The poly closet: It’s not just about you

35

June 3, 2013 by aggiesez

It’s Pride Month — hey, President Obama just proclaimed it so — and that’s not just for gay people. How out are you about your nonmonogamous relationships and partners? That’s a pretty touchy question for many people who are polyamorous, swingers, or have otherwise honestly open relationships.

I talk to a lot of people in these communities, especially through this survey for my forthcoming book on nonstandard relationships (basically, everything that’s off the relationship escalator social norm).

One theme is clear: Most of these people (and I’ve heard from hundreds so far) are not out about their relationship choices and preferences in at least some important contexts. They either don’t mention their choices or partners, or they only mention the ones that meet social norms, or they lie. They choose the closet, in whole or in part, for a lot of reasons.

The closet: Where, why and how

Usually people stay in the closet about nonstandard relationship choices at work, or with their family of origin. The most common reasons cited for this are practical concerns: fear of losing jobs, career advancement, housing options, or even child custody.

But there are also fears of being ostracized and stigmatized — both socially, and perhaps even sacrificing other important relationships. “I could never tell my parents, they’d disown me,” is one of the most common refrains in these surveys and conversations. Also, “I don’t want my kids [partners, other family members, etc.] to be stigmatized or embarrassed by their association with me.”

Many closeted people also refer to a fear of losing status. This boils down fear that other people might evaluate and treat you negatively if you’re out. Closeted people generally worry they might be judged as weird, questionable, undesirable, disposable, less valid, less important or even dangerous if they didn’t hide their non-mainstream relationships. And that they would suffer pain or loss because of this judgment.

Usually this in couched in positive-sounding terms of not wanting to make others uncomfortable, not wanting to attract unwelcome prurient attention, not wanting to seem like your’re “advertising” sexual availability, or not wanting to sound like a strident, pushy activist. Which can be true. But regardless of the motivation, the end result is that by continuing to “pass” as mainstream, closeted people get to retain social status — or at least avoid scrutiny. Thus, like it or not, they end up reinforcing the very social norms they resent.

Yes, there are some cases (rarer than most people think, but they do happen) where people do clearly risk almost certain and extreme loss if they are out about nonstandard relationships — such as during a contentious divorce, or if you hold public office. But even then, being closeted is still a choice — not necessarily a difficult choice to make, but probably a painful one to live with.

Some people also stay closeted because they strongly prefer privacy. Indeed, some people are intensely private, which is totally valid. However, when people are out about some of their relationships or preferences but not others (such as a married poly person who often casually mentions their spouse but not their other longtime partner, or who usually casts that partner as “a friend” in social settings), the blanket claim of privacy starts to wear a bit thin.

The closet is rarely absolute. Most people who are closeted do tend to be out about their nonstandard relationships with select individuals.

They’ll be out to people they know well enough to trust that they probably will be accepting and supportive, perhaps even be public or social allies; who won’t try to shame them with concern-trolling; and who will understand and respect the boundaries of their chosen type of closeting (that is, they probably won’t out you).

Also, closeted people tend to out themselves — in the “I’m dying to share this secret” sense — in private conversations with people they know who are out publicly and socially about the very thing they’re hiding. Which is why, as a poly person who is out in every context, friends and acquaintances from my social, local and professional spheres frequently (and without solicitation) unburden themselves to me in confidence about deeply personal matters.

I usually welcome these conversations, they’re often an important baby step to outness. But yeah, repeatedly hearing “I’m poly too, and I wish I could be out like you, just don’t ever tell anyone,” does get rather old.

Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

Here’s the irony: The very same people who choose to stay in the closet also generally express a strong wish that the risk and stigma of being out about nonstandard relationships would just disappear. Almost to a person, they tell me that they wish the world was a more accepting place. In fact, they’re often quite passionate about this, since closeted people tend to be pretty stressed.

…Tellingly, they usually also mention that more people being visibly out about nonstandard relationships would probably do the most to help realize their dream of a more accepting world.

In other words: they acknowledge that being out would directly benefit people like them, including them. Yet they still choose the closet.

I realize that sounds harsh. I’m not actually judging people who choose to be wholly or partly closeted about their nonstandard relationships. I’ve said it before: Whether you’re out about your relationships (or in any way at all) is a valid choice, and a deeply personal one. No one is entitled to make that choice for you, or judge you for it. I’m just saying: realize that your choice to be closeted will have an affect on people you care for — and also indirectly make life a little harder for everyone else in nonstandard relationships.

It’s important to realize that attempting to be closeted is always a choice — even though closeted people often deflect personal responsibility by saying they feel they “have no choice;” and even though people can be outed against their will.

Relationships always involve other people

When you choose the closet, you may be attempting to constrain the choices of the people who are in those relationships with you — and sometimes others as well. Or you may be implicitly (though unintentionally) denigrating people you care for.

Unless your closet is strictly about what you choose to say (or not), it probably entails expectations of your partners or metamours.

You may be requiring them to conceal or obscure the nature of their relationship with you, or with metamours, in all or some contexts — perhaps regardless of the depth or duration of your connection. You may be requiring them to refrain from making casual statements or forego common acknowledgements that people in escalator-style relationships take for granted. You may even be expecting them to lie, or to avoid going certain places or talking to certain people. You may be asking for a lot.

Even if your closet only governs what you choose to say/do (or not): how does that affect the feelings of your partners, lovers, or metamours? Do they feel dismissed, denied, slighted, or hurt that, say, you fail to mention them casually in social settings, offer signs of affection, or provide other acknowledgments of your relationships the way people in escalator-style relationships commonly do?

In the big picture: Choosing the closet tacitly helps make all people in nonstandard relationships less visible and more vulnerable. For some people, that’s a hard tradeoff but the right choice. Still, it’s naive to deny that connection: When you choose the closet, for sound reasons or not, you become part of the problem that leads more people like you to be closeted.

Also, when you choose the closet, you’re depriving people who are ignorant of (or biased against) nontraditional relationships of the opportunity to learn, empathize, adapt, and grow. Many of them really want to do just that, if you give them a chance.

Own your closet

If abiding by the rules of your closet is the price of entry for being in a relationship with you, so be it. Which means, ideally such constraints should be clearly specified at the point of entry, as a new relationship begins.

Ultimately, every individual who embarks on intimate relationships is responsible for knowing their needs and limits, speaking up about them, and making decisions about (and managing their conduct) in their relationships.

That said, ethically speaking, I believe the burden of initiating the closet talk falls primarily on the closeted person. If your choices or preferences would directly limit other people, you should discuss what kind of closeting you require before those effects happen.

In my experience, this isn’t much different from having the safer-sex talk. Ideally everyone should know their sexual health status and risk factors and be willing and able to discuss that before anyone’s clothes come off. However, if you happen to know you pose certain issues or risks that might affect someone else’s health or the type of safer sex measures your require (“I don’t know my STI status,” “I’m allergic to latex,” “I have HIV and currently my viral load is …,” etc.) then you should mention that before you start having sex with someone. And then, ideally, you can negotiate a very enjoyable solution.

In North America and much of the rest of the world, we live in an (ostensibly) free, egalitarian, consent-based society — where the default expectation is that everyone has freedom of expression. Therefore, if you seek to constrain someone else’s freedom of expression, it’s your responsibility to disclose that up front, and to gain explicit informed consent. (Hopefully, you leave room for flexibility and negotiation. That really helps.)

That is: It’s not OK to coast along, form a new bond with someone, and only later acknowledge your closet after they start bumping painfully against its walls. (Well, you can do that, and people often do, but that’s a pretty crappy and irresponsible way to treat someone you claim to care about.)

I’m not letting non-closeted people off the hook. To be sure, anyone can — and should — know what they require, or will/won’t comply with, in terms of outness or closeting for themselves as well as complying with closeting requested by lovers, partners and metamours. Also, anyone can — and should — initiate the “do we need to keep this a secret” talk. I’m out to everyone, and now I always discuss outness early in relationships — because I’ve been too burned by failing to do so in the past.

Here’s how I handle it. I’m clear from the start with everyone that I’m out as poly in every context, and that I’m also dedicated to being solo, even when I’m in significant relationships. So anyone who dates me knows immediately that the escalator is never an option with me. (Just like they learn quickly fluid-bonded sex is permanently off the table for me.)

However, I tend to be circumspect about mentioning my brand-new intimate connections to people other than my closest confidantes, because often I decide after a little while that I don’t want to continue dating that person. It is easier to disengage from a connection that doesn’t have much of a public profile; there is something to be said for that. Still, I’m comfortable being seen by others with a brand new dating partner in any setting.

Once I have decided I’d like to keep dating someone, I make sure to discuss their comfort level with being out about dating me. The timing of this varies, but it’s usually somewhere between a few dates and a few months — depending on how I feel about our connection, or how the other person seems to be feeling.

During these conversations I explain that, to me, being out about my relationships/connections does not mean publicly presenting as “a couple,” applying labels like boyfriend/girlfriend, broadcasting intimate details on social media, etc. Nor does it mean I make a point of telling everyone we’d meet that we’re not exclusive. That’s not my style. It does mean that I will not lie about or conceal my relationships, or tolerate being lied about or hidden by a lover. (I’m usually fine if they prefer not to explicitly volunteer information about our relationship to others, as long as they do tell their other partners or new connection. But to me, lies of commission and omission are Very Bad News. I don’t trust, or stay involved with, liars.)

Part of what I expect in terms of outness is basic respect. I expect my lovers will not suddenly demote me, through words or actions, to “just a friend” if we’re out somewhere on a date and happen to encounter someone they know from another context. Personally, I find such behavior deeply disrespectful, and certainly not at all friendly. I’m not ashamed of myself or my lovers — and anyone who wants to share friendship, affection, intimacy, and sex with me had better not act ashamed of me either.

If a new lover or metamour requests or requires some kind of closeting, I try to figure out exactly what they mean — and what they’re willing the negotiate on. And then I make judgment calls about what I’m willing to deal with, or try for a limited time. If we can find enough common ground, we move forward.

What’s so hard about initiating the closet talk?

I’ve seen so much strife, and so many breakups, over closeting. Usually it’s more about what was left unsaid.

Many people simply don’t know themselves and their relationships needs very well. Especially if they’re new to relationships, or at least off-the-escalator relationships. It’s uncomfortable and embarrassing to think this stuff through clearly, and even harder to raise it as a topic of discussion. (This may be a reason why when movies get romantic, the soft-focus lens comes out.)

Plus, these conversations can be scary and risky. You never really know what kind of response to expect; I’ve been very surprised by this sometimes. People often have significantly different needs or preferences about relationship outness that aren’t at all apparent until you get around to discussing it specifically.

Outness disparities can definitely be a dealbreaker. Broaching the closet conversation means that you may discover a major incompatibility, which would mean you’d need to make hard choices about whether to scale back or end a relationship; or to continue under potentially painful conditions. If you’re already feeling emotionally invested in that relationship, that’s damn hard to do. Which is why it’s better to have the closet talk sooner rather than later.

Also, people’s tastes, circumstances, and needs change over time. If someone who was originally pretty out about a relationship later decide they’d rather be closeted, that can be extremely painful and disruptive for the partners who suddenly start getting treated like a secret — or who get dumped for objecting to or not keeping up with escalating requirements for “discretion”. (Yeah, ouch. Been there, done that — just last year, in fact.)

And of course, some people are dreadfully averse to conflict or change. In the name of “not hurting anyone,” (um, especially not making themselves uncomfortable) they will end up causing far more pain and damage — and then acting like it “just happened.”

But too often, I’ve found, people dodge the closet talk for reasons tied to the privileges and presumptions of the relationship escalator.

Off-the-escalator relationships lack social privilege. Part of how privilege of any kind works is that it shapes people’s default assumptions about what kind of people or relationships are “normal” — which means they don’t need to be explained or discussed. Privilege also defines a default hierarchy: which people or relationships are “serious” or “matter,” or who should do the accommodating vs. who gets accommodated.

Dodging the closet talk lets you pretend that social privilege doesn’t exist; that everything about your relationships is strictly personal. It lets some people pretend they aren’t advantaged; or that others don’t have as much to lose. It lets some people pretend that they aren’t disadvantaged, and therefore don’t need to do more work to protect their own interests. (It sucks to recognize that you’re on the downside of a tilted playing field.)

…Not that this helps. You can dodge conversations, but reality always catches up. What’s especially common is that after a long time in an emotionally invested or otherwise committed relationship, the partner who is being treated more or less like a secret starts resenting it and complaining about it or acting out. Especially if the unacknowledged closet starts shrinking.

I’ve been guilty of this.

In my last long-term relationship (with a married poly man, which lasted over three years), I mostly assumed from the start that my boyfriend and his wife were mostly out about their other relationships and partners because they acted that way — even calling themselves poly in social settings and engaging in public poly activism. But over time they started retreating to closet and its privileges. Unfortunately, they didn’t bother to tell me this; they left it for me to figure this out from their behavior. When that shift happened my boyfriend continued our relationship but gradually started marginalizing how “public” he was about me — which I found confusing, dismaying, and hurtful. Meanwhile his wife grew more resentful and angry about me — although she wouldn’t discuss this with me either.

Not surprisingly, we ended up having a big blowup — at a poly conference, of all places. I pulled him aside for a conversation about how he and his wife had treated me with stunning inconsideration that weekend, and ended up yelling at him. In a hotel lobby. With other people around — who all stopped talking and stared momentarily. I can yell pretty loud.

Yeah, that’s not the way I like to behave. Even worse, I knew that I was pulling a privilege trick — I’m a smallish white woman; he’s a large black man. If he was to yell back at me in public, someone would probably call the cops. I was feeling powerless, betrayed and disrespected and wanted to wield a little power over him in revenge. I am not proud of this, and hope never to repeat that behavior.

That wasn’t necessary. We could have avoided that crap, plus our horrific breakup that dragged out over the next couple of months.

The right thing to do would have been for all of us (his wife included) to have clearly and directly discussed our feelings and needs about closeting right from the outset — and periodically throughout the relationship. Even just to acknowledge that we weren’t quite sure where we were at on this matter. We all took too much for granted.

Ideally, they would have owned and volunteered to me their growing constraints. Or they would have at least answered my questions honestly. Or I could have been more willing to recognize that they just weren’t going to offer the communication and negotiation I needed.

Yes, I would have had make a hard choice about that treasured relationship much earlier: to leave, or to abide by their ever-shrinking and shifting closet. But in hindsight, that would have been best. Hard choices always come with mixed feelings and regret. But I’ve learned that not making hard choices ultimately hurts much more.

The upside to being out

Talking about the closet, and owning up to yours and the impact it can have on others, is really hard. I know this from experience. I have compassion for it. I also have compassion for people who are closeted — it’s not a comfortable place to be (even if you do get to hang onto some privilege in there). Hurting their lovers, partners, or metamours is usually the last thing in the world that closeted people want. They’re caught in the bind of trying to decide how to cause the least pain — and there’s never a good solution to that.

Also, if you’re newly exploring or experimenting with a different approach to relationships, it’s understandable that you might not want to claim that identity for yourself or publicly acknowledge those off-the-escalator excursions. Premature self-labeling is bad for everyone; it’s really okay to be an unsure newbie, and to want to stay closeted until you feel more certain. And also, you are never obliged to label yourself at all. Still, if you’re a newbie, it’s best to be clear about that with the people you date while exploring.

Is being out worth it? Despite the real and perceived risks, personally I think often the choice to be out (or at least more out) is usually worth it — especially for poly and other honestly nonmonogamous people. That’s because the closet truly sucks for everyone in it. So far I can count on one hand the people who’ve told me they are closeted and feel totally fine about it. Almost everyone who’s closeted would much rather be out, if they thought it was safe for them to do so.

I keep coming back to all those surveys and conversations. All the closeted honestly nonmonogamous people who’ve told me how their lives and loves would be better if more people were out about their nonstandard relationships. It’s really hard to reconcile having an approach to relationships so strongly rooted in honesty, authenticity and communication — and then trying to conceal exactly that.

Also, I know from talking to my gay, bisexual, queer, and transgendered friends how they have benefitted directly and indirectly from increasing numbers of people being out about those identities.

So many of the out (or mostly out) poly/open people I’ve heard from speak of the strong sense of relief and freedom they’ve experienced by not hiding themselves, their partners, or their way of viewing and doing relationships. Usually the backlash, if any, was far outweighed by these gains. Very, very few people have said they’ve regretted being out, even if getting there was rough.

In a recent podcast, sex columnist and author Dan Savage explicitly made a crucial connection — that the recent gains in many states toward gay marriage are largely thanks to the legion of gay people who decided to be out — even in the face of great personal risk. That more gay people being out helps win the acceptance and active support of the majority of people who are straight — and who also vote or serve in legislative bodies. That more people being out reduces the risk of being out.

He’s got a point. Out people are the long-term insurance policy for any marginalized community.

Not every relationship issue is a legislative issue, like same-sex marriage. But personal relationships are always social matters, and they’re always affected by social norms. Fortunately we do have the power to change those norms if we choose to exercise that power. This process is almost never comfortable, fast or secure, but it’s necessary.

There’s a reason why, these days, it’s not just illegal for a man to rape his wife, but also a huge social no-no to say that she deserved it. Things do change. That’s just one important shift in social norms I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, and I’m not that old!

People who don’t match social norms often stay closeted because they feel ashamed, vulnerable and powerless. Yet one of the most powerful and effective steps they can take to make life better for themselves and for people like them is to choose to be out. Or at least to be as out as possible.

When more people from marginalized groups become more visible, they become less marginal. It gets harder to dismiss them as “those weirdos over there.” They’re your friends, colleagues, neighbors, and family members. They’re full people — enriched but not defined by any single trait or category. And they deserve as much respect and consideration as anyone. The more people are out, the less room shame and stigma have to steer anyone’s choices.

So if the closet is your choice, that really is fine. But if you’re closeted because you feel this isn’t the right time to be out, remember that times do change. Pride Month stands as a testimony to that. This month, if you’re not monogamous and not fully out about that yet, you might want to pause to consider why and how you’re in the closet. If you fear negative consequences, have you investigated how realistic they might be? Also, consider how out you could be someday, and how you might get there.

Even if you choose to try to stay in the closet (because that may indeed be the best choice for you), it helps to think these matters through clearly, and communicate about them with your lovers, partners, and metamours.

35 thoughts on “The poly closet: It’s not just about you

  1. So Aggie, can we expect you to write under your real name rather than a pseudonym?

    • aggiesez says:

      Good question! To me, Aggie Sez is more of a pen name than anything else. I have a separate career as an independent media professional and so I’ve begun this relationship-oriented work under a pen name mainly as a branding issue — as many writers have done. But once my book is out later this year I expect I’ll be using my pen name and given name more interchangeably.

    • Susan says:

      Sometimes, online, it’s a matter of *safety*.

      • aggiesez says:

        Personally, my choice to use a pen name for this blog is really about branding and not about safety. As I mention, I’ve been out everywhere as poly for ages. But I realize others may have safety concerns in similar situations.

  2. Angela says:

    Thanks for this post. Telling people about one’s sexual orientation or proclivities is a highly personal subject. For example, would you say the same things about people who are into BDSM? Should everyone into BDSM be “out of the closet” about with all their family and friends and business associates? I know people who are into BDSM and are certainly not in the least bit “out” with that.

    The word “poly” or “polyamory” has been used to encompass a wide-range of sexual openness. People who have had extramarital or non-monogamous sexual relationships come in many different forms that it’s not an “in” or “out” experience. For some, it may have been one encounter. For others, it may have been a period of time. For others, they may be swingers who aren’t “poly” at all.

    Over time, our society and culture has come to accept being gay or lesbian due to the brave souls who have come out. But I think society in general has only accepted gay and lesbian relationships in terms of monogamy. There is still much stigma for people of all sexual orientations when it comes to multiple partners, fetishes, bondage, threesomes, etc. And, one’s sexuality is a very vulnerable and personal topic for which many people don’t want to “out” to the world. If I had a thing for kink, fetish, or orgies, I’m certainly not going to tell all my work associates and parents about it.

    In order to respond more meaningful to what I’m hoping you are trying to say in this post, I think you need to be more specific about what you mean by “poly” and what specific relationships and circumstances you think people should be perhaps more courageous about being “out” about.

    I also think some people don’t “out” themselves because they don’t know how to label themselves or perhaps don’t want to be labeled — perhaps there isn’t a label for their particular “poly” thinking. Being gay or lesbian is a bit more straight-forward. You are gay, so you have partners of the same sex. That is a far cry from, “Hey, I like to be spanked by someone who is not my wife.” Or, “occasionally, my girlfriend from Texas sleeps with me and my husband.” I mean, how do you “out” yourself with these things and why would you?

    So, I need more compelling reasons and specific examples of when a sexual behavior is important to be “outed” for the good for all and when, perhaps, it might be best to maintain privacy. For example, I would agree, if you are going to have a significant relationship with someone in a truly “polyamorous” way as part of your life, then, the people close to you and around you might need to be informed of this to be true to that person with whom you are hoping to have a significant relationship with. Maybe this would be the courageous thing to do for the good of all.

    I have been very open with my friends, spouse, and mom about my non-monogamy. However, I don’t tell everyone I meet and there is no status for me on Facebook. That being said, I don’t hide it either. I just don’t advertise. I don’t see myself in the closet as much as having discretion. And, ideally, sure, I’d like to come out in public and say, “I practice non-monogamy occasionally,” and not have that result in psychos stalking me, people thinking I’ll sleep with anyone (particularly them), or colleagues and clients acting weird. When and where do I make this announcement? What purpose would it serve? Give me some more ideas and suggestions, and I might consider it.

    • aggiesez says:

      Good questions and points, Angela.

      In practical terms, being out about nonstandard aspects of your relationships means:

      1. Not hiding or lying about who you have relationships with, or about how you prefer to have relationships. This doesn’t necessarily mean volunteering that info all the time, but it does mean not misrepresenting yourself or your partners by commission or omission. (Unless everyone involved wants to be closeted).

      2. Owning whatever labels you choose, if any. For instance, if you do consider yourself poly, open, kinky, whatever: don’t be afraid or ashamed to say so if it’s relevant to the conversation/context or if you are asked. If you don’t label yourself or are unsure, you don’t need to find or use a label just to have one. This is especially useful when interacting w/ people who are voicing intolerant or ignorant attitudes. It’s far more effective to counter that by standing up for who you are, rather than theoretically saying non mainstream choices might theoretically be good for some people.

      I agree, discretion is important. It’s probably too much to explain what kind of sex you have or kinks you enjoy in most contexts. But it’s pretty easy to acknowledge that you have non standard relationships without describing sexual acts. I mean, if someone says they’re married you assume they have sex, and that its rude to ask what kind of sex they have. Same applies to other relationships.

      Yeah, some people will act like offended prudes or prying jerks just because you don’t hide who you are. That’s their problem, and feel free to tell them when they cross the line. They need to learn that their assumptions and behavior are what need to change. That’s part of what evolves social norms: when people learn that they need to accept and accommodate diversity, or at least that they’re being jerks if they don’t.

  3. Stella says:

    Very clear and convincing exposition Aggie, you’re writing style and socio-political message is strong and compelling and you WILL succeed over time in changing social norms and behavior, Im sure of that, bravo.
    In my case, im out to my (western) close friends and family about my nearly 2 year relationship with my married boyfriend, but I would not want him (nor would he want to be) out to his wife, family and friends. The reason is because it would hurt her, she might leave him or otherwise disrupt their family life which seems to go on more or less in a harmonious way. Im old enough and confident enough to not need that, to be “recognized” or “validated” as counting as an important person in his life, I KNOW I am. Because we live far apart and in different societies it works.

    I used to think sharing a man equalled low self-esteem. Now I think it means high self-esteem:) Keep up the encouraging blog Aggie! You give us all courage to be who we are:)

    • aggiesez says:

      Hi, Stella

      To clarify, you’re in a relationship with a married man, but his wife does not know?

      • Stella says:

        Yes thats right. They dont live together, but they are raising two young children together and visit each other from time to time. Honesty and transparency and love and family can mean many different things, isnt that what your blog is supposed to stand for?

      • aggiesez says:

        Thanks, Stella.

        Well, this blog only “stands for” what I choose to write here, or what my guest authors post, or what the commenters post. I share my own personal ethics, opinions, experiences, and views; so do other people. I definitely don’t believe in the “one true way” for anything.

        I appreciate you providing additional clarification, since all relationships are unique.

  4. Harper Eliot says:

    This is a great article. Far too many good points for me to point out… I think I’m lucky in that I became non-monogamous after already struggling a great deal with kinky, and being a sex writer. For me, in my situation, the latter two are far more problematic than the former, so being out about being non-monogamous has seemed very natural and easy. It’s not that scary to tell someone you have more than one partner when what you’re not telling them is that you like to be tied down and beaten until you bruise and bleed. If you see my point.

    Also… your point about people acting in certains ways so they’re “not hurting anyone” is so apt in so many situations: I think one of the main reasons I find relationships in general so frightening is that far too many people try to be kind by withholding, in order to save my – or someone else’s – feelings. And I loathe this because, as you quite rightly point out, it tends to lead to more damage and complications than if you were just honest in the first place. It seems to me that generally speaking, the less honest you are, the more complicated your situation will be.

    • aggiesez says:

      Thanks, Harper.

      As I mentioned to Angela above, it seems to me that it’s not really difficult to mention that you are in, or prefer, nonstandard relationships without having to detail your sex or kink life to anyone. People may try to pry or make assumptions about whether you’re seeking sex/kink just by making such a mention — but IMHO that’s their problem.

      If people indicate they think I’m saying I’m available for sex with anyone, or that I’m willing to tell them about my sex life, just because I mention that I’m poly, I have no problem saying, “that’s private and none of your business. BTW, when someone says they’re married or have a long-term partner, do you automatically ask them about their sex life or availability? Oh, it would be rude? Yeah, you might want to think about that.”

      Seriously, I have said that to people’s faces. It’s kinda fun.

      Also, I agree about the dangers of “protecting” people from the truth — whether you’re doing it, or involved with someone who claims to do it. Huge red flag and ethical quagmire, IME.

      That’s why I personally choose to steer clear of relationships where active dishonesty is involved, and also the passive dishonesty of don’t-ask-don’t-tell arrangements where partners agree to specifically avoid communicating about their additional relationships or intimate connections.

      So often people withhold important information or embark on dishonest relationships out of a claimed desire to “spare someone’s feelings” — and sometimes that may be true. But eventually this usually becomes a big ol’ landmine waiting to blow up all over everyone. And personally, I don’t ever want to be involved in that. Did that a very long time ago in my first poly relationship, and it was a nightmare all the way around.

      The big catch is: I’ve found that people who are actively dishonest with their existing partners are highly likely to be dishonest with any other lovers or partners, or just in general — and that would put me at too much risk in all sorts of ways. I’m not risk averse, but I don’t take stupid risks, and for me that would be a very stupid risk indeed.

      I understand that some people (like, apparently, Stella above — if I’m understanding her comment correctly) are OK with situations where existing partners aren’t being fully honest with each other about their other relationships or intimate connections. That’s their choice to make. We all have our own risk tolerances, and ethics do have lots of gray areas. We all make, and are responsible for, our own choices.

  5. Val says:

    Thank you for this blog post, today of all days. Over this past weekend, it has been a nagging concern of mine that my poly relationship (one right now) is closeted. It began as an agreed upon closeting, but over the years, I have wanted to be more “out” about our relationship. The bold-face lying about being “a friend” to keep to the social norms, bothers me deeply and is something that I would like to change. This will help me to start a conversation that I feel needs to be had.

    • aggiesez says:

      Thanks, Val. Yes, people’s needs in relationships always grow and change. Which is why I think it helps to consider where & when there might be room for negotiating with closeting. Some people need closeting when they’re initially getting comfortable with a new relationship, and let it go later. Others are pretty rigid about it. And sometimes, as I’ve experienced, formerly out people later decide they need the closet. It’s a moving target, always worth keeping your eye on and negotiating about.

  6. Stella says:

    “All I truly desire from any intimate connection is for us to be good to and for each other in whatever way feels right for us, for as long as it feels right, while being true to ourselves and fair to others. That could be a few weeks or a lifetime. But then, a lifetime could be just a few weeks, or a few minutes. Like Janis Joplin said, get it while you can.”

    Thanks Aggie, I loved this:)

  7. Scott Campbell says:

    I made the deliberate decision about five years ago to stop worrying about what people would think of me and just talk about my poly lifestyle as if it is perfectly normal — which to me, by now, it is. I mention that I live with my girlfriend and her husband and leave it at that; if people want to pick up on it and ask questions, they’re welcome to. And I have found that in almost all cases, if you treat it like it’s no big deal, the people you’re talking to will take your cue and treat it the same way. Want to be accepted? Just act like you already are.

  8. […] I read this excellent article by Aggie at Solopoly, about being in or coming out of the poly closet. You can read the article for […]

  9. SHG says:

    I’m not out at work because, if things get bad, I can’t leave. I have to be there, every single day, to make my rent. For the sake of my mental health, I try to make my time there as bearable as possible. I do make a point of letting it be known that I am not homophobic (unlike my boss), that I have queer and trans friends, and that I’ve marched in Pride.

    Outside of work, I am completely open and out. It’s not a super brave thing, because I know that there won’t be any very negative consequences for me. I won’t lose any real friends. My parents didn’t take it well, but they still talk to me. I figure that being out with friends and family is the least I can do, on behalf of all those people who have it worse than me. I definitely do enjoy the freedom to be myself, and not have to remember who knows what or what “my story” is.

    Being out isn’t always comfortable, but it gets easier with time. Most people don’t make a big deal of it if you act as if it’s perfectly normal. With people from my bf’s work, or his hobby, I always feel more comfortable if I’m seen with his wife. That way they know that everything’s above board, and I’m not some conniving harlot. But I’ve also learned that most people don’t care or spend as much time thinking about it as I think they do.

  10. Ace says:

    Reblogged this on The Thinking Asexual and commented:
    A fantastic post!
    As a celibate asexual and a radical relationship anarchist, I’ve set the closet on fire, and I’m never looking back!

  11. Del says:

    Reblogged this on Sex, Gods, and Rock Stars and commented:
    A wonderful and insightful essay on “being in the closet” – or not – when it comes to nonstandard relationships. These concepts and ideas can be applied to all sorts of relationships, from nonmonogamy to power dynamics toqueer/LGBT families. I am out as I think is possible for a person to be – my birth family, friends, and aquaintences all know I have nonstandard relationships of many kinds. It was not easy, and there were prices to be paid, but in the end being *honest* about how and who I love was too important to me not to risk possible rejection. And most people I’ve come out to, even people I was afraid would be violent or abusive when I told them, usually come around to the opinion that as long as I am happy, and everyone involved enthusiastically consents and is happy, that’s all that matters.

  12. veggiewolf says:

    Reblogged this on Eating Monsters and commented:
    An exceptional poly post.

  13. elnigma says:

    Interesting article, but about this I disagree:
    “It’s important to realize that closeting is always a choice — even though closeted people often deflect personal responsibility by saying they feel they “have no choice;” and even though people can be outed against their will.”
    Outing someone against their will means taking their choices away from someone, so no.

  14. Robert says:

    Actually, it turns out, unless I am having sex with someone or hoping to, my sexuality is completely irrelevant to just about any conversation that might come up in most contexts. As is, for example, my choice of food, or house paint. Certainly being “out” is a luxury, and like most luxuries most people would prefer to have that luxury than not, but it is not a luxury everyone can afford. In 2013, people still lose things like jobs, housing and child-custody over their non-traditional sexuality. People are still disowned by their families and friends for the same. It is not my place to judge another person’s circumstance regarding such things; as a very general rule, people who are closeted in whatever respect are so for pretty legitimate reasons. Because, as you correctly point out, honestly is otherwise a hell of a lot easier.

    • aggiesez says:

      Thanks, Robert. I hear that a lot from people who prefer to be closeted. As I said, it’s totally valid to choose the closet — there are indeed risks. But honestly, I’ve usually found (when I ask people why they’re closeted) that in many cases people simply assume the risks of being out are huge before they realistically investigate them. Sometimes they are real; often they’re a knee-jerk excuse.

      It is, after all, much more comfortable to claim that your unexamined fears are justified rather than admit that you want to hang on to privilege or avoid criticism, scrutiny, or marginalization by pretending to be part of the mainstream — especially if you’re doing so at the expense of people you claim to care for.

  15. Michael says:

    Um…there’s a lot missing here. Have you actually spoken to someone who lost a job because they decided to be out at work? How about someone who has had relations permanently strained with a family member? Or did you interview the couple whose children were taken away by their grandparents?

    I agree that you are “correct,” but, alas, life is messy.

    It’s wonderful if Jada Pinkett and Will Smith can do it, and sure, but it isn’t every individual poly person’s job to educate the world–and I find it a bit victim-blaming to say that people who aren’t out are depriving people of an opportunity. Ask Alan Turing or Oscar Wilde if it was such a great thing to come out as gay–don’t just ask Ru Paul or Dan Savage and assume that the world is a perfectly equal safe space for everyone.

    I have nothing wrong with the spirit of what you say–just, be careful. I know it probably isn’t a popular thing to say, but, yes I have been out at places or with people and wish I could take it back. Things don’t always inevitably turn out for the best–that’s just wishful thinking.

    Being out is a privilege. Calling it a choice is a bit stigmatizing. You don’t know everyone and you don’t know their circumstances. There are perfectly valid reasons, and I am willing to accept and respect them.

    • aggiesez says:

      Hi, Michael

      As I mentioned in this post, there are valid reasons to be closeted, and if people want to be closeted that’s up to them.

      Also, there are indeed personal risks in being out. There are also many personal and collective risks in being closeted. I’m asking people to consider both reasonably and fairly, and to not leap to conclusions about risks. And to not automatically assume that the risks of being out are personally dire to them. Don’t just assume that you are helpless and powerless. Rather, if you choose to be closeted, investigate those risks you think you face, see how you might be able to mitigate them, and consider how out you could be safely (or at least with a level of risks you’re willing to accept).

      And if you can be more out than you are, consider how that might benefit you and others like you — and maybe try to take some steps toward being as out as you feel you can safely be.

      Assuming a defensive crouch without fully investigating your options doesn’t really help anyone. Fear of being out shouldn’t be a vague bogeyman. Yet often, people do claim to be concerned about job loss, etc., due to being out before they seriously investigate which risks they actually face and how they might mitigate those. Knowledge is power.

      I’m working on some followup posts about how to assess and mitigate the risks of being out as poly/open — and options for handling being outed against your will.

      Seriously investigating and mitigating your risks of outness is important even if you don’t want or don’t plan to be out at all. Because if you’re in the closet, you can always be outed against your wishes. It’s better to learn about and plan for that possibility and to try to position yourself to avoid the worst harm than to simply believe that trying to conceal your nontraditional relationships and expecting others to be complicit in this is enough to protect you.

      • Michael says:

        Exercising restraint or caution is not the same thing as fear. Is it a “defensive crouch” if I choose not to bring all of my partners to a work picnic? No, it’s a simple judgement call–weighing the option of making dozens of people uncomfortable against the potential disappointment of one or two people that probably don’t care very much for my coworkers anyway.

        Not that there is anything so universally wrong with fear and being afraid. If I am in Uganda, you’d better believe I won’t say anything about my alternative sexuality–and if I weren’t afraid, I’d be either suicidal or pretty darn stupid.

        Unfortunately, the condition of being “out” is such that once it’s there, it can’t ever be put back into the box. For that reason, people have every right to be careful, cautious, or, in some extreme circumstances, even fearful.

      • aggiesez says:

        I don’t think you’re understanding what I’ve said, or are choosing not to hear it.

        Yes, being out can be risky and lead to loss or danger. So can being closeted.

        Yes you can choose to be closeted. That will protect you from some discomfort and risk, But if you do so, that can have bad impacts on your partners and relationship, as well as perpetuate the social dynamic that makes people fear being out. And you can still be outed anyway.

        I realize asking closeted people to recognize and accept that their choice to try to be closeted has negative impacts on others makes some people uncomfortable and defensive. It isn’t my goal to shame people.

        But closeted people generally really hate being closeted. It’s stressful and poisonous. And there is so much for all of us to gain by more of us being out — it could make the world a safer place for us. So I think its worth asking people to consider this issue more closely, and to examine risks and consider options, and to do what we can to minimize the risks. And not to reflexively overestimate the risks of outness. Examine them.

  16. rhiannontannon says:

    Reblogged this on I Will Survive and commented:
    While I do not agree with all her points, I feel like I should repost this. I Will Survive is mainly about rape and sexual violence, but poly rights are another passion of mine.

  17. […] I appreciated this quote on SoloPoly: […]

  18. Reblogged this on Loving Without Boundaries and commented:
    This is an exceptional polyamorous post. During a week for me that dealt with stigmas, mainstream couple privilege and “coming out” to more friends, this post seems very a propos. Instead of taking large excerpts from this post, I welcome and urge you to read the piece in its entirety. Please feel free to offer your feedback and comments. Enjoy!

  19. […] The past week made me think of some of the points in an article I “re-blogged” yesterday: The Poly Closet: It’s Not Just About You. […]

  20. […] I read this excellent article by Aggie at Solopoly, about being in or coming out of the poly closet. You can read the article for […]

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