The cost of being in the poly closet

A lot of folks have compared being polyamorous today to being gay several decades ago, before the GLBTQ+ movement became a major civil rights campaign. The comparison is apt in some ways; for example, there is still little social acceptance of polyamory.

It’s also flawed in some ways. Polyamorous people rarely face the same level of discrimination that gays and lesbians have faced, and it’s rare to see violence directed against people for being polyamorous, as has and continued to happen to gays, lesbians and transgendered people. While I can see why people make the analogy, and I do see some similarities, I also think we poly folks have had it much easier, and still have it easier even now, than many people in the gay and lesbian communities.

That said, one of the issues that we still face in common is whether to be out. There’s a lot of conversation in the poly community about whether and how to be open about polyamory, with many people in the poly community feeling that being open about polyamory isn’t an available option. The poly closet is a real thing, and deciding whether to be out is something we’ve all had to address.

In my experience, when I talk to people about the reasons they choose not to be open, it seems the answers tend to fall in one of two general categories.

Many people say they’re concerned about losing their jobs, livelihoods, or families if they’re open. I know a polyamorous family in Florida who lost their children in a custody dispute in which polyamory played a key role. In the workplace, polyamory is not a protected status, and people can face losing their job for being polyamorous. People on active service in the US military are also potentially at risk. Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits adultery; active-service military personnel can conceivably be subject to court martial, dishonorable discharge and even prison for being openly polyamorous.

The second category is related to potential social censure. I’ve spoken to people who do not face threats to employment, housing, or custody, but remain closeted because they don’t want their friends, relatives, or family to find out they’re in a non-traditional relationship.

The decision to be open or closeted is a personal one, and something each person has to make for himself or herself. However, one thing I do often see missing from the conversations about whether to be open is the effect that this choice has on any partners who aren’t married or otherwise in a socially sanctioned relationship.

In the GLBTQ+ community, the conversation about whether to be open or closeted seems to have a great deal of symmetry for all the people involved. The risks and rewards of either choice are likely to be similar for both members of the relationship. After all, they both face the same social stigma, the same potential violence, and so on. Each person might have a different level of acceptable risk or a different desire to be out, but the pros and cons are likely to be shared more or less equally by both people involved. (There might be some asymmetry if one member of a relationship is in the public eye, but in general, for most couples, this is a decision whose effects will be shared by both of them.)

The choice to be open or closeted in a poly relationship, however, is likely to be much more asymmetric: the consequences of the decision, either way, are likely to be distributed unevenly across the people in the relationship.

What I mean by that is when two people are in some kind of socially recognized relationship–for example, married to one another–and also have additional partners, but are closeted about those relationships, the couple in that recognized relationship get to claim the benefits that accrue from the social recognition, while many of the penalties for being closeted are borne by their other, non-socially-recognized partners.

For example, when a couple is closeted, it’s usually a pretty sure bet that any social functions that are extended to partners, such as invitations to company picnics, will be attended by that couple, and will not be available to any of their other partners. Invites to family holidays will likely not be extended to otherl partners if the couple is closeted to family members; if they are, the relationship will most likely be downplayed or not acknowledged at all–and in extreme cases, the non-sanctioned partner may even be presented as an employee, such as a nanny. (It can be difficult to feel secure in a relationship when one’s partner is accustomed to saying “no, we’re just friends,” or even, “she works for us,” in public!)

A person who is involved with closeted partners in a socially approved relationship is often expected to be closeted herself; most often, keeping the relationship secret is one of the conditions of dating a member of such a couple. This can, particularly over long periods of time, make her feel as though she’s a shameful secret, or is being forced to compromise her integrity, or both.

Whether these limitations are significant to the unacknowledged partners in a relationship will, of course, depend on the folks involved. It is important, at least in my opinion, to acknowledge these limitations when considering whether and how to be open. Functionally, being closeted about polyamory while in a socially recognized relationship often means claiming all the advantages of that social recognition, while denying those advantages to anyone else involved in the relationship. In that way, the calculation of whether to remain in the closet is significantly different for polyamorous folks than it is for people in the LGBTQ+ community.

I don’t want to make it sound like I believe everyone should be open. There certainly are important reasons not to be, and it’s a choice each person has to make. I would prefer to live in a world where nobody has to make that choice, but failing that, it would be nice to live in a world where the consequences of that choice were fully considered, not just for the couple in the socially sanctioned relationship, but for the people involved with them as well. I feel that too often, we in the poly community don’t acknowledge the ways in which people who aren’t part of a socially approved relationship end up shouldering most of the cost of being closeted, without receiving the benefits of social approval.

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  1. This certainly hits me exactly where I’m at, except in my case, as a secondary, *I* was the one that needed the closet, while the person I was dating in a primary couple was out about it, and saw my secrecy as a sign that I wasn’t really committed to my choices.

    In my chosen career, teachers have been let go for far lighter offences than this. Even in this liberal west coast city, a public school principal was recently fired after confirming the open secret that he was gay. Additionally, after the break-up of my marriage left totally single and without much support, my conservative, religious family stepped in to help.

    In this circumstance, honestly feels self-indulgent because it would dramatically impact my and my daughters lives in very negative ways. And yet, I feel (or have been made to feel) shame, as if I will never be worthy of a real poly relationship unless I can strut around crowing about my beliefs and practices.

    If I was forced to choose between my kid and polyamory, my kid would win every time. But what about the grey area where their’s not clear long-term winners or losers? It’s an uncomfortable balance, and I kinda resent it when people that are “out” take their easy integrity for granted.

  2. Maybe this is one of those situations in which “partner selection” becomes really important. I don’t think any of us have the right to tell another person what they should do in terms of being “out” or not, and we shouldn’t judge them for their choices (and I think Franklin was clear on that in this blog post).

    But it IS our choice whether or not to get intimately involved with partners who judge us or who imply (or directly state) that we should or should not be out or should or should not behave a certain way, or who say that our behavior “must” mean this or that.

    I personally would only choose partners who share my views on being out and who don’t make me feel judged. It seems to me an important value to share because it touches such important issues such as family, children and work.

  3. I am known differently in different circles. I am out socially to my friends, the people who matter. I am out at school as well but I have been in that class for 2 1/2 years so I am out in a lot of ways.

    Work and Facebook is where I keep it quiet.
    I am just starting out working in schools and call my boyfriend my best friend. On Facebook my partners interact but they are friends so it’s fine. I keep it quiet for my boyfriend’s sake more than mine because he has family on Facebook. (If I want to talk about poly, I go to Fetlife)

    We both understand that there are some area where it’s ok to be out and some people who just do not have to know. It is a compromise but it seems to work.

    I do slip up occasionally though.

    2 funny situatons:
    Working at a restaurant I was talking about my boyfriend’s wife, I actually said boyfriend and had a look of horror that I had just outed myself. The guys I was talking to joked that I was getting around and then apologised cos they saw my face and thought I was angry at them. (though through circumstances I actually came out to my boss and his wife and they were like “you lucky duck”)

    Working in a school the librarian, a teacher and I were talking about mucking up names, I mentioned how I get my partner and best friend’s names mixed sometimes and they give me shit for it. The teacher said “hmmm, maybe there’s something there. Maybe you should be with your best friend”
    I had a quiet giggle.

  4. Thank you for writing this article. I am out to my family — my husband isn’t. He’s pretty much out to his friends at least, so his other sweeties have had opportunities to meet some of his friends from time-to-time.

    I am well aware of how this privileges us and is a potential damper on his other relationships. I’ve discussed it with my metamours, too. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. So, every single Christmas, his sweeties will have to do without him, because we also go to his parents. So I will make extra sure to be inclusive around every other holiday. The fact that we live cross-country from his parents helps in that. He’s been in 2 other relationships each a year long. When his parents next come to visit, will his sweeties be introduced as his “friends?” That just doesn’t seem right to me. In a way, it’s none of my business. Except my life partner being in the closet affects me, too.

    I would just say this == there are consequences to our marriage because of our being closeted, too. For some of us, being forced into the closet is a difficult thing. I’m feeling more and more drawn towards poly activism, for instance. If I have to worry about spilling the beans on my husband, I am somewhat hampered. I do very much feel like we aren’t living our lives with as much integrity as we could because my husband is embarrassed to admit that he’s living in non-traditional relationship land. That’s really what it is — embarrassment. And that has always given me quivers of insecurity.

  5. Outness is definitely a really important and touchy issue for poly people.

    On the one hand, the more of us who are out (or at least, as out as we can be), the more normalized poly/open relationships become, and the less stigmatized we become, and the safer things get for all poly/open people. If you choose the closet — for whatever reason — you are, like it or not, contributing to the very stigma you fear. (Which isn’t a judgment of closeted people, just reality.)

    On the other hand, outness v. being closeted is a highly personal choice, with consequences, and no one should ever be forced to be out.

    What I’ve found often is that many poly people who choose the closet really only talk about their needs/preferences, and how this choice affects themselves. But whenever you’re closeted about relationships you have with other people, your choice directly affects other people you care about. Which is why it’s a good thing that you raised the assymetry issue about he poly closet here.

    I wrote more about this (, and why it’s important to clearly consider (and communicate about) your closesting needs/preferences up front in new relationships — and more importantly, your intentions/reasons for closeting. And whether you’re willing to be flexible about closeting, where there is room for negotiation. And to check in if your closeting needs/preferences change over time. This is as important information as knowing whether you practice relationship hierarchy/rules, and your safer sex practices and risk tolerance.

    IME, these conversations don’t happen nearly enough, and usually not up front when they do — people usually just assume that others will intuit and honor their closeting preferences. And that causes a ton of strife and resentment in poly relationships.

  6. Weird, it almost sounds like you are claiming the wrongful discrimination experienced by poly people is greater than that of LGBT people. Or I assume that’s what you mean GLBTQ as often authors use a misnomer for subtle slights and it’s not at all necessary to conjoin polyamory with LGBT in an effort to have society understand that wrongful discrimination is wrong, but there certainly is no reason to be at odds with or position yourself opposite.

    so I am not sure what you are getting at

    but in any event, due to most communities attitude of acceptance toward discrimination, the most important thing is for people to speak out if they ever think they hear derogatory talk about non-monogamy or same-sex marriage, and if they are not sure it’s definitely better to say “I hope that wasn’t a subtle slight against same-sex marriage, because you realize how effed up that is right?”

    I also subscribe to the the belief that you don’t have the right to out anybody, and if you are involved with a couple and you aren’t going to honor that then you need to be clear so that they can either end the relationship of be OK with understanding that they aren’t going to hide anything

    I belief that intimate relationships are something that is up to those involved to be as open or as closed as they choose to be, as that is a private matter. I realize how difficult that can be for the unrecognized partners but it really is more a matter of privacy as these days LGBT are somewhat protected by laws even though they are not offered the same benefits and privileges of heterosexual families, and when we do bring about real legal equality, it will still be a matter of privacy. I wouldn’t prefer a relationship where a person felt the need to remain closeted, so if that were the case I would have to make a decision if I could continue seeing them.

    There is no right or wrong way choice to make regarding being out, there is only Your choice and those involved who make that choice with you, and it isn’t anyone else’s call to label that right or wrong.

    I am however of the belief that if one allows wrongful discrimination without speaking up, that you don’t deserve that rights, benefits, and protections of the LAW that others benefit from.

    There is a balance between that privacy, and what constitutes wrongful discrimination and how it’s different from acceptable forms of discrimination. For instance it is not wrong to be as discriminating as you please with who you choose to offer your love for acceptance in a relationship, you also don’t need any reason or excuse to not accept another person’s offer of love extended to you for an intimate relationship

    the same as nobody needs an excuse or good reason to remain closeted, however I can certainly understand why it would be likely to cost them a relationship, and that is their choice no matter how much you agree or disagree with their decision, it is theirs to make, they don’t need a reason other than their preference. That is the way a person’s private life works, no matter whom may not respect it.

    Just because it’s disrespected doesn’t make it right

  7. Weird, it almost sounds like you are claiming the wrongful discrimination experienced by poly people is greater than that of LGBT people.

    Not at all! I’d say poly people generally have it much easier, in fact. As far as I know, nobody has yet been murdered for being poly.

    What I’m saying is some folks think the decisions faced by poly people are the same as the decisions faced by LGBT people about being open or closeted. There are some similarities, but also some differences. One of the differences is the decision is often more symmetrical in a LGBT relationship than a poly relationship.

    but in any event, due to most communities attitude of acceptance toward discrimination, the most important thing is for people to speak out if they ever think they hear derogatory talk about non-monogamy or same-sex marriage…

    That is an excellent point. I absolutely agree.

    I also subscribe to the the belief that you don’t have the right to out anybody, and if you are involved with a couple and you aren’t going to honor that then you need to be clear so that they can either end the relationship of be OK with understanding that they aren’t going to hide anything

    Yep, I agree with this as well.

    In a perfect world, I would also urge poly people who are choosing to be closeted to consider that it’s their other partners who will probably pay most of the cost for that choice.


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