Likely today most liberal politicians would say they are opposed to polygamy because it is a vestige of bad ancient patriarchal societies. But so long as American law rejects traditional marriage as a valid definition, they have no leg to stand on to deny it to groups of consenting men and women or persons who define themselves in some other manner. There is little appetite among conservatives to challenge gay marriage since it is now broadly popular.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states and the District of Columbia by a 5-4 vote. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion for the case, didn’t seem to believe that the issue of polyamory could possibly be relevant or arise due to the court’s decision. Just eight years later, The New York Times published an article last week that celebrated Somerville, Massachusetts, as a haven for legal polyamory.
A haven for academics and hippies, the Boston suburb adopted an ordinance in 2020 granting domestic partnership rights to people in polyamorous relationships. That was followed up this spring by the passage of two more laws “extending the rights of nonmonogamous residents,” banning discrimination on the basis of “family or relationship structure” in city employment and policing. The Somerville City Council is currently considering extending the reach of that law to housing. And as the Times reports, the “nonmonogamous” are no longer unusual there.
Somerville is, in the words of one of its municipal councilors, “a very queer city.” And as the Times also makes clear, “there is a significant crossover between those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and pansexual and those who practice nonmonogamy, according to multiple studies.”
As the Times also points out, polyamory is a staple of popular entertainment via shows like “Planet Sex with Cara Delevingne” and “Sex Diaries.” The same is true for polygamy, which was the subject of the hit HBO show “Big Love” from 2006 to 2011, and a reality show about an actual polygamous family, “Sister Wives,” which is still running after 13 seasons.
Surely, the widespread introduction of gay characters and couples into popular TV shows and films helped pave the way for Obergefell. Supporters of “nonmonogamous” relationships believe the same process is underway for their cause. But as much as the Times story on Somerville is an indication that the arbiters of fashionable left-wing opinion agree with that conclusion, it is worth remembering that at the time the gay marriage ruling was handed down, both the majority opinion and liberals cheering it sought to assure the nation that its implications were limited.
The decision was based on the claim that marriage “equality” was rooted in the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The right of two people of the same sex to the benefits of government-approved marriage was, according to the five-justice majority and the rest of enlightened opinion, no less compelling than those of two of the opposite sex.
In their view, the traditional conception of marriage as a union of one man and one woman that dates back to the beginnings of civilization was antithetical to the law’s guarantee of equal protection to all. Any objections to this principle were deemed to be rooted in religion and not the secular laws of the United States.