Right to 'free love': Activists fight for polyamory to be recognized as sexual orientation

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The ever-growing acronym of LGBTQI might be adding a ‘P’ if polyamorous rights activists get their way and become officially recognized as a sexual orientation.

The term, which means ‘true love’ in Latin and has been described as “consensual non-monogamy,” describes those who have more than one sexual partner, but only if all those involved are aware and supportive.

The model of nuclear relationships involving cisgender men and women having a few children and settling down for life faces competition from the emergence of other orientations into the mainstream, prompting discrimination, intimidation, and violence from those threatened by the redefinition of what’s considered to be “normal.”

The polyamory community has experienced some of that backlash and, as a result, certain activists want to receive the protections offered to their gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer counterparts.

Speaking to Vice, polyamorist Melissa Marie Legge said she always knew she was different.

“Consensual non-monogamy gives me the freedom to involve people in my life on my own terms and to negotiate relationships individually and contextually without having to follow a social script,” she said. “It’s something that I value highly and that I would say is a big part of my sexual identity overall.”

In the US, around 500,000 people are believed to be in polyamory relationships, according to Newsweek.

Across the border, the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, which calls for the rights of the “Poly Majority,” says the community has “custom-made” relationships.

“We believe every adult should create her own relationships,” the group says on their website. “No loving, life-enhancing possibility is out of bounds. That means women or men can have more than one partner… if everybody involved agrees it’s best for them. That’s not empty theory; we live all gender combinations.”

Many of the same religious conservatives who oppose the LGBTQI community are against poly relationships, but recognition of poly as an orientation has also faced push back from the popular sex columnist Dan Savage, who identifies as gay, when he said polyamory is “not a sexual orientation... it’s not something you are, it’s something you do.”

Referring to poly as “relationship models” and not “sexual identities,” Savage was slammed by the poly community for his comments.

Last year, the Catholic organization Centacare in Australia fired a woman for being polyamorous, a decision upheld by a judge who said firing someone for being poly is not sexual discrimination.

Justice Salvatore Vasta claimed there is a difference between “sexual behavior” and “sexual orientation.”

READ MORE: Ireland becomes first country to approve gay marriage in referendum

“Sexual orientation is how one is, rather than how one manifests that state of being,” Vasta said. “The manifestation of that state of being can take many forms.”

The debate on how polyamory is classed could also have legal implications in certain US states such as Alabama and Florida, where it is criminalized in the form of anti-adultery and anti-bigamy laws.

Other states such as Connecticut have laws that restrict the number of unmarried adults who live together and such laws have been used against polyamorous families in the past.

Though not polyamorous, an 11-person group, who were not related but classed themselves as a family in the city of Hartford, were told they could be forced to split up due to “zoning laws,” which prohibits the number of unmarried couples living together.

Not all members of the LGBTQI community are comfortable with polyamory activists campaigning under their banner.

Some believe it would open the door to other kinds of sexual activities such as cosplayers or foot fetishists.

Relationship orientation is a challenging issue for the LGBTQI community, according to Neil McArthur, director of the Centre for Professional Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, who says it could be seen as less important in the struggle for equal rights.

Polyamory has not been extensively studied, but the Canadian Research Institute of Law and the Family released a study this month on the country’s perception of polyamory and dynamics of such relationships.

“The growing popularity of polyamory suggests that the meaning of ‘family’ continues to evolve in Canada,” the report says. “The traditional model of the Western nuclear family, consisting of married heterosexual parents and their legitimate offspring, has undergone enormous change in the last 200 hundred years - attaching family status to unmarried partnerships and legalizing same-sex marriage are only the most recent changes. Perhaps expectations as to exclusivity and the dyadic nature of committed relationships are next.”