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.