October 11, 2012 by aggiesez
Today is National Coming Out Day, and it’s not just a LGBTQ thing. So: If you’re polyamorous, are you out?
National Coming Out Day is a holiday to celebrate the many amazing people who don’t match our society’s norms for sexuality, gender, and relationship orientation or preference. Specifically this holiday celebrates people who publicly embrace their identity as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, and more.
Yes, “outness” is an important issue in polyamory. Many of us are in the closet, at least to some extent — concealing some or all of our important relationships from friends, colleagues, family, neighbors, etc.
Personally I think being out as poly is not only a great way to live, but it’s also crucial for combatting ignorance of (and bias against) poly and open relationships. It’s harder for people to be ignorant or intolerant about polyamory and other honestly open relationship approaches when they know people who are not only poly/open, but who don’t try to hide it.
It helps when people see that our lives are no more thrilling, dangerous, boring, or fucked up than theirs — with the possible exception of the inherent stresses of holding any identity which falls beyond the social mainstream.
It’s not always obvious how out poly/open someone is
I’ve known — and even have been seriously involved with with — people who are very active in the poly community, who march in Pride parades, help organize poly events, and call themselves poly/open activists — who I realized only years later were still significantly closeted.
It might take awhile to notice that your partner is happy to take you out on a nice date in public, but he’ll never mention being poly/open outside poly circles. Or maybe your partner (or her primary partner, who is your metamour) might unexpectedly freak out if you mention your relationship casually in a non-poly social setting, the way a mono person might offhandedly mention “my girlfriend.”
If you’re out, in whatever sense, it’s pretty challenging to get very involved with someone who’s closeted. Especially if you’re an out solo poly person in a relationship with someone in a not-really-very out primary couple.
Nevertheless, to be clear: The poly closet is a valid choice. Being out as poly does entail tradeoffs and potential risks, so no one should ever be forced to be out. Coming out can be especially difficult or risky for people who are very emotionally or logistically vulnerable, or who lack steadfast support from nonjudgmental friends or family. Personally, I believe it should be up to individuals to out themselves if they choose, when they choose, and to the extent they wish.
…Of course, this reality check applies: people talk, you can’t control what others do or say, and there’s always Murphy’s Law. So if you do opt for the poly closet, you’d best have a contingency plan to handle being outed despite your wishes. It does happen.
Why be out as poly?
In my experience, a key benefit of outing yourself as poly is freedom from fear. You deprive others of this lever to threaten you. You also pre-empt speculation that you’re a cheater, or a liar.
By being out, you also help others. You provide a positive example to other poly/open people (closeted or not), as well as to society at large. If we’re not ashamed of ourselves, it doesn’t matter if they try to shame us.
Coming out as poly may surprise some people, and when you come out you will almost certainly face some judgment and lose some friends. But you will get to hold your head up — and you will almost certainly gain respect, friendship, love, and support where it really counts. Coming out is brave, which is why quality people recognize and reward it.
What special implications does being out have for solo poly or open people?
If you consider yourself poly or open, and you don’t have — and maybe don’t want or aren’t seeking — a primary partner of your own, then being “out” beyond the confines of the poly community means that people may often make disrespectful assumptions about you.
Most commonly, your friends, family, colleagues and neighbors may make patronizing remarks that invalidate your choice. They may say, or imply, that being poly/open is “just a phase” until you’re “ready to settle down” and have a “serious” or “real” relationship. They may also voice concern that you have low self esteem, or that you may be harming yourself or others. And they’ll imply that you’re perhaps idealistic but probably a bit dim or hopeless because nonmonogamous relationships “never work out.”
You may find that people who previously inquired about your love life suddenly stop asking, or change the subject when you raise it.
Some people may treat you as if you’re sexually promiscuous, greedy, immature, unreliable, flaky, or obstinately provocative. They may demur on being seen in public places with you, to avoid guilt by association. Or they could even treat you with suspicion, as if you’re scheming for an opportunity to steal their mate, or to contaminate their family and friends with dangerous notions.
You may be rejected from, or be the target of hostility at, singles gatherings and mainstream online dating services. And you’ll definitely find fewer people willing to meet or date you (for anything other than casual sex) if you’re out as poly — or even if you merely acknowledge that you’re at least unopposed to having poly/open relationships.
Being out as poly may put you at a disadvantage for dating outside the poly community — even for casual dating, and even if you currently have no other partners. But if you do date non poly/open people, being out to them from the start and all along may help prevent or minimize those “Well, I just assumed you were over that nonsense” conversations later.
If you’re a solo poly person who does have one or more significant ongoing intimate relationships, expect non-poly people to say or imply that those relationships can’t really be very serious, that your partner(s) couldn’t possibly really love you, or that you’re being exploited or should expect to be treated poorly. They’ll look for signs that you or your partners really want “something more.” And any problems or estrangement will be attributed to the absence of monogamy.
Where couple privilege and poly outness collide
It’s common for solo poly folk to get significantly involved with people who are part of an established primary couple — such as a poly man who lives alone and has for years been the steady serious boyfriend of a married poly woman, with lots of emotional commitment and regular time spent together.
It’s also common for poly primary couples to be out only about their primary relationship; their other relationships (regardless of depth or duration) often remain more or less a secret. In other words, they only have one “public” relationship which apparently conforms to social norms, and thus garners social couple privilege. This means a condition of involvement with them is that you’ll have to step into the poly closet, even if you are otherwise out as poly.
Sometimes this happens due to real concerns about losing custody of a child, or job or housing opportunities, etc. Sometimes it’s because the primary couple is new to experimenting with nonmonogamy, or because the non-primary relationship is very new or very casual.
But more often, I’ve found, concealing non-primary relationships has more to do with preserving couple privilege than anything else.
When a primary couple has additional relationships, on an honest basis, and when they clearly value and are proud of those relationships, there’s a price to pay. Typically they sacrifice status in mainstream society. Others will express derision, concern, ridicule and contempt for the couple’s relationship and their individual character. There will be rampant predictions of doom based on nothing more than their nonmonogamous preference — as if monogamy ever guaranteed “true love,” commitment, happiness, or relationship longevity or “success” for anyone.
Primary couples who favor a strongly hierarchical approach to open relationships (closer to what Dan Savage calls “monogamish,” or Tristan Taormino terms “partnered nonmonogamy“) are especially likely to closet their additional relationships, to reinforce and emphasize their primary status.
This is a pretty substantial power dynamic. It’s also a valid choice; people can run their relationships however they want.
As long as these primary couples are clear with their additional partners, up front and all along, about the kind of closeting and other limits that would apply to involvement with them, I have no problem with this kind of hierarchy. (Personally I refuse to be closeted, and people who require that are welcome to find other partners.)
The point is: prospective partners deserve to know what they’d really be signing up for, what kinds of secrets they’d be expected to keep, and how they could expect to be treated in various contexts.
When a primary couple has only one public relationship, that can have many possible effects on non-primary partners:
- The non-primary partner often gets introduced as a “friend,” or not introduced at all.
- The non-primary partner may get excluded from gatherings and events that aren’t specifically focused on the poly/open community.
- Dates or other outings with the non-primary partner happen only at home, or at poly community events, or in out-of-the-way settings where the person from the primary couple is unlikely to be seen by someone who knows the primary couple.
- No public displays of affection with the non-primary partner may be allowed.
- The non-primary partner may get ignored or avoided in public, at least if the primary couple is out together.
- The non-primary partner never gets mentioned in social media, or in public, in ways that might even tangentially imply or acknowledge the non-primary relationship.
- The primary couple is uncomfortable with the non-primary partner mentioning or implying the non-primary relationship on social media or in any context outside the poly community. (That is, the non-primary partner faces an implicit or explicit “gag order” on mentioning his/her own relationship in public.)
- In the event of conflict, the inherent power imbalance of closeting can encourage the primary couple to treat the non-primary partner as more disposable, or less worthy of consideration and negotiation.
When a non-primary relationship is fairly new and/or not very emotionally invested, these kinds of things usually aren’t such a big deal. It’s healthy to have boundaries when you’re first really getting to know someone, while you’re figuring out what you might really want.
But after, say, several years of a married poly man professing deep love and commitment for his girlfriend, the lack of such small acknowledgements (which primary couples who are socially assumed to be monogamous can take for granted) can start to sting. Even for a solo poly person who does not want a primary partner.
Because of the prevalence of couple privilege in our society, and in the poly/open community, I personally believe that poly/open primary couples bear a unique responsibility to be especially honest with themselves, and with their additional partners or people they’re courting, about how “out” they really are — or might be willing to be, in what contexts.
And especially: WHY has the primary couple chosen that particular level of poly/open outness? What exactly are you trying to protect, reinforce, distance, or avoid? Are you willing to investigate other options beside closeting to achieve those goals? If you expect your additional partners to censor or closet themselves to protect your interests, it’s only fair to be willing to explain the motives and goals behind such requests.
Also, which aspects of outness and closeting are you willing to negotiate on?
If engaging in this level of introspection about outness leaves people in a primary poly/open couple feeling like a hypocrites, or if they can’t even go there, that’s a clear signal that they’re likely to cause people who love them a ton of pain eventually.
I’m not saying that all poly primary couples, even those who tend to be closeted about their additional relationships, treat their additional partners unfairly or shabbily. In fact, one of my best friends and her husband have unfailingly treated her girlfriend with admirable respect and consideration.
But I am saying that quite often, primary couples do end up shafting non-primary partners, especially solo poly folk — and that outness disparities and expectations about closeting often make this shafting more expedient. It’s a very common problem in the poly community. In fact, nearly every solo poly person I’ve known or spoken to has encountered issues related to this, often painful ones.
Unless you generally don’t mind (or perhaps get off on) secrets, in deep ongoing relationships being treated like a secret will probably start to hurt eventually.
Solo poly folk also have a key responsibility to consider and discuss outness early on: Do you know that in the long run being treated rather like a secret by a significant partner would bother, hurt, or offend you (or even be a relationship dealbreaker), or if you are already substantially out as poly/open in most or all parts of your world? If so, then it’s only fair to raise this topic early, and to press your significant partners and metamours for clear answers as well as the right to negotiate outness issues as they arise — even if doing so feels risky or unromantic relatively early in a relationship.
…In the big picture, when more poly people — solo and partnered — have the courage to be out, being poly will be easier and safer for everyone.
So if you’re poly, I encourage you to tell someone you’re poly, today. Say it with a smile on your face. You’ll probably get a lot of smiles in return. Certainly one from me.
b>Are you a solo poly person with a coming out story? Please comment below!