Not long ago, I found myself chatting with a friend about the logistics of coming out to one’s coworkers. Given that I’m queer, and he’s a straight, cisgender man, it’d be reasonable to expect that it was my coming out that happened to be up for discussion. Reasonable, but in this case wrong: The coming out in question involved my friend opening up to coworkers about being one-third of a polyamorous triad.
Though my friend had long been quiet about his relationship status, a recent decision to share an apartment with the rest of the triad had put things in a new light. What if he wanted to invite coworkers to his home for drinks? Was it possible to have people over without that awkward conversation—or was coming out going to be necessary if he wanted to include coworkers in his life outside the office?
To monogamous people, the idea of coming out as non-monogamous, or polyamorous, might seem like a strange one. If your conception of non-monogamous life is wild sex parties, or “monogamish” couples who stoke the home fires with occasional extracurricular hook ups, then “coming out” can seem akin to just bragging to the world about one’s super crazy sex life. Sure, it might be something you tell a friend (particularly a friend you’re interested in having sex with), but do coworkers, or family, or the world at large really need to know?
For non-monogamous people, however, the situation can look a little different (and a lot more complex) than it might appear from the monogamous sidelines. While some non-monogamous people do fall into the “what happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom” camp, others see being public about their relationship status as a personal, and potentially political, imperative. So what, exactly, does it mean to come out as “poly”—and why should it matter to the world at large?
But first, it’s important to recognize that “non-monogamy” isn’t one specific, discrete thing. In the same way that “non-Christians” practice a wide and varied array of religions, people who eschew monogamy do so in a number of different ways. Some people opt for “swinger” style set ups, where they emotionally and socially commit to just one person, but engage in no strings attached sexual relationships with others (sometimes, but not always, in the context of structured sex parties). For other people—in particular, those who identify as polyamorous—sex with strangers takes a back seat to forming committed, loving relationships with many people, a relationship style which itself can take many, many forms. Some poly people find two people who they commit to exclusively, forming a sort of “monogamy + 1” arrangement known as a closed triad. Others form loose networks of casual to semi-serious partners, who may or may not know one another. There’s no one way to be non-monogamous—and, it should be noted, non-monogamous people aren’t really a unified group: In a telling illustration of the divide between polyamorists and people in “open relationships,” “monogamish” evangelist Dan Savage has historically been skeptical of group marriages.
Yet even though non-monogamous people are a complex and diverse group, the public perception of what non-monogamy means is comprised of a few limited notions. Non-monogamy is assumed to be primarily about sex—in particular, the wild, crazy, kinky, group variety. Non-monogamous women are too often assumed to be sluts who’ll give it up to any man who asks; non-monogamous men, Lotharios itching to bed every woman who crosses their path, luring ladies into their web of promiscuity. And to many, the idea that a non-monogamous family could possibly provide a healthy, positive environment for children is unfathomable: Wouldn’t young minds be warped by constant exposure to sex dungeons and raunchy threeways?
It’s these very stereotypes that make it difficult for non-monogamous people—particularly ones whose extracurricular relationships rarely make it past the casual stage—to fathom being public about their relationship status. Yet it’s also these stereotypes that makes coming out as non-monogamous—and, in the process, normalizing the idea of relationship structures other than two people exclusively bonded for life—feel so important to many who’ve chosen to reject monogamy.
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When Eve Rickert, co-author of More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory, first dipped her toes into the waters of non-monogamy, she had no intention of being public about it. At that point in time, Rickert’s relationship was more an open marriage than a polyamorous arrangement: Rickert and her husband were free to pursue sex outside their primary relationship, but no one anticipated any committed or serious relationships forming alongside their marriage.
A few years later, her situation had changed. Both Rickert and her husband now had serious relationships outside their marriage, with emotionally intimate connections far beyond the no strings attached sex they’d initially envisioned. Suddenly, remaining in the closet wasn’t merely a matter of keeping mum about where—and in whose bed—she might be spending her Friday nights. It meant refusing to publicly acknowledge someone who played a very important part in her life. As Rickert puts it, “Suddenly there’s this person who I’m talking to every day and is really important in my life and I’m censoring myself in all my conversations and not talking about him, so I’m having to hide this huge part of myself from people who are close to me.”
Over the course of writing this article, I was contacted by dozens of non-monogamous people in various relationship configurations and various stages of being out. Some of the people I spoke with are completely closeted, or merely out to a few close friends; others have chosen to be more public about their status, opening up to their families, employers, and sometimes even the public at large.
Those on the closeted end of the spectrum offered a number of reasons for keeping quiet. For some, reticence about being openly non-monogamous was tied to a general desire for privacy, period. If you’re not even given to telling the world about your one true love, publicly posting about the five people you’ve formed a polycule with can feel like an exercise in exhibitionism. For others, the decision to remain in the closet came out of an urge for self-protection, or a desire to protect one’s partners. Being openly non-monogamous can mean damaging friendships, relationships with family, one’s professional reputation, and just generally running the risk of being perceived as a perpetually horny pervert incapable of respecting boundaries.
Women in particular were anxious about personal and professional fall-out from being viewed as “slutty,” or having their sexual availability automatically assumed. Lean Out editor Elissa Shevinsky, who is openly queer but quietly poly, notes that, “You can be gay and still basically be seen as living a stereotypically vanilla, normative American lifestyle. Poly brings with it connotations of promiscuity and kinky sex.” Shevinsky’s thoughts were echoed by a woman in tech who noted that—even without being openly non-monogamous—she’s already dogged by rumors that her success is the result of sleeping around. Being visibly non-monogamous, she fears, would just add fuel to the fire.
But for the openly non-monogamous, all those headaches are worth it. Eve Rickert’s co-author, Franklin Veaux—who told me that he’s always been openly poly, even taking two dates to his high school prom—sees being closeted as a major dealbreaker. “It really sucks having to be treated like you’re the shameful secret that can’t get out. That’s not a good, stable foundation for a healthy long-term relationship. … We are a social species, and social acknowledgement of our intimate relationships is really important to us. That’s why we wear wedding rings."
The relief at being able to live openly—to invite coworkers to your house without having to explain why three adults share one bedroom, or to be openly affectionate with your boyfriend without people thinking you’re cheating on your wife—is a huge part of why being out is non-negotiable to many non-monogamists. Monogamous people (particularly heterosexual ones) often take for granted how much freedom they have to reveal even mundane aspects of their personal life without fear of repercussion or backlash; for poly people, being able to claim some of that freedom for themselves removes a tremendous burden.
Which isn’t to say that coming out is easy: Even for people in a relative place of privilege, with supportive families, friend groups, and employers, being openly non-monogamous can create social difficulties. Tikva Wolf, author of Ask Me About Polyamory!, has long been open about her relationships (so open, in fact, she pens a comic loosely based on her life); three years ago, she got a taste of what anti-poly discrimination felt like when a neighbor reported her family to social services. “[A social services investigator] showed up at our house unannounced,” she told me “She was really nice, but it was still a stressful situation just because of the knowledge that somebody had been concerned and reported us.”
Things worked out okay for Wolf, but if she’d been visited by a less understanding investigator or been caught on a bad day, things could easily have ended differently. In the United States, the non-monogamous aren’t a protected group; if you’re going through a custody battle, or a rough divorce, or work for an employer with a morality clause, being out (or getting outed) as non-monogamous can have deeply damaging effects.
And that, for many non-monogamy advocates, is the most important reason of all to come out. In the same way that queer visibility has helped change the public perception of same-sex relationships from “freaky sex thing” to just another way of being in love (and led to anti-discrimination laws, marriage equality, and the end of sodomy laws in the process), vocal non-monogamists hope that public education and visibility around their lifestyles will help reduce stigma, increase social acceptance, and potentially even lead to legal protections.
But even if a swell of openly non-monogamous people doesn’t lead to a new round of anti-discrimination acts, or legalized group marriage (which, it should be noted, is not a universal poly goal), greater awareness of what non-monogamy is, and isn’t, would make a world of difference to many people who just want to be able to talk about how they went on a camping trip with their boyfriend and their boyfriend’s other girlfriend.
As Wolf sums it up, “Sometimes when I mention [polyamory], people are like, 'I don’t want to hear about your sex life.' But that response does not happen if someone says, 'I have a fiancé.' People’s natural response isn’t, ‘Whoa, dude, too much information.’" That basic level of recognition that non-monogamy can be as much about romance and emotional connection as it is about sex might be a small gesture towards equality—but for many non-monogamists, it’d be a huge first step.
Lux Alptraum is a writer, comedian, and consultant with one thing on her mind. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.