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3 min

Why just two spouses?

It's not so confusing to have more than one lover

COUNTING PAST TWO. There is no magic number for sex and love, writes Michelle Maloney Leonard. Credit: John Crossen

Over drinks, my friend describes her son’s confused and emotional reaction to a family tree project he was asked to complete at school. He didn’t know how to squish his father, mother and his mother’s long-time partner into the two boxes for “parents.” He came away from the assignment feeling uncertain and acting strangely toward his mom’s lover.

I nod knowingly. As a kid who didn’t know my biological father, but later gained an adoptive one, I remember dreading a similar assignment. I feared that it would out me as the product of an unconventional home.

Our culture is uncomfortable with the idea of having more than two parents. Not surprising, considering the discomfort conventional-minded folks feel about the idea of having more than one romantic partner.

At one point in my life I was maintaining relationships with three women simultaneously. I still remember the awkward silences at dinner parties with straight friends when they realized they weren’t confused, but rather, I had more than one lover.

Over the course of a year and a half, I realized the extent to which folks with multiple partners are socially stigmatized. My relationships were never considered fully legitimate. People assumed that I could only be playing around and certainly not making a serious life choice. For various reasons, my current partner and I have decided to have a monogamous relationship, which has underlined to me the level of privilege that our reasonably conventional life affords us.

Society’s discomfort with non-traditional family life is reflected and perpetuated through law. Several years ago, a lesbian couple with a child lost their legal application to add the non-biological mother as a parent without removing the biological dad. The judge upheld the statute that a child is legally entitled to a maximum of two parents (though custody can be shared among more adults). Similarly, the current struggle for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage has been somewhat narrow-sighted.

One of the arguments made against same-sex marriage was that queer unions would open up the floodgate to polygamy.

Activists dismissed this. The words “man” and “woman” might have been replaced by “two persons” on Canadian marriage licences, but that “two” is considered important.

It is often pointed out that queer couples are essentially the same as our straight counterparts. The fight for legal marriage relied on stretching the conventional definition to include same-sex relationships. However, the argument that we can just expand the legal definition of marriage to fit queers doesn’t address the segment of our community who have chosen to construct non-monogamous relationships.

Dominant society’s acceptance of same-sex marriage is conditional. The straight majority will only tolerate us when we are just like them in every respect, with the one exception of a same-sex partner. Hence, to express a desire to be part of a polygamous partnership is just too weird. It’s just too queer.

Straight folks are not the only ones who feel a tinge of discomfort with pluralistic queers. Portions of the lesbian and gay culture don’t like to count past two, either. I need only to look to many gay men’s and lesbians’ disdain of bisexual, transgendered and transsexual folks to support my argument. For many folks, the idea of legally recognizing multiple partnerships is just too far off the map. Struggling for this kind of union means straight folks may no longer support us in our cause. Nobody dares ask for it.

Instead, to fight for this kind of radical change to the redefinition of marriage may mean collapsing the institution altogether and rebuilding it from the bottom up. (Sounds good to me!)

Being recognized as a “parent” or “spouse” will not solve all our relationship problems. And there are a couple of points that we need to give serious consideration to as the queer community continues to channel our resources toward inclusion in traditional family categories. First, will fighting for legal recognition simply invite the state into our bedrooms? How do we find a way to negotiate our right to define our families as we see fit without state approval?

My criticism of the same-sex marriage movement has traditionally been my disinterest in the legal sanctioning of relationships, queer or otherwise. I’m uncomfortable with the diminished level of privacy that marriage affords by submitting our relationships and our private lives to public scrutiny.

I realize that opening up the definition of marriage to include more than two partners could lead to some unlikely alliances. After all, some religious groups, like the Mormons, have been engaged in the practice for quite some time. These polygamous partnerships have not, historically, promoted women’s equality. This makes it difficult for me to reconcile how I feel about polygamy as a dyke, with my deep concerns about women’s rights as a feminist.

The bottom line is that our relationships (both familial and romantic) don’t always fit neatly into the boxes prescribed for them.

In the case of multiple parents and polygamous unions, the dominant culture’s model can’t easily be modified to allow us in. It is difficult to advocate for the continuation of non-monogamous partnerships and the existence of multiple parental relationships outside the boundaries of legal status.

Rather, to construct the relationships that work for us means either opting for diminished legal rights or struggling to redefine long-standing conventional institutions. Either way, we end up feeling like we’re continually swimming upstream.