There's an archetypal story about what Coming Out means, and I think this story or something like is behind the idea of National Coming Out Day. The idea is that the person goes to their parents and says, "Mum, Dad, I have something to tell you: I'm gay". And the parents react, either positively (plenty of glurge stories around the internet where they say something supportive like "we'll always love and support you no matter what" or "we were wondering when you'd tell us"), or negatively. And either way, it's done, the person is officially Out.
There are several problems with this. It assumes that everybody has exactly two heterosexual parents who are currently in a relationship with eachother, and the kind of relationship with said parents where it's important that they know your sexual orientation, but not the kind where that would come up in casual conversation rather than having to be a big announcement. And it assumes that people have a fixed, even innate, sexual orientation, usually something that can be described with a single word, and once they've decided what that is, that's their identity fixed for the rest of time. I think the biggest problem with the story is that even where all the other assumptions are valid, it isn't realistic to define Out or Closeted as a binary. Pretty much everybody I know who belongs to any kind of gender or sexual minority is more out in some areas of their life than others. Even people who are massively open about who they are, well, society makes heteronormative assumptions, so unless you tell every single person you interact with, hi, I'm $identity, there will be people who think you're straight and cis and binary gendered and conduct your relationships according to the standard pattern.
Recently came across on Tumblr one of those Ian McKellen being adorable gifsets that Tumblr is so good for. Transcript:
Sometimes I'm in a cab, there's a driver about my age, and he might say: "Have you got any grandchildren, Ian?" And I think: "Do I have to start telling him that I'm gay, and at the age when I might have become a parent, it was illegal to be gay?" So I make a decision in the back of a car, aged 76: "Am I going to have to come out to this stranger?" And of course sometimes I say: "No mate, I'm gay!" And he says: "Well, so am I!" The world has changed so much for the better.I mean, I'm wary of the It gets better narrative too, because yes, rich famous white gay men can be open about their sexuality and their relationships and that genuinely is great, but there are still an awful lot of people suffering violence and hatred because of their gender expression or sexuality. The thing is, even in this better world, even for the people for whom coming out is largely a positive experience, and I include myself in that category, it's not a one time thing, it's a constant ongoing calculation all the time.
I happened to see some grumpy straight binary people on FB complaining about think pieces about experiences of homophobic and gender policing microaggressions. They said something like, why do these people always have to go on about their gender or sexuality, why can't they just get on with life without playing identity politics and making a big deal out of labels? Well, the answer is because IME every time you don't explicitly state that you're different from the default, people will assume you're straight and cis and all the rest. And sometimes that's ok, I don't in fact think that being bi is the most important fact about my life, if a random shop assistant making small talk assumes I'm straight, that's not a big deal. But what about people I interact with repeatedly, work colleagues, people at synagogue, readers of my blogs I don't otherwise know particularly well? I don't have a neutral choice, I either have to hide some part of my life, or I have to Come Out at some point. (People who don't read / pass as straight at all will have very different experiences from me, of course, but National Coming Out Day isn't really targeted at them either.)
Honestly, even with specific people I haven't found Coming Out to be a one-time, binary thing. People forget, or they don't really take in the implications of what you told them, and you find yourself having to remind them that you're Queer. And I can understand how that comes across as always going on about your identity, but there's such a huge gravitational pull towards re-closeting yourself if you don't do that. I never said to my parents, "Mum, Dad, I have something to tell you: I'm bisexual". Instead I told them I was in a relationship with a woman (having previously dated a male partner so they weren't too likely to assume I was a lesbian). And they reacted pretty well, on the whole, they said the right things about loving and supporting me, but they were also a bit bemused (this was the 90s and there just wasn't that much information available unless you went looking for it). But then there was a long awkward phase where they didn't really take my girlfriend seriously as a partner, and only gradually got used to the idea that I'm bi. Which I'm not saying to criticize them at all, I am really proud and grateful for how well my parents handled the information, even though it was a pretty new concept to them. There was a similar period of uncertainty, awkwardness and eventual adjustment when I told them I was engaged to my male partner, by the way, so it's not that they were homophobic, just that telling your parents some life-changing new information isn't as simple as media Coming Out stories.
These days Coming Out isn't just about sitting down and having a conversation with your parents; people make social media announcements. And again, that runs into the problem of, if you don't make a big announcement you are closeted by default as people will assume, but if you do, you're over-focusing on some aspect of your identity, that in our brave new world of happy acceptance maybe shouldn't need to be a big deal. A couple of well-known columnists recently came out as genderqueer, and wrote some rather poignant essays: Laurie Penny on How to be a genderqueer feminist and Jack Monroe asks, Please don't call me a girl.
So with that preamble, I too, a much lesser writer than Penny or Monroe, have something to tell you: I am polyamorous. That is to say, I'm currently in romantic relationships with several different people, all of whom know about eachother and are completely happy and supportive. I don't think this is likely to be a surprise to most of my readers; I've not been making huge efforts to keep it a secret, and I'm sure many of you whom I haven't told directly will have found it easy enough to read between the lines. But this is the first time I've actually said the sentence, I'm poly, on my public blog. And part of why I'm saying it now is that it's not only a fact about my philosophy of relationship, and I'm not even sure it's a fact about my identity at all, poly is more a thing I do than who I am. It's also a fact about my life and the people who are important to me.
A year ago I became part of a quad, four people who are in relationships with eachother in various combinations. And it's been a completely wonderful year, full of new experiences, and we're all really hopeful that this can be a long-term, potentially a committed thing. When I was poly in the sense that I had various shapes of romantic-ish connections alongside my primary relationship, it didn't matter so much, partly because I don't identify as poly as such. People knew who I loved and who I was close to, and that was great, and it wasn't really anybody's business but the people involved exactly what form those loving relationships took. Now that I'm part of a quad, it feels like a different situation. Unlike with being bi, it's not that people need to know this fact about me and who I am, it's that I want people to know whom I love and the relationship structure I'm in. Every time in the past year I've referred to, or even introduced, my partners as "my friend" instead of "my partner" I've cringed internally; it's like going back 20 years and playing the pronoun game because I wasn't sure how safe it was to come out.
The thing about coming out about relationship structures rather than identities is that you're telling other people's secrets. The other three people in the quad needed to be free to make their own decisions about when and what to tell their respective parents. I told my own parents as soon as I was reasonably confident that the relationship was stable and not just a passing fling, and as when I told them I was dating a woman, they said supportive things and didn't entirely understand what I meant and have been slowly coming to terms with the idea that I'm in this multi-person relationship network instead of the dyad they expected when I got married. But, well, four people have a lot of parents between them, and part of why I missed National Coming Out Day was I didn't want to put anything on the internet until all the parents had been informed directly.
And even now I've made this post, I haven't just flipped the switch to being Out instead of Closeted. It's not that hard to connect this journal to my wallet name if you go digging, but I hope that a cursory web search on my wallet name isn't going to find this pseudonymous blog. I'm not out at work and I have no immediate plans to be; I'll carry on saying "spending some time with... friends" when people ask me about my plans for the weekend. And I'm not fully out within the Jewish community (though I'm out to individual Jewish people including obviously my parents), and both those things mean that I'm not likely any time soon to mention poly on Facebook.
In some ways being out about poly feels more scary than telling people I'm bi. That's partly because I've been lucky that I've experienced relatively little homophobia or biphobia. And I generally hang out with liberal tolerant types who at worst accept the culturally prevalent idea that gay people are just like "us" except that they happen to be attracted to the same gender. Poly in that sense is less "normal"; there are many people who generally see themselves as non-judgemental but have no paradigm at all for multiple or multi-person relationships other than having affairs and deceiving or cheating on one's (singular) partner. Even some LGBT campaigners and activists are so fixated on the assimilationist paradigm of "just like heteronormative dyadic relationships" that they are eager to distance themselves from any kind of poly or open relationship situation. But at the same time, although it's harder to tell people about my relationships with several people than it is to tell them about my (past) relationships with women, it still feels like it's my choices that are being disapproved of, not that I'm being oppressed because of something I just can't change about myself.
Anyway, I'm very happy and in love, that's the other thing I wanted to say, aside from all this political and angsty stuff. It's been a wonderful amazing year, in so many ways.
Please feel free to ask questions; I personally don't mind being a resource if you've not had much exposure to poly relationships before now. As you can see from this post, I'm being a bit cagey about the actual identities of my partners, but if you ask me general questions that I can answer without disrupting anyone else's privacy, I'll do my best.
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