Are People Born Poly, Like They Are Gay? The Answer Could Have Major Ramifications.

In case you hadn’t noticed, polyamory is all the rage right now. The current vogue emerged back in January, with a viral cover story in New York magazine and the buzzy memoir More, about the pleasures and perils of an open marriage. The Atlantic followed suit, asking whether polyamory is just a fad for the rich, the New York Times sought lessons from a 20-person polycule, and countless other publications have jumped on the so-called poly moment with coverage both illuminating and hand-wringing. On our screens, the reality-TV series Couple to Throuple arguably offered a master class in how not to do polyamory, and even the ladies of The View felt compelled to weigh in. And, lest you think all this hubbub is some ginned-up PR campaign, consider that 4 to 5 percent of people in the U.S. are in consensually nonmonogamous relationships (not always the same thing as polyamory, but pointing in a similar direction), which is comparable to the number that identify as LGBTQ+. Research from the Kinsey Institute shows that as many as 1 in 6 people are interested in exploring polyamory.

For polyamorous folks like myself (I’m in a throuple), there’s definitely a feeling that the tide is changing. While only a few years ago, my relationship might have been met with confusion at best and outright hostility at worst, more and more, my partners and I are meeting people who simply shrug and tell us, oh sure, they’ve heard about throuples before. This increase in public familiarity, at least, seems like a good thing. I’m cautiously optimistic that polyamory is approaching a cultural tipping point, not dissimilar to the early days of the fight for something like marriage equality, support for which depended a lot on straight people knowing out gay friends and family, and same-sex relationships being normalized.

Yet, despite all this social progress, the law hasn’t been as quick to catch up with the rise of these kinds of “nontraditional” relationships. And that’s a big problem, because major, negative misconceptions persist among the non-poly public, most of them stemming from the reduction of these relationships to a sexual kink. This, in turn, leads to the belief, for example, that a polyamorous environment is not a safe one for a child, or that a poly relationship is not a serious or valid family structure. For those on the outside, polyamory can still seem like a wild and irresponsible lifestyle—and unfortunately, it’s people on the outside who are making laws and policy for the rest of us.

Indeed, legally, we polyamorous people find ourselves on very shaky ground. Apart from a few notable exceptions—such as the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, which was the first city to extend limited recognition to poly relationships back in 2023, and Oakland, California, which just passed a similar ordinance—there are almost no legal protections for polyamorous people, certainly not on a national level. Depending on where they live, a polyamorous person could be evicted from their home or denied housing because of their relationship style—I know firsthand that private landlords may be less likely to want to rent to a throuple, for example, than a monogamous married couple because of false assumptions that a polyamorous group will be inherently unstable and unreliable. And a poly person could be fired or denied promotions at work due to bias against polyamory (whether that’s the stated reason or not)—without the company facing the same legal ramifications they likely would if they terminated someone’s employment on, say, the basis of sexuality.

Which raises an interesting question: Should polyamory be recognized as a sexuality under the law? And what might be gained, or lost, by such a recognition? There is a lot of debate in the polyamorous and LGBTQAI+ community as to whether poly should “count” in this way. But with so many poly folks believing that their polyamory is not something they chose, but rather an innate part of themselves, running a legal gauntlet on an everyday basis can feel exhausting and more than a little censorious. Many poly people feel they have to hide their true selves and even lie to colleagues, neighbors, friends, and family, lest they bring unwanted attention into their lives and homes.

Would changing the legal status of polyamory and grouping it together with protected identities such as gender and sexuality offer a solution? As is so often the case when we’re talking about something as fluid as human sexuality, it turns out that the answer isn’t exactly a simple one. But, experts argue, the current state of play simply isn’t good enough.

Dr. Eli Sheff is a sociologist and expert witness on cases involving families who have unconventional setups, including polyamorous ones. She explains that while the legal changes happening at a local level are an important step in the right direction, there are limits to how much they’re impacting polyamorous people’s lives nationally: “The changes in Somerville, for example, only apply to city employees. Somerville can’t legislate that a national corporation must recognize your polyamorous relationship. So poly people remain extremely vulnerable; you can’t share your health insurance, for example. On the national level, it’s wholly inadequate.”

Andy Izenson knows firsthand how this feels. “It’s been an expensive year,” they say, referencing medical bills that they and their two partners have all had to deal with after suffering different illnesses in the past year. They faced limitations on how much they could claim from their insurance companies because they are not in a more traditional relationship. Izenson, the senior legal director at the Chosen Family Law Centre, is an attorney and mediator specializing in representing queer families, including polyamorous ones, and transgender people. I asked how polyamorous people might begin to advocate for themselves. Izenson explains that often, dealing with situations in a personal, one-to-one way is best. “For example, if three parents need to be able to pick their kid up from school, going to the school, speaking to the principal, trying to work things out that way is sometimes the best. You have to think about what systems in society you really need to be interacting with.”

But with no laws to protect a polyamorous person, doing this is inherently a risk. In some places, laws exist that not only fail to protect polyamorous folks, but actively work against them, such as in Connecticut, where a zoning law limits the number of unmarried adults that can live together. In other states such as Florida and Alabama, polyamory is effectively criminalized through bigamy statutes. And considering cases of parents losing custody battles because of their polyamorous relationships, a person might rightly think very carefully before coming out to a school principal, boss, or co-worker.

This is a shame, because we really don’t have anything to hide. Dr. Heath Schechinger, co-founder of the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, has found in his research that polyamorous and nonmonogamous relationships have benefits far beyond the sexual. He asked 175 people engaged in nonmonogamous relationships to list the benefits of their relationship structure. Responses included gaining a greater social and support network, fostering greater honesty in their relationships, and having greater autonomy and independence in their lives. Sex-related benefits ranked as only the eighth most-cited reason. Polyamorous people such as myself already know this—my partners and I argue over what to watch on Netflix and remind each other to feed our cats, just like any married couple. But while these misconceptions persist, they’re a major blocker to legal reform.

Schechinger says that although it may not be possible for everyone, visibility is a vital first step in improving rights for polyamorous people: “I think if you have the privilege of being able to come out as polyamorous, it’s important to consider doing so,” he says. “We are in an era where we’re on a precipice of significant change. Polyamory is becoming a lot more visible. The more people there are coming out and adding to that visibility, the easier it becomes for others. At the same time, companies increasingly want people to bring more of themselves, and bring their true selves, to the workplace. There are demonstrable benefits for companies in people feeling able to do this.”

Polyamorous people have been fighting for greater recognition for a number of years. In 2010, lawyer and academic Anne Tweedy wrote a paper arguing that polyamory shares common traits with other sexual orientations and warrants legal protections against discrimination. However, only a few years later, the popular sex columnist Dan Savage weighed in, writing that polyamory is “not a sexual orientation. It’s not something you are, it’s something you do,”—an assertion that led to a comment-thread “shit storm” as members of the polyamorous community leaped in to staunchly disagree.

Poly-as-sexual-orientation has always been a controversial topic, with many polyamorous people feeling that their polyamory is something they can’t control and don’t choose, and others feeling that this kind of categorization would be oversimplifying the issue.

Sheff feels that, for some people, polyamory is certainly an orientation more than a lifestyle choice. She points out that “for a lot of people it’s a long-term part of their lives; for example, when they were children, they might not have had a singular best friend, but rather several different friends that they would do different things with. Another thing is that many polyamorous folks have tried and tried to be monogamous, or live monogamously, and have simply not been able to. A little like a woman who is really a lesbian trying to date men, and dating a bunch of men, and feeling that it’s just never right.”

Izenson, however, feels ambivalent about how useful labeling polyamory as a sexual orientation would be. “We need to consider how we’re thinking about sexual behavior as a static identity. In law, for something to become a protected identity it needs to be considered an ‘immutable characteristic,’ as something fixed. Historically, in order to squish sexual identity into the civil rights framework, it became necessary to say that, like race, sexual identity is a static and immutable characteristic. We know now that this isn’t the case for race; it’s not an immutable and fixed thing at all. And we all know that’s not the case for sexuality, either; sexuality is a very fluid thing. So, if we were to apply this same approach to a relationship style, like polyamory, we’d have to say that it was fixed and immutable.” The problem, then, is that because many polyamorous people have had monogamous relationships in the past (and may choose to again in the future), it’s possible for the state to look at this and assert that their polyamory must be a choice, rather than a fixed characteristic.

Izenson points to the comparable example of bisexual asylum-seekers who have been denied asylum because past heterosexual relationships have been used as an argument to say their current same-sex relationship must be a choice. We know that a bisexual person can identify as bisexual regardless of the gender of their current partner. Likewise, a poly person may want to identify as polyamorous while having the freedom to choose any kind of relationship style they want. They also may not want to have their identity denied because of what past relationships looked like. Sex and relationship therapists commonly agree that sexual identity and sexual behavior do not always go hand in hand, but currently, the law (in most places) is not nuanced enough to accommodate this concept.

Even so, there are ways that people are getting involved and advocating for greater changes, and Schechinger feels that the dam is about to break. “We are putting together a packet that people can take to their city councilperson and advocate for similar policies [to the ones in Somerville and Oakland] to be taken up in their city,” he said. These materials will form a toolkit that will be available in the coming months, and have been created in collaboration with the Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-monogamy, Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, Harvard Law LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, and the Chosen Family Law Center. The toolkit will include relevant research and educational information, case examples, legal insights, and advocacy strategies.

Although there may be quite a way to go until the law protects polyamorous people’s rights across the whole of the U.S., the combination of greater visibility, companies wanting to encourage employees to bring their true selves to the workplace, and replicable local policies being taken up in more and more places may be paving the way for exciting change. “It’s comparable to where LGBTQ advocacy was in perhaps the early ’90s,” says Schechinger. And people are getting behind this advocacy in droves.

“One of the problems, one of the beautiful problems, that my colleagues and I have right now is that there are countless numbers of people reaching out and asking how they can get involved and asking how they can offer support. Up until now, a huge part of their lives and their identities was going unrecognized. Finally, now there’s hope for progress. It’s only a matter of time before we see this start to scale.” And after all, what is poly if not the belief that things like understanding and love are capable of growth.