Polyamorists say they're not like Newt

Published Jan. 30, 2012

Shara Smith has three boyfriends, two in Tampa, one in Portland. Her Portland boyfriend has half a dozen "partners," including Shara. Her Tampa boyfriends are dating not only her but each others' wives.

It's complicated, to be sure. But Smith, 35, believes that some people, like herself, are not meant to be monogamous. They are polyamorous, meaning they have more than one long-term relationship going on at once.

Recently, Newt Gingrich found himself in national headlines that suggested the GOP presidential hopeful was an unlikely member of this group after his ex-wife, Marianne, alleged he had once asked her for an open marriage.

Marianne told ABC's Nightline that Newt informed her of his six-year affair with congressional aide, Callista Bisek, now his third wife, and wanted permission to continue seeing her.

"And I just stared at him, and he said, 'Callista doesn't care what I do.' He wanted an open marriage, and I refused."

Far from embracing Gingrich as a celebrity adherent, some in the polyamory community were quick to distance themselves, saying his alleged actions gave their lifestyle a bad name.

Gingrich: Don't Destroy Non-monogamous Family Values. That was the headline on a podcast called Polyamory Weekly this past week.

"Non-monogamy in its many forms takes a tremendous amount of communication and work to ensure the happiness of all parties involved," wrote someone using the pseudonym "Cunning Minx" on Polyamory Weekly, "and it is most decidedly not an escape hatch for a guy caught with his trousers down."

"The thing about polyamory is that everyone has to agree to it and so as long as you have any partners who didn't agree to it, it's not polyamory — it's cheating," Shara Smith said.

Smith, a camera operator and video lighting technician from Orlando, said she decided monogamy was not for her after she kept falling in love with two men at the same time.

"I decided that the only way was to have an open arrangement in which everybody was honest," she said.

Polyamory is not part of the cultural mainstream. In fact, most people who practice it guard their identities. It has come up in divorce cases and the workplace, threatening child custody and jobs.

For one man or woman to take on multiple significant others is still a big taboo here in America, says Joseph Vandello, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida.

"I think people have more of a problem with open marriage where neither partner is lying to each other than to an adulterous marriage where they are cheating behind each other's back," Vandello said.

Back in the '60s, marriage was the nation's preferred relationship status. In 1960, 71 percent of households were organized around a married couple. Fifty years later that number has dropped to 51 percent as Americans have become more comfortable with exploring alternatives.

Polyamory is one of them. Numbers are hard to come by, but there are thriving polyamory groups around the state, including in Tampa and Orlando.

Loving More, one of the largest organizations devoted to polyamory in the country, has a database of 30,000 people who have participated in events or ordered books or information, says director Robyn Trask.

"In the last two years, we've seen significant growth in communities across the country," she said.

A mother of three, Trask, 47, has a boyfriend in China whom she's been seeing since 1984 and who is married to another woman; another boyfriend in New York City whom she met in 2003 and who's living with another woman and their son; and a third partner whom she's been seeing since 2005 and lives with on a small farm in Loveland, Colo.

"People ask me why do you need another relationship," Trask said. "I say, 'Why do you need two children or three children? Why do you need more than one friend?' It's sex that trips us up. If it's sex, it has to be monogamous. But love is love and I have been in love with more than one person at the same time."

Interestingly, this is the second time polyamory has come up in this Republican presidential campaign.

Last April, during a Glenn Beck radio interview of candidate Rick Santorum, a question arose about what some considered to be "homophobic" comments Santorum had made about sodomy in a legal case.

And Santorum responded:

"It's not homophobic. It's a legal argument. In fact, that's exactly what's happening. We went from Lawrence vs. Texas" — the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down sodomy laws in Texas and 13 other states — "to now a constitutional right to same sex marriage and they're going into a constitutional right to polyamorous relationships."

But perhaps no one has had to fend off the idea of multiple partners more than Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, whose family tree includes polygamy.

Romney is Mormon, and polygamy once thrived in Mormon society before it was banned in the United States more than 100 years ago. Romney's great-grandfather had five wives and his great-great-grandfather had 12. Romney, who has been married to his wife, Ann, for more than 40 years, has denounced polygamy.

Now we have Newt, on his third marriage, who is alleged to have sought long-term relationships with two women at the same time.

Gingrich, 68, denied that he ever sought an open marriage with Marianne. But he cheated on his first wife with his second and he cheated on his second wife with his third.

He says he's changed. He converted to Catholicism and is happily married to Callista, 45.

And when CNN's John King asked him about it during a debate in South Carolina, he was scathing in his rebuke of the question itself, making it clear that he did not believe the issue was worthy of discussion. His response brought cheers from the audience. Then he won the South Carolina primary.

"He turned the issue around and made it an issue of persecution by the liberal media," said Vandello, the psychology professor. "Even something as personal as 'I cheated on my wife,' he's become the victim. It was a brilliant strategy, really."

But will his checkered marital past really just fade away that easy?

"If any voting group in the U.S. should care about this as a moral issue," Vandello said, "conservatives should have the biggest problem with it."

Not just conservatives, but Americans in general, at least according to polls on the subject.

Polygamy is morally wrong, according to 91 percent of Americans polled by Gallup in 2009. That's almost exactly the same number of people who say it's morally wrong for married men and women to have an affair.

Vandello says if we've already made up our mind about a candidate, we'll discount revelations like this, or at least find reasons to ignore them. So Gingrich is free to have as many marriages as he wants, so long as they're not at the same time.

Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at or 727-893-8640.