Category Archives: poly legalities

Looking Vanilla and the Law in Polyamory

Hi Ms. Java,

A friend of mine is having difficulty with his ex wife. He’s in an open relationship with a married woman (who’s husband knows), and he is concerned that his ex’s new love may be hurting her and maybe even his kids. He wants to ask the courts for more, or even full custody, but is worried that old traditions might make him look bad. Specifically, there are old biases against men, and against atypical relationships.

 Do you or any of your readers have experience with a tricky legal situation and their polyamory? Do you have any tips on making an open, polyamorous relationship, appear more vanilla to the mainstream?

For the tricky legal situation part?

Your friend needs to have a good lawyer and follow that lawyer’s advice. I am not a lawyer. Even my readers who are lawyers (yes there are some) will be quite careful to point out that if they say something online, it is not meant to be interpreted as specific legal advice in a specific case.

If he does not have a poly-friendly lawyer, he might want to check with the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. They have a Kink Aware Professionals directory that would be a good jumping-off place for finding a professional. You might also want to forward your friend the Guideline for Custody Disputes from the same site.

Since I have not dealt with custody issues much, but I know a lot of my readers have, I do invite my readers to share their experiences. You guys will give much better advice and relate your experiences better than I can.

If you really want to look for advice on how to look vanilla, I’m definitely your gal! Now I don’t do it as an act, mind. I am, for realsies, pretty vanilla, boring and normal except that I’m poly. That doesn’t show unless someone is paying close attention. Few do! For the record, I do not not not think appearing “normal” is in any way a moral imperative or necessarily the world’s most desirable thing to do. I am answering a direct question, that’s all!

Tips for appearing vanilla

Your appearance is your first step. What you’re shooting for is to appear according to a TV version of respectable middle class. Like I said, I don’t think this is necessarily a moral imperative, or even “good” particularly, but this is how to do it.

Dress well—This does not mean to dress up all the time unless that’s to one’s personal taste. Overdressing can be almost as bad as underdressing if you’re going for that vanilla look. It does mean making a series of choices that do tend towards the generic. Choose a plain t-shirt over one that has a slogan. Clothes should always be clean, well-mended, well-fitting, and unwrinkled.

Be well-groomed—Beards neat and trimmed, fingernails clean and short or neatly manicured if you desire. Hair neatly trimmed with no color that’s blatantly artificial. Subdued makeup if you wear it.

Do not leave overtly sexual materials around in public areas of the house – A picture of a fairy sitting on a bullfrogPorn should be locked in the toy box along with the toys.  It should be inaccessible except to the consenting adults that will be using it.  Since I’m mostly vanilla but make no special effort to appear so, my household violates this a bit.  The Prince is a fantasy artist and we have a nude he’s done hanging in the dining room.  If there were custody questions or we were concerned about CPS, mild and non-sexual as the picture is, the fairy isn’t wearing anything, so it would come down.

Keep the house and yard tidy – Hey, I know. Tedious.  But you’re going for a certain respectable look, and tidy=respectable in most people’s eyes.  Sorry about that. You don’t have to be Martha Stewart.  Just throw the trash away, don’t let tools pile up, and mow your lawn regularly.

The second step is behavioral. Once you’ve made a certain impression, behavior will follow up on that and reinforce it. Then “weird” grace notes that indicate you’re polyamorous are minimized a bit.

Moderate speech—Calm tones, no swearing. Speak with the best diction and grammar you can manage. Minimize strong regional accents when out of region1 if you’re a good enough actor to pull it off. If you don’t believe this can affect how you’re perceived, all I can do is refer you to My Fair Lady and move on.

Moderate relationship interaction—This one is tricky because some people would say that you need to pretend not to be involved at all. If you’re doing the other stuff, believe you me, this will slip under the radar. You know at least one affectionate old married couple, I’m sure. You’ll see them holding hands or giving the occasional kiss on the cheek in public. Keep your public affection to that level.

Refrain from discussing personal matters – I suppose it should go without saying that one should not wave the poly flag. But the minute one supposes that, it becomes clear that it doesn’t go without saying at all. I love Miss Manners’ approach to polyamory and how to handle it. Be yourself, be polite, be kind and act with puzzled surprise to personal questions. Friends, this works wonders on so many levels.

Be respectful- Since your friend is a man and you were concerned about how he is perceived (being poly and all), he could do well not to look like a playa.  This one is going to be hard to counteract if he has already developed a bad reputation, and I’m sorry about that.  But the courtesy route is never a bad choice in behavior (male or female), and in the long run may help a lot.  If he follows some other advice about community involvement, it’s going to become patently obvious that he’s not spending all his time chasing tail and that he’s really just a regular guy.

Be a community member!!!! Okay, here we get to something I advise no matter whether you’re trying to appear vanilla or not. You can do this with piercings and a green Mohawk just as easily as in a plain t-shirt, French manicure and capris. In my own studies of alternative groups, it seems to me that the worst witch hunts tend to be against groups of people that hold themselves very separate from their local communities. I know poly people are short on time, but this is really important. Be part of your local community, especially at the service level. Show up to town meetings. Volunteer to coach your kid’s soccer team. Organize a food drive. Participate in the PTA. If your tastes run that way (mine don’t) join a church. Unitarian is often fairly poly-friendly and not too doctrinaire. Polyamory’s best chance at acceptance on all levels is going to be when people see the polyamorous as vital members of society doing good stuff. Be the guy in the neighborhood that shovels an elderly person’s walk, or is quick to bandage a kid’s skinned knee. Be a credit to your kink.

I admit that I am slightly uncomfortable with “seeming” rather than “being”.  I look vanilla because I am pretty vanilla.   I just happen to be lucky enough that many of my rather pedestrian, middle-class tastes don’t have me standing out unless I make a specific choice to do so.   I don’t like it that if you’re somehow different, the crab bucket is going to try to drag you back down, but I’m at something of a loss at how to change that other than being a visibly good person no matter “weird” you are.

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1 I actually do this for real and on purpose for professional purposes. Yankees can’t seem to hear the difference between an uneducated twang and my refined Tidewater accent, so in an effort not to sound like Daisy Duke in front of a classroom, I speak accent-neutral professionally.

Poly Parenting 101

One of the sad facts of being an alternative lifestyler of any sort is in this political climate, you’re liable to be labeled a dangerous pervert.

For the most part, it’s not actually illegal to be a pervert or anything, as long as you never have interaction with kids.  Well, if you’re poly and a parent, good God yes, you’re going to be interacting with children!  Yours.

Should this worry you?

It depends on a lot of things.  Where do you live?  Is it a conservative area?   Do people have a live and let live policy, or are they all up in your bidness?  What about your relatives?  Are there control issues going on?  Are you accepting significant financial support from them?[1]

But more than that, I want to point out one more thing, which is the big subject of my rant.

Are you a good parent?

Seriously, dewd.  Don’t get on your damn high horse until you’ve evaluated your parenting.  If being poly is interfering with being a good parent[2], then you have a more serious problem than poly persecution.

So to evaluate:

The Basics

  • Are the children fed properly?
  • Do they have clothing appropriate to the weather?
  • Are they being educated appropriately? (sent to school regularly/homeschooled so that they keep up with grade level)
  • Are they getting medical attention as necessary?

Not Basic, But Important

  • Do they get appropriate attention?  This is a biggie.  When there is adult processing, sometimes kids’ needs can fall through the cracks.  Be very careful and wary of this one.  I wish I could sugar-coat it, but I can’t.
  • Are they getting personal growth opportunities?  Are they learning an instrument, learning fun skills, learning Life 101 skills?
  • Are they getting an opportunity to be involved in the community they live in?  Don’t isolate your kids because their household might be different.  They live in the real world and need to learn to relate to it.[3]

I’m not saying you have to be Superparent to justify being polyamorous.  You don’t.  But, dammit, do your job as a parent anyway.  Yes, it takes time.  Yes, you’re gonna screw up.  That doesn’t let you off the hook from consistently trying.

For those of you who have direct reason to worry about custody issues, I cannot recommend the following article highly enough. Even more, the organization, the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund.  It’s run by fantastic and caring woman, Valerie White.

Dos and Don’ts to Avoid Custody Challenges.


[1]Financial support is not only money, but reduced rent, childcare and a number of other things.  I’ll reiterate something I say consistently:  DO NOT ACCEPT FINANCIAL SUPPORT FROM PEOPLE WHO DISAPPROVE OF YOUR LIFESTYLE.  That way lies trouble.

[2] And by God, it can.  Don’t try to wiggle out of being a good parent by claiming poly persecution or Mama Java will have to get all strict on your butt.

[3] And maybe even change it for the better!

I Hope We Never Need It

Poly relationships have no legal recognition or protection.

Yeah, yeah, I know, tell you guys something you don’t know.

This doesn’t mean you should be an idiot if you decide to move in with your loves. Several years ago, one of my partners and I transcribed (with permission) a sample property sharing contract written for my family by a lawyer friend of the family.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to do and I really encourage any newly-forming, or even old-time poly groups who haven’t to do this. Plan ahead. And don’t think you’re planning to fail by having contingency contracts. That’s not the point. It’s like an insurance policy. You hope you’re never going to need it, but you’d hate to need it and not have it.

If you have done this, though, don’t pat yourself on the back too quick.

Are you updating it?

I know, it’s unromantic, but remember that living room suite the five of you bought? Whose is it? The family’s? That’s great. Now what if the family decides to go its separate ways? You don’t wanna go to court over something dumb like the living room furniture. Just what the world needs, another courtroom drama over something you put your butt on.

Remember when you write these contracts, keep the sex out of it. This is a property sharing contract. Nobody in a court is gonna care that your Master and Mistress collared you and you were living in subservient, trusting bliss as their devoted slave. All they wanna know is who is the damn’ silver gonna go to if you guys break it off and everyone is pissed off enough to land in court. Hence the admonition to update regularly. If you’re reading this, you probably have the resources to buy stuff at least once or twice a year. A yearly review is probably enough to keep things in check with an agreement to update for major group purchases. I’d suggest setting a dollar amount guideline on this one, just for clarity’s sake. Each family will have a different income level and a different idea of “major”, so hammer that one out, too!

If your family owns a business together (OLQ did), have an idea of what will happen to the property the business owns if the family/business dissolves. We decided that since one of the members wanted to continue in the same line, that many of the materials could go with the person who wanted to continue using it. If we hadn’t agreed on that, we would have had to have sold all the equipment and divided the money. In our case, that would have been far more trouble than it was worth! (Computers, software and electronic equipment depreciates fast!) But if you have significant stock/equipment/holdings in your family business, it’s an important point to consider.

I’m not pushing the contract to be pessimistic. Poly marriages last about as long as monogamous ones. It’s just that the monogamous ones have a legal precedent and ways to cope with the physical aspects of a possible divorce. We don’t have that.

<grin> What I hope in my secret heart is that every year when a poly family goes to update the contract it’s done with a chuckle, a “remember when” and laughter at the fact it’s not needed.

What Can They Do to Me?

Okay, great!

You’re poly! You’re cutting edge with the open lifestyle of the future. You have pictures of your loves in your cubicle and you wave that poly flag every chance you get.

Then you get a pink slip.

Was it your lifestyle? Not to put too fine a point on it, can they legally do that?

The answer, as always, is “It depends”.1 If you’re employed “at will”, an employer does not have to show cause to fire you. This means, that yeppers, you can be fired for being openly poly, it’s just that they won’t say that’s why. Find out if you’re an at will employee (if you work in the US, chances are good you are). Proof of discrimination becomes problematic here.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes discrimination on the basis of religion, sex, race, color, or national origin illegal. I will point out that fundamentalist Mormons have been notoriously unlucky in attempting to use religion as a defense for plural marriage choices, so this is hardly iron-clad. But, do read the text of the Act carefully. It really doesn’t deal with who you’re forming relationships with!

I keep repeating that poly people really need to know their local laws. It’s important. It’s amazing what you can get tripped up on through ignorance. Beware of wishful thinking in this. If it’s something with genuinely high stakes, pony up the money and talk to a local lawyer.

Seventeen states do have laws protecting employment based on sexual orientation. You can click on the link to find out what the laws are in your state. I’ve yet to find any legal precedence saying that polyamory is considered a sexual orientation, however. Legally, it’s a dark gray area. I say dark because there are states2 that do have laws against adultery. If you’re married and actively poly, you might very well be breaking the law in your area.3

I’m not trying to scare anyone here, nor am I trying to be gloom and doom. I just want people to know their local laws before they decide whether or not to be “out”. I choose to be, and genuinely think it’s safer in the long run.

I just don’t want to choose for you.

1I am not a lawyer. For more detailed information it is important to consult a lawyer in your jurisdiction!

2And other legal jurisdictions like the US Military

3And legally, it’s adultery whether or not your spouse is consenting. It’s that extra-martial sex is happening at all, not how your spouse feels about it!