My first assignment as a journalist — as an intern at a now-defunct Seattle daily — was a front-page story about the 2003 court ruling that legalized gay marriage in Canada. I was 19, and picked a fight with my editor after being asked to call a fundamentalist wackjob for “an anti-marriage quote” — you know, to show we were objective. (I lost.)
Later, as a cub reporter at the Boston Globe, I covered the first gay marriages out of Massachusetts, the first state to go legal, as well as attempts by local districts to block it.
I covered gay marriage in New York. I produced a video series about the battle over Proposition 8. I won a GLAAD award for my coverage of LGBT seniors, and the challenges faced by people aging without legal marriage rights. At Newsweek, where I was a staff writer, I picked another fight with an editor, when asked again to insert an anti-marriage quote — this time for an article I was writing about a new generation of gay activists. I argued again. This time I won.
My point is this: I have been touting equal rights in the best way I could as a journalist since the beginning of my career.
So it was almost comical to see my work used against that cause last week by the Supreme Court of the United States. In his dissent in the court’s gay marriage ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts cited my 2009 article for Newsweek: “Polyamory: The Next Sexual Revolution?”
This was not an article about the LGBT community at all. Rather, it was about a group, polyamorists, from whom gay rights activists have long attempted to distance themselves specifically to avoid the kind of association Roberts drew. (The poly community, longtime advocate Anita Wagner told me at the time, had become “the political football in the culture war [over] same-sex marriage.”)
I had spent time shadowing a polyamorous family in my hometown, Seattle. I’d learned that the Pacific Northwest had become home to a thriving poly community, many of whom had found each other on the Internet. They were hosting meetups. Potlucks. Trading recipes, along with partners. There was even an e-mail list for self-identified poly people who worked at Microsoft. Poly people seemed to be everywhere, and researchers were only just beginning to study the phenomenon.
This particular family was a triad: that is, a woman at the center, two men as her partners, living under one roof, with a married couple on the side, the wife of whom was dating one of the two men and the husband dating the woman at the center. They lived in a lakeside community full of good Seattle liberals and lots of money; they had three dogs and a vegetable garden and they often took walks along the water, hand in hand in hand.
It was a lot to keep track of (I drew diagrams), but to hear them describe the thinking behind it actually made a lot of sense: Polyamorous groups were trying new social bonds that put into practice the ideas of a more enlightened age (even if they did so imperfectly). They were reacting to a divorce-happy culture. They had forged their own kind of response to that age-old question: Can one person really satisfy every need? (The answer, if you believed the infidelity statistics, was “no.”)
What they weren’t looking to do at all, though, was to “redefine marriage” — as gay marriage critics have so often put it. They were looking to break the shackles of the institution altogether. “The people I feel sorry for are the ones who don’t ever realize they have any other choices beyond the traditional options society presents,” one poly man told me.
I’d gone in a skeptic, but emerged with a set of characters who raised convincing philosophical, and even biological, questions about relationships, jealousy, tradition and institutions — and whether humans were meant to be monogamous in the first place. It had occurred to me that the case for polyamory on the pages of a national magazine might ruffle feathers; it was low-hanging fruit for conservatives who would argue, like Roberts, that polyamory was another milestone on the slippery slope toward… social breakdown, chaos, sexual deviance, you name it. But as part of the argument against the one of the most significant rulings of the last 50 years? Next to a New York Post citation?! It was hilarious — but only because it was on the losing side of a close vote.
“If not having the opportunity to marry ‘serves to disrespect and subordinate’ gay and lesbian couples, why wouldn’t the same ‘imposition of this disability,’ … serve to disrespect and subordinate people who find fulfillment in polyamorous relationships?” the chief justice wrote in his 29-page dissent. “I do not mean to equate marriage between same-sex couples with plural marriages in all respects. There may well be relevant differences that compel different legal analysis. But if there are, petitioners have not pointed to any.”
At the Supreme Court, apparently, authorial intent only carries so much weight. No one involved in my Newsweek story — not the subjects, and certainly not the writer — thought there was any wider lesson to be drawn from their situation about the state of gay marriage. But don’t tell that to a chief justice (or his law clerk) hell-bent on finding grave concerns about what might happen if two people of the same sex get married.
In this case, fortunately, love still wins.