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Committed to marriage for the masses

San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Apr. 20, 2004
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer • Tuesday April 20, 2004

Polyamorists say they relate honestly to multiple partners

Unitarians from Boston to Berkeley have opened another front in the liberal crusade to expand the definition of marriage and family in America.

It’s the new polygamy, and according to the Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness, their relationships are at least as ethical as other marriages — gay or straight.

“Polyamory is never having to say you’ve broken up,” said Sally Amsbury of Oakland, whose sex and love life openly includes her husband and two “other significant others,” known in polyamory parlance as “OSOs.”

Amsbury serves on the national board of directors of the Unitarian Universalist organization, which defines polyamory as “the philosophy and practice of loving or relating intimately to more than one other person at a time with honesty and integrity.”

“Polyamory is not an alternative to monogamy. It’s an alternative to cheating,” said Jasmine Walston, who lives in Louisville, Ky., and is president of the Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness.

“For some of us, monogamy doesn’t work, and cheating was just abhorrent to me,” she said.

To some, the polyamory movement is reminiscent of the “free love,” swinging and open marriages of the 1960s and 1970s.

AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases dampened that sexual liberation movement in the 1980s and 1990s.

Today, Walston said, many people mistakenly believe that polyamorists are careless in their sex lives.

“When everything is out in the open, and your husband knows what is going on, you’re going to be more careful about safe sex,” she said.

John Hurley, a Boston spokesman for the 183,000-member Association of Unitarian Universalists, says the views of polyamorists are not necessarily endorsed by the denomination’s board of trustees.

Polyamorists themselves are divided over whether to push for more formal recognition from the Unitarians, or to begin public lobbying for some of the same rights granted to heterosexual couples. “We’re where the gay rights movement was 30 years ago,” Walston said.

Amsbury says she favors expanding the legal definition of marriage to include three or more people, but she doesn’t expect to see it anytime soon.

“We’re lovers, not fighters,” she said. “We don’t want to get people’s backs up.”

Other polyamorists are concerned that their cause will be used by opponents of same-sex marriage.

Just last week, a group of conservative evangelicals asked San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom whether his support of same-sex marriage applied to multiple-partner marriages.

“What possible reason could you find for discriminating against or denying equal access to threesomes, foursomes, etc.?” they asked in a letter to Newsom.

Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, says many Christians find polygamy even more sinful than homosexuality.

Monogamous heterosexual marriage, she says, is ordained by God through the creation of Adam and Eve.

Even though polygamy is practiced by some of the heroes in the Bible — and in many non-Christian cultures around the world today — it remains a Judeo-Christian taboo.

Starr King is a seminary of the Association of Unitarian Universalists and part of the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of Protestant and Catholic seminarians in Berkeley and Marin County.

Unitarians — who encourage their members to seek spiritual truth based on human experience, not allegiance to creeds and doctrines — have been around since 1782. They merged with the Universalists in 1961.

Many of the students and faculty at Starr King see the polyamory movement as a threat to gay and lesbian couples.

“In the Protestant denomination, the movement to accept same-sex couples was built on the idea that they, too, can have lifelong monogamous relationships,” Parker said. “Gays and lesbians found safety in saying, ‘We can have families. We’re normal — just like everyone else.’ That became the basis for them asking for social acceptance and equal protection under the law. ”

Very few polyamorous Unitarian Universalist ministers are “out of the closet.” They fear it will wreck their chances of getting or keeping a job with a congregation.

Jim Zacarias, interim minister at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, recently came out to his congregation as bisexual.

“People who choose a polyamory lifestyle in our denomination are doing it with an ethic of responsibility in their relationships,” he said. “People in polyamory have the same struggles as people in gay and lesbian relationships.

“Our denomination has been welcoming to gays and lesbians and transgendered people,” Zacarias said. “Bisexuals have not received the recognition they deserve.”

“Some people in polyamory are bi, some are homosexual, some are heterosexual. We are serving their needs,” said Barb Greve, a transgender person who likes to be called “he.”

Greve is a program associate with the Association of Unitarian Universalists’ Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Concerns in Boston

“There are people who want to be in committed relationships — whether it’s heterosexual marriage, same-sex marriage or polyamory — and that should be acknowledged religiously and legally,” he said.

According to Amsbury and other Unitarian polyamorists, most of the people in their movement are bisexual or heterosexual.

Amsbury is bisexual, her husband of two years is heterosexual, and her current “other significant others” are bisexual.

One of them, Peter, lives in West Hollywood with his boyfriend. The other one, Conly, lives in Santa Rosa and has been her lover for seven years.

“I wear a wedding ring for my husband,” she explained, “and a bracelet for Conly.”

Though Amsbury and her husband, Terrance Roff, did not involve Peter and Conly in their Alameda marriage ceremony, other polyamorous Unitarians have proposed church ceremonies to bless threesomes, foursomes or moresomes.

One set of guidelines for church blessings of polyamorous partners suggests that the officiating minister try to put people at ease by saying, “We are from many different faith traditions, and we have many different experiences of love. What made us say ‘yes’ to being here was the love among these people.”

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