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Coming "Out" Poly
First of all, what does "coming out" mean? This term was borrowed from the GLBT community (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered) which originally meant to disclose one's homosexuality. Since polyamorous people and others of alternative lifestyles face much of the same persecution and prejudices that the gay community has, the term has now come to mean disclosing anything about oneself that might be received negatively.
But to whom do you disclose this information? Who do you come out to? "Coming out of the closet" or being "outed" doesn't have to mean having your identity splashed across national newspapers, although it could. You can come out to friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, anyone who didn't know of your preference before you told them (or before someone else told them for you). But why would you come out? There are several different reasons why some of us choose to be "out" and to whom.
Coming Out To Family
Coming Out To Friends
Coming Out Publicly
Coming out to family is a big deal for some people. Many of us come from religious or conservative families who would not approve of their children having wild sex orgies or premarital sex or "cheating" on our spouses ... because, of course, that's what polyamory is all about, right? Seriously, though, this is a difficult concept for many people to grasp and many of us still seek approval and acceptance from the people we grew up with. So why would we want to shock our stern mothers or upset our frail grandparents or risk condemnation from our fathers? When we begin to build our intentional families, that's exactly what we are doing ... creating a family, just as our monogamous relatives did when they got married. Our partners are more than just playthings, they are special people in our lives, hopefully for a significant portion of our lives. We share ourselves with our partners, our day-to-day activities, our most intimate thoughts. When this life intersects with our biological family, we have to make some choices. Do we protect the delicate sensibilities of our bio-families in exchange for hiding or lying about these very special people? Or do we honor the commitment and life we built together and insist our bio-families respect our choices as we respect theirs by acknowledging relationship choices that we wouldn't make?
I chose to come out to my family when my partners started becoming "family". For a while after I first moved away from home, I would visit my hometown and my parents for Christmas. It was natural to invite a serious boyfriend home each year, to "meet the parents" if they hadn't, or to remain included in the family traditions if they had previously. But one year I didn't have one boyfriend, I had built a triad with one guy and another girl. We bought a home together and were building a life together. I couldn't see spending the holidays without them.
Rather than give up my Christmas in my hometown with my parents, which was meaningful to me, I chose to invite my new family to share my most cherished family traditions with me. I could have "explained" my two guests in any number of ways, like saying they were both "just friends" or that he was my boyfriend and she was a "good friend", to name a couple of examples. The restrictions involved in carrying off that lie, constantly censoring our speech and actions to prevent accidentally slipping and giving the secret away, not acknowledging the relationships and commitments we had in the manner a single partner or spouse is allowed recognition ... these just felt wrong, a dishonoring of the family we were building.
So I told my parents that I was inviting both of them, and that we were a family. The conversation wasn't as difficult as it could have been, mainly because my parents translated what I said into "she's bringing home her two friends and roommates". I continue to have this conversation with my parents with each evolution of my romantic network. They continue to misunderstand, but each conversation brings them closer to understanding, and some family members understood and accepted with surprising clarity.
Coming out to your family can be difficult. Some people are lucky enough to have been born into a family that is accepting and open-minded about things like this. Some people have much worse situations, coming from fundamentally conservative families in which they are in danger of being disowned and losing communication entirely. Some people are even in danger of retaliation by their family "for their own good" in the form of interventions and child-custody cases. It is up to each individual to decide if the consequences of coming out to their families is worth the acknowledgement and respect due to their loved ones. I, personally, am willing to lose the family I was raised with, that I had no choice in creating, for the sake of those I intentionally choose to share my life with. Fortunately, I have not had to make that choice yet, but each time I have the discussion with my parents, I stand ready to make that choice if necessary. It's a tough choice to make, but my intentional family, my sweeties, my lovers, are important, special, valuable people and they are worth acknowledging to the point of losing contact with people who, although they made the ultimate sacrifice in raising me, might not actually know me or respect my values. Just as lovers throughout history have eloped or formed partnerships without their family's approval, for the sake of love, my partners and our life together are no less special, important, and loving. With love and compassion, though, I hopefully won't have to make that harsh choice.
The most important thing is family; they're the ones you come home to. Sometimes it's the one you're born into, sometimes it's the one you make yourself - Queer As Folk
Coming out to friends can be either easier or more difficult depending upon what kind of social circle you have built for yourself. But why bother discussing your romantic life with non-romantic friends? Why risk potentially losing an otherwise-working friendship when who you're shagging doesn't affect them? A ha! But it does affect them! What happens when your friend hosts a party and invites you to bring a date? You can choose who among your partners gets to attend the party and risk hurt feelings for your other partners. Then the next party you can either choose the same partner and further hurt your other partners' feelings, or you can rotate among your partners and then risk having to answer questions from your friends like "Who's the new guy?" or "What happened to Jill?". Sometimes, being seen with someone not previously identified as your partner can cause "friends" to intervene with lectures of how you're "hurting" your known partner or calling him up themselves to tell him you were spotted "cheating" ... all for your own good of course. You can also avoid all parties and discussions with your friends, building a wall of secrecy between you and prohibiting any emotionally intimate friendships. Or you can just explain up front about your relationships and choose to expend your energy and emotion on maintaining friendships with people who accept you for who you are and welcome your loved ones because they love *you*.
I prefer to maintain friendships with people who are not so judgemental that they would sever our friendship or intervene in my life simply because we choose different kinds of partners. I feel that anyone who would do such things isn't really a good friend at all, even if I've known them and called them "friend" for a long time. If they are willing to drop me or constantly try to "change" me once they find out about my romantic partner(s), then obviously they can't respect me, and I can't call someone who disrespects me "friend".
So, should I come out to my friends? I think this is even more important than coming out to family, providing you can put the kind of distance required into your familial relationships that can accomodate keeping your partners secret. But your friends see you regularly. They often know you better than your family does. And your romantic partners have a very good chance of running into your friends sooner or later. I think the effort it takes to hide your lovers from your friends is far, far more taxing than the effort it takes to acknowledge and respect your lovers. Keeping your partners a secret is much more damaging to your romantic relationships than outing yourself to your friends is to that friendship.
What about coming out publicly to people you don't care about and who should have no business in your personal life, like neighbors and co-workers, or even the greater public via news articles and TV shows? Your romantic life is none of their concern, and some people can even lose work or children if they are found out. So why invite that kind of trouble?
Precisely because it invites trouble. The gay community continues to fight for equal rights, but they have made great strides, such as laws protecting their rights to work and serve in the military. Currently, in the U.S., we seem to think that what happens between consenting adults behind closed doors is everyone's business and subject to regulation by people with different value systems. What has contributed to the partial success of the GLBT community is a strength in numbers and an organized front. When employers are faced with a significant portion of the work force demanding fair treatment, changes are made. The larger our numbers appear, the more pressure we can wield to affect change in our favor. Right now, our numbers appear very small and very scattered. We will not make any significant changes unless our public number more closely resembles our actual number. If we hide who we are, society gets to pretend that either 1) we don't exist or 2) we are ashamed (or should be).
Some of us are not in danger of losing our jobs or being dragged into a custody battle. Yet many remain silent because, frankly, it is nobody else's business. But I believe we have an obligation to fight for the rights of those who cannot fight for themselves. I feel that we should stand up and add ourselves to the number of poly people who demand equal treatment under the law, and to remove prejudice and legal persecution from those who aren't actually hurting anyone else. I believe we should have the right to remain silent out of preference for what we want to discuss, not out of fear of retribution if we talk. Until that happens, I believe it is for the greater good that those of us who can, put away our personal preference for descretion and contribute to changing our society into one in which we are allowed to keep personal descretion, rather than forced to keep silent.
Every positive article, reference, and role model about polyamorous relationships makes it easier for other people to find happiness in their own lives and easier for society to accept non-traditional relationships. By being "out", we open the doors for others to live without fear. Just as those pioneers of gay rights and other groups who have faced discrimination, someone had to be first. And those people who were first paved the way for the future. This is not a matter of disclosing personal, intimate, bedroom details. This is about acknowledging your relationships as valid and important to the general public the way monogamous people are allowed to acknowledge their spouses or their children. Being "out" allows others who might feel like they are the "only ones" to have these strange feelings know that they are not alone. And it lets society in general know that these weird poly people are not just a few freaks, easily hidden and easily persecuted. We are mothers and sons and English professors and Christians, as well as hippies and computer geeks. We are people.
I treat my relationship choices as though there is nothing unusual or wrong about them. After all, if I behave as if there is something to hide, as if I am doing something wrong, then how can I expect strangers to believe otherwise? I treat my romantic life as though I have the right to have my romantic life the way it is and I expect to be treated as though I have that right. That means talking about it when I want to talk about it and not talking about it when I don't want to talk about it. If someone asks me a question, they'll get the honest answer, no matter who they are or what I think about how they'll respond. If you speak with language and information appropriate to the setting, but in a tone that assumes you have every right to mention your relationship choices just as your monogamous companions do, you will find much less resistance to your private life than you might think.
Also, being willing to discuss your relationship choices in public to anyone who indicates an interest will help you to find others like you. You can't expect to get what you don't ask for. Many people try to hide their polyamorous relationships, and then act surprised when they can't find anyone to "join their family". How is anyone supposed to know you are open for a relationship if you're not willing to talk about it to anyone? And why would anyone even want to partner with you if you're going to hide them away, not acknowledge your relationship, act as though you are both doing something worth hiding, something wrong, something to be ashamed of? While no one expects you to tattoo "I'm poly"on your forehead (although I know several people who have the heart/infinity symbol tattoo), you have to be willing to clearly state your desires and expectations up front in appropriate context or you will never find what you're looking for.
Another very important reason to be "out" to the general public is because some day, you might not have the choice. The word "polyamory" and what it means is gaining nationwide recognition as talk shows and now prime-time TV shows begin to mention alternative groups with more frequency and accuracy (and less bigotry). Reporters are getting wind of this "new movement" and starting to do stories about us, even going "undercover" when the group they target is unwilling to talk with them. The media has always broadcast whatever it wants to, and you might find yourself inadvertently outed. Keeping secrets can increase your liability. They can give other people great power over you. The only way to prevent that is to take control of your life and your choices. You can not be held hostage by your secrets if you have no secrets. I am in no danger of being "caught" at a poly meeting, because I have no one to hide that from. I am in no danger of losing my job because my work already knows. Your secrets can be a weapon used against you. The media will get its story one way or another, so the best defense is to make sure you tell them what you want them to know, so they don't find out what they want to know. If you'd like some assistance on how to answer questions and handle the media, the former Polyamory Media Association has media training materials that can assist you and I am available to provide a basic Media Training Workshop for your convention, discussion group, or other event.
This is not meant to scare anyone. The odds of any individual being targeted for an undercover news report is rare. But being accidentially outed can happen. Maybe your coworker happens to be at the grocery store while you're shopping with your two sweeties. Maybe your niece draws a picture at school of Auntie 1 and Uncle and Auntie 2. Maybe your cousin unexpectedly shows up at a BDSM club where you're playing with your subbie, who is not your husband. Living honestly and openly removes these surprises, and consequently, their power over you. Yes, you may lose family or friends when their disagreements over how you conduct your personal life interferes with their ability to love you. But how can those people really love you if they don't know you anyway? If they're willing to throw you away because of who you love and they refuse to accept that you are happy with your choices, isn't it better that you find out now and concentrate your energy and emotion on those who do love you and accept you? The stress and strain of maintaining a facade, whether it is for friends, family, or the public, can weigh heavily on a person's well-being and interfere with their happiness and satisfaction of life in general. Tacit has a great article about the high cost of The Closet as Self-Emposed Exile. Secrets allow other people to have influence over your life and your happiness. Take control of your life and your happiness. Don't give anyone the power to hurt you. Live honestly.
The Inn Between © 2002