Henry & Mary & Janet & ...

  • To get to the home that April Divilbiss has shared with the two men she calls her husbands, you drive south on Interstate 55 from Memphis, Tenn., and cross the border into Mississippi. Then you double back along a little road that winds into a forlorn section of Memphis again. It's not just two states but several states of mind you end up traversing. That's because the family album under the TV in April's apartment contains snapshots not of a happy couple but of a devoted threesome. And baby makes four.

    April and Shane Divilbiss, who work as a stay-at-home mom and a computer technician, are legally married, but until recently Chris Littrell, a male nurse, lived with them too. No, the two guys don't go for each other; the triad tried a menage a trois once but stopped because Chris thought it was icky. Instead, they lived as man and wife and man, with April taking turns. Together they were raising April's toddler (from a previous relationship), earning a living and wondering how Shane could learn to manage his jealousy when he heard Chris having sex with their wife. Despite the obvious difficulties, until about a year ago, they had formed an odd but functional family.

    But now these three Southerners, all in their 20s, find themselves litigants in a legal mess and, consequently, martyrs of sorts for a fledgling movement. A year ago, a judge removed April's daughter Alana from the Divilbiss-Littrell home. The judge was acting on a petition from Alana's paternal grandmother arguing that the threesome's relationship revealed such "depravity" that it could "endanger the morals or health" of the little girl, a sunshiney four-year-old who prizes her Barbies. The grandmother took action after seeing the three discuss their lifestyle on an MTV program, Sex in the '90s: It's a Group Thing.

    More Americans than you might think are practicing what is commonly known as polygamy but what adherents prefer to call "polyamory": loving more than one person simultaneously and--this is crucial--openly. No one has taken a survey on polyamory, but as with many fringe movements, it has grown on the Web. "Ten years ago, there were maybe three support groups for polies," says Brett Hill, who helps run a magazine (circ. 10,000), a website (1,000 hits a month) and two annual conferences for an organization called Loving More. Today there are perhaps 250 polyamory support groups, mostly on the Internet but some that meet for potluck suppers. Sure, most of them are in such expected precincts as Boston and Los Angeles, but there are also outposts like KanPoly, where polyamorous residents of Kansas can meet others like themselves and even download a "poly pride flag."

    The poly community is rallying around April, Chris and Shane, whose case may provide the tale of injustice every movement needs. The case could well be the first of its kind; it's surely the first to debate explicitly the worthiness of polies as parents. The roots of the movement, however, reach back to the communes of the mid-1800s and their flower-children descendants a century later. The poly family is usually smaller than a commune and more committed than a swingers' group--though polyamorists insist on the prerogative of each family to set its own rules about fidelity, as long as everyone is honest. Polies tend to be an exceedingly earnest bunch, and many describe what they practice as "responsible nonmonogamy." During a recent Loving More conference, an organizer pointedly noted that "Loving More does not mean 'f______ more.'"

    So what is it that polyamorists want? Until the Divilbiss case, they had few political goals, and even now their mission is mostly social. Basically, they want to convince us that the politics of the heart doesn't have to be governed by a one-party system. "If you are married, but you meet someone in the office you fall in love with, what do you do?" asks Hill. Most of us have to give up someone. "But that's so painful. People destroy themselves, destroy their families over that. All I'm saying is, we have choices."

    April, Chris and Shane found out the hard way. Chris served as Shane's best man at Shane and April's 1996 wedding. But Chris and April quickly bonded, and by January 1997, April knew she was in love--again. It was tough to keep her feelings bottled up, and she didn't want to cheat, so she told Shane that she and Chris were in love. It was Valentine's Day.

    Chris thought Shane would shoot him. Instead, they went to a Waffle House for a long talk. Eventually, they returned to April and announced that they wanted to try a live-in threesome. April says philosophically that she and Shane "just knew that if we didn't try this, we would have lost one of our best friends just because of modern stereotypes and jealousy and social conditioning." The arrangement was difficult but manageable. But the judge handling the grandmother's petition said one of the men had to move out before he would consider returning Alana. The case has dragged on for months. Divilbiss's lawyer Asa Hoke (whose fees are being paid with Loving More's help) hopes to persuade the court to change its mind since Chris has now moved. Hoke has also appealed the decision on constitutional grounds, arguing that parents should be able to raise their kids without undue interference.

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