Tag Archives: poly activism

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.

If it’s not Feminist, then it’s not my Polyamory

Apologies for such silence on the blog these past weeks; we were gone on a family vacation, and since coming home I’ve had a handful of other writing projects requiring my attention.

I’m still at work on other things, but I wanted to take just a quick moment to talk about how essential I think feminism to polyamory. Which should be somewhat obvious by the series I write here about feminism and poly, but sometimes I think there’s a difference between merely recognizing an intersection vs. saying that activism in one area absolutely requires awareness and attention to another. And as I’ve encountered some really anti-feminist thought in some poly spaces recently, I really feel the need to briefly try to drive home how vital this connection is.

First, compulsory monogamy is, itself, a patriarchal institution. And I don’t think we can fight that institution in any meaningful way without unpacking its patriarchal legacy. If we say we want to challenge compulsory monogamy but we don’t make that challenge from an explicitly feminist perspective, then I think we’ll always fall a great deal short of really dismantling that institution at its roots. The entire dialogue around people having “ownership” of one another in romantic relationships is really rooted in notions of male ownership of women. Obviously, there are plenty of women who don’t want to “share” their partners, either (and not sharing can be totally fine, as long as its a conscious choice and not the result of a social mandate), but that doesn’t change the fact that the whole construction of “ownership” in marriage was never a two-way street.

And second, I think that poly without feminism can potentially be a rather dangerous thing. If polyamory is just a means of reproducing traditional sexist dynamics in relationships with multiple partners, then we’re stepping dangerously close to everything that’s wrong with traditional patriarchal “one man-many women” polygamy. I see polyamory veering close to this in relationships with the so-called “one-penis-policy,” for example, where a husband is permitted to date women, but his wife is only permitted to date women herself and forbidden from dating other men. With all of the problematic sexist gender dynamics that are potentially present in our sex and dating lives, I think that men wishing to engage in relationships with multiple women must be even more vigilant about upholding feminist values, because the potential harm and potential replication of patriarchal power structures might be even greater when a man is in a position of dominance over not just one woman, but several. I’m honestly not interested in fighting for the sexual liberation of men who will only use non-monogamy as a path to “conquer” a greater number of women.

To summarize, then, though I’ll say much more on this in the future, I’m entirely uninterested in participating in any kind of poly activism that isn’t explicitly feminist. To me, separating the two is incorrect both personally and politically.

(and of course, I believe that feminism needs to make room for a critique of compulsory monogamy, as well. More on that to come, too…)

New Column at Modern Poly

If you just can’t get enough Radical Poly, then you’ll be happy to know I’ll be writing a regular column for Modern Poly’s ezine. The column, in a similar vein to this blog, will examine polyamory in a sociopolitical context.

Modern Poly is an excellent site full of great poly info and viewpoints, and I’m glad to have written for them in the past and to be writing for them in the future. Their blog was a bit quiet for a while, but I’m happy to see it back in full force with a June ezine exploring the topic of marriage from a variety of angles. And it’s always appreciated to have other places (aside from my own blog, where I generally let myself say anything I damn well please) where I’m given freedom to express my way-left-of-center point of view.

Go support Modern Poly, read the fine articles, buy some cute poly gear (including some with my Solidarity design!), and if you’re interested, check out the first installment of my column, “An Informed Polyamory Movement,” where I discuss the Voting Rights Act, the Texas filibuster, the roots of all hierarchies, and what the heck all of this has to do with polyamory!

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.

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.

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.