Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I'm involved in two healthy, fulfilling polyamorous relationships. I am wondering how to navigate social situations where there is talk about relationships. I'm not ashamed of the way I live and love, even though some might consider it odd or morally wrong. Generally, I prefer to keep my private life private, but I don't want to lie about or hide who I am. I wasted far too many years miserable in the closet before I came out as a lesbian. I'm no longer afraid to come out as gay because same-sex relationships are gaining more and more acceptance in society. Coming out as poly is a different story because it is much less understood or accepted. I'm scared that if people find out they'll automatically make all sorts of negative assumptions about me and never see me in the same light again. I also worry about getting fired. I'm applying for jobs in education, and people get really close-minded and judgmental about who is fit or not fit to work with children. But I'm also worried people will think I'm standoffish or hiding something if I refuse (even politely) to discuss my romantic life. All I want is to be judged fairly, live and love as I see fit, and be respected the way I try to respect others.
This is a tough question because, on the one hand, I want to congratulate you on being out of the closet and having two healthy, fulfilling relationships and wish you and your partners the best. I want to tell you that you can demand the world's respect for your choices and that it won't have an impact on the other things you want to accomplish with your life. I want to be able to tell you that you get back what you put into the world and that showing people respect means you'll get it in return.
I want to tell you that the world is fair. But it's not.
I can tell you a couple of things. There are a few places in this unfair world that would accept your polyamorous relationships without batting an eyelash. Most, if not all, of those places are probably in and around major coastal urban areas, like New York City and San Francisco (but, let's be honest, probably not D.C.). There are a few places beyond that where sexual identity is a legally protected class, even if you're in education—but, as you probably already know, poly isn't usually included among the definitions of sexual identity.
I doubt I'm telling you anything you don't know, for which I apologize. And I don't want to seem like I'm encouraging you to live your life in another closet. But I think you need to strike the balance between "I prefer to keep my private life private" and feeling closeted, as well as what makes sense for your relationship partners and your work situation.
You don't actually mention what they want you to do, or if you've had that conversation, and I think it's a really important one to have one-on-one and as a group, as any one of you being out as poly could have the same impacts your partners as on you. Are they in similarly child-focused professions? Do they work in conservative workplaces? Are any of you tenured or do any of you have union protections, or is everyone in a right-to-work (i.e., your boss has an expansive right-to-fire-your-ass-for-no-reason)? What sort of public acknowledgment of the relationship(s) does everyone need, want or not-want? Do you guys want a friend-and-family acknowledgment policy or to just tell friends? Maybe you want to decide to tell people just inside the community or go loud and proud?
There is a spectrum of ways to honest about the circumstances of one's personal life, about how explicit one wants and needs to be, and about how circumspect one prefers to be when discussing them socially (if at all), and your partners need to be part of that discussion.
If you're not sure what your legal rights are or would be if you are out—or outed—as poly (or a lesbian, for that matter) spend some time looking into that as well, whether it's online or with the help of a lawyer or LGBT rights organization that works with employment policy issues (Lamba Legal might be one place to start). If your being loud-and-proud about your poly state can have a negative effect on your employment or employability, that needs to be part of your decision-making process so that you aren't totally unprepared or can consider whether your needs and those of your partners means it might be better to look for employment in a field that might be more poly-friendly or at least less concerned with the personal lives of people employed in that field.
Then, once you have figured out who you want and/or feel comfortable telling, and what you feel like you want, need or feel comfortable telling them, just practice. Practice, first and foremost, knowing that you are not bound to disclose anything to anyone that you don't feel comfortable disclosing: no one is entitled to access to your personal life if you don't want to give it. Then, if there are people from whom you choose to keep some of the details, plan out drawing those boundaries for Nosy Nelsons and Nellies by practicing some conversation-enders. In a work environment, a quizzical head-cock and, "I don't think that's an appropriate question" should scare off even the most inveterate gossip. In a purely social situation, you can smooth the rough edges off that answer by smiling and saying, "You know, I'm actually a really private person and I'm not sure we know each other well enough yet for me to feel comfortable discussing that, I'm sure you can understand." And then, if someone presses their case, you simply say, "I'm not sure why these details are so important to you, but your insistence is making me really uncomfortable."
But while you're working out what sorts of boundary-drawing answers work for you, there's one more thing that you need to deal with: your own sense of worrying about what people would think. Why do you really care if some people of your acquaintances—not your real friends, obviously, because your real friends would and should care more about your happiness and health than who all shares your life or your bed—"never see [you] in the same light again"? Why does it matter if new people you meet think you're "standoffish or hiding something" because you don't want to get into the nitty gritty details of your personal romantic attachment(s)? Some people are gossips, it's true, and others consider any information they don't know about other people's lives a personal affront, but that's not anything you can control. You can only control your own actions and reactions, not other people's.
Not everyone's going to like you, and not everyone's going to respect your choices. It doesn't matter how normative your choices supposedly are, nor how much you try to make people like you: universal love, respect and acceptance is not going to come your way (or anyone's way). And that's okay—if you make your peace with it. All you can do is make the choices that are right for you and the people affected by them, choose how and when to share or not-share relevant or non-relevant information of your life based on your own comfort level and let the rest go. So while it's important to recognize that there might—and I stress "might"—be life-consequences that you don't like for even the choices you make that are positive for you, you don't have to let those potential consequences dictate what you choose to do. It's good to plan for the consequences (I'm a fan of back-up plans and back-ups to the back-up plans), but not as good to decide by default that the determining factor in your choices is other people's (potential) reactions.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com