Three's company

Despite legal barriers, a Vancouver polyamorist 'triad' quietly continues their unusual union

John, Louise and Eric have a family that is a little complicated.

John and Louise are legally married but have each other's permission to date other people, and John currently has a girlfriend. They also have one six-year-old son, and another 10-year-old son from John's previous marriage.

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Louise is also in a relationship with Eric, and the three of them formalized their triad in a commitment ceremony in 2010. Eric, in turn, has a 13-year-old daughter from his previous marriage.

The three of them live in an East Side house with the six-year-old son and frequent visits from their other two children.

John, Louise and Eric practise polyamory, a form of ethical non-monogamy. However, the controversy over the fundamentalist Mormon polygamists in Bountiful, B.C. may put their family under legal scrutiny, because of an old, rarely used law forbidding non-monogamous relationships.

Polyamory encompasses committed households of three or more partners. As discussed in books such as The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, polyamorists strongly emphasize the values of consent, honesty and equality, with poly unions lasting anywhere from months to decades, much like monogamous relationships. The VanPoly group claims over 600 members.

Vancouver supports an active polyamory subculture, with social gatherings and online discussion groups. John, Louise and Eric often host potlucks in their house for other people interested in polyamory, mostly white people in couples but also singles, from a wide variety of backgrounds. About 40 people attend each month. "We're actually looked at as a model," says John.

O n the back porch of their house, John, Louise and Eric (not their real names, for the sake of privacy) talk about their nontraditional family over beers and cigarettes while their youngest son sleeps inside. John and Louise had an open relationship and had experimented with swinging.

"It just left us feeling a little empty," says John. "When the attraction started between Eric and Louise, it really proved to be more than just a sexual attraction. It was more of an emotional attachment. That appealed to myself and appealed to Louise and I think at that point, it appealed to Eric, although at that point he was confused. It morphed into what we were actually looking for."

Louise explains, "To make a long story very short, having met a man that I fell in love with, it fell into that same sort of picture. We were already open to having an open relationship and exploring those different aspects and needs and desires."

"When Eric and I began our friendship," adds Louise, "John really recognized that there was a little bit more there than a friendship, and encouraged us to explore that further, which we did."

Eric had been in a relationship for about 20 years that wasn't going well and got the idea of non-monogamous relationships from John and Louise. "I realized that there were options, that I didn't have to be trapped in a failing relationship that wasn't making me happy or my ex happy. And consequently affecting my child as well."

The triad is also looking after three children. Once while picking up his son from school, John says, "The afterschool care provider came up to me and said, 'Look, we've had children with two mommies and children with two daddies, but we haven't had children with three parents.' They wanted to know how our structure was, and what our son calls Eric. We said, 'Well, he just calls him Eric.' They were very accepting. On my health care card and all my contact information, I refer to Eric as my co-partner."

Louise says the two younger boys accept their living arrangement. "Our sons are the age where they don't have any natural prejudices to what relationships are supposed to be like," says Louise. "When Eric became part of the picture, I think that they just accepted that this was another situation where it was about love. I think they really got that this was about love, it wasn't about sleeping together. This was somebody who joined our family."

Eric's daughter from a previous marriage, age 13, took a little more work. "We called a family meeting, sat in the living room, and we tried to explain to her. We're all saying, 'blah, blah, blah.' We were trying. Our son said, 'Mummy loves John and Mummy loves Eric.'"

John adds, "'And Mummy sleeps with Eric and Mummy sleeps with John.'"

The daughter now considers the boys her brothers, and they consider her their sister, Louise says.

Eric and John don't believe monogamy is really possible.

"Just based on my previous knowledge of friends that had been in long-term relationships or married, I would say that probably at least 50 per cent if not more cheated on their spouses," Eric says. "I think monogamy is just a dirty word. People like the word monogamy, but really, I don't think human beings or animals are monogamous by their very nature."

Louise has a different perspective. She knows of a couple who were deeply in love until death. "It was absolutely beautiful. It was that reason that I believed in partnership with another person, because I certainly did not experience it growing up. My parents did not get along. They fought. They divorced... However, I have experienced another couple who were absolutely happy. It's a choice. It does work for some people, but I think it's very rare."

The triad says it's important to view their relationship as an ongoing improvisation, not a fixed blueprint. "When we come up on things that we're not sure about, we sit down and talk about it," Louise says. Issues such as jealousy are resolved through negotiation and mutual trust.

John admits that he was a little jealous initially of Louise and Eric's relationship. "Seeing Louise and Eric with such a bond and the NRE, the New Relationship Energy. It had been a long time since Louise and myself had had that kind of NRE. Initially, there was some jealousy on my behalf, but I owned it. I realized after some time that, especially through the support of Louise and Eric, that I was not a superfluous, third-wheel kind of person. It just has become natural. Eric is equal to me in terms of our relationship with Louise, and in terms of our relationship with our sons."

Louise adds that, "Something that the three of us affirmed was that each of us has a veto power of who's allowed in the relationship. If John wants to see someone, and we're not OK with that, or one of us is not OK with that, then that's vetoed down."

They have considered the possibility of adding new partners.

"Once you add more people there are many more dynamics to scheduling and division of labour and a higher likelihood that they don't share the same ideals. But of course it is possible," says Louise.

A ll three are the product of divorced parents but don't consider that important. John says, "For one [of us] they were divorced during childhood, for me it was after I moved away from home and for the other it was in their adulthood. It is pretty statistically normal for today."

Louise adds, "You could look at it from the perspective that none of us have experienced a healthy monogamous relationship in our homes but honestly, who does?"

John, Louise and Eric formalized their relationship with a commitment ceremony in August 2010. "We exchanged rings, we had vows, we had a marriage in all the traditional senses, apart from a justice of the peace and apart from a priest. We had a moderator," says John. They plan on drawing up documents regarding custody of children and division of assets.

John, Louise and Eric's commitment ceremony could put them, and everybody who attended, in trouble because of a 120-year-old law and a small community of fundamentalist Mormons. "Based on the legal interpretation, everybody at the ceremony is liable for legal action," says John.

The small town of Bountiful is a community of fundamentalist Mormons who practise another form of non-monogamy, "spiritual" or "plural" marriage of one man with multiple wives (technically known as polygyny). Unlike polyamorists, who advocate consent, conflict resolution through negotiation and egalitarian values, Bountiful is strongly patriarchal with power concentrated in the male head of the household.

The demand for wives has driven the age of first marriage and first childbirth for women of Bountiful into their teens. There are also problems of younger sons having no place in the community because of a lack of wives, as well as moving underage girls across the border to and from American fundamentalist Mormon communities.

In 2008, the leaders of Bountiful's Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Winston Blackmore and James Oler, were charged under Section 293 of the Criminal Code.

Section 293 makes entering into "any form of polygamy" or "any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time" an offence that can be punished with up to five years in prison. The law even includes anyone who participates in any kind of ceremony for such a relationship, such as the triad's commitment ceremony. The earliest version of the law dates back to the 1890s, and explicitly forbids Mormon "plural" or "spiritual" marriage, but it has only been used a few times in the past century.

When the judge quashed the special prosecutor's decision to approve charges, the B.C. Attorney General didn't appeal the case and instead referred two questions regarding the constitutionality and definition of Section 293 to the B.C. Supreme Court in 2009.

Several groups presented testimony in reference for and against the law, making this an important legal case for the status of polyamory and other non-monogamous relationships. Some groups, notably the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, feared the law was overly broad and would criminalize the emerging subculture of polyamorists, forcing them to live secret lives.

David Eby, executive director for the BCCLA, said, "What this law does is erodes the dignity of people that are involved in plural relationships and denies them the privacy that is available to other couples and monogamous families." Other groups, such as West Coast LEAF, argued the law could be read as applying only to exploitative situations like in Bountiful.

On Nov. 23, 2011, Chief Justice Bauman released his 357-page decision on Section 293. Instead of striking it down as the polyamorists and their allies hoped, Bauman upheld the law, though he said it should not be applied to minors, which is what the attorney general wanted. He also said that the law does not cover the various forms of consensual, non-monogamous relationships known as polyamory, which is a partial victory for polyamorists.

However, Bauman's decision also says formal marriages, legally recognized or not, with more than two people are against the law. This includes both the Mormon fundamentalists with multiple wives of Bountiful, B.C., and polyamorists who have formalized their relationships with ceremonies.

That means that John, Louise and Eric could still be charged with polygamy, as could anyone who had attended their commitment ceremony. While the triad doesn't believe its family is in immediate danger, it is upset about the decision.

John says, "In our situation, we are one of those groups of polyamorists that [the decision] is not a victory for. We did participate in a ceremony. While it wasn't legal or religious, we had a full ceremony, we had rings, we had cake, we had guests, we had a ceremony."

"I feel sad for my family. In a situation that was based on deep love and caring, I have been now defined as something that Canada sees as criminal," says Louise. "As much care as I took before in being very careful in who I shared my situation with, now I feel I have to continue that dishonesty. I wish that I didn't."

They emphasize the difference between their kind of polyamorous family and the kind of polygamy practised in Bountiful.

Louise states, "The problem is the inequality. When one person in the relationship has all of the power, that's the problem. We three are equals in our relationship. Polyandry or polygamy just gives the power to one person. One woman with many husbands who serves them. One man with many wives that serve them... It's not an equal relationship.

"It's not the act of polygamy that makes it patriarchal. They've missed the point. The Criminal Code already covers abuse and oppression and all of the aspects that they identified through this case, which is truly horrific for these women [in Bountiful]. But it's completely unrelated to making a commitment to more than one person."

Eric says, "I would say the court found the easiest way out without having to challenge some very sensitive social questions. We do not subjugate our families or the people that we're in relationships with. We are totally different people but the law is unwilling to delve into that definition."

tupper.peter@gmail.com

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