The Somerville City Council passed an ordinance on March 23 seeking to combat discrimination against polyamorous people in the workplace and in interactions with law enforcement. The bill is one of the first of its kind, and comes three years after Somerville passed an ordinance officially recognizing polyamorous relationships.
Councilor Willie Burnley, Jr. spoke to the specifics of the legislation.
“These ordinances are nondiscrimination ordinances, which are … passed specifically [to ensure] that the City of Somerville does not discriminate against anyone in hiring or employment based on their family or relationship structure … [and] also in matters of policing, [to ensure] that they don’t receive any kind of disparate treatment,” Burnley said.
Burnley noted the reasoning behind the timing of the March 23 ordinance.
“It was a priority because, one, we kind of missed a spot,” Burnley said. “The ordinance that was passed in 2020 happened before my time on the council, but it is still entirely legal in this country to fire someone or deny people certain rights based on their relationship structures. … [The] council thought it was really important that we make sure that we’re embracing and protecting all of our residents, regardless of how many people they love.”
According to J.T. Scott, the city councilor for Somerville Ward 2, this ordinance was the next logical step in filling the gap in protection for polyamorous people.
“Because same-sex marriage was done at the state level here, a lot of cities and towns just never got around to doing domestic partnership ordinances,” Scott said. “So at the start of the pandemic, that was highlighted as a miss, as a gap that really had people alarmed, as they were looking at, for example, the ability to get access to their families and hospitals — health care situations. So, the next step for that is to fill in nondiscrimination protections.”
Burnley also explained how Somerville has inspired other municipalities to follow in its footsteps.
“After 2020, when Somerville led the way for multipartner domestic partnership ordinances … Arlington followed, as well as Cambridge, and we’ve become a model for municipalities around the country,” he said.
Scott emphasized that the council’s work does not end with this ordinance.
“The next step is actually to make sure that [the ordinance is] included in our fair housing laws,” he said. “So, to make sure that fair housing discrimination, for example, couldn’t happen [on the basis of polyamory], our zoning ordinance needs to change. Right now, there’s still a very old ‘no more than four unrelated persons in a given dwelling’ ordinance on the books … that isn’t particularly relevant.”
While the city council spearheaded these ordinances, they were assisted by national organizations including the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition. Heron Greenesmith, an attorney and co-founder of the PLAC, shared the general purpose behind the coalition.
“We are a multidisciplinary coalition of attorneys and other professionals who work with and identify as polyamorous people,” Greenesmith said. “We are a very collaborative group with drafting, training and technical assistance, communications support, monitoring media [and] media training”
They explained the role that PLAC played in passing both the 2020 and 2023 ordinances.
“There are multiple council people in Somerville who identify as polyamorous, … and they were eager to update their nondiscrimination protections to also cover folks in different kinds of relationships and family structures,” Greenesmith said. “So we worked closely with them to write the ordinance to make sure it fit into Somerville and Massachusetts law, and then when they were ready, we helped support the passage.”
While Somerville may have been the first to pass recognition for polyamorous relationships, they are far from the only city that the PLAC is working with on polyamorous rights.
“We are looking at updating other laws in Massachusetts to include protections against discrimination for folks within families with more than two parents or more than two partners. We’re also looking at passing nondiscrimination protections in Berkeley, Calif.,” Greenesmith said.
Additionally, Burnley said that people should see this ordinance as an opportunity to help expand civil rights across the nation.
“Part of the reason this is important to me is there’s been a long history of the government taking a very authoritarian and paternalistic view of what family is, and using that as a weapon against certain groups of people,” Burnley said. “The separation of families based on ideas about … who is deserving of rights is as old as this country, and quite frankly, much older. I think Somerville is taking a really important step [about where] the government steps in regarding families or relationships.”
Burnley emphasized the importance of not allowing the government to interfere in people’s private relationships.
“We should be embracing what consenting adults are trying to do and making sure that their path is not inhibited by the discrimination of private actors, or [by] repressive governments in general,” Burnley said. “We should be embracing the full, beautiful diversity of different relationships that people have, and other than that, we should be getting out of the way.”