Tag Archives: LGBTQ

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.

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So, What Does This DOMA Repeal Mean For Us?

First of all, I want to say that while repealing DOMA is obviously a huge victory for gay and lesbian folks, there’s a lot more to LGBTQ rights than marriage equality. Queer and trans* folks need equal access to things like housing and employment and healthcare; a staggering number of queer and trans* youth (especially queer and trans* folks of color) are currently homeless. Trans women and gender non-conforming male-bodied people are more likely than any other segment of the LGBTQ population to be victims of violent crime, including murder. Marriage rights matter to a lot of people in a lot of very real ways, but they’re not the only thing that matters, and we need to keep sight of that as we move forward.

That being said, onto a bit of a look at polyamory’s place in all of this!

I’ll have a longer post with more of my own thoughts on the matter coming soon, but right now I just want to offer a few links to some of the conversations that are already happening.

Over at BuzzFeed, an article went up about polygamists celebrating the DOMA ruling. Though polygamy only technically means multiple marriage, we all know that it’s traditionally associated with certain fundamentalist religious practices. As more articles like this appear, it’s going to be important for polyamorists to make our voices heard as well, and to clarify how we differ in practice from one-sided patriarchal polygamy.

Over at Poly In the Media, Alan offered a little round-up of his own, featuring a handful of articles about multi-partner marriage that have cropped up in the past few days.

At Modern Poly, several new articles with a variety of perspectives on the theme of marriage were published in June, just ahead of the court’s ruling.

As I’m in the early stages of planning my own (non-legal) wedding with one of my partners, this is all a very timely discussion for me. The jury is still out among poly activists as to whether marriage rights are really something we consider a pressing issue, though the majority of us seem to feel we’d like to have that right (or to see marriage de-regulated entirely) someday.  But regardless of whether we’re interested in having this conversation right now, it seems that in the wake of the DOMA ruling, this conversation is seeking us out. I’ve definitely seen a spike in my google hits these past two days here on the blog. I only hope that as we do move forward in this discussion of poly marriage rights, we can keep that conversation from becoming the central focus of our movement. If this particular historical moment offers us a unique opportunity to be seen and heard, I think that’s fantastic. I just hope we can bring a balanced agenda to the table, rather than one that’s narrowly focused on marriage rights as our only desire or need.

Some of my own past musings on poly and marriage can be found at Modern Poly, Role/Reboot, and here on this blog by checking out the “marriage” tag. More coming soon!

The Importance of Being Critical

I spend a lot of time writing and talking about polyamory: here on my blog, in other publications, and in discussion groups and forums. And as anyone who follows this blog has gathered, I can often be critical of some things that occur frequently within polyamorous relationships: hierarchical structures, rules and regulations, veto-power, etc. Frequently, I’ve been accused of saying that some things are more poly than others, or that there’s a “right” way to do poly. I don’t like it when others are poly-police, saying what is and isn’t more “perfectly” poly than something else. But I want to take a minute to talk about how that kind of policing is different than being critical of some tendencies within a lot of poly relationships.

I engage a lot with social justice, in a variety of ways. To me, a huge component of that is turning a critical lens on the dominant social structures of patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, classism, and hierarchies of all kinds. But just like I challenge the system of compulsory monogamy, I’m also going to challenge problematic things I see happening within polyamory. There is no free-pass given just because we are both poly; if you are doing something I find to be patriarchal, problematically hierarchical, heterosexist, or any other oppressive thing, I am going to talk about that. That doesn’t mean I’m saying anyone is doing poly “wrong.” Poly means being open to the potential of loving multiple people simultaneously, nothing more and nothing less. I don’t think you’re more poly or less poly if you have a closed triad relationship, if you have seventeen lovers you only see once a year, if you have no lovers but know that the idea of loving multiple people sounds and feels right to you, if you have threesomes or foursomes or more or if you don’t, if you’re asexual and think polyamory works to describe the way you connect with others in your life. None of these is a more “correct” way to do poly, and I disagree with anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. But if I see behavior within poly relationships that I think is hierarchical or oppressive, I’m going to talk and write about that. And I think those kinds of challenges to the status quo are not only acceptable, but necessary.

A lot of my freelance writing outside of this blog is centered on feminism. Part of that involves dealing with problematic hierarchies that often exist between men and women in heterosexual relationships. When I am critical of patriarchal power dynamics, it doesn’t mean I’m saying that relationships between men and women are in some way inherently wrong. It means I’m criticizing the way that patriarchy plays out in some of those relationships. A lot of radical queer activists are very critical of more mainstream LGBTQ politics. That doesn’t mean they’re accusing anyone of being “less gay” or of doing queerness wrong. It just means that they’re critical of some of the priorities and tendencies within the mainstream LGBTQ movement. These kinds of criticism create important dialogue. And it is not about insulting individuals, but about challenging power structures that play out in very real ways, and that have very real and harmful consequences. When I write about what I see as the problems with hierarchies, restrictive rules and regulations, veto-power, or gender imbalances in poly relationships, what I want is to ask people to really think about the reasons they’re making the choices they’re making. I want to call out the social structures that cause us to behave the way we do, to question the status quo. I don’t want to tell anyone that they’re a horrible person or that they’re not poly enough. I want to have a conversation. I want to give people things to think about. Most of us have already accepted the fact that compulsory monogamy is a problem, that too many people are coerced by society into “choosing” monogamy without ever considering any alternatives. And I want to ask whether—even once we’ve broken that particular mold—some of the choices we make within poly relationships are rooted in similar unconscious social conditioning. These are questions I think we all must be willing to confront. And anyone who understands how pervasive the system of compulsory monogamy is should also be willing to turn a critical eye toward other social structures, as well.

I’m never going to tell anyone that their poly relationship is structured “wrong,” or that they’re less poly than someone else. But I’m always going to challenge hierarchies, wherever I encounter them. “To each their own” is a well-intentioned sentiment, but it’s not a worthy excuse for letting oppressive structures go unchallenged.

Definitions and Dichotomies

Any veteran of polyamorous communities and discussion groups has heard plenty of squabbling over what does and does not meet the definition of polyamory, and typically this debate is centered on a question of love vs. sex. And as someone who is in two loving, life-committed relationships, I can tell you that it’s frustrating when people portray polyamory as something that’s all about sex and nothing more. I understand why some people feel the need to assert that poly is about forming more meaningful connections; I’ve certainly made arguments along those lines myself. However, I find it equally frustrating when people take that argument to such an extreme that they look down on any sexual relationship that is not deep, emotional, and meaningful. To me, polyamory is about the potential for loving more than one person simultaneously. Just as people who are inclined toward monogamy do not necessarily only have sexual relationships within the confines of long-term, committed relationships, poly people, also, want different things with different people at different points in their lives. If someone has a rule saying “you can have sex with others, but no meaningful relationships,” I have no problem saying that definitionally is not polyamory (though that’s not meant as a value judgment). But as long as someone is open to more meaningful relationships with multiple partners, and along the way happens to enjoy some connections with others that are strictly sexual, I’m not about to kick them out of the poly club.

I’ve realized, though, that the discomfort I have with this tendency to define polyamory as only about multiple loving, romantic relationships is much more complex than a simple wish to allow for people to have casual sexual relationships if they so desire. Ultimately, there is an entire dichotomy of relationships as either casual or serious, and another dichotomy of relationships as either romantic or platonic, that I am unhappy with.

I do understand the desire to define certain relationships as being traditionally romantic and committed. I’m not one to advocate for a paradigm in which we simply eschew all labels. It matters to me to identify certain people as my partners, to declare some relationships as being central to my life, and to publically recognize my significant others as the people I am sharing a life and a future with. I don’t want to be misunderstood as advocating for a complete abandonment of such identifications.

However, that being said, there are relationships in my life that simply don’t fit neatly into the socially-prescribed dichotomies. I have had relationships that are physically intimate and ongoing, but which still feel emotionally more like friendships than traditionally romantic relationships. I have a physically intimate relationship with a woman, who I care about very much as a friend, but am not romantically in love with. And though I have never felt that I was in love with a woman, and am not certain of my potential to ever feel that way in the future, an interest in women is definitely a part of my sexuality. I have a very close relationship with my ex-boyfriend that is not at all romantic or physically intimate, and yet it still feels as though it does not neatly fit into the socially-accepted bounds of “normal” relationships because it is a relationship with a former romantic partner that is a central, meaningful part of my life. And I have had other relationships with male friends in the past that were not explicitly romantic, and yet did not seem to fit neatly within the bounds of platonic friendship. To me, this is all a part of polyamory. And the beauty of polyamory is that it can allow for all of these nuanced forms of intimacy. It does not require us to make choices about whether a relationship is romantic or platonic, casual or serious. It allows each relationship to be—organically, authentically—exactly what it is.

When I hear people describe polyamory as only about committed, loving, long-term relationships, I understand where they’re coming from. But I think the discomfort I feel is similar to the radical queer discomfort at assimilationist gay and lesbian politics that place a “we’re just like you!” argument at the center of the gay rights movement. I understand an impulse toward seeking validation by comparing our relationships to those which are culturally sanctioned and recognized. But I don’t believe we need to seek that validation at the expense of everything that is beautifully queer and undefined about our relationships, our sexualities, and our lives.

To me, the defining factor in polyamorous relationships is that they are not circumscribed by any external constraints. That means some polyamorous relationships will look very much like traditional romantic relationships, but others will not. Some relationships might appear “casual,” but last a lifetime. Some relationships might appear to be friendships from the outside, but look like something much more than that to those involved. It is all very complicated. It is all very queer. It is all very human.

I don’t want polyamory associated with people who are in committed partnerships, and only seeking no-strings-attached sex outside of those relationships. But I am equally determined not to see poly associated only with a narrow definition of “committed and loving.” At the end of the day, I believe the vision polyamory has to offer is something far more expansive and nuanced than that.

Bisexuality as an Argument for Plural Marriage?

A few days ago, I stumbled on an article by Cary Tennis over at Salon arguing that bisexuality should be seen as an argument for plural marriage. He says “I am for maximum human freedom under the law. If being lesbian means one wants the right to be partners with women, and being gay means one wants the right to be partners with men, what does being bisexual mean if not that one wants the right to be partners with both sexes?”

Of course, there is a backlash to this, because many bisexual folks are offended by the suggestion that they’re incapable of monogamy (because unfortunately, in our society, being non-monogamous is something that one is “accused” of). To this, Tennis states “One can of course be bisexual and make the choice to marry monogamously. But must one? Why?”

As someone who’s long been interested in connecting the rights of poly folks with LGBTQ struggles, I find this argument tremendously interesting. But there are also some reasons why I find it worrisome.

I’ve definitely said in the past that bisexuality can be a compelling reason to engage in polyamory; while I totally recognize that many bi folks are perfectly capable of monogamy and don’t feel that their orientation manifests itself as a desire for two partners simultaneously, others do feel that they need both male and female partners to be completely fulfilled. And that should be embraced as a valid desire, not frowned upon as something that makes all bisexual people look bad or incapable of monogamy. I think what this comes down to, though, is not so much about bisexuality, but about the fact that some people—of all sexual orientations—are polyamorous, and others are not. When someone is both bi and poly, it only makes sense that they generally want to have both male and female partners. But in my mind, this desire is ultimately a feature of their poly-ness far more than their bisexuality.

I’m concerned that if we essentialize bisexuality as a “legitimate” argument for polyamory, we will find ourselves in a place where we only validate plural relationships that are bisexual in nature. Personally, I tend not to label my sexual orientation, because it feels too nuanced for any of the available labels. But “bisexual” would be the closest to accurate, if I was forced to choose one. And yet, my interest in potentially being in relationships with women was never a particularly driving force in my desire to live polyamorously. I’m in love with and deeply committed to two men, and I can easily conceive of a life in which I only had relationships with those men, but I cannot conceive of a life where I was forced to choose between them. Similarly, even most people I know who do feel that bisexuality was a strong factor in their desire for polyamory still want to be free to form relationships with people of both (or all) genders, not only people who are a different gender from their current partner. I’m sure that there are some people who feel that they specifically need one male and one female lover in order to be happy, nothing more and nothing less. But it seems that for the majority of us who for whatever reason feel compelled toward polyamory, we are far more interested in being able to form meaningful, loving relationships with multiple people in an organic and authentic way, which is not circumscribed by a rule that says “you can be involved with other women, but not other men.” If we argue for plural marriage on the basis of bisexuality, does that mean that we are arguing for plural marriage only in cases where one desires both a male and female spouse?

Tennis says that “It seems only logical that a bisexual person is capable of having equal and simultaneously deep, committed relationships with more than one person.” But why is it logical that all bisexual people are capable of this, and that no strictly heterosexual or homosexual people are? Being attracted to both men and women and being capable of deeply loving either a man or a woman says nothing about one’s capacity to deeply love two people simultaneously, and being capable of loving only men or only women does not mean that someone isn’t able to form simultaneous deep, committed relationships with more than one person. Again, to me this is a question far more of whether one is more “oriented” toward monogamy or polyamory, not a question of how many genders one sees as potential partners.

I am definitely interested in a stance that says bisexual people shouldn’t have to be limited to only one partner; even though many might make the choice to have only one partner, that should be their decision, not something forced upon them. But this is exactly the way I feel about all discussions of monogamy vs. polyamory, not only those which involve bisexuality. If we’re going to talk about maximum freedom under the law, then we need to give all people the ability to freely choose whether to be with one or more than one deeply committed partner, regardless of gender. If we actually recognize polyamory as a form of sexual orientation in its own right, we don’t need to rely on bisexuality as an inroad to validate polyamorous relationships. Regardless of the genders of their desired partners, some people simply are polyamorous. To me, that’s all the argument we should need for the recognition of plural relationships.

What do Radical Politics have to do with it?

From my experience in poly circles and communities, it seems there’s often a reluctance to talk about politics. There’s something to be said, perhaps, for having politically-neutral spaces where folks can come together for personal advice on dealing with poly issues. But even when conversations turn to poly activism, it seems to me that there’s often a hesitation to link our cause with any bigger socio-political picture, let alone to actually endorse or argue for any specific political position. But I’m going to go ahead and stick my neck out here and talk a bit about why for me, my polyamorous identity and my radical left politics are inseparable.

I have heard a lot of people say things like “I don’t want to politicize my personal relationships.” I get that. I really do. I think it’s a very natural impulse to want our intimate relationships to exist outside of a realm of rational, ideological thought. But here’s the thing: our relationships are already politicized. Whether we’re gay, straight, bi, queer, monogamous, polyamorous, asexual, or whatever nuanced combination of those identities, how we form intimate relationships—and to what degree those relationships are accepted and validated by the society we live in—is hugely shaped by the socio-political context in which we exist.

Making the transition to living polyamrously played a huge role in my personal radicalization. I’d always had socialist leanings and was aware that my opinions were far left of liberal Democrats, but to a certain degree I was comfortable with writing my own ideologies off as extremes that would likely never be reflected or represented by a majority. At the same time, I’d spent years trying to find contentment in monogamy, knowing all along that it wasn’t authentic for me but seeing no other viable alternative. I didn’t see a problem with society for presenting monogamy as the only option, I instead saw flaws within myself for being unsatisfied. When I was finally living in a poly relationship, feeling free to actually be myself for the first time in my life, I couldn’t help but look back and wonder what had taken me so long, and why this had seemed so incredibly impossible. And the answer, of course, was that my life and my choices had been circumscribed by society. I thought of myself as someone who was reasonably comfortable going against the status quo, but even I had some social constructs—like monogamy—that were so deeply internalized, I couldn’t even think to seriously question them, even when they were causing me to suffer. It became incredibly disturbing to me that we are so indoctrinated into the set of norms we live with, we are more prepared to criticize our own inner desires than to criticize the constructs which make those desires shameful. And that realization played a huge role in opening my eyes to just how severely society limits us.

The real crux of all this, of course, is that these limitations exist for a reason. Social norms don’t just happen spontaneously with no larger connection to the structure of the world we live in. These norms serve a purpose, a purpose that almost always has something to do with upholding the current hierarchy. Social constructs are not merely about “tradition,” they’re about protecting the interests of the rich, straight, white men in power. And any social change that didn’t threaten that power structure would be met with little resistance.

Let’s look for just a moment specifically at patriarchy. This is an extremely simplified breakdown, because I don’t want this post to become thesis-length. But to summarize: we live in a patriarchal society. And patriarchy relies on the subordinate position of women. Upholding the dominance of men requires upholding traditional gender roles. And traditional gender roles rely to some degree on traditional relationship structures. Both compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory monogamy, then, help to uphold the patriarchal order. And so on, and so forth, with every intersecting system of oppression we live with.

Now, I want to be clear when addressing these things that I am not suggesting that all leftists reject the institution of monogamy as part of their political position. I don’t believe that something as personal and emotional as our intimate relationships should ever be chosen as a political stance. The aim of radical leftists should be to create a world in which we are all granted the freedom to form intimate relationships authentically, whatever that means for each of us. But I do call on radical leftists to challenge the institution of compulsory monogamy, and to consider the ways that institution both supports and is supported by the other oppressive structures we dedicate ourselves to fighting against.

On the other side of that coin, I call on poly folks to consider the way our struggles to live authentically and to be accepted connect with the bigger hierarchical picture of our society. When I talk about solidarity, I don’t just mean that we sympathize with and support the struggles of other people because we understand what it’s like to be looked down on, too. And I’m not just talking about some kind of reciprocal “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” way of looking at various fights for social justice. I’m talking about actually recognizing the complex system of oppressive social norms that are actually interconnected and are actively working to uphold one another. If you want to fight for poly acceptance but are not also interested in dismantling structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism, then I don’t believe you’re seeing the whole picture of society as it actually exists.

I realize this is brief for a discussion of such complex and deep-rooted problems, and I’m sure that some of it probably seems a bit vague and over-simplified. But the bottom line is, I think we need to start a dialogue. If we want to really challenge the status quo, to really disrupt social norms, then we need to start by thinking about where those norms came from, and whose interests they serve.

Weekly Poly Round-Up

I have a new piece up over at Role/Reboot, challenging how same-sex marriage advocates respond to the “slippery slope” argument by throwing us poly folks under the bus:

Before simply responding in a reactionary way to conservatives’ “slippery slope” arguments, I’d like it if same-sex marriage advocates could really stop and think about whether they can make a strong ethical argument against the future possibility of multi-partner marriage. Unlike bestiality or pedophilia, polyamory—like same-sex marriage—is about relationships between consenting adults. Like gay and lesbian couples, our relationships are not merely a sexual practice; we form families, share our homes and lives with one another, and raise children. Yes, marriage is traditionally between two people. But it’s also traditionally between a man and a woman, and the majority of us have already realized how restrictive and unjust that tradition is. 

I’m extremely appreciative to the folks at Role/Reboot for being willing to publish this piece, particularly at this particular moment in history. Go read the whole piece, and share widely if you’re so inclined.

Over at The American Spectator, we’re the subject of satire. Irony strikes again, as I found much of it to sound quite reasonable.

The legal polygamy question is discussed on NPR.

And finally, the reality show Wife Swap featured a poly family. Drama ensued, conservatives behaved badly. Over at Poly in the Media, Alan watched it so we don’t have to.

However few and far between our positive media exposure might be, these past weeks and months have left me with the sense that there’s been a serious gain in the visibility of poly folks recently. It’s upward and onward from here.