Tuesday, June 14, 2011


This weekend, I walked in the Boston Dyke March as an ally. It was a wonderful, powerful atmosphere. And one, literally, of pride; of thousands of people being able to go out and say "no, I'm not ashamed to be a lesbian, and why the hell should I be?" Women held hands and kissed in public, because people are allowed to hold hands and kiss in public.

I had no trouble supporting this in public, because I feel like it's a totally legitimate and worthy cause; there's no doubt in my mind that women who have relationships with other women are doing something that's Okay, that's Allowed, and I wish the world at large would acknowledge this.

But when it comes to my own relationship--to polyamory, specifically--I am ashamed. I'm fine talking about it on the Internet or in Kinkland, but when it comes to real life and hostile places, to family and coworkers and society at large, I can't say "I'm here, I'm dating a dude who's dating another chick but it's not like cheating it's actually cool with everyone, get over it." Except for my parents and one coworker I trust, I'm closeted. And when I have come out to people who weren't "cool," I wasn't a warrior. I was embarrassed, even apologetic. Explaining my relationship to, for example, my doctor didn't make me feel like I was spreading awareness. It made me feel like I was disclosing a secret disgusting perversion, a naughty peccadillo, a dirty and decadent habit.

The problem is that on some level, I don't feel like my own relationship is Okay and Allowed. I feel as if it's a thing we're getting away with, not a thing we damn well should get away with. Some part of me has internalized the belief that polyamory is a shameful sexual habit, rather than a completely legitimate relationship style. Or I feel like it's not important, not a Real Big Deal, not worth getting all mouthy about, even though it actually has a huge impact on my life.

I don't want to draw too much of an equivalence with the Dyke March, because I can be happy in a monogamous relationship, and many of the people at the Dyke March couldn't be happy in a heterosexual one. And poly people may be underground but we don't face violence and discrimination on anywhere near the level gay people do. Nonetheless, I do think that the model of going from shame to pride, of changing people's perspective from "that's a perversion" to "that's a relationship" could be a valuable one for polyamory. And not just for outsiders. For poly people ourselves.

I hope someday polyamory can come more into the light, that it will become understood as a legitimate lifestyle, just another way for people to love each other. I suspect the poly community couldn't field as many people as a the gay one, but I hope someday those people who are with us won't be afraid or ashamed to admit it. I hope someday I can say "my boyfriend's other girlfriend" outside kink circles and not only will other people be comfortable with it, I'll be comfortable with it.


  1. I know how you feel! I'm actually really open, all my friends, family and coworkers know. But I still feel embarrassed when I'm all giddy and someone asks me what's up (someone who knows about my lifestyle) and I say, "I have a first date tonight!"
    I try to outwardly act cool about saying it, but inside im feeling icky-ish about admiring I have a date and my husband will be at home while I'm out on it, and he's cool with that.

  2. I'm pretty open about it and I find it quite fun, actually. To my face, anyhow, most people are polite. A lot of people are really curious, even fascinated, and some are downright envious. It sure makes me suddenly seem like a much more interesting person. But I'm in Australia, in a fairly cosmopolitan city, moving in pretty liberal circles, so it's easy for me to say.

  3. Oh man, talking to the doctor about sex is the worst. I'm always so sure they're judging me that it spirals into more and more awkwardness until I just start apologizing for myself. Then they start with the questions like, "Do you think your drinking is a problem?" No, doctor, I am merely very awkward and intimidated by you writing all this down in my permanent file.

  4. Maybe I'm young and deal with an unusual group of people, but it seems that many of the people I know - some of whom are married - are poly. Someone came out to her parents about it recently and they were pretty cool about it. And many of the people who aren't poly don't really seem to cast judgment; they just say it's not for them. Perhaps I'll become disillusioned later, but I think the notion is becoming more accepted, at least among my generation. Keep on hoping!

  5. Some part of me has internalized the belief that polyamory is a shameful sexual habit, rather than a completely legitimate relationship style.

    In regards to my polyamorous and BDSM lifestyle, I'm almost completely open with friends and meaningful family, but not at work, and not with most of my neighbors.

    But I've never felt any shame about my choices; the reason I'm not completely open is not that I, but rather that society has, to again use your words, "internalized the belief that polyamory [my interjection: and BDSM, for that matter] is a shameful sexual habit, rather than a completely legitimate relationship style."

    I need my job, my wife needs her job, and we have a minor child who could be taken away from us given enough social opprobrium, etc. We're proud of who we are, and try to serve as advocates for our lifestyle, but we walk a fine line: if society lashes out hard enough at us, we could no longer serve as effective advocates (hard to advocate effectively when you're jobless and scrounging for food, etc.) and no longer take care of our child. With any luck society will keep maturing and accepting non-traditional lifestyles. Would that it were a quicker thing, though.

  6. I envy you guys, I really do.
    I wish I could lose my jealousy and live free like you.

  7. I'm out as poly, and try to not bring it up for its own sake. It's not unusual, however, for people to get confused when I mention "no, that was my other girlfriend", or "was hanging out with my girlfriend's husband". And then I have to explain, and the idea often seems fascinating.

    Then again, I live in the San Francisco area, so maybe people are more open to the idea here.

  8. The thing I hate most about the non-acceptance of polyamory is that I can't ever complain. If things aren't perfect, if I just want someone to vent to or a shoulder to cry on, I feel like I can't go to most people because they'll go "See? See?? We told you polyamory wasn't the way to go."

    If my boyfriend and I are fighting, I can get all the support I need. If my boyfriend and I are fighting because of his other girlfriend, I'm SOL unless I want a lecture.

  9. Anon - Hah. It's not easy. Sometimes (not enough to do it, but sometimes) I envy the clarity of being in a relationship with simple rules and no surprises.

    ...not that I think most monogamous people have that either, but you know. As an ideal.

  10. I've found that things are usually about as much of a big deal as you make them out to be when disclosing things like that. When J was in Tahiti, it was common knowledge. So when I started referring to "making dinner with my partner," and people put two and two together ("Isn't he far away?") I'd just laugh and say, "No, the other one."

    I rarely talk about "poly" as a concept unless someone asks about it specifically. I do, however, talk about my relationships and the people I'm involved with. Folks seem to have a much easier time handling something concrete than a bunch of abstract ideas that no one really agrees on anyway.

  11. V - makes me think of http://xkcd.com/385/

  12. Just wanted to let you know that I really really appreciate your blog, which I found through Xenia's. Also, I really appreciated your post on your new short hair, and I wish it was still up :/

  13. Oh, nevermind, I see you just reposted it. Thanks! xx

  14. I've been struggling with this a bunch as I've suddenly and kind of unexpectedly found myself in a poly relationship. I'm lucky in that I can be out about pretty much anything at work, but to other, monogamous, non-kinky, non-kink-aware friends and (most scary of all) my family I have no idea what to say or how to say it or if I should. Especially since my boyfriend told his mom and now she's convinced I'm going to break his heart...

  15. "It won't work forever"
    "You read too much Heinlein as a kid, didn't you"
    "You just want your cake and to eat it too"
    "How would you feel if your girlfriend slept with another guy, hunh?!"

    and always the "See, I told you polyamory doesn't work!" when it falls through.

    Sod em tho. If work people ask I say "I have a complicated but honest and above board social life". Mostly because its important to me to not be regarded as sneaky or dishonest at work

  16. I'm lucky in that I and most of the folks I know can be out about being poly. Some of that may just be the culture where we live, which is pretty chill. Saying things like "one of my girlfriends" or "one of the guys I'm seeing" doesn't raise that many eyebrows around here.

    Of course, I'm also fortunate (sorta) in that I don't have anything resembling a career that could be slowed up or derailed by failure to be "normal".

  17. I'm not poly and I used to be very bothered by the concept. I realized, though, that this is because I felt like somebody must be getting the short end of the stick in a poly relationship. I imagined how I would feel if my boyfriend told me that he wants to see someone in addition to me. I almost cried thinking about it.

    When it comes down to it, being poly is probably a bit different from being gay/lesbian/bi/trans because it hits a bit too close to home for some people. For instance, I'm not trans, but it doesn't hit a nerve with me for any reason when someone else is. But when someone says they're poly, I immediately imagine myself in that situation--how jealous I would feel, how lonely I'd be when my boyfriend was spending time with his other girlfriend, and so on.

    The reason I'm trying to explain this to you is because I'm hoping it'll help you understand how to explain polyamory to people. I think you should emphasize that this is something that makes you happy and that you're not hurt by the fact that your partner is seeing someone else. I think that most people who "disapprove" of polyamory do so because they feel like it's harmful to people, so you should help them understand that it's not, and that just because they would feel jealous or cheated on in that situation doesn't mean YOU do.

  18. @Miriam - I'm a poly extrovert who keeps winding up in relationships with introverts, so if anything, my boyfriend may be glad of the break when I go spend time with my other boyfriend. ^_~

  19. Yeah... I'm not looking to the inevitable fallout if I ever get married, when the *full* social circle shows up and my family starts asking questions...

  20. Miriam -

    I used to do that too. I thought of poly as something one person pressured another into, or riddled with crazy power dynamics. But then I realized how many monogamous relationships are also full of pressure to do things and power dynamics. And a lot of that is about the monogamy!

    What I'm trying to say is, I can think of a lot of poly relationships that would make me jealous, but I can also think of a lot of ways to be in a monogamous relationship that would suck. So I think it's not just about "this works for me, even if it doesn't work for you," although that is part of it. The stuff people fear, like jealousy, and resentment about amounts of sex, are problems in all relationships, and poly is just another way of negotiating them.

  21. @V, eccles:

    See: http://pervocracy.blogspot.com/2011/04/model-minority.html

    @Brad Hanon:

    Your wording of "one of the guys I'm seeing" does not sound like language I would expect to hear describing a poly relationship. It sounds like something I would expect to hear from someone casually dating a few people at the same time, which I gather is pretty normal. The difference being that those men may not know about each other (although they would probably be aware they are not in an exclusive relationship) and I would not expect such relationships to last very long (i.e. they would either end or become an exclusive relationship).


    Interesting idea; it makes sense.

    The reasoning I am used to hearing is that poly people mess up the ratio of single men to single women due to one man dating multiple women. Naturally, I am not saying this is a reasonable argument.

  22. RSI leaves me unable to type much but I just wanted to quote this bit:

    "I don't want to draw too much of an equivalence with the Dyke March, because I can be happy in a monogamous relationship, and many of the people at the Dyke March couldn't be happy in a heterosexual one. And poly people may be underground but we don't face violence and discrimination on anywhere near the level gay people do. Nonetheless, I do think that the model of going from shame to pride, of changing people's perspective from "that's a perversion" to "that's a relationship" could be a valuable one for polyamory. And not just for outsiders. For poly people ourselves."

    I definitely think so. Poly people may not face violence but there are definitely horror stories of poly people who have been together a long time but because the law does not recognise polyamory, when one partner dies, this really fucks things up in regards to inheritance, what happens with the children, so on. It's scary.

    Poly people need recognition because poly relations need protecting and legitimising. My partner can't be open about our relationship being poly because of the discrimination and problems he could face at work. That's not violence, but it's certainly something that could really effect our lives and everything we've been working so hard for.

  23. So, one of my friends in law school was poly, and out and open about it, and surprisingly for something like the legal environment (to me at the time, anyway) no one really cared. I mean, sure, some people judged him, but not more or less than they judged other people for perfectly conventional dating habits.

    I'm not open about being bi, myself, because I'm a monogamous woman married to a dude who has only ever dated dudes. I'm... afraid I won't be believed, or that I'll be seen as attention seeking. I don't want to deal with people being all "WHATEVER straight girl", so... I end up generally identifying myself as straight. Which is a denial of a part of myself, but, since I AM monogamous, not a terribly important part of myself? Or is it? I don't know.

  24. Specifically: I/ve deal/t with a lot of the same stuff Holly has. A LTR that my family was fond of just ended, and my polyhood developed in it, and I am not looking forward to having to explain to these people that I love but aren't necessarily comfortable talking with about super-personal stuff why it's not poly's fault. Also, superditto feeling like complaining about it is hard to justify, given the relatively worse state of our allies.

    Generally: I got pointed to this blog by a friend recently, read some of the notable posts, and I'm so happy he did. Holly, you write about positive things and talking about fighting negative things in a way that really touches me. Thank you. Please keep writing, and I will keep reading.

  25. I'm actually curious how true this is in Camberville. I know there are vast swaths of MIT where no one would bat an eye. (though yes, these are the circles that read scifi, hack (In many senses) and play live-action roleplaying games.

  26. Daniel: Your wording of "one of the guys I'm seeing" does not sound like language I would expect to hear describing a poly relationship.

    Um, there are a lot of different kinds of poly relationships. I'm sorry that my sex life doesn't get your polyamory seal of approval, but I don't actually give a shit about your opinion, so it all works out!

  27. ... I suppose that's another thing that sometimes comes up in the wild, wacky world of polyamory: the self-policing and the idea that only certain kinds of poly relationships are "legitimate" and the idea that we have to have our best face forward for the good of the movement. It sometimes makes certain kinds of relationships hard to talk about even within poly communities. What if one of your partners doesn't want to know about your other partners? What if you're only poly outside a certain radius from home? What if you only pick up unicorns from FetLife? Some or all of these things get a lot of scorn from certain areas of the poly community.

    I have very part-time relationships with several people. For me, referring to "one of the guys I'm sleeping with" or "one of the guys I'm seeing" IS the best way to describe those relationships, but I'm not trying to turn any of them into an exclusive relationship (which would be difficult, since a couple of them are married. To other people. And not each other.) So maybe it's not classic polyamory, but I certainly identify as polyamorous, and have many of the same concerns as "true" poly people.

  28. @Aris-tgd

    I don't think Daniel was trying to call you out! I read his comment as just suggesting that "one of the guys I'm seeing" is actually pretty mainstream language that wouldn't stand out as particularly poly. As he points out, people who are looking for monogamous relationships sometimes casually date multiple people at the same time, but don't consider that non-monogamous (which is bizarre, but that's a whole 'nother issue), so they might not be as judgmental as one might think if you present your relationships that way.

  29. In re the relationship of being out and poly vs out and gay: it is to some degree a question of what you _are_ vs what you _do_. As a poly person I feel poly whether I'm dating zero, one, or more people. It is, in a very real sense, my orientation. Likewise, I don't think my gay friends suddenly stop being gay if they aren't in a relationship. I think it's wise not to confuse peoples' actions with how they view themselves, their relationship to others, and their sexuality.

    AIDS educators made this leap some years ago when they stopped talking about gay men and talked about MSM - men who have sex with men. AIDS is spread by an act, not by an orientation or outlook. Conversely I think of gayness, or polyness as an outlook separate from any specific acts.

  30. It can be very hard, there is still a large stigma over multiple relationships and frankly there are a bunch of "poly" people out there not helping out cause.

    I've been more open about it because my husband died and I didn't want to tread on his girlfriend's grief anymore than was already going to happen. But she and her husband have been huge providers of comfort and support that I am not sure I would have survived without. That alone has made me more proud to be Poly, but my experience was a traumatic one I would not wish on anyone.

  31. @ShazzaG - I'm so sorry for your loss.

    I love being poly when it means getting to be with both people I love (and contrary to the stereotype Daniel mentions, some of us are females with multiple male partners) but it's hard when being poly means feeling closeted and unable to talk about one's relationship joy or sadness with people who don't understand the whole dynamic. Still - for me, that ends up meaning that it's worthwhile to "come out" and educate a few more friends, rather than always clam up about a whole crucial part of my life to them.


  32. I am hopelessly monogamous (tried being poly and found it exhausting), but I wonder if part of your struggle isn't related to your feminism. NOT that your relationship isn't egalitarian, but in a historical context, poly relationships were usually for the benefit of a man and at the expense of women. I think the mainstream views polyamory in the context of Mormon polygamy, or a fictional sultan's harem, or the Oneida cult. Of course it feels a little shameful if that is the box people are putting you in! Our society is so monogamy-centric that most people have a hard time reconciling feminism with relationships that don't fit those models. You are in a position to educate, but that is always uncomfortable.

  33. @aris-tgd:
    Sorry, poor wording on my part. That is not what I meant. As Emma pointed out, I meant that some people who do not identify as poly have multiple casual relationships simultaneously, and, in particular, that I get the feeling that that is more common and accepted than people identifying as poly despite, as you point out, not being clearly different.

  34. Hershele OstropolerJune 15, 2011 at 8:45 PM

    I don't think I'm cut out for poly. But I have no way of knowing if I'm actually not cut out for it or if I think I am because society tells me People Don't Do That.

    Nonetheless, I heard someone say his family stopped talking to him when they learned he was poly, and I find that puzzling even from a conformism standpoint.

    we have a minor child who could be taken away from us given enough social opprobrium

    I don't understand that. I mean, I understand what you mean, but I don't recall seeing anyone even attempt to defend the notion that being a lifestyle minority or a sexual minority (or an ethnic minority, if you're, e.g., Swiss or Australian) makes you an unfit parent. And I have a disturbing feeling that the reason I've never heard any attempts to defend it is not that people think it's ridiculous but because people think it's self-evident; it's like asking someone to defend living indoors.

  35. I am poly in Boston as well.

    It is sad that I cannot come out of the closet and share my happiness with the world. It's not so much worry about my self as I have grown up with ridicule and scorn for a long time but repercussions for my partners.

    I take heart that our voices are quietly getting louder. We are still in the shadows but people are seeing us. Maybe in a couple of years I can actually use my online handle to sign comments. In a few years I could actually use my name.


    I'm sending silent support. We who are honest and open are not shameful or deviant.

  36. Daniel: Sorry for snapping at you! I've taken some crap in the past, as may be apparent from my defensiveness.

  37. And I just found this link: http://www.examiner.com/open-relationships-in-boston/open-war-the-polyamorous-versus-the-swingers -- the comments of which contain at least one example of "Polyamory isn't like THAT" which illustrates my point nicely. Also, cool article.

  38. Admitting *anything* non-mainstream is hazardous when contesting child custody or attempting to foster or adopt a child. The people making the judgements are listening for any subtle sign of wrongness, and an unusual lifestyle will sometimes set off their alarms BIGTIME.

    I speak from painful experience: our attempts to adopt took at least 18 months longer than they needed to because our first social worker was badly freaked out by (a) paganism, (b) D&D playing, (c) non-standard gendered division of labor, and possibly (d) multi-racial marriage. Never mind that we've been happily married for 20 years. We set off her warning bells, so she stalled our application endlessly. Finally we ditched her and hired a private agency. We were lucky to have the financial resources to do it--without that I suspect we would never have succeeded in adopting.

  39. MaryKaye - D&D? Really? Jeez...

    That's the problem with "tolerated but not accepted." It gives people too much room to say "yeah, we let you get away with (being poly, being kinky, playing D&D), but when it comes to something that really counts, we have to take it seriously." Being on the line between taboo and legitimate is something that can be turned around on you so fast.

    Also, I can't help but wonder where that social worker stands on, say, GURPS, or LARPing, or regular Ren Fest attendance.

  40. I think the point about people equating polyamory with polygamy is spot on. Not necessarily the LDS (aka Mormons) today, but Islam is getting to be the best generally-known culture where an individual has multiple partners. And I sure would not consider an Islamic marriage as traditionally practiced to be a good example for what a polyamorous relationship should be. I suspect that contributes to part of the popular mis-perception of the poly lifestyle in the West.

  41. The whole "polyamorous vs. swingers" issue made me wrinkle my brow. I don't honestly know which heading I would fall under. For me, love and sex are connected. I love people easily; I would never consider taking someone to bed that I didn't love, and conversely, when I love someone, it seems completely natural to express that physically. (Maybe through sex, maybe just with a really good backrub, but through some form of physicality.)

    When a good friend's girlfriend "confessed" to me that she would like to sleep with my husband, my immediate, instinctive reaction was one of elation. I know he likes her; I know it would boost his self-esteem; I know, from watching how she handles drama in her own life, that she's a kind person who chooses not to hurt people even when she legitimately could, so I know she would never intentionally hurt him. And I just think she's the cat's pajamas; she and her boyfriend are both so awesome, the idea of either or both of them sharing a bed with either or both of us is just good, all around.

    It would make everyone involved happy... and yet, yeah, I know that if my family (who know that I agree with the ideals of polyamory, but don't know that I've put some of those ideas into practice) or my friends at work were to find out, I would feel ashamed. I don't know why. I can't imagine any good reason to feel guilty about something that harms no one and makes four people (her, my husband, myself, and her boyfriend, who is tickled by the idea) happy, but there it is.

    Although I wonder, as I'm typing this, how much of it is shame and how much is just pre-emptive tiredness at trying to explain it?

  42. There's a lot of poly closetry going by in my life these days. People suffer so much when there's a closet in their world; even if they're out and proud, it's still there, lurking. Sometimes I wonder if the privilege of the 'normal' person isn't that they don't have to come out, but that they just don't feel the closet there at all.

    I think it's also pretty interesting that it's a whole lot easier for some people to feel shameless about unusual sexual practices than about unusual love practices. Partly, I think, is that sex is usually kept somewhat hidden. But also, I think, it's just less ambiguous. "This is what gets me off." People can challenge whether it's right or perverted, but they can't really challenge whether it *actually* gets you off.

    But love? And happiness? It's easy to believe that you're deluding yourself, that you don't know what real love is and if you find it you'll straighten right out... People get into bad relationships all the time, and people are unhappy all the time, so it's much easier for people to dismiss a person's claim that poly is a good thing for them. It's easy to blame poly for anything that goes wrong in a person's life or relationship.

    And if you don't know for sure that you are definitely poly forever and always, but are poly right now because it's working and makes you happy, it's even harder to embrace and be out and proud.

    This shit can be *hard*.


    It might be because you feel like you would be disappointing them? You do value their judgment, because they're your friends, and it's hard work to hold on to "and this is right and okay" in the face of adverse reactions from those we care for.

  43. Agh, yes. I'm bi, poly, and have a (male) partner and a girlfriend, who's currently working on moving cross-country to be in the same city as me (Seattle). I am relatively out about the bi thing and partly have hair this short because it's nice to have something where I don't *look* straight even though basically everyone knows I'm with a guy. With queerness, I have much more of a "You have a problem? That's nice. It's your problem" attitude. With poly? That's scary, and I'm nervous about being too open about it in social settings that I don't know are relatively geeky/alternative/etc. I'm not even thinking about being open at work, because the world is small sometimes, some science fields can tend towards conservative, and I don't want to close doors.

    But "my, um, housemate, who's moving cross-country because, um... she likes it out here" feels like not giving her acknowledgement for being a hugely important part of my life, even though she understands that some situations call for something like that. Closets suck.

    It's not even an identity vs. something I do thing--I don't identify as poly, but I'm in a poly relationship. I still want it to be ok and I want to be able to just talk about my girlfriend as my girlfriend.

  44. As another closeted poly person, I identified with this post. Thanks for making it.