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?

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13 thoughts on “On Coming Out of the Poly Closet

    1. Angi Post author

      Certainly! There are all kinds of things to discuss about why we’re living with this structure of compulsory monogamy, from religion to patriarchy to the way that the isolated nuclear family serves the current economic structure. I definitely didn’t mean for this post to go in depth into the roots of compulsory monogamy, though that’s definitely something I intend to do on this blog in the future!

      Thanks for reading.

      Reply
    2. Lilybeck

      Do you mean polytheistic vs monotheistic, or polygamy vs monogamy? The FLDS is monotheistic, yet is notorious for the abuses of its polygamous lifestyle.

      Reply
  1. Roxanne

    I am not in the closet about anything. Maybe it’s because I am lucky enough to have grown up in a family that – when they suspected that I was in a lesbian relationship with my best friend and i wasn’t – rather than ask me about it, they just accepted it. I had no idea until a couple years later when I got married that my family was so used to thinking I was a lesbian that they were actually shocked that I wasn’t, lol! When I started learning about pagan traditions, my family – who by the way are mostly lutheran and fairly religious – never once said a discouraging word. (This is not to paint the picture that everything was rosy in my family, just that they are pretty accepting.) As a result, I have told them that I am a nudist and while that shocked them, they ultimately shrugged. I’ve also talked a lot about how I think ALL marriages should be open! They mostly ignore this bit, lol!

    My point is that I am out there. I am not ashamed of any of my weirdnesses and I don’t hide them. I talk about them with everyone I meet at some point. SO… either I haven’t met any of those who would actively make my life miserable due to my beliefs OR people have reached a point where they just smile and ignore anything they don’t like. I think it helps that I am always considerate and nice. I don’t start arguments, and if someone tries to argue with me, I tend to logically and calmly present my side of the story until they calm down.

    So, from my perspective, the social stigma is not such a big thing. But I can see how it could be in other areas populated by less open people. My hope is that the world will become a place where people can live however they choose without others trying to stop them or shame them for being different. I think it’s going to take a pretty tough revolution though. We’ve allowed the government to silently take away all of our rights until we no longer have the choice to drink farm fresh milk without the farmer being arrested. By the time we win back our freedom to live off the grid if we want, I think things like poly or even LBGT will no longer be an issue. People will be far too concerned with preserving they way that want to live to be concerned with telling others what to do. Just my thoughts on it 🙂
    Have a happy day,
    Roxanne

    Reply
  2. Poly

    My wife and I tried to come out as poly about 5 years ago but ended up getting a lot of flack from friends and family. Our families thought we were ruining our marriage even though we’ve been happily married for almost 20 years — longer than anyone else in either of our families. They assumed we were swingers and it was all about sex. It took us a long time to figure out who we both were and how we luckily happened to find each other. She has a long-term boyfriend and I’m single. I had a girlfriend for a while but it didn’t work out because she became jealous.

    The few people that we’ve allowed into our personal lives now ask if I think it’s fair or right that she has a boyfriend but I don’t have a girlfriend… like I’m trying to earn merit badges like a Polyamory Scout. To us, this isn’t about just being open in our relationship, it’s about being open to new ideas, new experiences and new people. I’m open to whatever may come my way. I’m truly free. I also have the love of a wonderful woman who also feels very open and free. If I meet the right person and we click then I know I can pursue it with a clear conscience. My wife wants me to find a girlfriend and so do I, but I don’t want to rush it, which is a mistake I made at first that I think new Poly couples make. They want to exercise their new freedom and rush into something with someone who may only THINK they’re ready.

    I knew my girlfriend was having trouble the first time she asked “if you’re happily married then why did you want to go out with me?” I tried to explain it but she was too locked into a monogamous mindset that she would constantly ask if my wife was getting angry or jealous. I patiently explained that she wasn’t and that she would even like to speak to her. They chatted some online so my wife could help eliminate any bad feelings but it just didn’t work out. I had to break things off with her because no matter how I tried I couldn’t get her to understand that I wasn’t cheating on my wife and that I would never leave my wife to be with her. Sad.

    I feel bad for monogamous couples that think it’s ok to cheat on their spouses as long as they don’t find out. Out of sight, out of mind until you get caught. If you can let go of jealousy and fear then it all becomes pretty easy. It’s natural for me and I’m very thankful for that. One of my favorite quotes is: “When jealousy rears up, it indicates that something inside of you is afraid. It’s an alarm, nothing less and nothing more. Treat it as such.” ― Anthony D. Ravenscroft

    Fear ends more relationships than anything else. Don’t be afraid.

    Reply
    1. Roxanne

      My husband and I both thought that this was a really well thought out and sweet comment. One of my BIGGEST pet peeves is that people get so upset when their significant other “cheats.” (I use the term in quotes because I do not believe cheating is a bad thing. I think it is a natural thing with a history as long as having sex.) I personally think that if women could just understand that occasionally a man NEEDS something different, and that it isn’t a sign that he doesn’t love her, then society would be a whole lot less dramatic and judgmental. (Fyi, I’m not trying to say women never cheat. Just that women tend to be the ones starting world war III when they find out about it.)

      Reply
      1. Angi Post author

        I have to disagree strongly that there are worse reactions to men cheating than women cheating. Given the kind of “slut-shaming” and general prohibition around women’s sexuality that we live with, I think that it’s generally viewed as a MUCH greater transgression when a woman cheats; when a man cheats, his partner may be devastated, but much of society condones it with a “boys will be boys” attitude. The next post I’m working on is about the historically gendered double-standard of monogamy, wherein fidelity has been absolutely demanded of women while men have been implicitly or explicitly entitled to sex outside of marriage.

        I’m clearly no fan of sexual repression, but I’m also skeptical of polyamory happening on the basis of men not having their sexual needs met. I do believe that people are entitled to be in monogamous relationships if they choose to do so, and would hate to encourage a paradigm in which women have to just accept their male partners’ other sexual relationships if those relationships are causing them pain. It’s a fine line to walk, but I want to advocate for polyamory without supporting patriarchal notions that men have a particular entitlement to sex with a variety of women.

      2. Roxanne

        Apparently I expressed myself badly. I was trying to say that I do not think there ever is such a thing as cheating because I am very pro-poly. I think that what others call cheating is simply a biological function. It’s a need that must be met, and mostly it’s not even a sexual need; it’s a craving for something different from time to time. It’s a craving from something new and exciting.

        I think that if EVERYONE was taught to view such behavior as commonplace – meaning that it doesn’t have to be kept a secret because it’s only natural after all – that it would no longer cause drama and strife. Or at least not as much.

        I also agree that people who want monogamy should have it. But I also think that they need to talk about it frequently to make sure both partners needs are being met. My last comment about women more likely to start a war over cheating is a reflection that women have been taught over the past few years that – rather than claim their sexual freedom as a good thing – they must hold their men to the same repressive standards. I hate that! I think that all cheating – male or female – should be discussed the same as any other problem, as something that can and should be worked out. (In most situations. I realize that there are times when cheating is a symptom of a lack of respect or a way to control the other partner.)

        In other words, I do not condone letting men off the hook because they are men just being men. I simply think that ending a longstanding relationship because one partner strayed once (or even a couple of times) is NOT a good idea. If I could coach that couple, I would advise working it out. I hope I explained myself better this time 🙂

    2. Angi Post author

      Sounds like you’re in a very similar position to my husband and I; people view it as somehow unfair and unbalanced that I have two partners and he only has one. But the point is that we’re all equally free to do as we choose. If the right thing comes along for him someday that will be great, but it’s all about allowing things to happen naturally, not forcing anything out of some idea of artificial “equity.” Equity in our relationship means that we are equally free to pursue the relationships we authentically desire, not that we will always want precisely the same things.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Reply
  3. Iris

    I know this is kind of an old post to comment on, but I just found your blog!

    I wanted to add two factors here, because I’ve been having a lot of soulsearching about the outness question recently but I can’t really do it:

    Social stigma may mean loss of income. As you say, social stigma is a real problem, but you don’t touch on employability. There are some specific fields where this could be a real issue…anything with kids, anything with vague ‘ethics’ pledges…but especially if you’re likely to be on the job market, or already are, being poly could be a huge disadvantage. One metamour tells me if I got fired for being poly, I’d have a great case for a lawsuit. But I don’t want a lawsuit, I want a job, and in the meantime, I wouldn’t have one…and that’s assuming the lawsuit worked, since it certainly isn’t an explicitly protected identity!

    It’s not just my decision. Even if I decided I wanted to be out, my outing would affect the rest of my group, and not all of them are onboard with that. It ends up being one of those boundary things, where you respect the needs of the person with the most restrictive boundaries. Part of my group would love to be out, but part of my group has too much at stake right now to consider it, so we are in the closet. And despite all my feelings of social responsibility to be out, that’s where I’m staying.

    Reply
  4. Iris

    P.S. I love your blog and I’m so glad to have found it! I love thoughtful feminist writing on polyamory!

    Reply
    1. Angi Post author

      Thank you!

      Loss of employment is definitely something to consider, and I do respect that not everyone feels the same ability to be out. But I do think there are often sorts of middle grounds in such scenarios. I’ve known gay and lesbian elementary school teachers in conservative districts some years ago, for example, who could not have been out at work for fear of losing their jobs. But they were not at all what I would consider closeted outside of work; they were quite out to all of their friends and family, had perfectly active social lives where they hid from no one, etc. Sometimes I think with social networking putting our lives on display to the extent that it does, people have a tendency to view being out as a bit more “all or nothing” than it necessarily has to be. Ultimately it’s a very personal decision, of course, and I would also certainly never suggest that anyone out a partner who doesn’t want to be outed. But I do find it a little disheartening how frequently poly folks seem to actively discourage others from coming out, and I like to offer an alternative to that 🙂

      Reply
  5. Iris

    Your “all or nothing” observation makes a lot of sense! I have found being out to friends is far easier than to family, and it makes a strangely big difference to how I feel in a group whether everyone knows. Not being out with my friends would just wither me, I think! And social networks are really the big concern: it means not being out to anyone you don’t have time/opportunity to fill in on the degree of your closet, which has oddly left us closeted in some really poly-friendly environments.

    Reply

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