Peter McGraw speaks to Diana Adams, the founder of the Chosen Family Law Center, Inc. and boutique LGBTQ family law and mediation firm Diana Adams Law & Mediation, PLLC. Both organizations serve primarily same-sex couples and non-nuclear families. Diana’s incredible TED talk “Why US laws must expand beyond the nuclear family” serves as the basis for the conversation. They suggest that, although the nuclear family model may no longer be the norm in the US. It’s still the basis for social and economic benefits like health care, tax breaks, and citizenship. Diana contends that all families, regardless of biological relationship or legal marriage, are deserving of equal legal rights and recognition. Peter and Diana have a wide-ranging conversation that includes how Solos are affected by these laws – and present a call to action for aging Solos.
Tune in to the “Solo Book Club: Minimizing Marriage” podcast here:
Listen to Episode #172 here
Supporting Non-Nuclear Families
In this episode, I speak to Diana Adams, the Founder of the Chosen Family Law Center, and their boutique LGBTQ Family Law and Mediation firm, Diana Adams Law & Mediation. Both organizations serve primarily same-sex couples and non-nuclear families. I learned of Diana via a member of the Solo community. Diana’s incredible TED Talk, Why US Laws Must Expand Beyond the Nuclear Family, examines how the nuclear family model may no longer be the norm in the US, but it’s still the basis for social and economic benefits like healthcare, tax breaks, and citizenship.
They contend that all families, regardless of biological relationship or legal marriage, are deserving of equal legal rights and recognition. This should sound reminiscent of the Book Club episode, Minimizing Marriage. Diana and I use their TED Talk as a leaping off point for a wide-ranging conversation that includes how Solos are affected by these laws and a call to action for how to plan for the aging Solo. It’s a great conversation. If you’re moved by Diana’s work, please consider donating to the Chosen Family Law Center. I hope you enjoyed the episode.
Welcome, Diana Adams.
It’s wonderful to be here, Peter McGraw. I’m glad to finally meet you.
Your work was brought to my attention by a member of the Solo community, which people can sign up for at PeterMcgraw.org/solo. I watched your wonderful TED Talk and I cried.
I’m sure I’m not the first to cry and I was like, “I must talk to Diana.” Let’s start with your story because as a young person in upstate New York, it probably would’ve been difficult to predict you being here right now.
That is the case, Peter. I grew up in a small town and a working-class community. I was the first in my line to graduate college. There are a lot of migrant farm workers in my school district, and it was isolating. I was the only queer person that I knew of and didn’t even have words for that. I remember thinking as a kid that I want to be a mom and I want to fall in love, but I cannot imagine living in a town like this and doing this with a man. It’s not going to work out for me, and I hope I find it my way.
I was always a bit of a different person. I remember I had never seen an adult that had a to-do list. At five, fixing my dollhouse, I made a to-do list and a schedule. Not unlike my New York City daily schedule, I made a schedule for all of my dolls and what they were going to do, having never seen anything like that before. I then arrived in New York City for my first visit and thought, “Thank goodness. There are places for people like me who are a bit different, move a bit faster, have ambitious ideas and passions, and aren’t straight.”
At least now, a lot of people can be connected digitally. They can find out about these places and these perspectives, but when you and I were young, you were locked into this little local world. It’s fine if you fit and it’s not if you don’t. You need to leave if you’re going to make your way.
In New York City, I remember I ran into the much-celebrated prom king and star of the boys’ soccer team from my high school who turned out gay as well and absolutely in the closet. He moved to New York City the day after graduation. We saw each other in the street in New York City and we’re like, “You too?” You need to get out sometimes. We didn’t have the benefit of the internet when I was a teenager. That was something that was only for the elites who could afford it at home.
I feel so grateful to have found my place. I’m one of many people who was a queer person and was a bit of an artistic weirdo who ended up leaving my family of origin and town, and moving off to New York City. I had to find my way and find others like me who took me in. I kept a loving relationship with my parents but found more of my support as I was developing into who I wanted to be from others who were a bit more like my type of folks. I found the birds of my feather in New York City.
It’s important to find those tribes or those chosen family members. There’s one thing to go to the Big Apple and to blossom. There’s another thing to become an advocate for those very same people who are blossoming around the world, and finding these other ways to have partnerships. How did that happen?
I knew that I wanted to be an advocate and I knew I wanted to use my Law degree and my passion for positive change in the world. I tried out working in the environmental movement and working against violence against women and children. Both of those fields were incredibly draining to my heart. Also, I was competing for jobs against hundreds of people. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t doing the job, it wouldn’t get done.
I was trying to figure out how I can make an impact, and what is unique about who I am in this story. Through a journey of meditation, retreats, going to Burning Man, and soul searching, I realized that what I wasn’t seeing were legal services for queer people like me. I was doing my legal services jobs for women experiencing violence in New York City. In the evenings, I was very involved in the queer nightlife world. I was doing standup comedy and performance art. I was enjoying other queer performers in New York.
People would come to me and say, “Who do we go to if we are three gay men of different generations who live together and want to figure out how we pass on our apartment or our property in a will? Who do we go to if we’re a polyamorous triad? Who do we go to if I’m a polyamorous person and my ex is trying to use this against me in a child custody case?” I looked around and there wasn’t somebody in New York City of all places. I started my law firm in 2007 with a particular angle towards supporting LGBTQ people, but also the many people who were forming families beyond marriage and the romantic dyad.
I started that to then do co-parenting agreements and financial agreements between polyamorous people, but also platonic partnerships, or agreements about whether if your gay friend is going to help you have a baby, is he a sperm donor or is he a dad? I use my skills as a mediator and a facilitator to help people midwife what kind of family they were creating. People would come to me thinking, “We want to do family together. We’re not exactly sure what we want to do. We have an idea. Let us have you ask us hard questions and see if this has legs. “
I found a lot of passion in that. I now do mediation nationwide and in Europe with people who are trying to create families in different ways. I have been involved in several hundred child custody cases, unfortunately, in which someone’s sexuality is being used against them or being polyamorous is being used against them in a child custody context, when I think it doesn’t have anything to do with their parenting. That’s a passion and a way that I found that I could have my niche, and fill a need that wasn’t being met.
The older I get, the more woo-woo I get. It’s so interesting that this found you. You were living your life, and then here it is. You’re able to help these people and do it in a way that’s also personally fulfilling. It fits that need of wanting to live a purposeful and meaningful life. We’re going to talk about some of the ways that you go about helping these folks and using your expertise as a lawyer, but let’s step back and talk about those heterosexual dyads. Let’s talk about the topic of your TED Talk and talk about the nuclear family.
I’ve become obsessed with the nuclear family because of its prominence. My suspicion is you’ll probably agree that it’s a failure as an experiment for the very people that it was designed to help, but how monumental a challenge it creates for those people who want to have a family but don’t fit the criteria. Where do you want to start?
I want to start with my amazing mom, Pat Adams, who passed away a few years ago. She was my first feminist icon. She was an unlikely feminist icon in that up until my childhood, she lived in a small town, did not have her own driver’s license, didn’t have her own bank account, was a stay-at-home mom most of the time, and was incredibly isolated. She spoke to me often. I saw the challenges between her and my father. As a child, she spoke to me about some of these challenges that she was experiencing because I could see Mommy crying. She said, “Don’t do what I did. Find a way to financial independence. Always have your own money. Always have your own bank account because marriage is sometimes a form of servitude for women. I am stuck and I don’t know how to get out.”
It was heartbreaking and I loved her. I saw this and it was very common. My mom grew up poor. She had eaten squirrels for dinner in the South. She was one of five daughters and two sons. They shared a two-room house. She got out as soon as she could because of poverty, and because her father was abusive. She went into the military and met my dad. She got married at nineteen because she thought he was too ornery for us to starve. That’s how she described my dad.
I love my dad and I have forgiven him. He went through a lot too. I saw through my parents’ unhappy marriage the ways that people could get stuck when they’re following this script or when they are following the hamster wheel of what you’re supposed to do as an adult and don’t feel that you have that many choices. In my mom’s lifetime, we had the capacity for women to have more independence and a lot of that nuclear family story. I have the perspective having grown up around working-class women who talked to me about what it was like in the times when women couldn’t have their own bank accounts and couldn’t get credit cards.
When we talk about these glory days of the nuclear family, it was a great time if you were a straight White guy. It was a horrible time for the majority of the rest of us. It was a peak time for domestic violence and suicide of women and alcoholism. As soon as women could get credit cards, they got divorced. When women had more empowerment, they didn’t want to be there anymore. Even for many of us who have a story of our grandparents maybe having a perfect marriage, maybe your grandma didn’t get to speak up about it.
Some of these marriages were great but I think that there is so much more beauty and strength in a marriage and a nuclear family when it’s done by choice. For a lot of that time, that gets glorified. I had to do this fact analysis for my TED Talk at a high level of rigor because they don’t let you get up there and say anything that they’re not 100% sure is true. I know that the nuclear family was only the most common family form in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not actually a traditional family.
That time was a time of not just the oppression of women, but also racism. The push to get people married young and married within their communities was explicit, in many cases, due to marriage policies that were intended to prevent interracial births and marriages. Get people married early and get them monogamous. Get them married to people in their own community or their own high school. We have the high school segregated. That’s a way we can keep people racially pure. There’s a lot of history that’s quite ugly of capitalism, racism, and misogyny that went into this nuclear family story that we’ve been telling ourselves as if it’s a beautiful fairytale when it wasn’t for many people.
I say all this and I don’t want to make people who are in that heterosexual marriage to feel like I’m talking down to them. I am married to a man. I have been with him, and we’re celebrating sixteen years. I have what looks like a fantastic heterosexual marriage. We’re both queer and bisexual, but I have what looks like a fantastic marriage. We live right now in what looks like a nuclear family. It’s a lot stronger for us because it’s something that we came to by choice with options, with awareness of other options, and by finding a partner who wanted to do what we wanted to do.
In this case, we’re both bisexual. For us being polyamorous makes the most sense for our marriage. I think that strengthens us. It also strengthens marriage for people to be able to choose. Do they want to be monogamous? Do they not want to be monogamous? Do they want to be married? Do they have the freedom to not have to get married? We would have a lot more happiness and joy in those marriages if people knew that they could either stay solo, be polyamorous, do something else, and not get stuck as so many of our moms and grandmas did.
Amen to all of this. I agree with you about the nuclear family being a regression. It’s very isolating for the whys in mothers and how limiting it was, and how powerful the patriarchy had become as a result of this transition from this hunter-gatherer world, which had more of an egalitarian cooperation to this very strict way of living that doesn’t fit. We know it doesn’t fit because as women gained educational and economic opportunities, many of them said, “No, thank you.” The other thing is if you weren’t straight, you still ended up doing this oftentimes.
I learned on the other side of the family that wasn’t in poverty that my grandma on my dad’s side was a lesbian it seems. We recently found out by putting out all the old pictures and saying, “Why is grandma always in a picture with this masculine-looking woman in a fedora, and giving the elders some wine and interrogating them about what was going on?” We suspected that Grandma had a female relationship. It turned out that it seems like the relationship between my grandparents on that side of the family was maybe platonic.
They had children and a household together. They ran the ship together, but they each had other girlfriends that they were in romantic relationships with. There are so many of us who had to hide for years if we were gay or lesbian in a romantic relationship. If we were asexual, finding somebody else that was open to that, an asexual woman partnered with a gay man and made a relationship of, “We have to make do here. Let’s have a household. It’s going to get easier for both of us.” That is something that has happened throughout history and still happening. I want people to have the freedom to live the lives that they want to live.
I am one of the pillars of being solo. The difference between being single and being solo, the first one is this notion that you see yourself as a whole person, to begin with. You’re not walking around as half of a whole and feeling incomplete or feeling less than until you can ride this escalator. The second one is especially relevant to what you’re talking about. It is this notion of, can you foster some self-reliance, some autonomy, or some independence? Can you parent yourself? Can you care for yourself? Can you provide for your own safety and security? Can you make money to be independent so that should you decide to partner up in whatever way you want to do that, you get to do it on your own terms?
You get to do it by choice. You don’t default into these very strict roles where suddenly, someone else has a lot of say over your life. In the nuclear family, the husband was in charge and it was incredibly difficult and isolating. You can be solo within a relationship. The last pillar for completeness is to have this unconventional view of the world to recognize that there are these rules that are guiding you into this particular style of relationship to be able to rebel against them should you want to not default into them. Once you start questioning those rules, it’s easy to start questioning the rules more generally about what makes life remarkable. Rather than this tight conformity of consumerism, living in the suburbs, big homes, cars, keeping up with the Joneses, and so on can then suddenly become optional for the solo.
Amen, Peter. I love all of this. There is so much synchronicity. What’s fascinating to me is so much of what you said could have been said about being polyamorous. A lot of the reframing of the traditional assumptions about what a relationship needs to be. Polyamory also questions the idea that your partner is going to become your other half or that you aren’t responsible as an adult for getting your own needs met. Sometimes being creative about how you get those needs met, either with yourself or maybe one person over here is the person I share my caretaking responsibilities with, who would come visit me in the hospital if I needed some help. However, somebody else is my lover, and maybe a third person, I co-parent with.
You don’t necessarily have to put so much pressure also on this institution of marriage. It feels so unrealistic to me that, as my good friend and collaborator often say, “They’re supposed to be your rock, and it’s also supposed to be erotic and exciting.” They’re your financial stability for your retirement plan, and yet you’re still supposed to have a hot juicy connection for the next 50 years. You spend all of your time together, but you’re always excited to be together.
We’ve put too much on the institution of marriage. Frankly, I’m a divorce lawyer and mediator. I see a lot of people who have gotten onto the escalator and then are getting off, and trying to do something different. I see those situations where people have an assumption that relationships and connection are one size fits all, rather than realizing there may be people who have different levels of interest in being sexual, or different levels in having space versus togetherness time. There are many different ways that you could build a life. I’m in support of people designing the relationships they want in their life, thinking intentionally about what they want to do instead of the escalator, and how everyone deserves to have caretaking partnerships.
That’s a message that I’m interested in for people who are solo. I feel very strongly that everyone deserves to feel like they have somebody who would be having the ability to come to visit them in the hospital or inherit money from them, or be the person who takes care of them in a crisis. In the COVID pandemic situation, we saw how much some people who were not necessarily living with a romantic partner or people who were living alone were not brought into some of the ways that were means of caretaking and community support, and a tremendous amount of isolation that is inappropriate.
That’s one thing that I’m interested in breaking down. With the Multi-Partner Domestic Partnership laws that we’ve been passing, it’s very important to me that it’s not just for polyamory, but to also include platonic partnerships. These don’t have to be people that you live with. If you wanted to share health insurance as domestic partners with your best friend, you should be able to do that. You should be able to have hospital visitation rights.
A domestic partnership is also a status that would allow you to be a close family member legally so that you could cross a border in a pandemic to be together, and people who are solo deserve that too. As I mentioned sometimes in my talks, we’re much more comfortable sometimes asking a friend to take care of our cat and give our cat their diabetes medication than saying to our friend, “I have diabetes and if I am having these symptoms, you could give me a shot.” Many of us are much more comfortable asking for somebody to care for their pet than we are for ourselves.
I’m wanting to give a vocabulary and encouragement for us all to build those mutual connections outside of that romantic dyad, partly to give strength to those who are in a romantic dyad. It will make marriages stronger if we’re not trying to be each other’s only person that we’re connecting with, and if people don’t feel forced into that and know that they can have caretaking in other ways.
There are two things going on here. I’m going to do a call back to a book club that I did with Laura Grant and Amy Gahran about Elizabeth Brake’s book Minimizing Marriage. Amy made this impassioned argument that benefits should be given at the individual level rather than at the couple level. That’s not the case in the United States and many places in the world. There are some exceptions. Sweden is one of the great exceptions. Interestingly, when you give people benefits at the individual level, you get very high levels of people living alone, and not partnering up because that’s not a practical solution to their problems because the state has helped them at the individual level. That is clearly not the case in the United States.
What I hear you talking about are there are the benefits of being in this dyad that is bestowed by the government. There are all these other alternative ways that people want to live that you can’t get those benefits. Let’s step back and talk about some of the benefits of being in a nuclear family that those of us who are single or those of us who are in alternative partnerships can’t access.
First I’ll say that I am a longtime advocate of unbundling all of the many rights that are attached to marriage. I hope for a time when we have rights on an individual level. I see this as a cultural stepping stone to get there toward universal healthcare. If we don’t have universal healthcare yet, I’m going to say, “How about we are allowed to extend the health insurance that we would have with a married partner to a domestic partner? How about that domestic partner could be your sister or your best friend too.” If I get health insurance for my five kids, why can’t I have it for my five partners, including my sister and my lover? If that’s too complicated, give everybody universal healthcare.
Until then, I’m going to be a thorn in your side about how it doesn’t make sense otherwise and it isn’t equitable. Let’s step back from that. Some of those rights that we get from marriage, there are over a thousand different rights and responsibilities. People have no idea what they’re signing up for. I saw this a lot with the same-sex marriage movement, well-meaning couples even those who are highly educated would be like, “We’re getting married.” It was like, “Great, so one of you is an out-of-work actor and the other one is a surgeon.” You became a social welfare state of two that may or may not be what you want to be creating in your relationship. Be aware of that.
Part of what you create with marriage is that we are replicating the idea of a social welfare state of being each other’s safety net that a government might provide if you lived in Europe to instead have that within the couple. That means if I go off and get $100,000 in gambling debt that you don’t know about, we’re splitting it and you have $50,000 of that. If you do well in your business and you go off and you make $1 million, I get half of that too as your spouse. If you go off and buy three properties, then I own them 50/50 if we don’t do anything else.
That’s the default general laws of marriage, which are tweaked state by state, and you can tweak them with a prenup. If you do nothing, that’s the general principle. You can also get immigration benefits to have a married partner stay in the US. Would I want just as much to be able to have my sister come into the US as my lover? Perhaps. We don’t have that option for other kinds of family statuses. Another tremendous benefit is that you can inherit tax-free at death.
This was the basis for the Edith Windsor versus the United States case that struck down that portion of the Defensive Marriage Act in which the Federal government wasn’t recognizing state same-sex marriages. Edith Windsor was going to have to pay over $300,000 in estate taxes after this long relationship with her wife. Her wife died, and they’ve been married and have been together for decades. If her marriage had been federally recognized, it’s zero taxes. Without that recognition, it’s $300,000 in taxes. That’s still the situation if I want to leave money to my best friend or my sister. Marriage is a special category. It doesn’t make sense when half of American adults are not in this family institution.
A final major right that we get is getting health insurance. Domestic partners can also get health insurance, depending on your health insurance plan, but you have to pay more for it. Marriage is at a special status of being able to get health insurance through every possible employer that’s going to be offering it to you and at a very low rate. We are in such a desperate, embarrassing, and horrifying situation in the United States with our lack of healthcare coverage.
As somebody who’s a civil rights lawyer and does comparative policy and has lived for seven years in Germany, I can come back and have the perspective of how degrading it is to our democracy and the values that we have theoretically as Americans that we’re allowing people to go bankrupt because they can’t afford any more cancer treatment. It’s disgusting. The way that people are scrambling to deal with that is people are still being coerced into marriage. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about this is that women are still being coerced into marriage like my mother and many of our grandmothers were.
People are still coerced to get into these kinds of marriages because it’s going to be better for their taxes. It’s going to make life easier. It’s going to be easier for them to support their child, and get the health insurance that they and their children need. If we’re going to have equality between the sexes in the United States and not be harming women, we need to make sure that we’re not financially coerced into getting into what is often a sexual relationship in order to get financial support as mothers and as women. That’s one of my sources of deep passion about how we need to provide these kinds of rights to other people so that people won’t be coerced into these kinds of institutions, and the institution of marriage.
Particularly, we have such a high divorce rate and infidelity is the highest cause at this point of divorce in the US. If we were giving people more choices, number one, to not feel financially coerced once they get into it, and then to be able to design the marriages that they want rather than following a general script on the elevator. Allow people to have open relationships. Allow people to live separately while they’re married. Allow people to have more freedom and independence while they’re married, and not feel financially stuck. I think we would have stronger marriages. For the heterosexual married people out there, it will make your marriage stronger if you support these other kinds of family institutions. People are getting into these relationships and staying there for the right reasons.
The story that I like to tell about the Affordable Care Act is what they called the Obamacare glitch, in which under certain circumstances a married couple had to pay higher premiums. It was a small percentage of people, may five million people or so on, but that’s a lot of people. Some of those people who are married couples got divorced. By getting divorced, they could save $16,000 a year. I point to that as the exception that proves the rule.
If you can incentivize happily married people to divorce, you can incentivize unhappy couples to marry because it’s a matter of survival. $16,000 for the average American is a tremendous amount of money. The second thing I wanted to say is you have your own story about getting cancer and about hospital visits. It’s not getting access to healthcare, but it’s all the other things that are wrapped into healthcare. Would you care to share?
I had a journey with cervical cancer when I was in my twenties and I was starting my law practice. I had been duped into a healthcare program that was not full insurance. It was emergency insurance and I thought that would include cancer.
Isn’t that amazing that that’s not an emergency?
Mind you, this was embarrassing because I had a law degree and I was working in American government reform. You’d think if anybody could read the fine print, it would be me. That also gives me a lot of passion about healthcare coverage because if this could happen to me, this could happen to so many of us, particularly when we’re on our own and we’re starting out in our twenties. I had a beautiful community of chosen family. I had been very involved in the Burning Man community, polyamory community, and queer community in New York City, and given a lot of other people support. They were eager to give me support.
My wonderful girlfriend at the time, Beth, who’s still a dear friend appointed herself general in charge of support. Everybody was sent to contact her. I sent a vulnerable email saying, “This is embarrassing because I’m your fancy law degree friend starting a prominent civil rights practice and I’m broke. My health insurance isn’t working for me. My family doesn’t have any money to help me. I don’t know what to do. I’m overwhelmed.”
This wonderful team of people was coming by. They were giving me energy work. Some people were cleaning my house. Some were doing food drop-offs. Some people were calling and lobbying for me to get on cancer services Medicaid for New York State. All of these people were tremendous people. This was eighteen years ago, and most of them are still dear people in my life. None of them would be allowed to be on my health insurance. None of them would be allowed to visit me necessarily in the hospital, particularly under things like pandemic rules where we could allow to have one special person.
They wouldn’t be able to inherit from me without paying taxes. They wouldn’t be able to cross a border to be together. If one of them was dying in the US while I was in Germany, I wouldn’t have been able to get here. It’s given me a tremendous passion because I am one of those queer people who found chosen family with other people like me. I’ve taken in young gay homeless men who were ostracized from their families in their late teens and didn’t have a place to go and were in New York City. I took in each of them and helped them figure out their career path. They lived on my couch on and off for years at a time, and they are still people in my life.
One of them calls me Mama, but we don’t have any legal connection. I threw him his 35th birthday dinner as his mama. We all didn’t know if he was going to live that long, but I met him when he was in his late teens, and now he’s doing well. Many queer people form those kinds of connections. I ask everyone who’s tuning in to take a moment and reflect. If you were, God forbid, in a hospital room with COVID, or if you were on your deathbed, who are the people you would want next to you?
Are they different than your next of kin? Your legal next of kin might be your mother, your father, your married partner, or your legal child. For many of us, there would be people we would want there, holding our hand, and to be advocating for us who are different than that set of limited people. We all deserve that.
A lot of solos have this question to answer. Both my parents are dead, I don’t have a wife or a husband. I don’t have children and never will have children. I have a sister who is a wonderful human being and would step in. I also have that group of chosen family that you define as people who choose to be there no matter what. I feel fortunate enough to have those people in my life, and to be that person for people in life where if need be, I will drop everything for you. There are a lot of people who can’t answer that question if you put it to them. Who is your chosen family? Who would show up if you were in the emergency room? Who would take care of your pet if you became incapacitated?
That’s a heartbreaking situation to be in, first of all. Secondly, the friction that they would experience. Dealing with your doctors, leasing agent, bank, and so and so forth. Having some plan to have these people in your life and be able to facilitate them helping you, and you helping them. The work that you’ve been doing is with folks who are forming these alternative partnerships. They may be romantic and sexual, or they may not be. I love this idea of platonic partners. I think it’s a powerful idea.
How are you doing that? You’re using, your skills as a lawyer. My suspicion, Diana, is you’re using your skills as a compassionate person, mediator, and therapist adjacent to help people navigate these things. How are you doing it? Also what advice would you give folks who are tuning in and thinking these issues through whether they’re single or non-single?
Thank you for that, Peter. I teach sometimes communication modalities, which I call courageous conversations. One of my deep passions in life is facilitating, sometimes I call it midwifing, these challenging conversations, which I reframe as courageous conversations. They are often likely to be sources of either conflict or loneliness because we don’t discuss them. Those are sexuality and our meaning of monogamy or non-monogamy, and what our expectations are around that, or what our hopes are around sexuality and sexual connection.
Another one is finances and our desires and needs for financial entanglement and our assumptions. Thirdly about caretaking, and not asking for the caretaking that we need. I’m passionate about helping people think through the needs that they may have. Who are the people in your life that we could talk to about that?
For people who are solo in particular, there are a few different things I sometimes suggest. I often suggest that people will need to have somebody who’s going to be visiting them in the hospital, for example, and making decisions. In New York State it’s called a healthcare proxy. In other places, sometimes it’s called a medical power of attorney. It differs state by state what it’s called, but the premise is essentially the same in all places.
In that you would be asked to fill it out, for example, anytime you are going to have surgery. That is a person who’s there to make decisions for you if you can’t speak for yourself. We always imagine a coma or something that feels far off, but what’s much more likely is something like you have COVID and you can’t breathe enough to talk well, or a respiratory infection type issue, or you’ve broken your leg and you’re in a lot of pain from a skiing or car accident, and you can’t be talking about what surgery should happen.
You need a patient advocate there to say, “He needs his pain medication now. Should it be a metal rod or not in his leg?” Also, be there to advocate. It’s not just somebody who’s your close person, but somebody who’s going to be an advocate and grounded in a crisis. We all deserve that. That kind of form is also a good way to make sure that somebody that’s not your spouse or your parent is going to be allowed to be in that room. That’s going to be, “This is my special patient advocate.”
Even if it’s a root canal, I’m allowed to have them in the room if I want them in the room to hold my hand. Unless there’s some medical reason for sterility, they need to be out. This is the person who is here with me and that gives them a status. That’s power. Otherwise, we can create things like a power of attorney if you wanted to share finances in some way. That means I could advocate and call your health insurance company and argue with them on your behalf, or I could even cash your checks.
If you want to be a little bit financially entangled, power of attorney is something that you can do with somebody that you trust and has a wonderful option in New York in many places where you can check off the ones that you want. I want them to be able to call my health insurance company for me, but they shouldn’t go cash a check. That’s a way that you can be financially entangled. I suggest for people who are solo, particularly if you are over 50, it’s important that we sit down and think about a caretaking plan.
If we’re fortunate enough to live long enough, many of us are going to need some plan for caretaking. We can no longer assume that’s going to be our adult children or our spouse, and many of us don’t have that. We need to have other means of communicating about caretaking. For example, having an explicit caretaking plan and communicating with it about people in your life and asking people, “Would you be willing to be the person who does this? You’re my fifteen-year younger chosen family person. What if this should come to pass? You were one of the people, but not all of the people, so it’s not overwhelming. I gave you some money once a month. Would that feel comfortable for you?”
Sometimes those are awkward conversations, and so I help facilitate them for people. Sometimes it’s easier to say, “Let’s have a meeting with my family planning attorney. We’ll talk it through and talk through any concerns either of us have.” Basically, it’s making a caretaking plan, letting people in your life know, and asking people, “If one of us gets into this health situation, would you be willing to be in mutual support and mutual care when we’re going to get to a certain point where we’re starting to drive each other doctor’s appointments a lot?” We’ll have colonoscopy driving trades. That’s a special person in your life, and you need somebody like that. Often, because it’s so uncomfortable to ask for this and people feel so isolated around it, we are over-relying on paid help.
We found this in the pandemic. Many of us, particularly people who have the means, have replaced that extended family network of support for parents with people we pay. If we don’t have any money or there’s a pandemic, they’re gone. This is another crisis that we need to recreate these networks of care and learn how to ask for support again, how to talk about it, and how to be willing to be awkward about it. I feel passionate that if any of these conversations are awkward, it’s a good sign that it’s a conversation that needs to be had.
Asking for those caretaking relationships and creating documents where you can say, “My 5 or 10 closest people, here’s my will, so you know you’re in it. Here’s my caretaking plan. I have insurance to go into a nursing facility if needed. If any of you would be open to being a person who would be in care, I’m willing to then give you compensation for it. Maybe there could be a team of people so it’s not just one of you.”
Even if you are in a situation where you have adult children, please don’t assume that your daughter is going to do everything or that they’ll be good at it, or that they want to. That’s not working for many people. We need to find other ways of talking about this. There’s also a crisis in the US of unclaimed money. Even if you were to put in your will, “All of my money goes to Peter,” or even with your best friends, where are all their bank accounts? What are their account numbers? There’s all this unclaimed money because we don’t talk about this.
Another thing is you don’t have to give you’re closest people passwords to your online banking. However, you can say, “I have an account at Chase ending in this with approximately this much in it. Here’s all of the information. I’m putting it in a dropbox to my ten closest people along with a copy of my will and my healthcare proxy and my living will so that you all have it if anything should happen.” That’s something that I help people do so they can feel that security, in addition to supporting people with creating more platonic partnership legal agreements, whether that’s shared finances or in terms of shared co-parenting sometimes.
This is one of the things that I think is interesting about this. I’ll share a quick personal experience. A lot of singles, especially those self-reliant solos, get to a place in life where you’re used to being like, “I’m the boss. I got it. I got this taken care of. I don’t need someone else.” How that can lull you into a little bit of a false sense of security. Life can change. You can get into a car accident or a skiing accident. Suddenly, you have a cancer diagnosis. Your root canal goes sideways and suddenly, you’re floundering. At one point in time, a few years ago, I did a series of elective procedures. One of them was a vasectomy. I decided that I’m going to be certain that I’m not going to have children.
In my soloness, I was very aggressive. I’m going to bundle all these together and have all this downtime. It ended up becoming overwhelming. I was navigating all of this alone. The vasectomy in particular was a very challenging emotional experience. It was very difficult. I found myself eating in a diner afterward because I had been there so long. I was taking an Uber home. I was pretty much a wreck at the end of this.
I remember talking to my friend Janet, who’s a fellow solo. She’s in New York City. She’s like, “Peter, you should not have been there alone.” I had to agree with her. I just didn’t anticipate this. She’s one of those friends who if I needed to, she would’ve flown out to help me with it. This is a good reminder for people. This was all fairly benign. In the long run, everything was fine after a few days. It’s in the moment, I could have used a handhold.
We all deserve a handhold sometimes. Many of us want that and would be delighted if somebody else would ask us for it because that means we have a chance to then ask for it too. Many of us would like that mutual connection. In a similar way, Peter, I sometimes say I find my boundaries by tripping over them. I tend to ramble around and think I can do so many things and try to be independent, and then I too end up in situations where I’m like, “That was intense. I didn’t need to do that by myself.”
Now I try to push myself to ask for care sometimes with, “I think this procedure is probably going to be fine, but I would love it if somebody came and picked me up and I didn’t eat lunch alone.” I would love somebody to hold my arm while I walk out of that. I want to encourage people to get into the practice of asking for it when it is relatively benign because all of us at some point may need those kinds of connections. The general gentle approach of, “Would you be willing to be here for me and I’d be happy to do the same for you for a procedure? Should we be each other’s healthcare proxy? Would you be my healthcare proxy?” That’s a good beginning to that conversation about being open to receiving care, which can be vulnerable.
Yes, and being able to offer it. It’s one of those things. If I had a partner, that person would be there. It would be a no-brainer. It wouldn’t be like, “I’m going off to my vasectomy. See you in four hours.”
People who are solo deserve care too. People who don’t live with a romantic partner deserve care too.
I’m sure there are people tuning in right now who are having an epiphany of sorts. They’re like, “I need to get this sorted.” They’re recognizing the potential challenges, the vulnerable and courageous conversations that they’re going to have, but they could stand a little bit of coaching. They need a lawyer for some of these things. Also, you’re in New York and so you offer services, but you’re just one person. For the person who’s going to pursue this path and figure this out, who do they talk to? It seems like a very specific set of skills that the average lawyer doesn’t have. Who should they be looking to speak to?
I believe strongly that we deserve culturally competent professionals. I shouldn’t have to deal with a therapist or an accountant or a lawyer myself who is balking at the fact that I’m non-binary or that I’m polyamorous. Everybody else deserves to go into a professional’s office and not have to explain to them what a platonic partnership is. What I suggest is to start from the rubric of looking at LGBTQ family lawyers in your state. Those lawyers are going to be the first round of people that might be open to not just supporting same-sex couples but also platonic partners. They may not be, so I would find them an email and say, “Have you supported platonic partners before in setting up caretaking agreements with people who are not their romantic partners?”
The answer should be, “Yes, absolutely. I’m happy to help.” Be willing to advocate for yourself and ask if they have experience with that if that’s something that they are happy to support. You can find top lawyers in LGBTQ family law through the National LGBTQ Bar Association. They actually have an interactive map that has experts who are vetted in each state. I’d be happy to send that link along. That’s a great place to start.
You can also contact my law office for a referral. I do the mediation of platonic co-parenting agreements nationwide, and then could maybe suggest a local lawyer. If your state doesn’t have a local lawyer that you can find who’s happy to mediate a platonic co-parenting agreement or a platonic financial agreement, I’m happy to do that. I can make suggestions and even coach your local lawyers if you can’t find a local lawyer that has helped two friends to set up a caretaking arrangement, for example.
Some of this is non-legal work, talking about, “What would my caretaking plan be as I get older?” That is not state specific. I’m happy to help with that and give referrals. We need more lawyers who are culturally competent. Half of my time, I am with Diana Adams Law Mediation, where I work with paid private clients who need mediation services nationwide or legal drafting in New York State. The other half of my time, I have a nonprofit Chosen Family Law Center, which came out of the enormous pro bono department of my law firm that was unsustainable.
Now, my entire staff splits time with this nonprofit Chosen Family Law Center, which is the first legal services organization not just to advocate for LGBTQ families but also non-nuclear families, including polyamorous families and platonic partnerships. In New York State, if somebody is low-income, they could get these agreements done for free through my office. Chosen Family Law Center is a place to contact if you’re in New York State and you think you might qualify. We hope to expand this to other states so that nobody is avoiding getting a will or these healthcare proxies or a partnership agreement of any kind because they can’t afford it. We make that service accessible.
What we’re trying to do with fundraising is to make sure that can expand to other states. We’re likely to move to New Jersey soon. Also, to teach continuing legal education classes to lawyers as well as classes of therapists so that we can have a nationwide directory ourselves of not just the LGBTQ family lawyers but those that also have taken extra training in how to support platonic partnerships or polyamorous partnerships. They’ve done a class on end-of-life planning for platonic partners, or they’ve done a class on caretaking partnerships beyond marriage.
We’re wanting to ramp up in the next few years so that then we could have our own directory of those lawyers that we know are culturally competent on those kinds of issues because we all deserve that. We deserve that beyond the people who can afford to work with me, or who have somebody within their state right now. We need to build a larger community of people who do this work.
Diana, you’re a star. It’s incredible what you’re doing. There’s such a need for it, especially as we’re seeing this increase in people going it alone in a world that’s not built for them or as I like to say, is built for two. Also, people who are not going it alone, but doing it with these alternative partnerships, and having to navigate the legal and the healthcare system, not being able to find a way to give their resources to other people when they die and vice versa. I think it’s great that you’re doing it. If there are any lawyers listening, this is the pivot you want to make in your career. The world needs you doing this.
The last thing I want to talk about is there is some change happening. It’s slow and I was surprised to find this out, but a lot of this change with regard to laws is happening not at the Federal level, very clearly no. Not even as much at the state level, but you’re seeing it at the city level. If you could talk about that, and then also I have a listener question that I think is adjacent. Annie asks, what can individual citizens do to help effect change? Is there a toolkit we can download and use to organize? Are there organizational meetups where people are coming together to work on this? This notion of advocacy is something that my community is caring about.
First I’ll share in terms of the municipal policy changes that we’ve been involved in. My nonprofit Chosen Family Law Center is an advocacy organization that people can get involved with and can support. It does advocacy around many kinds of family partnerships beyond marriage. That includes both doing the direct legal services for people who are low income and need that paperwork done, but also working on policy change. The policy change that we’ve already created through one of our projects with Harvard Law School’s LGBTQ Clinic, is Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition. That is a project within my Chosen Family Law Center in collaboration with other groups.
What we’ve done there is draft and pass legislative policies related to multi-partner domestic partnerships and non-discrimination based on family structure. These plural domestic partnerships happened first in Somerville in 2020. A law that was not initiated by us was passed in Somerville, Massachusetts. It’s a small city. We thought that was fantastic and it allowed for multiple partners to get domestic partnered. It was a great policy. It was also not drafted by lawyers and people that knew what the demographics of the community were. We were concerned about whether it was going to be applicable to people.
For example, it said that you had to live together and we were worried that it might run afoul of marriage laws. I called my buddy at Harvard Law School, Alex Chen. We said that we needed to do something to help them. Maybe redraft this and repass it, and so we did. We got together, the six of us in the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, five lawyers and a therapist, my colleague Dr. Heath Schechinger, who works on polyamory and other kinds of relationship structures beyond marriage.
We got together with an awareness of what these families need. We made sure that it was drafted to include not just polyamory, but also platonic partnerships that didn’t require that you lived together. Also, it doesn’t have residency requirements, so people can come from other states and go get domestic partners there to more than one person. You can also be married to one person and get domestic partnered with the other. That is radical and the first time it has ever happened.
We’ve passed it in Somerville, Massachusetts, Cambridge, Massachusetts, also in the Boston area, and Arlington, Massachusetts. We’re working on our West Coast ordinances now. What we are able to do is have the ability to look at whatever the state and local law is, for example, in Massachusetts, but we’ve also been doing this in California and other places to make sure that an ordinance is drafted such that it’s not going to run afoul of state marriage laws and then get that passed.
One thing that people can be involved in is if you have a progressive city council, and it’s more likely to happen first in smaller places like Ithaca or New Paltz, New York rather than New York City. It’s possible and there’s a little bit of momentum in places like Berkeley, Oakland, and Santa Cruz in California. We need people to be contacting their city council members and saying, “Pass it. We want this passed. What can we do to have this passed?” Let them know it’s important to you.
We are making sure that although our name is Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition to make it simpler than a multi-partner domestic partnership that nobody understands, we are explicitly also supporting people who are solo and in platonic partnerships. We are partnering also with the Ace Community to make sure that we’re not only focusing on romantic relationships, and that we’re also covering non-discrimination for people who don’t have a family that looks like the way people might be expecting with the nuclear family.
With that, we passed the first non-discrimination ordinance in Somerville as well a few months ago. That would also be non-discrimination based on family status. We have these protected classes of discrimination. You can’t discriminate based on race, class, gender, religion, etc, and sexual orientation. This adds family status, not just if you’re polyamorous but if you’re single or in a platonic partnership, or if you’re in a chosen or non-nuclear family. That wouldn’t be a basis on which you could be fired from your job or told that you can’t talk about that at work. You’re told, “We won’t rent an apartment to you because of you’re three friends, and this doesn’t look like a family to us. This is a family house.” That couldn’t happen in that place.
That weighs outside of Somerville because of what we’ve been seeing in the same-sex partnership movement when you have those first domestic partnerships that happened in the ‘90s. That was a way that a same-sex couple could go and get legally registered and get their picture taken at City Hall. Suddenly, this gave a lot more cultural respect. Your employer, your parents, or your church might respect it. This is something that is a legally established family. Also, now that there’s the first law that you shouldn’t discriminate, we’re seeing that progressive employers are also considering now adding this to their employment policies.
If you work, for example, at a progressive company such as a tech company, contact me if you’re interested in possibly asking them to add to their employment policy that they wouldn’t discriminate based on family status, including either polyamory, being solo, or being in a platonic partnership. Right now, people still are feeling marginalized. There’s a concept called covering where many of us are hiding some part of ourselves at work due to shame. They’re feeling like, “I don’t want people to know that I’m half deaf, or my partner is half deaf.” That’s something that is an awkward thing to bring up sometimes even in a disability accommodation.
Not wanting people to know that I’m a single parent because they will think that maybe I’m not going to be working as hard, or I don’t have a husband and kids and I’m a woman at work and I’m not being able to fit in if all of the company activities are all related to Bring your Kids to Workday. Making sure that all of us are able to bring our whole selves to work. That’s something in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, that I think is an add-on to LGBTQ DEI work that I do. One way that people can be involved is to push their employers if they have the privilege of being in a progressive place toward adopting these kinds of non-discrimination policies.
Also if you live in a progressive blue dot city, see if maybe your city council would be open to passing this, and contact me to see whether perhaps that’s something that we could help pass in your city. Chosen Family Law Center is a nonprofit. We always need help with fundraising. Even if you can’t do that, follow us on social media and boost and say, “I’m solo or I’m in a platonic partnership and this is important to me,” spreading the message and saying, “Follow this group.”
We’re doing that legislative advocacy and also trying to raise public awareness. At some point then with the resources, hoping to do more of those kinds of classes for the lawyers and for the professionals to make sure that we get the culturally competent attorneys and therapists that we deserve if we are creating a family in some way beyond the romantic dyad.
What an incredible movement you’re not just part of but initiating, Diana.
Thank you. This is a worldwide movement right now. That’s something that’s incredibly exciting. In the past few months, a major political party in Germany has introduced the idea of a nationwide policy that would be equal to marriage. You could do this with any 2, 3, or 4 people, and they’re emphasizing it between platonic friends. Those people who are single and solo in Germany, for example, would be able to also get into a family arrangement. Once again, this brings together the interests of solo people and polyamorous people.
The same exact thing is happening that was introduced in India. They’re working on same-sex marriage in India. As I was often speaking up, “We need same-sex marriage but also, half of us don’t want to get married anyway. What about the rest of us?” There are activists in India who are presenting this as also an issue of people having the right to get recognized for the queer kinship groups that they’re already in.
As an issue for disabled people, many people who have different physical abilities may feel like they want a network of care. That’s something that’s beyond one person, and they may be forming caretaking relationships and need those caretaking relationships to be legally recognized. There’s the movement. What’s fascinating and beautiful to me is that the definition that I wrote in the US with my colleagues on this inclusive definition of family is nearly identical to what the activists in Germany and India wrote, and we didn’t coordinate that.
There are ground swell of people who are realizing that there are many of us who are not romantically partnered, whether by choice or not and that we need and deserve to be able to have a legal connection with a best friend if that’s the person we’re forming a family with. Those same people worldwide are getting together with polyamorous people and those in blended families who want to be able to share health insurance with their stepparents and recognize that this is a growing international movement. It’s not just something that is happening in Boston, San Francisco, and New York. This is something that’s happening worldwide.
Diana, I’m going to let you get back to your important work. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your expertise. This is incredibly exciting. I also think that the practical advice that you’ve given to the audience is going to land well.
Thank you so much, Peter. I’m so grateful for the work that you’re doing. I’m glad to be in movement with you.
- Chosen Family Law Center
- Diana Adams Law & Mediation
- Why US Laws Must Expand Beyond the Nuclear Family – Diana’s TED Talk
- Minimizing Marriage – past episode
- Minimizing Marriage
- National LGBTQ Bar Association
- Diana Adams – Twitter
About Diana Adams
Diana Adams is dedicated to the support of all families so that they can thrive, with the security of the legal protections they deserve. They are the founder of the Chosen Family Law Center, Inc. and their boutique LGBTQ family law and mediation firm Diana Adams Law & Mediation, PLLC. Both organizations serve primarily same-sex couples and non-nuclear families.
Diana is proud to be one of the New York State representatives for the selective national organization of leaders on LGBTQ family law, the LBGT Family Law Institute of The National LGBT Bar Association.