A new domestic partnership policy in Somerville that recognizes polyamorous relationships is a powerful symbol, advocates and academics said, though the specifics of its protections remain limited.
The move is thought to be the first of its kind in the nation, and another step forward in the push for civil rights for those living outside heterosexual marriages.
“The Somerville ordinance is an exciting turning point for people who are polyamorous or in multipartner families,” said Diana Adams, the executive director of the Chosen Family Law Center in New York. “There has been tremendous momentum and energy and hope for this for many years.”
Adams said the law center hoped to push similar ordinances in other small, progressive cities, in a strategy similar to the one that secured the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country. Polyamory refers to people in consenting relationships with multiple partners.
While it broadens and reframes the idea of who counts as a family, the legal protections conferred by the ordinance seem to be narrow, said Kimberly Rhoten, an attorney and graduate student at Boston University who focuses on how the law relates to gender and sexual minorities.
Any benefit that the city provides to domestic partners — like hospital or prison visits — can now also apply to multiple partners in a domestic partnership. But private employers aren’t required to provide health insurance for domestic partners. So one of the primary concerns that prompted the ordinance, accessing health insurance during the coronavirus pandemic, remains unaddressed, Rhoten said. And the question of how the ordinance might affect state and federal family leave is unclear, she said.
“It’s a signaling boost for this community that the city is recognizing more than two partnerships,” Rhoten said. “However there are legal pitfalls involved with the ordinance. We’ll wait and see what happens.”
The city has never had a domestic partnership ordinance, said City Councilor Lance Davis, who introduced this one. Boston, Cambridge, and many other Massachusetts cities introduced such policies before same-sex marriage became legal in the state in 2004.
The issue arose recently when Somerville residents in committed, unmarried relationships approached Davis and other councilors with concerns about being able to visit sick partners in the hospital during the coronavirus pandemic, he said. Some also wanted to be able to access their partners’ health insurance.
Under the ordinance, people qualify for a domestic partnership if they “consider themselves to be a family” and are “in a relationship of mutual support, caring and commitment and intend to remain in such a relationship.” It does not require that domestic partners be in a romantic relationship.
The ordinance codifies family structures that already exist in Somerville and around the country, and helps to reduce some of the social stigma of having multiple partners, Adams and others said. Some described it as one piece of a much broader movement for LGBTQ rights.
“I would say that polyamory and consensual non-monogamy in general is riding on the coattails of queer liberation,” said Elisabeth ‘Eli’ Sheff, an international expert on children growing up in polyamorous families and author of the book “The Polyamorists Next Door.” “I definitely see it as a trend towards greater recognition of existing diversity.”
That recognition is one of the crucial parts of the new ordinance, said Jay Sekora, who runs the group Poly Boston, which has about 500 members and hosted dinner outings and discussion group in pre-pandemic times.
“It’s a very good thing for a domestic-partnership ordinance to be written broadly enough to encompass all sorts of families,” Sekora said, “both as a matter of principle to respect people’s relationships, and also as a practical matter.”
For some, that official recognition was a long time coming.
“I was really excited that a town in my state would recognize the fact that families can’t be defined by government restricting the number of people, or the genders of the people involved, or anything like that,” said Valerie White, the executive director of the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is based in Sharon. White said she has been practicing non-monogamy since the 1960s.
Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.