Category Archives: poly activism

Further Thoughts on DOMA and Polyamory

It's only when you marry two goats that things really get out of hand (via Cyanide & Happiness).

It’s only when you marry two goats that things really get out of hand (via Cyanide & Happiness).

As promised, I’d like to elaborate (ramble) a bit now about my thoughts on poly marriage and DOMA.

I’ve always responded to the slippery-slope argument by asserting that poly marriage is not, in fact, anything to be terrified of. I’ve occasionally seen responses from other poly folks that are more along the lines of “everyone should calm down, we’re not interested in marriage right now, anyway.” That might be true, but it’s not really the line I’m interested in taking when it comes to defending the idea of poly marriage. My point has always been that from an ethical perspective, you can’t defend same-sex marriage and then not extend that thinking to plural marriage as well. As for pedophilia and bestiality, it feels absurd that I should even have to point this out, but it seems pretty simple to draw the line at consenting adult humans being free to marry one another. Children and goats are not capable of meaningful consent. Now, some people argue that adult women in fundamentalist polygamy type situations aren’t really provided with the opportunity to give meaningful consent, either. But unfortunately, the same thing is true for a lot of women in fundamentalist religious monogamous marriages as well, and we don’t use that as a reason to throw marriage out all together. The fact that some plural marriages, like plenty of monogamous marriages, happen in a problematic way is not a moral argument against the entire institution. I don’t believe that poly marriage is right around the corner. But if I’m going to defend the ethical implications of it, I’m going to do so in a way that says “if this happened tomorrow, so what? Have you stopped and thought about whether there’s really anything ethically different about this than about monogamous marriage, gay or straight?”

I think that the repeal of DOMA does pave the way in our general direction at least in the ethical sense. I’m inclined to agree with law professor Mark Goldfeder, quoted in USA Today as saying: “It’s one hundred percent likely that these polygamist cases will come, but they will no longer turn on whether a relationship is immoral. The court will look at whether these relationships cause third party harm.” Of course, my personal dividing line of whether or not something is immoral is really no different than the question of whether it causes third party harm. But that aside, I think Goldfeder makes a good point. I think that when polygamist cases are brought before courts in the future, the DOMA decision will have some impact on the outcome. And unlike Wesley Pruden at the Washington Times, I think that’s a positive thing.

While I am all for boldly asserting the ethical acceptability of poly marriage, though, and also genuinely hopeful that either poly marriage will come to pass or the whole government-marriage business will be disbanded one day, I am not particularly interested in placing marriage at the center of poly activism.

Part of my reluctance to place marriage rights at the forefront is really similar to the critiques of the assimilationist nature of the same-sex marriage movement. While a lot of us poly folks (myself included) do have two or more “marriage-like” relationships, a lot of us don’t. Plenty of poly people choose to share a home with only one–or even zero!–partners. Plenty of us who do have two or more cohabiting, life-committed partners also have other lovers outside of that. Part of the beauty of polyamory is its ability to take many different forms, to be many different things, to reject very narrow preconceived molds of what romantic, intimate relationships should look like. And I’m afraid that if marriage becomes our central focus, we’ll put forth a public image of poly that erases all of that wonderful, liberatory variation.

Another concern I have is about the narrowness of marriage as a focus. I address this at a bit more length in a piece that’s forthcoming soon over at Modern Poly, but to put it briefly, I think that if we really look at what compulsory monogamy is and where it comes from in our society, we can talk about patriarchy. We can talk about capitalism. And I feel like we can say “you know, I really just want to marry two people and live in the suburbs” and leave it at that. Or we can have these conversations about radically challenging the dominant power structures. And I think we can do both of these things at the same time; I’m living with my partners in the suburbs, after all. But I think if we allow marriage to become the entirety of the conversation, we’re really missing out on a much larger and more important opportunity to situate ourselves as part of a broader system of hierarchies and oppressions.

I know that in the wake of the DOMA ruling, we’re going to be called on a lot by people from all over the political spectrum to talk about our own feelings about marriage. It’s potentially a great opportunity. I just hope we can make sure the conversation is a nuanced and inclusive one.

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?

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.