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Bay Area Cities Push to Legally Validate Polyamorous Families

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John Owens poses for a photo with his partners Emily Savage (left) and Alejandra Bravo Ducey at a celebration party at the East Bay Community Space in Oakland on April 16, 2024, after a bill prohibiting discrimination of nonmonogamous families passed in the Oakland City Council. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

John Owens pulled his brown shoulder-length hair back into a bun and tossed brightly colored T-shirts and books into crates and boxes. The 37-year-old artist and writer is moving for the fifth time in less than a decade. He said he feels uncomfortable in his current home, which Owens, who identifies as polyamorous, shares with one of his three romantic partners and two roommates.

Six months after moving into the duplex tucked off the 580 freeway in Oakland, the dishwasher, garbage disposal and driveway gate all needed repairs. Owens told his landlords that one of his romantic partners would be visiting the house and could meet the repair person. This was the first time he’d shared details about his love life. After that, Owens said, the interactions between the landlords “felt much stranger,” and it grew more awkward as time passed.

“The landlords are pretty judgy about polyamory,” Owens said. “At one point, they tried to ask us to leave, threatening an owner-occupied eviction thing. Then, they backtracked and said we could stay, but with a 10% rent increase.”

He said his polyamorous lifestyle alarmed the landlord or master tenant in his last four living situations. When he shared that he was polyamorous with a prospective landlord who lived onsite in an apartment building in Oakland a few years ago, the older woman became angry and disrespectful, telling him: “I don’t rent to sluts.” The landlord did not provide a rental application.

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“That type of discrimination is pretty common,” Owens said. “It’s hard to even think about all the different times, different people that I’ve encountered in professional, medical, housing or institutional settings that have made it pretty clear that they’re not OK with the way I live my life.”

Research shows that two-thirds of people engaged in consensual nonmonogamy report feeling stigmatized, which inspires many people to hide that they are polyamorous because they fear negative perceptions.

“Stigma and discrimination can show up in a range of domains: housing, employment, health care and immigration,” said Brett Chamberlin, founder and executive director of the Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-monogamy, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Courts have revoked custody from parents who have multiple partners.”

This month, the Oakland City Council passed new legislation formally recognizing polyamorous families, the first of its kind on the West Coast. It protects “diverse family structures” from discrimination in housing and at businesses and introduces a civil financial penalty for any rights violations by city services or facilities.

Janani Ramachandran, Oakland’s first LGBTQ councilwoman of color, sponsored the bill. Protections cover multi-partner families, step-families, single parents, multi-generational households and asexual relationships.

“There’s not a lot of really wonderful good news in the world,” Owens said. “And this is a really wonderful and unambiguously good thing that Oakland is doing.”

Berkeley lawmakers plan to vote on the same legislation on May 7.

A growing movement

Somerville and Cambridge in Massachusetts passed the first laws granting rights to nontraditional families.

“This is a really exciting moment for the nonmonogamy movement because it helps validate and protect families and relationships that for a long time have existed in the shadows or at the margins of societies,” Chamberlin said.

John Owens (center left) poses for a photo with two of his partners, Emily Savage and Alejandra Bravo (center), and their polycule at a celebration party at the East Bay Community Space in Oakland on April 16, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

His group plans to push for protections at the state and eventually federal level. Chamberlin said people have a human right to pursue the relationship and family structure they desire.

“The nonmonogamous community has something really important to offer this world,” he said. “The way that we pursue relationships is an expression of our values. We put connection above consumption, and we put community and cooperation above competition.”

The changing shape of families in America

Owens has three long-term romantic partnerships. He and a married woman in her late 30s are in love. He lives with a woman in her early 30s with whom he collaborates professionally through artistic projects and sex-positive events. And then, about a year-and-a-half ago, he fell for a “delightfully fun” person in their 20s who identifies as nonbinary. They stay in touch throughout the day by texting funny political memes back and forth.

“When you’re able to have more than one long-term partner, you don’t need each person to be everything or fill every bucket for you,” Owens said.

Lily Lamboy, co-founder of the Modern Family Institute, speaks during a celebration party at the East Bay Community Space in Oakland on April 16, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

All of his partners also have other romantic and sexual partners. Owens described this larger network as his polycule; he said everyone is practicing consensual nonmonogamy.

Owens grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. Even before high school, he began questioning the relationship models around him. His parents, both pastors in the protestant church, Disciples of Christ, instilled the idea that marriage is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. But, the idea of settling down with one person exclusively “never felt realistic.” In 2016, he moved to the West Coast in search of like-minded people in progressive circles.

Several years ago, he decided “to be fully open and out about being polyamorous with everyone and in every context.” This included a tricky conversation with his parents.

“I don’t know if they fully understood it,” Owens said. “But they are happy I’m living my life in an authentic way.”

Religious pushback

Some religious groups are openly critical. The California Family Council, a Christian faith-based organization, is vehemently opposed to any measure that affirms polyamorous relationships.

“The push by Oakland and Berkeley to formalize polyamorous families is cultural suicide,” said Greg Burt, vice president of CFC, in a statement. “History and experience have shown children thrive best in nuclear father, mother and child families. A civilization that rejects this biblical model for family life is hell-bent on its own destruction.” Yet, the country may be trending away from the nuclear family.

Research shows that one in five single people in the U.S. have participated in some type of nonmonogamy. A 2023 poll conducted by YouGov, an international analytics group, found that approximately a third of U.S. adults said that their ideal relationship is nonmonogamous to some degree.

Owens said the traditional model didn’t work for him. He had a daughter in his early 20s when he was living in Durham, North Carolina.

“It was hard,” he said. “I can’t imagine trying to parent in a one or two-parent household ever again. There’s no way. For the long arc of human history, children have been raised by the village in large groups of people. My dream scenario is some big polyamorous collective.”

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