News & Politics

Gay, Straight, Poly: Should Traditional Marriage Really Be Our Goal?

While the turning tide towards gay marriage is great, are we losing sight of other alternatives to marriage that might be more inclusive?

A few days after New York legalized same-sex marriage, I was in Madison, Wisconsin having a beer at a pub directly in front of its now famous capital with a longtime conservative friend. She mentioned her support of the newly passed law and explained that, since marriage is the foundation of American society, the more people who get married the better. As a reluctantly married queer woman who harbors strong feelings of disapproval toward the institution of marriage, I challenged my heterosexual, married friend’s assertion by asking her why it is necessary for the state to be involved in people’s love affairs. I expressed my consternation at our government’s use of the institution to shirk its own responsibility to provide basic necessities like universal healthcare to its citizenry and use false notions of ‘marital stability’ to bully poor people into unhealthy relationships through requirements for obtaining public assistance. Being an advocate of smaller government, my friend agreed that these regulations might at times overstep, but she held firm in her belief that promoting the necessity of marriage itself is the best way to garner social support for and legitimize gay and lesbian families, at least in the eyes of conservatives.

The conversation took an interesting turn when I inquired about marriage legalization for folks who practice polyamory. Following my friend’s pro-marriage logic, poly relationships should be institutionalized too in order to better support the needs of our society. Of course, that conclusion was deeply unappealing to my friend, who replied that if same-sex marriage advocates don’t want to lose their hard-won conservative support, they should take care not to embrace those who advocate institutionalizing polyamory. I told her my money was on poly marriage being the next step. Sure enough, by the time I returned to New York City, it had hit the news that Sister Wives star Kody Brown had filed a lawsuit in Utah challenging the state’s ban on polygamy.

Although Brown’s lawyer issued statements intending to assuage the fear that his client’s lawsuit would demand polygamous marriage, the success of Brown’s case will certainly pave the way for subsequent suits to do just that – a slippery slope which no doubt makes some folks nervous and others enormously excited.

While a spate of articles have focused on whether the struggle for poly acceptance is the new gay marriage, others are lambasting the institution of marriage and calling for a broadening of socially acceptable relationships in generaland questioning the usefulness of our currently defined categories. With all the focus on marriage, some wonder, will previous--and extremely practical--categories like domestic partnership go extinct? And is that a good thing?

With so many new issues and options being brought bear, perhaps it’s time to pay more attention to those who don’t tow the pro-marriage party line and make an effort to understand why.

1. How to live happily unmarried: Alternatives to Marriage Project.

Concerned with undoing discriminatory laws, regulations, and business practices, the Alternatives to Marriage Project ( works to change public policy and social stigma that demonizes unmarried families. The nonprofit organization supports immigration legislation that unites families regardless of marital relationship, advocates for domestic partnership benefits irrespective of sexual orientation, and challenges coercive welfare benefit requirements that promote marriage as an escape from poverty. Although based in New York City, the group works nationwide on a state and federal level to make sure children are able to be adopted by all loving couples, tax codes are fair across income level, families are not unjustly denied housing, and government employees receive the health benefits they deserve.

2. Some LGBTQ people and allies don’t think marriage is the

Five years ago a diverse group of people gathered for two days to hash out a new vision for the American family. The result was “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage,” an agreement they made to one another to challenge the traditional marriage framework across race, class, and gender lines, work on behalf of policy solutions that take various relationship formations into account, and expand the definition of what constitutes a legitimate ‘family’ in the eyes of our society. Led by representatives of organizations such as Queers for Economic Justice, Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, Queer Immigrant Rights Project, and the New York Women’s Foundation, the contract garnered signatories from popular academics, famous writers, and social justice activists throughout the United States. The full statement can be viewed online and continues to be an innovative roadmap for policymakers and community leaders.

3. Finding ways to bring awareness to and support polyamorous families: Loving More.

 Over the past twenty-five years, Loving More has been running educational workshops, holding conferences, organizing group retreats, and publishing a website and print magazine about living polyamorously. Only recently did it take the steps to become an officially sanctioned 501c3 charitable organization. In September, Loving More hosts an annual weekend gathering, where individuals who have chosen multi-partnered relationships come together to relax, be entertained, learn from each other, and experience a community where their lifestyle is affirmed. This organization doesn’t involve itself in advocacy. Instead, it centers its work on providing support to its members about whose lives most Americans are unaware. Loving More’s goal is to be a leader in “establishing conscious relationship choices in the 21st century.”


Mandy Van Deven is an internationally published writer, progressive activist, and co-author of Hey, Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets. You can find more about her work at
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