Tag Archives: coming out

The Value of Personal Narratives

Since my personal essay about my family was published at Salon a few days ago, numerous people have called me “brave.” I greatly appreciate the sentiment, though it feels incredibly strange that simply talking about my family should be considered an act of bravery. I would be lying, though, if I said that writing and publishing the piece was not a little terrifying. Salon has a large audience, and I knew that I was going to be exposing a lot of people to the inner-workings of a poly family for the very first time. I worried a lot about how my words might be misinterpreted, and whether or not readers would truly believe that my partners are happy. I wished there was some magical way I could really offer a people a window to see how loving and peaceful and healthy my family is. And I knew that no matter how hard I tried, the comments would be full of hate and personal attacks.

But I did it anyway.

When I was still living monogamously, suffering from depression and trying to choose between the unbearable pain of losing my husband and the equally unbearable pain of never being free to love another, it is no exaggeration to say that the personal stories of other poly people saved me. I knew that I believed in polyamory in theory. But it was only through reading personal narratives–the personal stories in Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up; Jenny Block’s Open; Scott, Terisa, Matt, Vera, and Larry’s story in Newsweek–as well as having conversations with another human being who desired polyamory, that began to make me feel less crazy and less alone. And when I was having those difficult early conversations with my husband, it was those personal narratives I gave him to read. He didn’t need any convincing that poly sounded great in theory. What he needed was proof that were actual people, actually making it work in practice (and, as something of an amusing side-note, hateful internet comments on some of those stories were the very thing that made my husband certain he was comfortable with a poly relationship, as he found himself reading those comments and feeling protective and defensive of the articles’ poly subjects… way to go, nasty comment-makers!). I truly, honestly would not have the live I have today–the life I love more than I ever thought I could love life–had it not been for others sharing their stories.

Now that I am so fortunate as to be happily and comfortably settled in a stable poly family, sharing my own story feels like the least I can do for people who are struggling like I once was. Of course, I want to help humanize poly folks to society at large, and help educate the general public about our relationships and our families. But far more than that, I want to be that example that helps someone out there who is hurting and feeling trapped and who doesn’t know that it’s possible to live the way they dream of living. That’s why it’s worthwhile to me. Because if no one else had been willing to do that before me, I shudder to even think about what my life would be like right now.

As a final note on the topic, I just want to say that in spite of all the nasty comments, the support I’ve received has been overwhelming. I’ve received emails from strangers, messages and texts and facebook comments from friends who I’ve never really discussed poly with before who have told me how much they appreciated the essay, and kind words from both fellow poly activists and fellow writers as well. To everyone who has kindly commented, re-tweeted, re-posted, and “liked” my essay: thank you. In a world with so little validation and acceptance for my family, your support means more than you know.

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Q & A: How to Explain the Choice to Identify as a Non-Monogamous Couple

Disclaimer: all answers given here are the opinions of one person. There is no one correct way to “do” poly, nor is there one correct way to conceptualize it.

Q: With our open relationship status we are free to date, sleep with, fall in love with whoever we want but we both work full time and its hard to find time to meet new people, especially ones who would be open to a poly relationship. We’ve tried swing parties and online dating to no avail. We have kind of realized that we have to let things happen naturally and it may take a long time to find someone who would be a perfect fit for an additional partner for either of us or for a third in our relationship, which, although is frustrating sometimes, it’s ok because we don’t want to rush anything and we want it to feel right when it happens but my question is: When we tell friends, family, acquaintances that we are in an open relationship but they see we have been going strong for a year but we don’t do that much dating and we don’t have a third person in our relationship, they often say “Well why don’t you just be monogamous then?” Which either leads to me trying to explain Third wave feminism, patriarchy, the messed up-ness of “Ownership” of a person and all sorts of other complicated ideals that I may not be in the mood to explain and a lot of the time I end up getting tongue tied but I still want them to understand all of those things. So, like, is there a nice, easy reply to that question?

A: First of all, I can relate a lot to your situation. My husband and I spent around 7 months as “just us” in-between the time I dated my ex-boyfriend and began dating my boyfriend, and we still absolutely considered our relationship polyamorous in that time. I wasn’t one for actively seeking another partner myself, and was content to wait for it to happen naturally. But it was still extremely important to us to identify as poly, and would have remained important even if it had been years before someone new came along.

I think perhaps the easiest way to explain it to others is to remind them that monogamy means a commitment to only be romantically and/or sexually involved with one person. If a couple enters a relationship and decides to be monogamous, they don’t just mean “until one of us meets someone else.” To people who desire monogamy, that commitment is a huge deal. And it carries with it a whole big set of well-known expectations about what is and is not appropriate to do with others outside of the relationship.

You, on the other hand, are in a relationship where you have chosen not to commit to monogamy. It doesn’t matter if it’s just the two of you for a long time to come; you still value your freedom to potentially connect with others romantically. Monogamy is incredibly meaningful to those who prefer it, and it shouldn’t be viewed as something to enter into lightly, and I doubt most defenders of monogamy would want to see the word being used by folks who would not mean it as “we are committed to the institution of monogamy” but rather as “we’re monogamous until we meet someone else.” To me, the notion that a relationship can be “monogamous by default” makes about as much sense as saying that someone should identify as asexual while they’re temporarily single. These labels are far more about the potentials we see in the long-term than they are mere descriptors of a relationship’s current form.

If you happen to be having a conversation where it feels like it makes sense to elaborate on your deeper polyamorous ideology–to talk about your ideas about feminism and “ownership” and how this all relates to your relationship philosophy–it can be great to open up dialogues about those things. But you shouldn’t feel that you have to go on at length about why you’re non-monogamous in order to assert the fact that you are non-monogamous. In situations where it feels more comfortable to keep it brief, I think it’s pretty concise and clear to simply say “Being monogamous means being committed to only being with one partner. We’re polyamorous (or open, if you prefer), because we’re committed to having the freedom to be with other partners.”

There might always be some small number of people who think that you’re just trying to identify in some “edgy” way, even after you offer an explanation. But you can’t always control others’ perceptions of you–especially in non-traditional relationships!–and trying to do so will often lead to more frustration than its worth. Explain yourselves the best you can, but don’t feel pressured to bend over backward trying to make it clear to people who still don’t understand. The two of you are on the same page about what kind of relationship you have, and that’s ultimately the most important thing.

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?