Polyamory and Pride

This article is based on a public Facebook post I made, and adapted after much animated discussion, for which I am very grateful. You can check out the original post here.

The tl;dr summary: Language is important, and I believe it’s important we, as a polyamorous community, start to get this right if we want to have mainstream understanding and acceptance. “Polyamory” is NOT a born-with orientation, but “Non-Monogamy” might be.

Feeling activated or curious? read on?

So, it’s Pride month, and I see a number of folks in polyamory groups getting excited about Pride. This frustrates me. I want to remind everyone there’s no “P” in LGBTQI+, and that Polyamory is a relationship style and not a sexual orientation.

Polyamory — non-monogamous relationships with the full knowledge and consent of all involved— is a choice, one of many options for doing non-monogamy, and is not an orientation. Other ways to do non-monogamy could include: swinging, casual sex, open relationships, cheating, seeing a sex worker, BDSM relationships.

It frustrates me to see people in the polyamorous community trying to co-opt Pride for themselves. I know that there’s legal issues and social acceptance issues unique to polyamorous relationships. And yes, I get it, some people who do polyamory consider it to be their orientation— there’s also people who believe the earth is flat, or that Drumpf is the greatest president ever— believing those things doesn’t mean that they are right.

I love that polyamorous communities participate in pride and march in parades. I think that’s GREAT. But please remember to do so as ALLIES to the queer community, and not as a political statement or recruitment opportunity. There’s better times, places, and platforms to push for the rights of those who don’t do monogamy.

Too many people think the only way to do non-monogamy is to cheat. Or they read about polyamory and justify their cheating as being because “This is how I am!” and a partner’s refusal to open up a relationship leads to accusations of oppression. Thinking of polyamory as an orientation is how we get far too many men (usually) on dating sites saying “I’m poly but my wife doesn’t know”.
Like, no dude, just no.

If you do poly and are queer: great, celebrate your queerness!
If you do poly and are trans: amazing, celebrate your transness!
If you do poly and are straight and cis, but have a partner who is part of the LGBTQI+ community, then ask them how you can best support them during Pride!
If you are poly and are straight and cis and only date people who are straight and cis, you can support your friends in the LGBTQI+ world by being their ally. Being an ally means you support them to make more space for queer acceptance in the world, and in your communities. It doesn’t mean you take the spotlight for yourself.

Non-monogamy diagram - Page 1 (1)

Again, polyamory is one of MANY ways to do non-monogamy, and not an orientation, and isn’t related to gender. I will continue to repeat this at every opportunity. I have seen far too many people use “I’m poly, this is how I was made, you have to let me sleep with other people or you are repressing me” as a means to coerce a partner into ‘being okay’ with opening up the relationship, or to justify cheating. This does not make for healthy relationships.

I do however think that non-monogamy might be something that is hardwired for some of us. Just as Pride includes sexual orientation (eg lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, gay, etc), and gender identity (trans, intersex, non-binary, etc) I do think there’s the possibility for a third dynamic, that of relational wiring. Relational wiring might encompass aromatic, asexual/demi-sexual, and include non-monogamy. The Kinsey Institute has only just started publishing research on this stuff and it is early days yet.

So, let us say that non-monogamy is part of a spectrum of relational wiring, and perhaps that’s something that does deserve some space at Pride. Even then, we have a choice about how we do it. We can do it honestly or dishonestly. We can do it with integrity, or we can do it in the shadows. We can do it with the knowledge and consent of all involved, or we can be private and secretive about it. I don’t believe that honesty or ethics are qualities that can be inherently wired in us, I think those are a conscious choice, and polyamory is an ongoing action, rather than a permanent state of being.

I think the polyamorous community has a much better chance to public acceptance if we start to shift the conversation. “Look, I think I’m wired for non-monogamy. I could cheat, or I could do it honestly, and with the full knowledge and enthusastic consent of everyone involved.” is far more likely to be met with compassion, understanding, and acceptance. Not guaranteed to, but more likely, I think.

For me, queer is something that I am. Non-monogamous is also something that I am. Polyamory describes something that I do in my relationships.

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Me, being ever so queer, at the celebration for the rainbow intersection in Downtown Courtenay, BC, Unceded K’omox territories. Photo by Hollis Cellout

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Reclaiming Queerness

There is so much that I want to write about right now, and I don’t know where to focus. I want to write about the excitement I feel after a day of teaching about Consent Culture, and engaging in rich conversations about how we might be able to build a compassionate world. I want to monologue about how boys are socialized with one slice of a full-spectrum emotional pie (anger) and girls are socialized with the rest of the pie (every emotion but anger). I want to rage about how violent binary gender divisions are and how they enforce Dominance Culture. I want to weep about the hurt and harm happening in the world today. And I want to pause to celebrate the little things and big things that are bringing me joy.

Two days ago I walked down the high street of the rural town I live in, carrying a bouquet of roses for my girlfriend. This town is a community in transition. I walked passed the mayor’s house— the mayor who voted against a rainbow cross-walk as a demonstration of the municipal commitment to queer inclusion— and then by the abandoned railway depot, once upon a time the end of the line. I glanced in at the cafe run by a conservative Christian community, who tell me they live according to the Book of Acts, and walked by three churches before arriving at the chocolate shop where I was meeting my girlfriend. It’s a 12 minute walk.

I thought about the sheer radicalness of this act: I had bought roses at a store filled with cis men of all ages clambering to buy a bouquet for their (presumably female) partners. The only women in the shop were buying lilies, carnations, and other flowers. I had taken my time to consider what color of roses I wanted to purchase, and how creative I wanted to get with arranging them at home. Flower arrangement is something that gives me a lot of joy, and I chose a combination of large red roses, smaller white ones, and one magnificent hybrid red and white rose. I know I’m not the only woman to have ever gotten her girlfriend flowers, but in this town, it kind of felt like maybe I was.

Stepping into my intimacy with women has been one of the biggest challenges for me. I used to blame the relationship with my mother, my disorganized attachment with women a symptom of the complex form of trauma from my upbringing.

I spent most of my life hating myself and feeling ashamed because of what my mother told me about gayness and sexuality. How confusing it was to hear, “You can be anything you want to be, I will support you and love you” and then to hear her condemn women who were lesbian, men who were gay, to belittle bisexuals as confused. It was confusing for me. I learned that I could be anything I wanted to be as long as it pleased my mother, but that I had to shut down my sexuality, my orientation, my gender, my very core expression.

No wonder I had such tantrums as a toddler. I had needs I didn’t understand or know how to express. I wanted freedom. Instead I was caretaker to a parent who was struggling under the weight of their own complex trauma that was being managed ineffectively,  and living within parameters dedicated to making her happy, or at the very least, not cause her to get upset.

I was a teenager when I realised my sexual attraction to women. I found myself aroused by a music video, and felt so ashamed. I knew I had to hide this, but also knew I couldn’t deny it. When I was 16 I developed a crush on one of my friends. I had no idea how to communicate it, but we would make out at parties, hold hands walking around school, and I even spent a week one summer sleeping next to her in her bed. But I never expressed how I felt. I suppressed it. Outwardly, I would shame people who were gay. When, after high school, I learned she had been sexually intimate with another woman, I shamed her for it, and we grew increasingly distant.

It’s been a huge journey to identify my own internalized homophobia and challenge it. As much as polyamory has been a journey in self growth, I think the most profound transformations in my life have come as a consequence of my explorations with my queerness.

photo by Jennifer Brazil

I lucked out in my first handful of intimate experiences with women. They were within threesomes, there was a sense of novelty, exploration, curiosity, and everything went great. But when I went into actually dating women, I felt clunky, awkward, angry, frustrated, ashamed.

There’s something about the psychological theory that we are drawn to relationships with people who remind us of our parents. Those familiar patterns and behaviours, even when they are toxic, are enticing because we’ve grown up learning how to navigate them. And I kept finding myself drawn to relationships with women who needed caretaking, who weren’t addressing their trauma in healthy ways, who I wanted to please and save. My own unresolved trauma was running the show. It was disaster after disaster, including PTSD, and for the sake of my mental health, I stepped away from sexual relationships with women completely.

For a few years I felt a sense of imposter syndrome when I would describe myself as queer. I was mostly dating cis, hetero men. I was paralyzed by the thought of engaging intimately with women again. And yet, I was still engaging in close platonic relationships with women who resembled my mother, in their energy and ways of relating to me. Burnt out, overwhelmed, struggling to redefine my boundaries in relationships, I decided I had to figure out how to heal the trauma around my relationship to my mother before I tried dating or engaging deeply with women.

Turns out, I had it all backwards. Turns out, the key to healing from the deep trauma around my relationship with my mother was to figure out how to have healthy intimate relationships with women.

Trauma isn’t something that gets erased overnight. It sits with us, becomes part of us, incorporates itself into the grander tapestry of our beings. But, I’ve learned we can reduce it’s impact, we can transform it’s hard experiences into beautiful insights, and out of the darkness we might grow resiliency.

I think about who I am today, and what I do in the world. The things I teach, the work I do with people, so much of this comes out of the profound self-healing work I have had to engage in on this journey. It is strange to realise that, whilst I still feel hella activated at the idea of interacting with my mother— or any of the female former lovers I had traumatising experiences with— I am also incredibly grateful to have gone through those experiences, because of what I learned. I am a wiser, more compassionate, more resilient person as a consequence of those experiences. Circumstances pushed me to examine deeply the judgements I held, and also the pain and sorrow I felt around my sexuality.

The first time my girlfriend and I had sex is the first time I can recall having sex with another woman where I didn’t afterwards feel twisted up with anxiety and fear. Instead, I felt relief, ease, joy, deep affection, and gratitude. Over several months we had explored and unpacked the walls each of us have held around our sexuality, and leaned in to the clunkiness and awkwardness, getting curious about what might lie beyond that. We threw ideas and suggestions at eachother for weeks, and learned about how we might support one another if everything ended up going sideways. And when the awkwardness became about not doing the thing, rather than doing the thing, we dove in.

Something in my soul is cracking open, and I am lost for words to describe it.

I wanted to buy her flowers because there is a way that heteronormativity in polyamorous culture de-legitimises the relationships of queer femmes. A relationship between two women is often dismissed as not as weighted or as serious as the ones between a man and a woman, and I needed to remind myself that this is every bit as real and as valuable and precious as any hetero relationship I’ve been in. It’s interesting: when I reflect on my relationships with men, they have often been engaged in with so much more abandon, a sense of care-free-ness, a lightness (at least at first) and with ease. Maybe I’ve been more fearful of how to engage with women because the stakes on some level feel higher, the possible emotional depth so much more potent. And as for gender-creative humans in my life, that’s going to have to be a whole blog post on its own.

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So, thank you. Thank you to the humans who have challenged my queerness, who have chastised and rejected my queerness, and who have embraced my queerness. Thank you to the others out there who live boldly in their queerness and give those of us struggling hope that we might also one day live so boldly. Thank you to those who have gone before me, who could not live in their queerness, but fought hard so that in these small fortunate pockets of the world, some of us might.