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?