Legalising polygamy in Australia: A marriage of many loves
By: Elizabeth Walker
There is a narrative structure we’re supposed to follow when it comes to falling in love.
Two people – generally a man and a woman – meet, fall in love, marry, spend their lives together, and probably have kids along the way. We pretend that’s the way it’s always been and the way it always will be. We’re so in love with this specific idea of love.
Obviously, queer couples complicate this ‘perfect’ narrative. But what if we question this emphasis on coupledom altogether?
Image by: DisobeyArt
Nearly five years ago, I met and fell in love with a girl.
We became a couple – talking about marriage and home ownership, and plotting out the chapters of our lesbian love story. We promised over and over that we would be together forever. We still are, and we still promise that. We love each other more than anything else in the whole world.
Nonetheless, six months ago, I went on a date with someone else – someone my partner and I had known for a while. After nearly half a decade together, we were dipping our toes in the vast and bafflingly amorphous pool of polyamory.
Since then, the three of us have been on group dates, we’ve been out separately, and we’ve talked about a future together no longer as a couple, but as a throuple all sharing a life and a love together. Our cut and dried, paint-by-numbers love story has become a labyrinthine narrative that’s somehow in the middle chapters just as it’s beginning anew.
There’s no road map for our trio like there is for a couple, even a queer couple. There are a few guidebooks, but no movies, fairy tales or representation surrounding our story. Our relationship is something that mainstream culture has derided as deviant and undesirable… but it’s amazing.
Marriage as an institution is complicated. We pretend it’s simple – two people bound together in (possibly holy) matrimony till death parts them – but it’s not. It’s fraught with divorce, infidelity and overly archaic ideals – it’s “heteronormative”, one might say.
Half the fun of being queer is disparaging the rigid traditions that manacle society to its cishet melancholy. And yet, as a throuple, we may still like to get married someday. Not in a church, not with a grand, elaborate ceremony that costs more than half-decent car. But beneath all the pomp and ceremony, there is something undeniably special about making that commitment, about announcing your intention to love and be with someone – or in our case, multiple someones – for life.
Perhaps years from now, I think we might want that. Yet as it stands right now, we can’t legally achieve this.
In the last five decades, Australia has progressed from outright criminalisation of queer relationships to decriminalisation, formal recognition, anti-discrimination protections, and finally marriage equality in 2017. Acceptance of queer couples, transgender people and non-traditional family structures has only increased since then.
With this in mind, does the legalisation of polygamy – the practice of marrying multiple people – naturally follow?
It’s worth noting there are no laws in Australia that prohibit you from dating more than one person at a time, even if you’re already married.
That said, the current legal framework that exists to handle these relationships is problematic. It does a remarkably poor job of recognising the sheer variety of setups and scenarios that become possible when more than two people are involved in a relationship. Currently, bigamy, the act of marrying when you’re already married, is punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
Opponents of legalising polygamy lean on several arguments. For starters, polygamy has been shown to harm women in some cases. It could also open up more possibilities for coercion and abuse of power.
Another argument against polygamy points out that marriages are already incredibly prone to failure, and adding more people to these unions would only increase the odds they’ll end in divorce. Then there are the logistical headaches involved in accommodating polygamous unions in the legal system and society at large, from immigration and insurance to parental rights and more.
One of the most common arguments raised against polygamy will be familiar to anyone in the queer rights movement – it deviates from normative traditions of marriage and relationships. Some even go so far as to say that advocating for legalising polygamy proves conservatives were right to oppose same-sex unions, because if polygamy is the next step, then do bestiality and paedophilia naturally follow?
Many of those who campaigned most vocally for marriage equality have historically opposed polygamy specifically to side-step this very issue. Not because it’s a sincerely held belief (if you’ll forgive the expression) but because they’re trapped by a need for political pragmatism.
Same-sex marriage is a much harder sell if polygamy is what comes next.
On the other hand, polyamory has always existed and likely always will – and its popularity is growing. These relationships are no less valid because they don’t fit the nuclear-family mould.
From my perspective, the love that multiple people can have for each other is just as deserving of the same legal protections afforded to couples. I can love two partners at once in the same way that a person can love multiple platonic friends, or a parent can love multiple children. It is undeniably cruel to deny some (or more likely all) members of a relationship the litany of legal and social benefits afforded to one spouse.
Polygamous marriages can indeed cause harm, particularly to women and marginalised genders – although this is far from being universally true, and the same can easily be said for ‘traditional marriage’ too.
Even now, unmarried women tend to be happier, healthier and live longer. Opponents of queer rights talk about a loving marriage between one man and a woman as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s worth remembering that for most of history, marriage was not a romantic partnership but an economic arrangement – where the ‘commodity’ was women.
Those who argue against changing the so-called traditional meaning of marriage neglect to acknowledge that we already have.
It’s possible that legalising polygamy may exacerbate the power imbalance between cishet men and people of marginalised genders.
On the other hand, it’s a little sexist to assume all relationships orbit around a cishet man. After all, one of my partners is a staunch lesbian, so ours sure as hell won’t.
When drawing conclusions from the history of polygamy historically, many seem to forget that the societies that practiced polygyny (where one man marries several women) but didn’t practice polyandry (the inverse), were already deeply patriarchal.
The abolishment of polygamy in these societies wouldn’t have ‘saved’ women from the patriarchy – just as monogamy hasn’t either.
When it comes to transgressing the barriers of traditional sexuality and gender, it doesn’t get much more empowering than a cis woman, a trans woman and a non-binary person coexisting in a relationship simultaneously. All three of us have tried it society’s way – the ‘right’ way – and it didn’t work.
For us, this is what works, and this is what love and happiness look like. While a de-facto relationship is no less valid than that of a married couple, marriage can be a way to express your love and commitment. Everyone deserves the right to make that choice, including us.
At the end of the day, whether we acknowledge it or not, the nuclear family has been going out of style for decades. Polyamory is growing in both visibility and popularity both here and abroad.
The strange, nebulous state of my polyamorous relationship may last a lifetime – and even if it doesn’t, we should have the right to try as much as anyone else. Whether we do or don’t legalise polygamy, sooner or later it’s a conversation we are going to have, so let’s start now.
Elizabeth Walker is a writer and bartender living in Sydney, Australia. She and her two partners are looking forward to buying an apartment in the near future and starting a life together.
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