic, physical, or emotional intimacy. This includes multi-partner/multi-parent families and relationships, step families, multi-generational households, and consensual sexual relationships, including relationships involving consensual non-monogamy.
Once those definitions were in place, the Council simply added “relationship status” to the section of its Ordinance mandating non-discriminatory treatment for city employees and job applicants—becoming the first jurisdiction to recognize a brand-new protected category.
The simplicity of the Somerville ordinance makes it ripe for imitation. Indeed, one of the Councilors who joined the unanimous approval vote said he wanted Somerville to serve as an example for other municipalities. California—a longtime pioneer in employee-friendly legal protections and LGBTQ+ rights—is one potential next stop. In 2017, a California court allowed three polyamorous men to be listed on their daughter’s birth certificate. An ordinance like Somerville’s is currently being considered in Berkeley, California. Many states and municipalities already have marital or familial status discrimination laws that could be amended to encompass multi-partner relationships.
Much like early efforts in San Francisco and Massachusetts boosted rights for LGBTQ+ Americans, Somerville’s ordinance could be an early step towards increasing legal protections for polyamorous people.
The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.