In the course of defending their right to treat gay people as second-class citizens, conservatives have frequently deployed slippery-slope arguments: “If we accept same-sex relationships, what will we have to tolerate next? Bestiality? Pederasty? Polygamy?” While these arguments are stupid, the people making them are not, or at least not always. They’re doing their best to trot out a parade of horribles that will shock the sensibilities of most Americans.
Clearly we should be shocked by violations of consent. (Reminder: Children and animals can’t consent!) But the inclusion of polygamy on this list is a symptom of prejudice, and not one that’s held only by conservative troglodytes.* Advocates for gay marriage, in the course of pursuing a laudable goal, sometimes made public statements disparaging non-monogamy, suggesting that state sanction of marriage would help reduce gay “promiscuity.” Slate’s own Hanna Rosin described the (relative) acceptance of non-monogamy among gay male couples as “[t]he dirty little secret about gay marriage.”
Although reliable figures are hard to come by, it’s likely that the majority of consensually non-monogamous couples in the United States are heterosexual.** These days, you know who your gay neighbors are—gay people no longer have to seek out loveless heterosexual relationships to hide behind, or move in together but pretend to be roommates. Meanwhile, you don’t know if your neighbors are poly (or whatever other term they may use), because they’re still afraid that if they don’t hide that aspect of their lives from you, something bad might happen. Those potential consequences range from having all future interactions feel awkward to having authorities take away their children.
I have identified as bisexual since my first year of college in the mid-’90s and as polyamorous since a few years after that. Over the last two decades, I have always been out as bi. I’m also lucky enough to have a supportive family, who have been accepting of my partners. If I love them, and they love me, that’s good enough for Mom and Dad. On the other hand, I have never, ever been out as poly in a workplace. Start trying to explain consensual non-monogamy, and some people—a lot of people—are going to think you’re obsessed with sex. (Never mind that I’ve been with my wife, Rose, for 10 years, have been married for three, and in all that time the two of us have dated fewer people than plenty of serially monogamous singles I know.) Some co-workers may avoid polyamorous colleagues because they’re paranoid that they may be on the prowl. Others will become distrustful because they think that poly is an attempt to re-label behavior that they consider cheating, and cheaters aren’t trustworthy.
If you’re in a vanilla relationship, you probably take it for granted that when you’re talking with a co-worker, and they say, “Hey, you’re looking sharp, are you going someplace special tonight?” you can just talk. I was asked this question recently on an afternoon when I was planning to head straight from work to a date with Dana, my partner of two and a half years, during a week when Rose was out of town. Of course, just saying where I was going isn’t enough—that just leads to, “Who with?” So I respond with something extremely vague—“Oh, a friend,”—but my mind is racing, trying to remember if I’ve mentioned that Rose is out of town, wondering if my co-worker is reading something sordid into the conversation. This sounds relatively low-stakes, but over time, the weight of many such small nuisances adds up. At first you don’t know how people might react, so you conceal things, or tell a few little white lies. Before you know it, it’s been months, or years, and maybe you might like to come out, but that would force you to admit past deceptions. So you go on, wasting energy on these internal conversations about things you don’t think you ought to be ashamed of, trying to evade questions without raising suspicion.
A few months ago, I had dinner with Dana; her husband, Aaron; and her mother. I was introduced as a friend. Beforehand, I thought this would be fine, and it mostly was. Certainly, I enjoyed meeting her mom—I care about Dana, and I want to be involved in and understand her life, including her family. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, when I had the opportunity to introduce Dana and Aaron to my mother, that I recognized how strained that first interaction had been. As I said, I’m out to my family as poly. When I call my folks every couple of weeks to tell them what I’ve been up to, and to hear their stories about my brother and his kids, Dana’s name almost always gets mentioned, discussing something we did recently, or something we’re planning.
On the surface, the situations were nearly identical. We had a nice dinner and talked about life, work, places we’ve lived or visited, art and music. Nothing explicit about our relationship was even mentioned. But think about it: When you introduce a (monogamous) partner to your family, you don’t say, “Hi, Mom and Dad, this is Pat, who I like to have sex with sometimes!” I don’t engage in a lot of PDAs with Rose in front of our parents, either. But it was nice to sit around a table with my family, of birth and of choice, and just behave naturally. I didn’t have to worry, if I casually stroked Dana’s shoulder or used some term of endearment like sweetheart, that someone might freak out. I didn’t have to continuously monitor my behavior and words. I didn’t need to dissemble.
The contrast between these two experiences was impossible to ignore. It forced me to notice the closet we’re living in. It’s hard to even describe my feelings about it. It’s not exactly anger, or sadness. But I have to live with the knowledge that somebody I love thinks that if her mother knew what was going on in her life—that she has a second partner to love and support her; who looks forward, in the next year or two, to helping take care of her kids, babysitting now and then so she and Aaron can have a night to themselves; and that, yes, our relationship is rooted in and nourished by the sexual and romantic feelings between us—it would at least create awkwardness and difficulty, and perhaps even lead to shaming and rejection. What’s more, it’s hard not to feel that hiding the relationship devalues it. I’m continuing to hide behind a mask, even as I write this, changing names and details to avoid recognition.
Once I started thinking about this topic, it struck me that gay couples have probably been through many similar experiences: difficulty talking to co-workers about their personal lives; craving social validation and recognition but being afraid to hurt a lover’s relationship with their family. Slowly, our society is changing and lifting that burden from them. I’d like to live in a world where nobody who conducts their sexual and romantic life with respect for consent, love, and generosity toward their partners—one at a time or otherwise—has to maintain a charade, pretending that they live and love in a more “acceptable” way than they actually do.
* Many polyamorists are offended by being conflated with polygamists. The etymology of polygamy may simply mean multiple marriage, but in modern usage in the United States, it connotes the practices of certain religious fundamentalists and calls to mind the abuse of young girls. Polyamory, on the other hand, is historically tied to the Haight-Ashbury communes of the 1970s. It’s avowedly feminist and openly hostile to authoritarian religion. Nonetheless, we know that when people use polygamy in this context, they’re at least partly talking about us.
** Work by Terri D. Conley at the University of Michigan has suggested that 4.5 percent to 10 percent of all couples are consensually non-monogamous. With roughly 3.5 percent of all couples identified as LGBT, even if non-monogamy were 50 percent prevalent across that entire demographic, straights would still be the vast majority of non-monogamists.