Monthly Archives: February 2013

Q&A time!

Since my stats tell me I have a healthy number of readers (thank you!!), I’m going to give this a shot.

If you have a question about polyamory–especially (but not limited to) one that’s related to the sort of stuff this blog has focused on–that you’d like to see answered/discussed here, either leave it in a comment here, or drop me an email at angi.becker.stevens@gmail.com and put “Poly Q&A” in the subject line. Hopefully, I’ll have enough of a response to choose a question or two to answer in the coming days.

Thanks in advance for participating, and feel free to spread the word to anyone you know who might be interested.

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Polyamory and Other Horrors

Recently, National Organization for marriage ally and “ex-gay therapy” supporter Robert Gagnon reacted in horror to the suggestion that straight, Christian students should attend Gay Straight Alliance meetings, and compared GSAs to “Nazi skinheads,” a “women abusers advocacy society,” and–what else?–“polyamory appreciation groups.”

Obviously, the main issue with Gagnon’s statement is that it’s absurdly, disgustingly bigoted toward  LGBTQ youth. But it’s kind of amusing to me the regularity with which polyamory is used by the right–along with things like Nazism and violence against women–as a more extreme form of depravity to compare to homosexuality. I remember when President Obama declared June “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month,” the conservative Illinois Family Institute released a statement saying that if we were to consider a similar “polyamory appreciation day,” it would highlight the absurdity of the President’s declaration (a link to the statement no longer appears to be available). And if I had a dime for every time I read a phrase along the lines of “gay marriage will lead to things like bestiality, pedophilia, and polyamory,” I would be a wealthy woman (for one laughable example, see Glenn Beck’s lovely little visual explanation of “the slippery slope” from back in 2009).

These things would all be simply good for a laugh, if not for the fact that they genuinely do seem to fuel anti-poly sentiment even on the left. When same-sex marriage and gay rights advocates constantly hear polyamory tossed in with things like bestiality and incest as comparisons to same-sex relationships, too often they respond by lashing out against polyamory and reiterating why it is nothing at all like homosexuality. And while obviously there are tons of LGBTQ folks who support–and practice–polyamory, I’ve also seen plenty truly nasty anti-poly comments from gay and lesbian folks who are appalled by any comparison between LGBTQ rights and polyamory, even when those comparisons are coming from a favorable perspective.

It seems to me that a very uncomplicated place to draw the line in the “slippery slope” is at consent. Bestiality and pedophilia are, by their very nature, not consensual relationships between two (or more) adults. But if openness to same-sex marriage and a wider acceptance of same-sex relationships in general really does lead us to consider the possibility of recognizing and respecting other forms of relationships between humans who are able to give meaningful consent, is that really so horrifying? Or is that what real progress looks like?

One of these days, when polyamory is deployed as an “extreme” comparison to same-sex relationships, it would be nice to read some commentary that first calls out the bigotry, but also says “and while we’re at it, stop lumping polyamory in with things like Nazism/bestiality/whatever.” We should all be allies here, not letting the extreme right turn us into enemies.

On Coming Out of the Poly Closet

One of the primary features of compulsory monogamy is that we live in a society where alternatives to monogamy are rendered invisible. Compulsory heterosexuality once functioned in much the same way; the impossibility of openly discussing non-normative sexual orientations and desires made it impossible to form gay and lesbian communities outside of a few major metropolitan cities. Queer folks were isolated, quite possibly unaware that there was anyone else like them in the world. When you see no visible examples of alternatives to the status quo, it is much more difficult to forge your own path outside of the socially constructed norm. And that’s a huge reason why “coming out” was initially conceived of as being a radical act. In a world that imagined homosexuality as nothing more than a kind of depraved sexual deviance, simply saying “I exist, this is who I am, I’m a human being” was, and to some degree still is, a revolutionary act for queer people.

 

I mention this bit of history not because I think it’s new information to most people, but because I think it’s worth considering how it compares to the current state of compulsory monogamy in our society, and I want to pose the question of whether being out and poly is also a radical–and perhaps necessary–act. By and large, the world does not even realize we exist. This matters because it’s far more challenging for people to accept and respect our relationships when they’re starting from a place of absolute shock and confusion about the way we’re living our lives; in order for the public to form any positive opinions about polyamory, they have to first know that it exists, and that the people doing it are human beings just like everyone else. But it also matters because people cannot be truly free to form relationships in the way they desire unless they can see that there are options. When monogamy appears to be the only way to form a lasting romantic relationship, people don’t have “choices” in any meaningful sense of the word.

 

Even within poly circles, though, there’s often a reluctance to encourage others to be “out.” The topic of being openly poly is treated with extreme caution, as if coming out is an incredibly perilous endeavor. While I respect the personal choice of whether to be out or not, and wouldn’t advocate any kind of tactics of forced outings, I’d like to go on the record here as saying that I am encouraging others to come out of the poly closet, and I think it’s vital to our future that as many of us as possible do so. And in that spirit, I’d like to offer a little deconstruction of the arguments most often given against coming out.

 

If you’re a parent, you will risk losing custody of your children.

I have heard this one more times than I can possibly count, and it is repeated with such gravity that one can practically be made to feel like the very act of coming out itself is a reckless and irresponsible parenting choice. But the reality? No one in the U.S. has ever had their children removed from the home by government agencies as a result of being polyamorous. Polyamory certainly has factored into decisions made in custody battles between parents (and once in a case of a grandmother suing for custody, though polyamorous relationships were one factor of many behind the suit). But family custody-cases are simply a whole other animal; many aspects of parents’ personal lives and behavior are scrutinized in family court, and many things can skip the scales in a custody battle that would never be used as grounds for placing a child in state custody. In Oregon, there has even been a case of third-parent adoption by a poly family, where two men and one women are all recognized as the legal parents of their children. Of course, the majority of the country is not as progressive as Oregon. But if nothing else, this case sets a precedent that would make it very unlikely for a judge to rule that a child must be removed from a home on the basis of polyamorous relationships alone. To summarize: if you’re facing a divorce and a custody battle with a non-poly-approving spouse, you might be better off keeping your relationships under wraps. But otherwise, you can probably feel secure that you are not endangering your children by coming out.

 

People don’t need to know about “what happens in the bedroom.”

This one seems to come up every time someone asks if folks are out or not on a poly message board or discussion list, and I always find it puzzling. I guess if one’s polyamory is strictly about sexual relationships, there’s no need to broadcast that to the world. But to me, being out doesn’t have anything to do with what goes on between the sheets. It’s about recognizing and validating both of my partners as just that: my partners. The important thing is that these are both men I’m sharing my life with, and I want them both to be seen that way by my friends and family. Yes, I have sex with both of them, but if people want to fixate on that aspect of our rela tionships, then that’s their hang-up, not mine. I can’t imagine a monogamous person in a long-term, serious relationship saying “I’m just going to tell everyone she’s my friend, not my girlfriend, because they don’t need to know what happens in the bedroom.” People have an unfortunate tendency to hyper-focus on sex when they’re confronted with alternative relationships. That doesn’t mean that being openly poly means you’re oversharing personal sexual detail.

 

You’ll face social stigma, and risk being ostracized by your family and peers.

This one, unfortunately, is in fact a real concern. But the whole point is that coming out and being visible and standing up for ourselves and our relationships is perhaps the only real hope we have of changing that. Don’t get me wrong, being judged and disrespected, having your treasured personal relationships–that you know to be happy and healthy–labeled as meaningless and morally depraved, really sucks, to put it bluntly. And it sucks even more when it comes from people you care deeply about. And I’d be lying if I said you aren’t risking those experiences by coming out. In fact, I’d be surprised if there are many people who are openly poly who don’t have at least a hand full of those frustrating, painful experiences with family and friends. But deep down, do you really want approval that comes only from hiding who you are and who you love? People, after all, can only become more comfortable with the idea of polyamory if they know that it exists. And sometimes, realizing that a loved one is living this “horrible” way is exactly what it takes for someone to realize that it might not be so horrible after all.

 

Being visible is only the first tiny step on a long road toward wide-spread recognition of alternatives to monogamy. But I believe it’s a vital step, one we can’t conceivably move forward without. I hope we can start dispelling some of the fear about coming out as poly. And I hope, if you’re in the poly closet and reading this, it feels like a pep talk of sorts. Dealing with the confines of the society we currently live in can certainly be unpleasant, to put it lightly. But that’s exactly why a different society is worth speaking out and fighting for. Join me, won’t you?

Hello out there…

I’m interested in doing some kind of Q & A type post here on a regular basis, probably weekly, but not sure if there are enough of you out there reading (yet!) for such a thing to work. If you’re reading, and especially if you’d be interested in a weekly feature like that, would you mind dropping me a comment on this post? Thanks!

Will Poly Marriage Ever Be on the Agenda?

Over at The Stranger recently, Mistress Matisse wrote a piece about why poly marriage is never going to happen. She began by discussing the legal complications of poly marriage, and then went on to talk about her own personal feelings about whether poly marriage is desirable. I found plenty to agree with there; I’ve written about my own uncertain feelings about poly marriage–and whether or not we want it–in the past. And in fact, I have rather complicated feelings about the institution of marriage in general. Honestly, I would rather see marriage completely de-institutionalized. But it’s impossible to deny the fact that marriage does currently offer a tremendous number of benefits to those who enter into it, and equally impossible to fault anyone for wanting the legal protections for their relationships that marriage provides. I’ve read some really excellent critiques of the fight for same-sex marriage equality written by radical queer folks, and there’s so much I respect and relate to within those critiques. But personally, I always come back to the idea that it should–unless we do away with legal marriage entirely–be a matter of personal choice. I agree wholeheartedly with critics who argue that same-sex marriage needn’t be such a central issue for LGBTQ activism, and that fighting for things like housing, employment, and health care equalities for queer folks belong on the center-stage. But I still can’t bring myself to say that marriage equality is meaningless.

It is in that frame of mind, then, that I consider the possibilities of polyamorous marriage equality. Mistress Matisse is probably correct that there will never be a strong enough push for it from the poly community, and she’s certainly right that it would bring up a new set of legal questions about how such marriages are defined. But I have to say that I disagree with her personal reasoning for concluding that poly marriage will never happen. I respect and can empathize the reasons why she would never choose marriage. But that doesn’t have to translate to making that choice for everyone else. Myself, as someone who is in more than one “for the long haul” relationship, who will soon be cohabiting with both of my partners, I’d be lying if I said I never feel frustrated by the fact that one of my relationships is granted more legal rights and protections than the other. I don’t know for certain that I would make the choice to legally marry my other partner, but I do know I would rather that choice was mine to make (at least, in the context of the current system of marriage we live with). And I know other poly families who would definitely choose legal marriage if they had the option. As long as at least some folks want it, I think it’s unreasonable to completely rule out the possibility that poly marriage might at some point be worth fighting for.

At the moment, I think we’ve got enough work to do just trying to be recognized and de-stigmatized in our communities; poly-marriage, if it’s ever an issue we take seriously, is many years away. But the same could have been said in the not so distant past about the status of gay and lesbian folks in our society. We have a long way to go before there’s even a remote possibility of poly-marriage achieving the necessary public support, and I’d honestly prefer to see the rights and privileges of all legal marriage stripped away before that day comes. But I do want to someday live in a world where relationships like mine are seen as equally real and valid as monogamous ones, regardless of where we all stand in the legal sense.

In closing her piece, Mistress Matisse states: “To be polyamorous is to let your heart grow to hold many loving relationships that come in different shapes and sizes. Once you’ve learned to do that, why would you try to squeeze it back down into a pattern built for two?” I think that’s a really meaningful sentiment, and I also think we have to resist the temptation to “water down” our relationships, to try to make them more palatable to a society that’s more ready and willing to accept the relationships that more closely resemble the accepted norm. But I think there will always be some of us who legitimately desire relationships that look a little more “normal,” even when we’re outside the bounds of monogamy. Personally, my goal isn’t to deviate as much as possible from the normative. My goal is just to live and form relationships in a way that’s authentically right for me and my partners, and to try to create a world where others are free to do the same. Real marriage equality, to me, would mean that all consenting adults had access to the same kinds of recognition and protections for their families–however they choose to form them, however they choose to define them, and however many people they include. Anything short of that will, in my opinion, never be “equal” enough.

Poly Basics: What is Polyamory, Anyway?

By its most basic definition, polyamory is the practice of engaging in more than one simultaneous romantic relationship, with the full knowledge and consent of all involved. But one of the most awesome and also the most challenging things about polyamory is that there is no one way to do it. Unlike traditional relationships, there is also no simple social script to follow, no built-in notion of what it means to be someone’s girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse. Stepping outside of the normal model forces everyone involved in poly relationships to communicate very clearly about what their desires and expectations are within in the relationship. By its very nature, polyamory resists a simple and singular definition.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that sometimes debate rages about what the word “polyamory” means. Personally, I’m not a big fan of trying to tell other people how they can and cannot identify themselves. At the same time, though, I do think there’s a point at which it matters for a word to have a clear meaning, especially when people are fighting for acceptance and awareness of a particular identity. Some people use the word “polyamory” as a catch-all to include all kinds of (open and honest) non-monogamous practices; others feel it should be reserved only for those maintaining multiple serious, committed relationships, and should never include “casual” sex. Myself, I tend to favor more expansive definitions rather than restrictive ones. But there is a place where I feel a need to draw a line in the sand.

By my definition, “polyamory” means that there is at least the possibility of non-monogamous relationships becoming something more than strictly sexual. I don’t think that means all relationships must necessarily be of the emotionally intimate, committed variety in order to claim the label “polyamorous;” just like people who are ultimately interested in monogamous relationships, people in poly relationships are human beings with a wide range of sexual/romantic interests and desires–we’re not all just looking to fall madly in love and settle down at all points in our lives. The only type of non-monogamous relationship I’m willing to exclude from the polyamory camp is the kind of relationship where people are only permitted to seek sex–not love–outside of their existing relationship.

It’s important to be clear, though, that excluding some kinds of relationships from the definition of polyamory doesn’t mean that I think they’re somehow inferior, they’re simply a different flavor of non-monogamy. Plenty of people have arrangements like this, where they’re allowed to be sexually non-monogamous but not to develop any romantic emotional attachments to their other sexual partners. I’m all for such arrangements as long as they work well and are fulfilling for everyone involved; I’m strongly supportive of any circumstances where people manage to negotiate the relationship terms that work best for their particular needs and desires. I certainly don’t believe in privileging any one form of non-monogamy over any other–we should all be allies in advocating for the ability to form relationships however we see fit. But I also believe it can be useful to acknowledge and identify the differences in our various non-monogamous practices while still being respectful and supportive of one another.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that if someone you know or are interested in becoming involved with identifies as polyamorous, you can’t simply rely on an assumption about precisely what that means. Personally, I’m in two committed, long-term relationships, neither of which I see as “primary” over the other. In poly-lingo, our relationship is called a “V” with me at the vertex and my two partners at the ends; the word “triad” typically refers to situations where all 3 folks are romantically involved with one another. Some poly folks have “closed” agreements–often called “poly-fidelity”–that that they will not date or become intimate with others outside of a committed group of 3 or 4 (or more). Some maintain a “primary” relationship–often a marriage–as well as other “secondary” relationships which are emotionally attached but less central to their lives. And these are just a few common examples. Ultimately, if you want to know exactly what polyamory means to someone in your life, the best thing to do is ask. I can’t speak for all of us, but I can’t imagine any poly folks would be offended by a genuine attempt at deeper understanding.

“There is an Agenda Here”

We must be doing something right if we’re on the conservatives’ list of threats to traditional family values. Over at conservative “news” site The National Review, blogger Wesley J. Smith has sounded the alarm about “the push to normalize polyamory.” Smith’s cause for panic is an article that recently appeared in Live Science and was syndicated to several reputable news outlets, such as Scientific American. Amusingly, Smith doesn’t really have much to say on the topic himself. Instead, he merely presents a lengthy quote from the article in question–a quote about how even monogamous folks could perhaps learn some things from how poly people manage issues such as jealousy and communication–as if the horrors of it are obvious enough to speak for themselves, no further commentary necessary. Smith adds only: “There is an agenda here. Let the normalization begin!”

I’m rather amused by the timing of this statement, personally, as it comes mere days after I named this blog and vowed to share my radical agenda with the world. Conservatives might toss around the word “agenda” as an insult, but I’m wearing my agenda with pride, and doing my part to make sure Smith’s fears are actually realized. A world where it’s perfectly acceptable for people to be in multiple romantic relationships at the same time, where no one bats an eye at people choosing to structure their intimate lives in any number of different ways? A world where people enter into monogamy only as a result of conscious choice? A world where families like mine are recognized as valid and treated with respect?

Let the normalization begin, indeed.