The conservative right has long been doing their best to illegitimize any family that doesn’t fit within their narrow definition of “traditional.” (The absurdity, of course, is that real families never really fit the mold into which conservatives now want to shoehorn everyone.) A family, so they say, ought to consist of a mother and father raising their (preferably) biological children. All across the U.S., they’ve been attempting to legally define marriage as an arrangement only between one man and one woman, just to be sure no one gets confused and thinks that same-sex couples might be equal to opposite-sex couples. And same-sex couples raising children? Fuhgeddaboudit!
So, in a world where same-sex couples are accused of “destroying the family unit,” Senator Mark Leno of California has some serious audacity to introduce a bill that would allow courts in his home state to legally designate more than two people as parents to a single child.
The bill is intended to help more realistically account for the wide variety of family situations in which people find themselves today. After all, plenty of people outside the non-monogamous community do have more than two parents or caregivers. My husband Jack grew up with four parents (two biological, two step). A teenage relative of mine is pregnant, and I guarantee that her parents will be as instrumental in raising the child as she herself. And these are just two permutations of many! These are the people for whom the bill is ostensibly designed. Robert Fellmeth, the University of San Diego professor who is co-sponsoring the bill, has used the example of divorced and remarried parents to explain his reasons for supporting it: “From the child’s point of view, she’s got two daddies and one mommy, and I’ll tell you as a child advocate, if I can get all three of them contributing to the college fund of that kid, I want to do it.”
I think it’s clear, though, how the consequences of this may apply to the non-monogamous as well. For poly families, this would be a move towards greater legal recognition and protection.
Senate Bill 1476 faces opposition from the usual quarters. Conservative and religious groups have been making the expected noises about “‘muddy[ing] the waters’ of family structure” and “promot[ing] instability for children” (nevermind that the bill is intended to provide greater stability for kids who are already in complex family situations).
Even if the bill passes (and that’s probably a big if), legal parenthood for multiple parents is still at the discretion of the court. That means that poly families trying to ensure that all parents are legally recognized as such may still face discrimination and skepticism while trying to convince a judge that all three (or four or whatever) of them should be considered parents to the children in the household. The designation of multiple parents can only be done if it is determined to be in the child’s best interests. It’s far from a simple and straightforward process. But for it to be possible at all would be an exciting step forward.