LGBTQ Agenda: Polyamory group asks Facebook for more relationship status choices

  • Thursday June 16, 2022
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The polyamory flag was designed by Jim Evans in 1995. The Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-monogamy has asked Meta, the parent company of Facebook, for more relationship status choices.
The polyamory flag was designed by Jim Evans in 1995. The Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-monogamy has asked Meta, the parent company of Facebook, for more relationship status choices.

If you've ever posted your relationship status on Facebook, and you're happily involved with that one great person you want to spend your life with, you may not have noticed an aspect of the social networking site's relationship status offerings: they're all geared toward dyadic relationships or, rather, relationships involving just two people. If you have noticed, and you're one of the 5% or so of people involved in romantic relationships with more than one other person, you may very well have just rolled your eyes and checked the "open relationship" or "it's complicated" box and called it a day.

One group is attempting to change that because, as it said in a letter released June 16 to Tom Alison, Meta's head of the Facebook app, "this restriction perpetuates the erasure and marginalization of non-monogamous relationships; at worst, it harms non-monogamous users by perpetuating social stigmas around the validity and authenticity of their relationships." (Meta Platforms Inc. is the new name of the company formerly known as Facebook.)

That letter, organized by Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-monogamy and signed by 11 polyamory activists representing as many organizations committed to enfranchising polyamorous relationships, asks Alison to revamp the app's selection of relationship types to include polyamory. At present, Facebook users have 11 options to choose from, ranging from single to widowed seemingly with the assumption that all those relationship permutations are with only one other person.

"Unfortunately, the design of the 'relationship status' feature prevents many users from indicating the connections most important to them," the letter states. "By restricting users to one relationship status (and one tagged partner) on their profile, non-monogamous individuals are arbitrarily prevented from expressing the full range of their connections on the Facebook app."

The idea and organization for sending the letter came together around a month and a half ago, said Brett Chamberlin, executive director of OPEN, on the phone from El Cerrito. And Facebook, he said, was a logical first step.

"Technology encodes the values of a society at a given point in time," said Chamberlin. "By excluding non-monogamous relationships, Meta had encoded the social preference for monogamy into Facebook's design, perpetuating the erasure and marginalization of non-monogamous relationships."

At this point, Chamberlin, 31, said he's not sure how Meta will respond to their request but he feels strongly it falls squarely within the giant social media company's own values.

As the letter points out: "Human connection has long been at the center of Meta's mission and values. Everyday, billions of people around the world use Meta's Facebook app to both nurture and showcase the connections that matter most to them. The Facebook app provides numerous features to facilitate connection, such as the ability to list family members and relationships on a user's profile."

Making the change isn't complicated, said Chamberlin, who is bisexual.

"We're talking about a couple lines of code," he said. "We do hope they'll be receptive and we really hope they'll see this is a blind spot for them."

Opening up a dialogue

Opening up dialogue about polyamory and ethical non-monogamy, and working to destigmatize non-monogamous relationships has greater implications than merely touting one's relationship status in between posts about Kim Kardashian and what one is eating for lunch, however. Serious implications.

As Chamberlin is quick to point out, being in a non-traditional relationship has drawbacks, particularly in a society where monogamy is regarded as the only appropriate way to maintain a relationship and which regards polyamory as, as one writer put it, icky.

Rates of discrimination for those who practice polyamory are near 50%, he said, and various studies bear this out.

"Studies demonstrate a high level of stigma as social conditioning leads many to judge non-traditional relationships as less trusting, less meaningful, and less satisfying than their monogamous counterparts..." according to the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition. "Studies have identified shared forms of stigma and discrimination between consensually non-monogamous people and LGBTQ communities including (but are not limited to): fear of coming out, retaliation for coming out, marital/adoption/custody/parental issues, family rejection, difficulty accessing supportive mental health care, housing discrimination, and workplace discrimination."

Another signatory to the letter to Meta is New York-based attorney Diana Adams. Adams, 43, and who identifies as queer, bisexual, poly, and nonbinary, is the executive director of Chosen Family Law Center.

Speaking on the phone with the Bay Area Reporter from Germany, Adams said many polyamorous families, particularly those with children, face high levels of discrimination.

"I have seen a tremendous amount of discrimination against my clients," they said, particularly in employment and housing. But "putting a face" on those who practice polyamory helps reduce social stigma and discrimination.

Custody battles, too, can turn against parents who are polyamorous. On their website, Adams addresses the matter and it can be quite ugly.

"By far the greatest challenges for Out poly/kinky people I have seen come from custody cases," they wrote. "If you have an active child custody case (including a divorce case that includes children) with your other legal parent; if the other legal parent of your minor child has been hostile, aggressive, abusive or seeking to harm or discredit you legally; or if you have a minor child and you could see any possibility that the other legal parent of your child could bring this up in a child custody case, being openly poly or kinky could be very damaging to your case."

Both Adams and Chamberlin pointed out the similarities to the movement for LGBTQ rights, adding that the drive for the rights of poly families and individuals is drawing heavily on the experience of the gay rights movement.

Queer people were very creative in building these family structures, crafting relationships on our own terms, Adams said.

And, while the signatories behind OPEN's letter to Meta are hopeful that success there could go a long way toward destigmatizing polyamory, the movement has enjoyed a couple of notable successes already.

In 2019, Somerville, Massachusetts recognized poly relationships as a form of domestic partnership. Less than two years later, neighboring Cambridge did the same thing. Both cities sit just outside Boston.

Conservatives weren't particularly thrilled with the cities' decisions, however, and many saw the success of Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 Supreme Court case that held that the 14th Amendment requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriage, as the precursor to the breakdown of traditional marriage.

"Once the law and culture says the male-female aspect of marriage violates justice and equality, we haven't 'expanded' marriage, we've fundamentally redefined what it is. And those redefinitions have no principled stopping point," Ryan T. Anderson, president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy think tank in Washington, D.C., told the Catholic News Agency shortly after Cambridge's decision in 2021.

"Of course it was never going to stop with same-sex couples," Anderson told CNA. "Once you redefine marriage to eliminate the male-female component, what principle requires monogamy?"

The B.A.R. wrote this article under embargo prior to Meta receiving the letter but as of publication Facebook officials have not responded to a request for comment.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact Eric Burkett at [email protected]

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