Category Archives: poly families

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?

Advertisements

“But What About the Children?!”

As a polyamorous parent, few things are as frustrating or as offensive to me as the “but what about the poor children?” argument against polyamory, which I hear far too frequently. As with similar objections to same-sex marriage, it seems to me that this argument is really just an excuse for passing judgment; when pressed as to why it matters how consenting adults choose to live their lives, talking about the children in non-traditional family settings is a way for opponents of such relationships to claim that there are in fact “innocent victims” here. I don’t believe that these folks are really concerned about the well-being of children so much as they’re desperately seeking to validate their own biases and criticisms. And, of course, it’s a good way to “go for the jugular,” so to speak, as it seems fairly universal (and understandable) that parents are highly sensitive to any accusation that their home environment is harmful to their children. No matter how baseless we know such accusations to be, they still sting.

That’s why I was pleased to see a couple different articles speaking favorably about poly parenting in recent weeks. In her Psychology Today Blog last month, Bella DePaulo discussed some of the results of research on poly families being conducted by Elisabeth Sheff, and made several points about poly parenting that I’ve found myself making time and again. For one, on the question of stability, DePaulo points out that single parents also date, creating potential for their romantic partners to move in and out of their children’s lives, but we do not see single parents criticized for dating; we recognize that children can form valuable and meaningful relationships with step-parents. She also quotes the research finding that children are equally likely to report feeling a loss of platonic friends who have, for one reason or another, moved out of their parents’ lives. And finally, she raises the question of whether polyamorous partners might be more likely to remain in a child’s life even after a romantic relationship has ended. Those two points certainly hit close to home for me; my daughter has become attached to several platonic friends who are now no longer in our lives. My ex-boyfriend, however, is still a close friend and a part of her life. The idea that polyamory offers any larger threat to stability in a child’s life than any of the myriad other varieties of relationships kids are exposed to simply seems without merit; after all, even family members sometimes have a catastrophic falling-out that ends relationships. We can’t possibly shelter our children from any and all possibility that close and trusted adults will pass out of their lives, whether we’re single parents who are dating, polyamorous parents who are dating, or even just monogamously partnered parents who include other humans in our children’s lives.

More recently, at Live Science, Stephanie Pappas wrote about debunking 5 polyamory myths—one being that polyamory is bad for children. Pappas sited Sheff’s research as well, and pointed out that one concern many poly parents have is about the stigma their children potentially face from the outside world. If I had one poly-related concern for my daughter, this would be it. We talk frequently about other people’s opposition to families like ours, and I adore that she often says things like “oh no, kids having more people who love them! How scary!” But I hate that such conversations are even necessary. I don’t worry at all about her being harmed by our happy, loving, stable family. But I do worry about her being harmed by the hateful attitudes of people who don’t approve of her family simply because it has a different shape than what’s considered “normal.”

I’m immensely appreciative of articles like these, and I hope that they’re the beginning of a turning tide of opinion about polyamorous parenting. And I’d also like to add one thing that neither article mentioned: the fact that poly parenting can have feminist potential as well. We all know that even in supposedly progressive heterosexual relationships, the bulk of the childcare burden still tends to fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. It seems to me that in order to truly change this, we’re going to have to rethink parenting in some drastic ways, to move beyond the male/female dyad. Polyamorous relationships open up the possibility of involving more adults in the raising of children, creating new potentials for more equitable distributions of child-rearing responsibilities. There are certainly other means of doing this: communal living and community resource sharing can allow for similar flexibilities in child-raising. And on the flipside, polyamorous parenting is of course not inherently feminist. But it seems to me worth noting that polyamory is at least one of the many ways we can think about taking a revolutionary approach to gender roles and responsibilities in parenthood.