[insert poly headlines] It seems as though the whole world wants to know about polyamory. We’ve seen press coverage about polyamory increase in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. Three years ago, Anita Wagner came to Florida to be the keynote speaker at the Florida Polyamory Retreat, and she spoke about how much attention the topic had gotten, and how it seemed that we’d really hit our stride with the media. We were all surprised at how many articles were being written, and in how many countries. I don’t know about anyone else, but compared to other alternative communities, I thought it looked like we’d reached the pinnacle of media coverage. Certainly, I thought, we had reached the peak where our streak of good press must be coming to an end. With so much notoriety, surely the “mainstream” media would pick up the topic, and start bashing those “immoral polyamorists”! But media coverage continues to increase, as does our streak of sympathetic articles. There are very few news articles, publications, news reports, or television shows that portray polyamory in an outright negative light. At worst, most reporters seem to conclude with “well, *I* couldn’t do it, but some people seem to make it work.” Most of the negative coverage is actually coming from the comments on news websites, or personal blogs of people who were either once cheated on under the guise of polyamory or are religious leaders for whom consciously designing a relationship threatens their policy of unquestioning obedience to a hierarchical power structure. More and more mainstream people are hearing the word “polyamory”, which will increase the chances of someone you know, who *doesn’t* know about your polyamory, start to add things up and put things together. So the question is no longer “should we come out”, but now it’s more like “how and when should we come out”?
First of all, what is “coming out”? To “come out” means to admit do doing something that may be controversial, and may have some risk involved in admitting, like losing family, friends, jobs or being discriminated against. I won’t spend a lot of time on this, since there’s a whole panel just on coming out, but it is related to working with the media. There are three different types of people to come out to. There’s family, there’s friends, and there’s the general public.
Coming out to family is a big deal for some people. Many of us come from religious or conservative families who would not approve. This is a difficult concept for many people to grasp and many of us still seek approval and acceptance from the people we grew up with. So why would we even want to discuss this with family? Because when we begin to build our intentional families, that's exactly what we are doing ... creating a family, just as our monogamous relatives did when they got married.
Coming out to friends can be either easier or more difficult depending upon what kind of social circle you have built for yourself and how close you are to your family. But why bother discussing your romantic life with non-romantic friends? Why risk potentially losing an otherwise-working friendship when who you're shagging doesn't affect them? A ha! But it does affect them! What happens when your friend hosts a party and invites you to bring a date? What happens when you host your own party? What happens when you run into someone at the store? I think the effort it takes to hide your lovers from your friends is far, far more taxing than the effort it takes to acknowledge and respect your lovers. Keeping your partners a secret is usually much more damaging to your romantic relationships than outing yourself to your friends is to those friendships.
Coming out “publicly” could mean doing a news interview, but it also could mean just not hiding it no matter who asks. Some people hear “I’m out publicly” and think we’re painting POLY PRIDE on our garage doors in neon paint, or starting out business meetings with “Hi, I’m Joreth, I’m polyamorous and have two lovers, and we’re here today to talk about this quarter’s disappointing sales in our overseas market.” Being “public” simply means not hiding your polyamory, but any individual can make specific choices for how much they actively reveal, when. However, on the far end of the spectrum, there *is* a contingent of polys who write blogs and websites, and actively seek media attention for activism and educational purposes, and that’s what we’re here to discuss today.
There are lots of different kinds of media attention you can seek (or find yourself in). Podcasts are, for those who are unfamiliar, like radio shows that you subscribe to through iTunes or over the internet, and the episodes are downloaded to your computer to be listened to at your leisure. It’s sort of like Tivo for radio shows. Some podcasts are actual radio shows and are broadcast at specific times on specific frequencies, and then those shows are recorded and released as a podcast later. Anyone can have their own podcast. You can create your own and offer it on iTunes, or you can be interviewed on an existing podcast. There are a handful of polyamorous and poly-friendly podcasts, but Polyamory Weekly is the most popular and longest-running poly podcast. News articles generally cover one of two main focuses. Either something scandalous has happened, like a senator getting caught with a mistress or a jealous poly man killed his teenage lover for dumping him (true story), or they’re doing a “human interest” story and want something sexy. In the case of the former, you’re probably not going to find yourself involved in one of those stories unless you happen to already be a prominent figure like Robyn Trask or Nan Wise. In the case of the latter, pretty much anyone can wind up the focal point of a story if they respond to one of the dozens of media requests found on the internet nowadays. Documentaries are all the rage lately. Everyone wants to do a documentary. That’s where a camera crew does a handful of interviews, possibly follows an individual or family around for a while, watching them at home, at work, at the mall, and eventually someone edits it all together to spin a particular message – sometimes a message that has been predetermined. It used to be that only professional documentarians could get the funding for a documentary, so they had to sell the concept to a documentary production company or a publicly funded organization like PBS. But now, anyone with a consumer camera can put together a documentary and try to find a distribution company later (or just show it on YouTube or self-promote it). So you’re much more likely now to find a documentarian who says “I want to show polyamory in a positive light” and means it. Television offers two major forms of exposure. One is the news show, which usually won’t devote any air time to polyamory unless it’s attached to some sort of scandal. The other is Reality TV. Not the vote-off-the-island type, but the Pregnant-And-16 or Meet-The-Kardashians type. As they say, sex sells, so if they can find an attractive group of people willing to make out in a hot tub on national television and get into jealous fights about it later, you could find polyamory on a nationally-syndicated reality show. Many producers have tried to get a “positive” reality show done on polyamory, but so far, no networks have taken the bait. As I keep telling reporters when they call me, I’d love to do the show, but I have functional relationships, so there’s not a lot of drama there. You won’t get any shots of us hitting each other upside the heads with wooden chairs or getting thrown out of bars for catfighting over a shared man. Strangely enough, I’ve never been selected for a reality show, even when they approach me first.
So, could you be a poly media figure? Well, first you have to evaluate your priorities. Which is more important to you, educating people or maintaining your privacy? Fighting for the rights of others or not making waves? Pushing the envelope or getting along?
No matter how well you think things through, there are always some hidden costs that you might not have anticipated, or thought you have but that things didn’t turn out quite as expected. One of the most surprising hidden costs is the cost of remaining closeted. Tacit wrote an excellent article in his LiveJournal called “The Closet As A Self-Imposed Exile”. Basically, he points out that the most effective tool a domestic abuser has is the closet. An abuser isolates his victims from their friends and family – their support network - anyone who might look at their relationship from the outside and say “dude, that’s fucked up!”
Polys, by virtue of being a misunderstood minority, are in much the same danger that other isolated minorities. Lack of support networks can cause or contribute to depression and self-destructive behaviour. Last year, a girl sent her boyfriend topless pictures of herself, which he promptly shared with a buddy, who shared with the school. The *girl* got in trouble and her entire school ostracized her, shouted insults at her, and basically made her life a living hell. The adults in her community were no better, blaming her for taking the pictures in the first place, and not the boy for sharing the pictures. She had only a couple of friends who stood by her and stood up for her, and her parents grounded her and cut her off even from those friends. That girl committed suicide. A support network is crucial to emotional health and wellbeing. Surrounding yourself with people who don’t understand, who disapprove, or who don’t know because you are afraid they will not understand or approve, has a detrimental effect on self-esteem and happiness. The cost of exiling yourself, even in the midst of people, is much more severe than one would think. Plus, having an extra set of eyes that can distinguish between good poly relationships & bad poly relationships can help circumvent an actual abusive or unhealthy situation. If everyone around you thinks that poly is bad no matter what it looks like, you won’t have anyone who is unblinded by NRE who can look at your situation from the outside and say “dude, that’s fucked up!” when it really is because that’s what everyone would say even if it isn’t fucked up.
But, once you go public, it’s extremely difficult to put that genie back in the bottle. I don’t know of anyone who has been able to do it, although I’m sure someone has, somewhere. One of my partners came out at work 10 years ago, then heard that his supervisors were having clandestine meetings to discuss “what to do with him” so he decided to try and stuff the genie back in the bottle. His position has since been outsourced to another company, so he works in the same location but for a completely different company, with totally different supervisors and coworkers, and all of his previous coworkers and supervisors no longer work at that location. And yet, his reputation precedes him. He occasionally learns about coworkers who have “heard of” him. So unless you are able to change jobs completely or move to another city, once you’re out, you’re probably out for good.
Then there are changing priorities. What do you do when you change jobs, or have children? Are you being the kind of person you want your future employers or children to know? With Google & Facebook, it’s nearly impossible to hide who you used to be, even if you do change your behaviour in light of new circumstances. Or are you committed enough to your ideals of public education to make sacrifices in future, yet-unknown employment opportunities and family? Sometimes we have to make decisions that will affect or limit choices in the future, that we can’t predict at the time we make those decisions.
I work in the entertainment industry. Not only is my polyamory not a liability, in some cases, it’s actually an asset, since non-monogamy (the less-ethical kind) is a favorite jobsite past-time. Think roadies and stagehands. It’s a tough industry, being a freelance roadie. I can be out of work for months at a time when the economy crashes or if I piss off the wrong person (like the time I dated a co-worker’s ex-boyfriend, and she started sleeping with the union call steward and suddenly I stopped getting called for union theater gigs in her town). Lots of us take “day jobs” during the slow season, or only do this temporarily while we’re in our peak physical condition and then get more respectable jobs later for a steady salary and health insurance. Like my coworkers who got tattoos on their neck and hands while on the road with the band, I have risked all future employment that is not in entertainment and probably much more conservative than a backstage crew chief. So why risk it?
First of all, let me preface this by saying that these reasons will not apply to everyone. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to remain closeted, or at least not public, in spite of the drawbacks of being closeted that I mentioned earlier, and there are plenty of situations for which the following reasons won’t apply. But these are still reasons that everyone should at least consider and make a conscious and deliberate decision on whether these reasons are worth the effort of going public or not.
There is a great video by a researcher named Brene Brown, who studies vulnerability and connection in humans. The video mostly talks about her work with vulnerability, but she references something she found in her study of vulnerability. She found a group of people that she calls the Whole-Hearted People. These are people who have the highest degree of self-worth, and who report the highest degree of satisfaction in life. The reason is because they throw themselves whole-heartedly into life, hence the name. One of the factors that enables them to throw themselves into life, which results in such a happy life, is that they are authentic. They are who they are, and they don’t waste a lot of time trying to be someone else. This goes for who they are at work, who they are at home, who they are with family, and who they are with friends. But with all the risks that come with being part of a discriminated minority group, many people simply cannot afford to be authentic, and have to suffer all the drawbacks that come with hiding.
And it is for these people that I choose to go beyond coming out to family and friends, all the way to news articles and TV shows. Because as long as we remain a silent minority, those who do not understand and would actively work to undermine our freedoms and our liberties will always have the power to do so. Minorities have the ability to win equal rights and social acceptance … eventually. Silent minorities do not. Partly because the majority doesn’t even realize there is a minority group who is being harmed, and partly because some in power know exactly who they are harming but think they can get away with it by terrorizing us into keeping silent – much like that hypothetical domestic abuser I mentioned earlier.
I am a public figure because I care passionately about the right to live authentically, to make my own choices so long as they harm no one else, and as a minority in several classes, I understand firsthand how disempowering, how demoralizing, how tragic it is to live in a world where people do not have those rights. As a minority in a privileged society, I feel a very strong obligation to use the luxury I have to fight on behalf of those who do not. I may be a Latina, a woman, a religious minority, and a sexual minority, but I live in a First World nation in the 21st Century, with my own income and a job that accepts all of my minority statuses. I have the luxury of being able to make decisions that resulted in a life with a great deal of freedom. Not everyone can say the same, even those living in First World nations in the 21st Century. I am public so that everyone can have the freedom to make their own choice about their level of disclosure based on personal preference, not fear of repercussion.
The drawbacks to being public are great. There is potential job loss, limits to future employment, custody battles with spouses who you thought, at the time, supported you but who may have changed their mind since, loss of privacy, and public backlash. We may live in a First World nation in the 21st century, but people are still being dragged behind cars until they died for the color of their skin, or beaten to death for daring to love someone with the same body parts. All the studies on children of same-sex unions show identical or better mental health than the children of straight parents except for a much higher incidence of social penalties for their parents’ romantic choices. And the worst drawback of being a public figure is that we often can’t anticipate which of these circumstances we will actually face, or how it will actually impact us if we do.
There are lots of reasons why a person would risk all those drawbacks, some of which I mentioned in the Should You section. Here are the reasons why I am a public figure and why I work with the media.
First is my strong sense of obligation that I feel towards others who are less fortunate. I touched on this already. I cannot, in good conscience, enjoy those freedoms I have while others do not have them without doing everything in my power to stem the tide. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for people risking their own freedoms, and sometimes their lives, so that I could live in the relative luxury that I do. I don’t have a lot of money to donate to charitable organizations, I don’t have a lot of skills or expertise to give to specific causes or to lobby politicians. But I do have the ability to educate, and to raise public awareness, and to do webcoding and other administrative and organizational stuff to assist others in the daunting task of effecting social change, and to just be a living example that polyamorous relationships can work and polyamorous people are happy and joyfully consent to this arrangement. I am a public figure to raise awareness in the general population so that one day, the issue of “coming out” won’t be an issue at all.
On a personal level, I feel that I have to remain true to my ideals. I believe very strongly in freedom – the freedom to choose who I love and how I live. I cannot hold that ideal while simultaneously buckling under the pressure to remain quiet about who I am just because other people feel icky about it. As I said before, it’s not a matter of walking around with a neon sign or interjecting TMI at random intervals with strangers. It’s a matter of principle that I should be allowed to discuss or participate in my romantic life to the exact same level that monogamous people do. We are surrounded all the time with reminders of monogamy, so much so that we hardly even notice it! My polyamory only stands out because of its novelty, not because I’m “rubbing it in people’s faces”. But the more that I live the ideals that I espouse, the more honestly and authentically I portray myself, the more that other people get used to it, that I cease to be a freakshow, and that sometimes, even monogamists start to re-examine their own choices and assumptions.
And, frankly, the less cognitive dissonance I experience and the less stress I feel. I’ve lived the lie. I censored my words & chose my appearances to suit those around me. It nearly destroyed me. I was not happy, ever, and that kind of stress affected my health. I got sick easily, and often. I was cranky, I snapped at those I loved, and my relationships suffered. Now that I no longer portray a character for other people’s benefit, my health has improved, my happiness has improved, and I am a better partner to my loves. Bringing polyamory to the attention of society is a method that allows me to be true to myself, because I am educating the public so that I won’t have to face discrimination or social penalties in my personal life. Which brings me to my next point…
I am an educator at heart – I always have been. And I never let a teaching opportunity pass by. By allowing the media to examine me, I can provide opportunities to each children, and adults, about life lessons. I can provide, by example, the results of living honestly and ethically, and I can challenge assumptions by my very existence. If I go on television and the whole world sees that I am happy and my relationships are healthy, it is much harder to deny that polyamory can work, and much more difficult for parents to continue to indoctrinate their children with lies and myths about relationships and love.
My nieces & nephews all know that I have more than one boyfriend. Mostly, it has gone unremarked, which I think is a fantastic sign. But occasionally, one will ask me to clarify how that works. And I have been able to teach them about honesty, consent, and communication, all without mentioning who is fucking whom. It’s a fantastic opportunity to introduce them to concepts like the Platinum Rule – don’t treat others how YOU want to be treated, treat them how THEY want to be treated - and asking why is something wrong if everyone involved consents, and it sows the seeds for future questioning of those horribly damaging romantic comedies that, as studies have shown, make people feel worse about their relationships after they watch them since no one can possibly live up to the romantic ideals in them.
And finally, one of the reasons I am public is the same reason I came out to my family in the first place: to honor my intentional family. I am just as proud of my family as monogamous people are of theirs, and I want to scream it from the rooftops – especially when I’m in NRE! Monogamous people announce their weddings in the newspaper all the time. Many people want to be as public about their happiness as possible. By being public, not only do I educate others, but I make public my commitments to my partners. If I am pictured in the newspaper with my loves, I certainly can’t deny them to family, friends, or even coworkers.
No matter how many social conventions we try to consciously shed, some things do stick around. For many people, being introduced to the “in-laws” is a major relationship milestone. It is a form of legitimacy that says this relationship Means Something. Being able to have that marriage ceremony, where people publicly proclaim to all who attend that this person is Somebody Special holds a lot of emotional significance to a lot of people. That’s a big reason why the LGBT community is fighting for marriage rights, not just different-but-equal civil unions – that word “marriage” carries a social weight to it that legitimizes the relationship to everyone around them.
And the more of us who cooperate with the media, and who actively use the media to tell our stories, the less difficult it becomes for everyone else to live authentically, to teach the next generation, and to honor their intentional families, because we are building the groundwork for everyone else, by introducing the subject and correcting misconceptions, and by showing with our numbers that we cannot be bullied or legislated away.
So, now that I’ve convinced you all to run out there and appear on Maury Povich, how DO you actually become a polyamorous spokesperson? Well you could do it on your own by just answering one of the media requests found on the internet. If you join any online poly communities, sooner or later you’ll see someone posting an ad for reporters looking for poly people to interview, or participate in a documentary. You can just go out there and talk to the media and tell your story like it is. Or, you can get some media training. There are lots of places where you can find this. Many alternative and minority groups have activism organizations that will help you to develop the tools you need to EFFECTIVELY work with the media. You can take a public speaking course at a local community college. You can take journalism classes to see what it’s like from the reporter’s side. You can inquire at your local LGBT center. You can visit the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom’s website for tips. You can follow Audacia Ray and adapt her media training for sex workers.
You can also visit the Polyamory Media Association. PMA is a project of the Poly Leadership Network, a loosely organized group of poly leaders, organizers, and activists who got together to share tips and coordinate efforts and resources to benefit the poly community in general. With the rising interest in polyamory in the media, we were seeing some positive coverage, but we were also seeing well-intentioned people who were being taken advantage of, or being taken out of context in ways that damaged their message and harmed the community. So PMA was founded to provide media training like how to screen reporters so you don’t get suckered into a scandalous “expose”, how to craft your message into soundbites that are harder to take out of context, and even how to give presentations or write to congressmen or editors of newspapers.
All poly organizations can use assistance with administration and other behind-the-scenes tasks, so no matter what your particular skill set, there is a way for you to contribute to your community, even if you don’t want to spray paint Poly Pride on your garage door or go on national television talking about your kinky threesomes.
Poly and the Media
Poly And The Media Saturday, March 26, 2011 Could You, Should You, Why Would You?