Victor de Bruijn with brides Mirjam and Bianca at The Netherlands’ first trio wedding.
FOR weeks, Sydneysiders and Melburnians who believe menage-a-trois and other polyamorous relationships can be just as committed, loving and valid as marriage between a man and a woman, slaved away together to earn their place in the sun.
They drew up plans, sawed wood, hammered nails.
Finally, in early March, it was ready: the first float celebrating polyamory to join the colourful flotilla in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
For psychologist Nina Melksham, it marked the moment when the poly community, like gays and lesbians a generation ago, had come out of the closet to stand up and be counted.
“The polyamory community has always been supportive of the values of equality and acceptance,” Melksham told Inquirer this week.
“Participating in the Mardi Gras was a natural way for us to affirm these values.”
Boosted by this success, Melksham and her polyamorous friends are planning an even bigger show for next year’s festival.
They believe last weekend’s vote by the ALP national conference to change the party platform to legalise same-sex marriage is a base on which they can build.
The agenda now is to seek recognition and the removal of prejudice against multiple-partner relationships, perhaps legislation to grant them civil unions and even legalised polyamorous marriage.
“My personal view is that any change that moves us towards a more loving, open and accepting society can only be a positive,” Melksham says.
Melksham runs a counselling practice in Lilyfield in Sydney’s inner west catering to polyamorous clients. She describes her own domestic arrangements as “a bit complicated at the moment”: she lives with her former husband, who she describes as her “best friend”, and is in a “vee” relationship with two boyfriends who live separately.
“I had the experience of being deeply in love with more than one person at a time. I had the choice to either deny the reality of the situation or grow and become a more accepting and tolerant person.”
The polyamorous community in Australia is a broad church, with the slogan of its very active website being “ethical non-monogamy”.
It is increasingly prominent, with organised groups in most capital cities that hold regular discussion sessions and social nights.
Polyamorists generally distinguish themselves from the monogamous gay community, and from those seeking kinky casual sex.
Some also see themselves as different from heterosexual polygamists where the “hinge” member has sexual relations with the two of the opposite sex, but the two of the same sex do not have sex with each other.
Rather they may form, in polyamorist lingo, a “polyfidelist triad” in which there is an equilateral triangle of sexual activity.
Such was the argument of 46-year-old Victor de Bruijn and his 31-year-old wife of eight years, Bianca, when they were formally united in 2005 in a small Dutch town with Mirjam Geven, a recently divorced 35-year-old whom they’d met several years earlier.
Although Dutch law bans polygamy, because there was no actual marriage in the technical sense, just a common law civil contract, the trio’s union was allowed.
Two court cases, one in Canada last month and one in Australia earlier in the year, show that while British-based law remains resolute against multiple partner marriage, it accepts that a common law threesome is not illegal or even necessarily family-unfriendly.
In the Canadian case, British Columbia Chief Justice Robert Bauman upheld Canada’s anti-polygamy law, but left polyamorous families free from sanction if they do not commit an overt act of multiple marriage.
The Australian case involved a man whose wife had left him for another man and a woman, and taken the children. When the trio set up house together, mingled their respective offspring, and shared the same bedroom, the jilted husband applied to the court seeking an urgent order that the children be removed from the “immoral” household.
But magistrate Philip Burchardt rejected the application, saying the threesome seemed to be “thoroughly decent and honest people” and “I do not regard the relationship . . . as being damaging to the children.”
One of Melksham’s boyfriends, Stuart Dixon, believes polyamorous civil unions or marriage are set to come on to the national agenda following the ALP conference vote.
“I personally feel it would be appropriate to have some sort of legal recognition of multiple partners,” Dixon said.
For those who fought the battle last week at the ALP national conference in support of the change of the party platform, the emergence of “poly pride” is a dangerous development.
Inquirer this week contacted some of the most vocal supporters within the ALP caucus for legalising gay marriage: Finance Minister Penny Wong, Schools Minister Peter Garrett, Social Inclusion Minister Tanya Plibersek, Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, left convener Doug Cameron and Stephen Jones, who plans to introduce a same-sex marriage bill.
Inquirer asked them: “Do you, given your deep commitment to the topic, believe that at the next ALP national conference the platform should be further amended to legalise marriage among polyfidelist triads?”
Not one would speak to Inquirer on the topic, and most did not reply.
After some pressure, Attorney-General Robert McClelland responded, going out of his way to make clear that while gay marriage might be on the agenda, legalised menages-a-trois were not. “Irrespective of whether the definition of marriage is extended to include same-sex couples, there has been and is no suggestion that the definition should extend to polygamous relationships,” a spokesman said.
Even the whisper of recognising polyamorous unions presents two threats for supporters of gay marriage: one from the Right, the other from the Left.
Niko Antalffy, a sociologist at Sydney’s Macquarie University who has studied polyamory and has been “actively polyamorous for about seven years”, says: “Of course they are scared.
“Having multiple partners sounds radical and they know that it won’t fly with the mainstream community,” Antalffy says.
“If you want to promote gay marriage you want to distance yourself with the slippery slope argument as much as possible, so no one will think that marrying your goat is next.”
The polyamorous marriage concept has indeed given conservatives such as NSW upper house MP Fred Nile more ammunition following the ALP national conference vote. “I warned people this would be the next stage,” Nile tells Inquirer.
“You’d get threesomes, foursomes, fivesomes, wanting the same rights. Some people even say they want to marry their pet animal.”
The polyamorist threat from the Left to the gay marriage campaign is more subtle. It raises the question whether those who support gay marriage on the basis of equal rights are hypocritical in not being prepared to even discuss the possibility of committed polyamorists being eligible.
The polyamorist community includes a large component of tertiary-educated professionals and academics because, they say, they are able to assimilate the intellectual sophistication of the polyamory thesis.
“We now know that sexual monogamy is neither natural nor common and has never been,” Antalffy says.
“The institution of marriage and cultural assumptions of monogamy arrived with agriculture and property ownership. In the last four to five decades everything has changed, though: religion has lost its grip on life, we are rich in material goods as well as opportunities, we have greater choices in lifestyles, there’s more equality and equality of opportunity, women can make do without having to be married to a man who keeps her.
“And this brings out human desire, which is multifarious to say the least. Polyamory is the sweet result of modernity.”