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.