Somerville secured its place as a supportive hub for people in polyamorous relationships Thursday night when the City Council unanimously approved an antidiscrimination ordinance to protect people in polyamorous and other consensually nonmonogamous relationships.
The ordinance — the first of its kind, according to those involved — prohibits employment and policing discrimination against those in relationships of two or more people.
Nearly three years ago, Somerville became the first municipality in the country to pass an ordinance on domestic partnerships that includes polyamorous relationships. It arose from a request by a resident for a policy on domestic partnerships, for example, to provide rights to people to care for their partners, such as paperwork that enables them to visit loved ones in the hospital.
Somerville City Councilor J.T. Scott subsequently asked, “Why only one?” The language was changed to broaden the ordinance.
“Everyone on the City Council knows someone who is polyamorous. This is Somerville,” Scott said before Thursday night’s meeting.
Cambridge passed similar legislation in March 2021, as did Arlington, with a bylaw approved at an April 2021 Town Meeting.
The Massachusetts-based Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition helped draft the language for the legislation in these communities. Polyamory — as opposed to consensual nonmonogamy — refers to having more than one committed romantic or emotionally intimate partner. Diana Adams, executive director of the Chosen Family Law Center, explained, “It might mean that you’re in a triad where all three people are committed to one another.”
Consensual nonmonogamy is a broader term that might refer to two people in a loving, committed relationship who are also are intimate with others.
Before the meeting Thursday, advocates for the ordinance — including Councilors Scott and Willie Burnley Jr. — gathered to celebrate and discuss its meaning.
Burnley said he wants Somerville to continue to be an example for other cities and towns.
“I’m a Black, queer, polyamorous person on the City Council,” he said. “I want Somerville to be a sanctuary.”
Adams, whose New York City-based organization oversees the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, said the legislation will have a ripple effect. Adams said they know people outside of Massachusetts who, following the 2020 ordinance, registered with multiple partners in Somerville and have used the designation to get health insurance for a partner back home.
Adams said policies on a municipal level can be the start of big change. That was one of the lessons of the same-sex partnership movement, they said; that once you can put your partner and family on paper, “that really helps change social attitudes.”
“That gives you a stamp of legitimacy,” they said. “The government is saying this is a valid a relationship.”
As of early 2022, nine people — three groups of three partners — were listed as domestic partnerships in Somerville. Three people have registered as partners in Cambridge, according to the city clerk’s office. There are also three people registered as partners in Arlington, according to the town clerk’s office. Adams said others in similar relationships might have hesitated to put their names on the books because of fear of discrimination — hence Thursday’s ordinance vote.
“Employment discrimination is the most rampant kind of discrimination people experience,” Adams said, adding that they know of clients who have been punished at work for having a photo of their partners on their desk, or for being public about their nontraditional relationship structures. ”It’s a powerful precedent to establish this law — for respect.”
An October 2022 Boston Globe’s Love Letters podcast featured an interview with one of the people who applied for domestic partnership in Somerville with two partners. The person appeared on the podcast using a pseudonym because they said they feared negative reactions from their employers, family, or other people in the community.
Alexander Chen, founding director of the Harvard Law School LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, who also teaches “Gender identity, Sexual Orientation, and the Law” at Harvard Law School, said the new legislation’s specificity makes other antidiscrimination laws more effective.
“Having legislation that is explicit is really important,” Chen said, adding that every law has to be interpreted, enforced, and adjudicated by judges, lawyers, and politicians.
Chen, whose clinic supports the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, said this kind of ordinance shouldn’t be a partisan issue. A common “charge against liberals,” he said, is that they want to “look to the state” for care solutions, while conservatives want people to find private solutions. This, Chen said, is a case of people asking for permission to be responsible for loved ones.
“If people want to take legal responsibility for each other, that’s a good thing,” he said.
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.