Here Come the Brides
Plural marriage is waiting in the wings.
Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By STANLEY KURTZ
ON SEPTEMBER 23, 2005, the 46-year-old Victor de Bruijn and his 31-year-old wife of eight years, Bianca, presented themselves to a notary public in the small Dutch border town of Roosendaal. And they brought a friend. Dressed in wedding clothes, Victor and Bianca de Bruijn were formally united with a bridally bedecked Mirjam Geven, a recently divorced 35-year-old whom they'd met several years previously through an Internet chatroom. As the notary validated a samenlevingscontract, or "cohabitation contract," the three exchanged rings, held a wedding feast, and departed for their honeymoon.
When Mirjam Geven first met Victor and Bianca de Bruijn, she was married. Yet after several meetings between Mirjam, her then-husband, and the De Bruijns, Mirjam left her spouse and moved in with Victor and Bianca. The threesome bought a bigger bed, while Mirjam and her husband divorced. Although neither Mirjam nor Bianca had had a prior relationship with a woman, each had believed for years that she was bisexual. Victor, who describes himself as "100 percent heterosexual," attributes the trio's success to his wives' bisexuality, which he says has the effect of preventing jealousy.
The De Bruijns' triple union caused a sensation in the Netherlands, drawing coverage from television, radio, and the press. With TV cameras and reporters crowding in, the wedding celebration turned into something of a media circus. Halfway through the festivities, the trio had to appoint one of their guests as a press liaison. The local paper ran several stories on the triple marriage, one devoted entirely to the media madhouse.
News of the Dutch three-way wedding filtered into the United States through a September 26 report by Paul Belien, on his Brussels Journal website. The story spread through the conservative side of the Internet like wildfire, raising a chorus of "I told you so's" from bloggers who'd long warned of a slippery slope from gay marriage to polygamy.
Meanwhile, gay marriage advocates scrambled to put out the fire. M.V. Lee Badgett, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and research director of the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies, told a sympathetic website, "This [Brussels Journal] article is ridiculous. Don't be fooled--Dutch law does not allow polygamy." Badgett suggested that Paul Belien had deliberately mistranslated the Dutch word for "cohabitation contract" as "civil union," or even "marriage," so as to leave the false impression that the triple union had more legal weight than it did. Prominent gay-marriage advocate Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, offered up a detailed legal account of Dutch cohabitation contracts, treating them as a matter of minor significance, in no way comparable to state-recognized registered partnerships.
In short, while the Dutch triple wedding set the conservative blogosphere ablaze with warnings, same-sex marriage advocates dismissed the story as a silly stunt with absolutely no implications for the gay marriage debate. And how did America's mainstream media adjudicate the radically different responses of same-sex marriage advocates and opponents to events in the Netherlands? By ignoring the entire affair.
Yet there is a story here. And it's bigger than even those chortling conservative websites claim. While Victor, Bianca, and Mirjam are joined by a private cohabitation contract rather than a state-registered partnership or a full-fledged marriage, their union has already made serious legal, political, and cultural waves in the Netherlands. To observers on both sides of the Dutch gay marriage debate, the De Bruijns' triple wedding is an unmistakable step down the road to legalized group marriage.
More important, the De Bruijn wedding reveals a heretofore hidden dimension of the gay marriage phenomenon. The De Bruijns' triple marriage is a bisexual marriage. And, increasingly, bisexuality is emerging as a reason why legalized gay marriage is likely to result in legalized group marriage. If every sexual orientation has a right to construct its own form of marriage, then more changes are surely due. For what gay marriage is to homosexuality, group marriage is to bisexuality. The De Bruijn trio is the tip-off to the fact that a connection between bisexuality and the drive for multipartner marriage has been developing for some time.
AS AMERICAN GAY-MARRIAGE ADVOCATES were quick to point out, the cohabitation contract that joined Victor, Bianca, and Mirjam carries fewer legal implications and less status than either a registered partnership or a marriage--and Dutch trios are still barred from the latter two forms of union. Yet the use of a cohabitation contract for a triple wedding is a step in the direction of group marriage. The conservative and religious Dutch paper Reformatorisch Dagblad reports that this was the first known occurrence in the Netherlands of a cohabitation contract between a married couple and their common girlfriend.
This is important because the Dutch campaign for same-sex marriage was famously premised on a "small step" strategy, with each small increment of recognition creating an impetus for further steps. As Israeli legal scholar Yuval Merin tells it in his 2002 book Equality for Same-Sex Couples, the popularity of cohabitation contracts among Dutch gays in the 1980s helped create laws in the early 1990s forbidding employer discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation--including discrimination between married and unmarried couples in the granting of benefits.
So the use of cohabitation contracts was an important step along the road to same-sex marriage in the Netherlands. And the link between gay marriage and the De Bruijns' triple contract was immediately recognized by the Dutch. The story in Reformatorisch Dagblad quoted J.W.A. van Dommelen, an attorney opposed to the De Bruijn union, who warned that the path from same-sex cohabitation contracts to same-sex marriage was about to be retraced in the matter of group marriage.
Van Dommelen also noted that legal complications would flow from the overlap between a two-party marriage and a three-party cohabitation contract. The rights and obligations that exist in Dutch marriages and Dutch cohabitation contracts are not identical, and it's unclear which arrangement would take precedence in case of a conflict. "The structure is completely gone," said Van Dommelen, as he called on the Dutch minister of justice to set up a working group to reconcile the conflicting claims of dual marriages and multipartner cohabitation contracts. Of course, simply by harmonizing the conflicting claims of dual marriages and triple cohabitation contracts, that working group would be taking yet another "small step" along the road to legal recognition for group marriage in the Netherlands.
The slippery-slope implications of the triple cohabitation contract were immediately evident to the SGP, a small religious party that played a leading role in the failed battle to preserve the traditional definition of marriage in the Netherlands. SGP member of parliament Kees van der Staaij noted the substantial overlap between marriage rights and the rights embodied in cohabitation contracts. Calling the triple cohabitation contract a back-door route to legalized polygamy, Van der Staaij sent a series of formal queries to Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner, asking him to dissolve the De Bruijn contract and to bar more than two persons from entering into cohabitation contracts in the future.
The justice minister's answers to these queries represent yet another small step--actually several small steps--toward legal and cultural recognition for group marriage in the Netherlands. To begin with, Donner reaffirmed the legality of multipartner cohabitation contracts and pointedly refused to consider any attempt to ban such contracts in the future. Donner also went so far as to assert that contracts regulating multipartner cohabitation can fulfill "a useful regulating function" (also translatable as "a useful structuring role"). In other words, Donner has articulated the rudiments of a "conservative case for group marriage."
The SGP responded angrily to Donner's declarations. In the eyes of this small religious party, Donner had effectively introduced a form of legal group marriage to the Netherlands. A party spokesman warned of an impending legal mess--especially if the De Bruijn trio, or others like them, have children. The SGP plans to raise its objections again when parliament considers the justice department's budget.
It's not surprising that the first English language report was a bit unclear as to the precise legal status and significance of the triple Dutch union. The Dutch themselves are confused about it. One of the articles from which Paul Belien drew his original report is careful to distinguish between formal marriage and the cohabitation contract actually signed by Victor, Bianca, and Mirjam. Yet the very same article says that Victor now "officially" has "two wives."
Even Dutch liberals acknowledge the implications of the De Bruijn wedding. Jan Martens, a reporter and opinion columnist for BN/DeStem, the local paper in Roosendaal, wrote an opinion piece mocking opposition to group marriage by religious parties like the SGP. Noting the substantial overlap between cohabitation contracts and marriage, Martens said he agreed with the SGP that the De Bruijn triple union amounts to a "short-cut to polygamy." Yet Martens emphasized that he "couldn't care less if you have two, three, four, or sixty-nine wives or husbands."
Minority religious parties and their newspapers excepted, this mixture of approval and indifference seems to be the mainstream Dutch reaction so far. Not only has Justice Minister Donner articulated the beginnings of a conservative case for group marriage, but Green party spokesman Femke Halsema, a key backer of gay marriage, has affirmed her party's support for the recognition of multipartner unions. The public has not been inclined to protest these developments, and the De Bruijn trio have been welcomed by their neighbors.
Dutch fascination with the De Bruijn story appears to have made an impression on BN/DeStem. On November 19, less than two months after the triple wedding, the paper ran a story headlined "Remembering birthdays is a disaster," about the family of a Belgian named Serge Régnier. Belgium is Holland's neighbor and close cultural cousin. It became the second country to legalize gay marriage when it adopted the practice in 2003, two years after the Netherlands. In the Belgian town of Marcinelle, Serge Régnier lives with three women, only one of whom he is legally married to, but all three of whom he considers wives. The family has a total of 30 children (5 by one wife's first husband), with another on the way.
Serge Régnier had been married to his wife Christine for four years when Christine's unmarried sister Karine moved in with the couple. Karine wanted children, and after discussing the matter with her sister and brother-in-law, it was agreed that Serge would father children with Karine and live with the women as a threesome. Into this ménage à trois came Judith, a childhood sweetheart of Serge. Serge had told Christine when he married her that, if she were ever available, Judith would have to be welcomed into their house. When Judith divorced her first husband and showed up on the Régniers' doorstep, all agreed to admit her. The result is one husband, three wives, and 30 children, with several more children hoped for by the wives. Serge is unemployed, and the entire family is supported by government subsidies. The women say there is no jealousy among them and they would even welcome a fourth wife if she was "nice."
By early December, the Régnier story had been picked up by numerous Dutch bloggers and the national press. So the De Bruijn union seems to have opened up the Dutch public to the idea of multipartner marriage. News reports on the Régniers are filled with humor and fascination, with little concern for the potential legal ramifications. It's this cultural response that counts.
When it comes to marriage, culture shapes law. (It's a two-way street, of course. Law also influences culture.) After all, Dutch same-sex marriage advocates still celebrate the foundational role of symbolic gay marriage registries in the early 1990s. Although these had absolutely no legal status, the publicity and sympathy they generated are now widely recognized as keys to the success of the Dutch campaign for legal same-sex unions and ultimately marriage. How odd, then, that American gay-marriage advocates should respond to the triple Dutch wedding with hair-splitting legal discourses, while ignoring the Dutch media frenzy and subsequent signs of cultural acceptance--for a union with far more legal substance than Holland's first symbolic gay marriages. Despite the denials of gay-marriage advocates, in both legal and cultural terms, Victor, Bianca, and Mirjam's triple union is a serious move toward legalized group marriage in the Netherlands.
GIVEN THE STIR IN HOLLAND, it's remarkable that not a single American mainstream media outlet carried a story on the triple Dutch wedding. Of course the media were all over the Dutch gay marriage story when they thought the experiment had been a success. In late 2003 and early 2004, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Lawrence v. Texas decision, which ruled sodomy laws unconstitutional, and looming gay marriage in Massachusetts, several American papers carried reports from the Netherlands. The common theme was that Holland had experienced no ill effects from gay marriage, and that the issue was no longer contentious.
Unsurprisingly, the chief sources for these articles were themselves prominent advocates of gay marriage, who dismissed any notion that the reform might have had negative consequences. Had reporters for the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer, or the Chicago Tribune cared to check the Dutch demographic record, they might have discovered the substantial increases in out-of-wedlock births and parental cohabitation that emerged in the wake of the movement for same-sex marriage (see "Going Dutch?" The Weekly Standard, May 31, 2004).
Still, although opposition to same-sex marriage from religious parties like the SGP unquestionably remains, the American media are correct to report that the majority of Dutch citizens have accepted the innovation. The press has simply missed the meaning of that public shift. Broad Dutch acceptance of same-sex marriage means that marriage as an institution has been detached from parenthood in the public mind. That is why the practice of parental cohabitation has grown so quickly in the Netherlands. By the same token, the shoulder shrug that followed the triple wedding story shows that legalized group marriage in the Netherlands is now a real possibility. If the calm Dutch response to same-sex marriage is news, it's tough to see why the Dutch public's fascinated acceptance of a triple union isn't also news. But, of course, the mainstream American press understands that the triple Dutch wedding cannot be spun in a way that helps the cause of same-sex marriage with the American public. Thus the silence.
ALTHOUGH THE TRIPLE Dutch union has been loosely styled "polygamy," it's actually a sterling example of polyamory. Polyamorists practice "responsible nonmonogamy"--open, loving, and stable relationships among more than two people (see "Beyond Gay Marriage: The Road to Polyamory," The Weekly Standard, August 4 / August 11, 2003). Polygamous marriages among fundamentalist Mormons or Muslims don't depend on a blending of heterosexuality and bisexuality. Yet that combination perfectly embodies the spirit of polyamory. And polyamorists don't limit themselves to unions of one man and several women. One woman and two men, full-fledged group marriage, a stable couple openly engaging in additional shifting or stable relationships--indeed, almost any combination of partner-number and sexual orientation is possible in a polyamorous sexual grouping.
Polyamorists would call the De Bruijn union a "triad." In a polyamorous triad, all three partners are sexually connected. This contrasts with a three-person "V," in which only one of the partners (called the "hinge" or "pivot") has a sexual relationship with the other two. So the bisexuality of Bianca and Mirjam classifies the De Bruijn union as a polyamorous bisexual triad. In another sense, the De Bruijn marriage is also a gay marriage. The Bianca-Mirjam component of the union is gay, and legalized gay marriage in Holland has clearly helped make the idea of a legally recognized bisexual triad thinkable.
More broadly, the worldwide campaign for gay marriage seems to have stirred up an active bisexual movement in its wake. Bisexuals have traditionally been one of the least visible components of the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered) alliance. After a flurry of publicity in the 1970s, at the height of the sexual revolution, bisexuality faded from public view. Yet the 1990s brought new attention, with articles in Time and Newsweek touting the emergence of bisexuality as a distinctive and politically tinged identity (and linking bisexuality to nonmonogamous marriage). In recent years, websites, books, and academic studies devoted to bisexuality have proliferated, culminating in 2001 in the founding of one of the movement's key organs, the Journal of Bisexuality.
One of the first issues of the Journal of Bisexuality featured an account of a Dutch man's discovery of his own bisexuality. The story is presented as a model for public acceptance of bisexuality, the twist being that the narrative doubles as a political brief for polyamory. Married with two children, Koen Brand declared his bisexuality in 1999, at the height of the gay marriage debate in the Netherlands. Brand then joined the Dutch National Network for Bisexuality and took part in movement activities. Brand also met another married bisexual man. While both men remained married, the two wives agreed to allow their husbands to establish a public and steady sexual relationship. Friends, family, and coworkers also accepted the arrangement. So the two marriages were thus effectively merged into a larger entity, with the men serving as pivots in two overlapping polyamorous V's.
One of the wives remains uncomfortable with this arrangement, while Brand's own wife is at least open to Brand's wish to form a threesome with his male partner. So the story ends with at least the prospect of one marriage breaking up, while the second converts to a polyamorous bisexual triad, as happened when Victor and Bianca de Bruijn met Mirjam Geven and her then husband.
None of this is to gainsay the power of Brand's narrative. On the contrary, precisely because the personal challenges confronting bisexuals are profound, the emerging bisexual call for polyamorous marriage is going to take on formidable legal force. In a world fully accepting of gay marriage, it will be difficult to withhold equal standing from another organized sexual minority.
Brand explains the willingness of family, friends, and coworkers to accept his openly polyamorous marriage by pointing to the Netherlands' social liberalism--to its legal soft drugs and its famous tolerance for sexual minorities. After all, Brand's successful construction of a publicly polyamorous union came at precisely the moment when same-sex marriage was formally legalized in Holland. That is why the Journal of Bisexuality has put Brand's case forward as a model for other countries. And Brand makes it clear that simple acceptance of a given individual's bisexual orientation, however heartfelt, is not enough. Just as it's often said that gays have not been truly accepted until same-sex marriage is legal, Brand maintains that true acceptance for bisexuality requires the social ratification of polyamory.
THE GERM OF AN ORGANIZED EFFORT to legalize polyamory in the United States can be found in the Unitarian Church. Although few realize it, the Unitarian Church, headquartered in Boston, played a critical role in the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. Julie and Hillary Goodridge, lead plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, were married at the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalists in a ceremony presided over by the Reverend William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Hillary Goodridge is program director of the Unitarian Universalist Funding Program. And Unitarian churches in Massachusetts played a key role in the struggle over gay marriage, with sermons, activism, and eventually with marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. Choosing a strongly church-affiliated couple like the Goodridges as lead plaintiffs was an important part of the winning strategy in the Goodridge case.
It's a matter of interest, therefore, that an organization to promote public acceptance of polyamory has been formed in association with the Unitarian Church. Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA) was established in the summer of 1999. At the time, the news media in Boston carried reports from neighboring Vermont, where the soon-to-be-famous civil unions case was about to be decided. And the echo effect of the gay marriage battle on the polyamory movement goes back even further. The first informal Unitarian polyamory discussion group gathered in Hawaii in 1994, in the wake of the first state supreme court decision favorable to same-sex marriage in the United States.
"Our vision," says UUPA's website, "is for Unitarian Universalism to become the first poly-welcoming mainstream religious denomination." Those familiar with Unitarianism's role in the legalization of gay marriage understand the legal-political strategy implicit in that statement. UUPA's political goals are spelled out by Harlan White, a physician and leading UUPA activist, on the society's website. Invoking the trial of April Divilbiss, the first American polyamorist to confront the courts, White says, "We are concerned that we may become the center of the next great social justice firestorm in America."
White maintains that American polyamorists are growing in number. An exact count is impossible, since polyamory is still surrounded by secrecy. Polyamorists depend on the Internet to connect. Even so, says White, "attendance at conferences is up, email lists and websites are proliferating, and poly support groups are growing in number and size." As for the Unitarian polyamorists, their email list has several hundred subscribers, and the group has put on well-attended workshops at Unitarian General Assemblies since 2002. And although the number of open polyamorists is limited, some Unitarian ministers already perform "joining ceremonies" for polyamorous families.
White featured prominently in a 2003 Associated Press story on the Unitarian polyamorists: "No one uttered a word when Harlan White walked into church one day with two women, one on each arm. They were, he says, accepted like any other family in his Unitarian congregation." But it was a second article on Unitarian polyamory, in the April 20, 2004, San Francisco Chronicle, that rocked the Unitarian Church. What made waves was the impression that the church itself had formally embraced polyamory.
Shortly after the second article appeared, UUA president Sinkford circulated a statement among Unitarians acknowledging that press interest in Unitarian polyamory had "generated a great deal of anxiety" among the church's leadership. "Many of us are concerned that such press coverage might impair our ability to witness effectively for our core justice commitments." Sinkford appeared to be expressing a concern that had been stated more baldly in the original Chronicle article. According to the Chronicle, many of the students and faculty at the Unitarians' key west-coast seminary, Starr King School for the Ministry, in Berkeley, see the polyamory movement as a threat to the struggle for same-sex marriage.
In other words, Unitarians understand that moving too swiftly or openly to legitimize polyamory could validate the slippery-slope argument against same-sex marriage. So with news coverage prematurely blowing the cover off the Unitarians' long-term plan to legalize polyamory, President Sinkford took steps to hold UUPA at arm's length. Sinkford issued a public "clarification" that distanced the church from any formal endorsement of polyamory, yet also left room for the UUPA to remain a "related organization."
Meanwhile, Rebecca Ann Parker, president of the prestigious Starr King school, issued a very different and much less public clarification for Unitarians themselves. The Chronicle had quoted Parker in a way that made her seem opposed to polyamory. To correct this impression, Parker posted the following statement on a Unitarian website: "For the record: I support Unitarians for Polyamory Awareness and completely disagree with those who use their belief that monogamous heterosexual marriage is ordained by God as a basis for rejecting same-sex couples and polyamorous relationships."
But the clearest statement of strategic intent came from Valerie White, a lawyer and executive director of the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund. A founder of UUPA along with her brother, Harlan White, Valerie White let Bi Magazine know in 2003 that UUPA planned to keep its quest for recognition on temporary hold: "It would put too much ammunition in the hands of the opponents of gay marriage. . . . Our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community are fighting a battle that they're close to winning, and we don't want to do anything that would cause that fight to take a step backwards." In short, the Unitarians are holding the polyamorists at arm's length only until gay marriage has been safely legalized across the nation. At that point, the Unitarian campaign for state-recognized polyamorous marriage will almost certainly begin.
The other fascinating angle in the San Francisco Chronicle's coverage of the Unitarian polyamorists was the prominence of bisexuality. Most members of UUPA are either bisexual or heterosexual. One polyamorist minister who had recently come out to his congregation as a bisexual treated polyamory and bisexuality synonymously. "Our denomination has been welcoming to gays and lesbians and transgendered people," he said. "Bisexuals have not received the recognition they deserve." In other words, anything less than formal church recognition of polyamory is discrimination against bisexuals.
TWO DEVELOPING LINES of legal argument may someday bring about state recognition for polyamorous marriage: the argument from polyamory, and the argument from bisexuality. In a 2004 law review article, Elizabeth F. Emens, of the University of Chicago Law School, offers the argument from polyamory (see "Monogamy's Law: Compulsory Monogamy and Polyamorous Existence," New York University Review of Law & Social Change). Polyamory is more than the mere practice of multiple sexual partnership, says Emens. Polyamory is also a disposition, broadly analogous to the disposition toward homosexuality. Insofar as laws of marriage, partnership, or housing discriminate against polyamorous partnerships, maintains Emens, they place unfair burdens on people with "poly" dispositions. Emens takes her cue here from the polyamorists themselves, who talk about their "poly" inclinations the way gays talk about homosexuality. For example, polyamorists debate whether to keep their poly dispositions "in the closet" or to "come out."
Emens's case for a poly disposition was inspired by the radical lesbian thinker Adrienne Rich, who famously put forward a "continuum model" of lesbianism. Rich argued that all women, lesbian-identified or not, are in some sense lesbians. If women could just discover where they fall on the "lesbian continuum," then even those women who remain heterosexually identified would abandon any prejudice against homosexuality.
Following Rich, Emens argues that all of us have a bit of "poly" inside. By discovering and accepting our own desires for multiple sexual partners, then even those who remain monogamous would abandon their prejudice against polyamorists. Of course some people fall at the extreme ends of these continuums. Some folks are intensely monogamous, for example. But by the same token, others are intensely polyamorous. Whether for biological or cultural reasons, says Emens, some folks simply cannot live happily without multiple simultaneous sexual partners. And for those people, Emens argues, our current system of marriage is every bit as unjust as it is for homosexuals.
It may seem that a case like this could never get to court, yet in a sense it already has. Emens offers an analysis of the 1999 case of April Divilbiss, who was forced by a court in Tennessee to choose between keeping custody of her child and continuing to live with two "husbands." Yet it's clear that the case could have turned out differently. The judge in the Divilbiss case ignored the findings of four court appointed experts, each of whom found in favor of the polyamorists. The judge also took a number of other liberties he would have been unlikely to get away with in a more closely watched and aggressively litigated case. So Emens's brief in defense of polyamory is likely to be tested and developed in future court cases.
The second legal strategy available to the polyamorists is the argument from bisexuality. No need here to validate anything as novel-sounding as a "polyamorous disposition." A case for polyamory can easily be built on the more venerable orientation of bisexuality. While no legal scholar has offered such a case, the groundwork is being laid by Kenji Yoshino, a professor at Yale Law School and deputy dean for intellectual life.
Yoshino's 2000 Stanford Law Review article "The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure" has a bewildering title but a fascinating thesis. Yoshino argues that bisexuality is far more prevalent than is usually recognized. The relative invisibility of bisexuality, says Yoshino, can be attributed to the mutual interest of heterosexuals and homosexuals in minimizing its significance. But according to Yoshino, the bisexuality movement is on the rise, and bound to become more visible, with potentially major consequences for the law and politics of sexual orientation.
Defining bisexuality as a "more than incidental desire" for partners of both sexes, Yoshino examines the best available academic studies on sexual orientation and finds that each of them estimates the number of bisexuals as equivalent to, or greater than, the number of homosexuals. Up to now, the number of people who actively think of themselves as bisexuals has been much smaller than the number who've shown a "more than incidental" desire for partners of both sexes. But that, argues Yoshino, is because both heterosexuals and homosexuals have an interest in convincing bisexuals that they've got to make an all-or-nothing choice between heterosexuality and homosexuality.
Heterosexuals, for example, have an interest in preserving norms of monogamy, and bisexuality "destabilizes" norms of monogamy. Homosexuals, notes Yoshino, have an interest in defending the notion of an immutable homosexual orientation, since that is often the key to persuading a court that they have suffered discrimination. And homosexuals, adds Yoshino, have an interest in maximizing the number of people in their movement. For all these reasons and more, Yoshino argues, the cultural space in which bisexuals might embrace and acknowledge their own sexual identity has been minimized. Yoshino goes on to highlight the considerable evidence for the recent emergence of bisexuality as a movement, and predicts that in our current cultural climate--and given the numerical potential--bisexuality activism will continue to grow.
In addition to establishing the numerical and political significance of bisexuality, Yoshino lays down an argument that could easily be deployed to legalize polyamory: "To the extent that bisexuals are not permitted to express their dual desires, they might fairly characterize themselves as harmed." Yet Yoshino does not lay out a bisexual defense of polyamory. Instead Yoshino attacks--rightly--the stereotype that treats all bisexuals as nonmonogamous. Yet the same research that establishes the monogamous preferences of many bisexuals also confirms that bisexuals tend toward nonmonogamy at substantially higher rates than homosexuals. (See Paula C. Rust, "Monogamy and Polyamory: Relationship Issues for Bisexuals" in Firestein, ed., Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority.) That fact could easily be turned by a bisexuality rights movement into an argument for legalized polyamory.
Yoshino, by the way, is no fringe figure. In addition to being a dean and professor at what is arguably the country's most prestigious law school, Yoshino and his pioneering, identity-based approach to discrimination law were featured in a glowing profile in the New York Times in 2001. An early statement of Yoshino's views on sexual identity was invoked at a critical point in Justice Stevens's dissent in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the case that permitted the Boy Scouts to refuse openly gay scoutmasters. And Yoshino's treatment of bisexuality was recently invoked approvingly by Harvard professor Laurence Tribe in an article on the Lawrence v. Texas decision. So we are likely to see someone offer a bisexual-based defense of polyamory, loosely inspired by the Yoshino approach. That is especially so if Yoshino is right about prospects for a growing bisexual rights movement.
of course, the visibility of the bisexual rights movement is still limited. In fact, many bisexuals, or advocates for bisexuals, share a radically post-modernist sensibility that deliberately avoids identity-style politics. Yoshino himself is balanced between identity politics and a postmodern inclination to destabilize and transcend all sexual categories. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the polyamorists themselves are the "missing" bisexual liberation movement. Of course, not all polyamorists are bisexual. Victor de Bruijn reminds us that he is "100 percent heterosexual." Yet Bianca and Mirjam are bisexual. And as in the De Bruijn threesome, the "connecting" function of bisexuals seems to make a great many polyamorous arrangements possible. Of all the sexual sub-groups that participate in polyamory, bisexuals are first among equals. In a certain sense, the movement is theirs.
In 2004, the Journal of Bisexuality published a special double issue on polyamory, also released as the book Plural Loves: Designs for Bi and Poly Living. It's clear from Plural Loves that the polyamory movement now serves as the de facto political arm of the bisexual liberation struggle. As one contributor notes, "the large number of bi people in the poly movement provides evidence that bisexuality is one of the major driving forces behind polyamory. In other words, polyamory was created and spread partly to satisfy the need for bisexual relationship structures. . . . [T]he majority of poly activists are also bisexual. . . . Poly activism is bi activism. . . . The bi/poly dynamic has the potential to move both communities towards a point of culture-wide visibility, which is a necessary step on the road to acceptance."
Clearly, visibility and acceptance are on the rise. This past summer, the Baltimore Sun featured a long, friendly article on the polyamorists' national conference, held in Maryland. In September, the New York Times ran a long personal account of (heterosexual) polyamory in the Sunday Styles section. But the real uptick in public bisexuality/ polyamory began with the October 2005 release in New York of the documentary Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family.
Three of Hearts is the story of the real-life 13-year relationship of two men and a woman. Together for several years in a gay relationship, two bisexual-leaning men meet a woman and create a threesome that produces two children, one by each man. Although the woman marries one of the men, the entire threesome has a commitment ceremony. The movie records the trio's eventual breakup, yet the film's website notes their ongoing commitment to the view that "family is anything we want to create."
Although Three of Hearts is in limited release in selected art houses across the country, the film is slated for airing on BRAVO in the spring of 2006. The movie's New York premiere drew media attention to polyamory. Even the conservative New York Post ran a generally positive story on polyamory timed to coincide with the movie's opening. The flurry of publicity was noticed by London's Guardian, which reported in November that polyamory had reached a new level of visibility and acceptance in New York.
Three of Hearts was also discussed in a long, sympathetic investigative piece on polyamory in New York magazine. According to New York, the growing popularity of polyamory among New York-area straights is largely inspired by the increasing visibility of gay relationships, with their more "fluid" notions of commitment. New York also found that the most stable polyamorous groupings have as their core element a straight man and a bisexual woman who sticks to one man, rather like the De Bruijn trio.
Of course, many argue that true bisexuality does not exist. In this view--held by a variety of people, from some psychiatrists to certain pro-gay-marriage activists--everyone is either heterosexual or homosexual. From this perspective, so-called bisexuals are either in confused transition from heterosexuality to homosexuality, or simply lying about their supposedly dual sexual inclinations. Alternatively, it's sometimes said that while female bisexuality does exist, male bisexuality does not. A recent and controversial study reported on by the New York Times in July 2005 claimed to show that truly bisexual attraction in men might not exist.
Whatever view we take of these medical/psychiatric/ philosophical controversies, it is a fact that a bi/poly rights movement exists and is growing. Whether Koen Brand and Bianca and Mirjam de Bruijn are "authentic" bisexuals or "just fooling themselves," they are clearly capable of sustaining polyamorous bisexual V's and triads for long enough to make serious political demands. Three of Hearts raises questions about whether the two men in the triangle are bisexual, or simply confused gays. But with two children, a 13-year relationship, and at one time at least a clear desire for legal-ceremonial confirmation, the Three of Hearts trio is a harbinger of demands for legal group marriage. Public interest in the De Bruijn triangle has already raised the visibility and acceptance of polyamorous bisexuality in the Netherlands. For legal-political purposes, acceptance is what matters. And given Yoshino's numerical analysis, the growth potential for self-identifying bisexuals is substantial.
Americans today respond to gay and bisexual friends and family members in a variety of ways. Despite stereotypical accusations of "homophobia," the traditionally religious generally offer a mixture compassion and concern. Many other Americans, conservative and liberal alike, are happy to extend friendship, understanding, and acceptance to gay and bisexual relatives and acquaintances. This heightened social tolerance is a good thing. Yet somehow the idea has taken hold that tolerance for sexual minorities requires a radical remake of the institution of marriage. That is a mistake.
The fundamental purpose of marriage is to encourage mothers and fathers to stay bound as a family for the sake of their children. Our liberalized modern marriage system is far from perfect, and certainly doesn't always succeed in keeping parents together while their children are young. Yet often it does. Unfortunately, once we radically redefine marriage in an effort to solve the problems of adults, the institution is destined to be shattered by a cacophony of grown-up demands.
The De Bruijn trio, Koen Brand, the Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness, the legal arguments of Elizabeth Emens and Kenji Yoshino, and the bisexual/ polyamory movement in general have been launched into action by the successes of the campaign for gay marriage. In a sense, though, these innovators have jumped too soon. They've shown us today--well before same-sex marriage has triumphed nationwide--what would emerge in its aftermath.
Liberals may now put behind-the-scenes pressure on the Dutch government to keep the lid on legalized polyamory for as long as the matter of gay marriage is still unsettled. The Unitarian polyamorists, already conflicted about how much recognition to demand while the gay marriage battle is unresolved, may be driven further underground. But let there be no mistake about what will happen should same-sex marriage be fully legalized in the United States. At that point, if bisexual activists haven't already launched a serious campaign for legalized polyamory, they will go public. It took four years after the full legalization of gay marriage in the Netherlands for the first polyamory test case to emerge. With a far larger and more organized polyamory movement in America, it might not take even that long after the nationalization of gay marriage in the United States.
It's easy to imagine that, in a world where gay marriage was common and fully accepted, a serious campaign to legalize polyamorous unions would succeed--especially a campaign spearheaded by an organized bisexual-rights movement. Yet win or lose, the culture of marriage will be battered for years by the debate. Just as we're now continually reminded that not all married couples have children, we'll someday be endlessly told that not all marriages are monogamous (nor all monogamists married). For a second time, the fuzziness and imperfection found in every real-world social institution will be contorted into a rationale for reforming marriage out of existence. No flash in the pan, Victor, Bianca, and Mirjam are destined to be heroes of "the next great social justice firestorm in America."
Stanley Kurtz is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.