Poly is the new gay

linda-kirkman-thumb Linda Kirkman
Email: l.kirkman@latrobe.edu.au

Keeping up with social change is exciting, and important. There is a growing awareness of polyamory as a way to form relationships and families, and it is on the frontier of social change in acceptance of relationships. The more aware and accepting of diversity in relationships the more healthy our society is. It is not to be confused with polygamy, which is associated with religious laws that permit multiple wives, and does not have the same emphasis on an individual’s autonomy and agency.

There was a time, not too many decades ago, when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness, to be out was more dangerous than not, and discrimination was both expected and condoned. To acknowledge a same sex relationship was unthinkable. We have come a long way since then, and still have a long way to go.

I do not wish to diminish or underplay the ongoing challenge presented by homophobia, and the need for equality for same sex relationships in many aspects of law, but same sex attraction is now accepted as mainstream. It is not hard to find scholarly studies of all aspects of same sex relationships, and everyday media mostly treats homosexuality as a normal variation of the human condition. There are public campaigns against homophobia, and quality sexuality education makes no assumptions about sexual orientation and teaches respect for difference.

I started reading about non monogamous relationships as part of my PhD literature review, and for a while became immersed in finding out about polyamory. I remembered seeing a pamphlet about polyamory on campus a couple of years ago, but it had not been on my radar or in what I observed about the world. There is not much available in the scholarly literature, apart from a special edition of Sexualities 9(5) and an edited book, Understanding Non-Monogamies (Barker & Langdridge 2010).

Since my first delve into the polyamory literature at the start of 2010, I have observed the growing public visibility of polyamory, (abbreviated to ‘poly’) and now it is on my radar I am realising how widespread it is. The British actor Tilda Swinton is open about her poly relationship, as is Australian comedian and writer Sue-Ann Post.  Remember when Australian actor Jack Thompson famously lived with twin sisters? Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land features polyamory, and is considered a poly classic. I ordered and read Easton & Hardy’s 2009 The Ethical Slut (now that’s a book only a brave woman reads on the train) and thought it was the best book I had ever read on how to manage communication in relationships. It was originally published in 1997, where Janet Hardy felt obliged to publish under a pseudonym, Catherine A. Liszt. In the 2009 edition she feels free to use her own name. This reflects the growing acceptance of polyamory. There are many natural history books focusing on non monogamy in the animal and human world, such as The Myth of Monogamy (Barash & Lipton 2002) where I learned more than I needed to know about rinsing out a bird’s cloaca in the name of science to collect and compare DNA. Recently published is Sex at Dawn (Ryan & Jetha, 2010) which examines the evolution of human sexuality and argues that our evolution is polyamorous.

I typed ‘polyamory’ into iTunes as a search, and found a regular US podcast, Polyamory Weekly, that has been going since 2005 (www.polyweekly.com). I listened to many of them, selecting from over the five years, and observed a change, including a growing inclusion of young people into the poly movement, where it had been earlier commented on that to be under 30 and poly was unusual. That led me to an impassioned blog by young people requesting that instead of focusing on support for same sex marriage, with its emphasis on coupledom, that instead there be a focus on acceptance for polyamory.

After exploring material from the US and UK, I thought I should look closer to home, and a simple search turned up a local support group and an Australian polyamory social networking site, www.polyoz.net.au. Poly IS everywhere.

Polyamory isn’t easy to define, because there are many variations to the sort of relationships that can happen. Poly Weekly defines it as ‘respectful non monogamy’. The Polyoz site defines it as ‘the philosophy and practice of loving more than one person at a time with honesty and integrity’. It is not swinging, or having illicit affairs, which have been described as anti-monogamy rather than non monogamy. A recent Poly Weekly discussion emphasised that polyamory is not polyfuckery. It is not all about the sex, but instead about intimate, loving relationships with honest, open communication between all parties. Parties that happen to include more than two people and possibly sex.

Adaptability to social change makes us more resilient and healthy as a society. Discrimination and stigma based on sexual orientation or family type diminishes us.

The Australian newspaper ran a story on November 20, 2010, Three is the new two as couples explore the boundaries of non-monogamy, about a poly family of two women and a man who are having a baby. The writer, Emma Jane, used pseudonyms for the family, presumably to protect the people against discrimination, but wrote a supportive and positive article about this family’s normal and thoughtful existence, and about the growing emergence of polyamory worldwide. I hope it won’t be long before people in poly relationships don’t feel the need to protect themselves with pseudonyms. A same sex couple having a baby would no longer feel the need to hide their identity in this way. I look forward to a society where any loving family, irrespective of how many people it includes or what sex they are, feels safe to be open about who they are.

In that respect, poly is the new gay.

Linda Kirkman is a PhD candidate in Health Science at the La Trobe Rural Health School in Bendigo.

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