Non-Monogamy: Searching for Voices

How the language we lack can hold us back

If you were a gay man in 1820 living in the US, you had little room for self-expression.

You probably didn’t have any friends or family who would understand and accept you, there was very little literature on the subject, and the language itself to describe your thoughts and feelings would have been woefully lacking.

Now, in 2020, a gay man can grow up in full awareness that there are others just like him, he can relocate to accepting communities, and although he will still face discrimination and hurdles on account of his sexual orientation, he at the very least has the language to accurately describe his experiences.

Society as a whole has undoubtedly become much more accepting of homosexuality in recent decades. 30 countries have legalized same sex marriages, there are resources like the the It Gets Better project, and gay people are commonly portrayed in the media, from Will and Grace to Pete Buttigieg running for president as an openly gay man. We’re making moral progress and becoming more accepting of gay people, and many of us are waking up to the fact that it’s time to become more accepting of queer, trans, and non-binary people who continue to carve out spaces for themselves and fight for their visibility and equality in law and society.

I think that one of the greatest benefits to this increasing visibility and mobilization within the LGBTQIA+ community has been the blossoming and accessibility of language used to describe our thoughts and feelings.

Yes, it would have been comparatively difficult (if not impossible) for a man in 1820 to gain status and recognition if he were to come out as gay, but in all likelihood, his first struggle would have been the task of adequately formulating his thoughts. He would have lacked the language to express himself in full, and even if he could, it would have likely fallen on deaf ears, since society hadn’t developed the ears to properly listen. He would have been diagnosed, outlawed, castrated, or persecuted in other ways if he were too outspoken, since no one in society had the mental architecture to be accepting, tolerant, and empathetic.

Now, a 13 year old who starts questioning his sexual orientation can find all sorts of language on the internet, in pop culture, books and magazines, and other forums that can help him flesh out his understanding of himself.

The people who he meets online can share their experiences, and he can pattern-match to determine if his thoughts and feelings resemble others in the gay community. Of course, this is still a difficult and often painful process, since it comes with the acknowledgement that gay people are still regularly mistreated and discriminated against; but at least the boy can go through life with greater awareness of his lifestyle.

This is a huge milestone. The ability to give voice to our feelings is a necessary first step towards legitimation and acceptance within ourselves and within society.

And while this progress is definitely grounds for celebration, we still have a long way to go when it comes to developing our lexicons for other marginalized expressions and orientations, particularly for non-monogamy.

The sign of boundless love

Non-monogamy is a difficult orientation to talk about. It isn’t widely recognized even within the LGBTQIA+ community, let alone among society more broadly. Non-monogamy is often misunderstood, and there is such widely accepted (even glorified) antagonism towards folks who cheat on their partners that many people are extremely hostile to the idea. Homosexuality may be prohibited in some random passage in Leviticus, but prohibiting adultery is one of the 10 commandments.

Because we live in such a hostile environment, people who are polyamorous don’t out themselves as such. Many people who are frustrated with monogamy (see the 50% divorce rate and the 25% infidelity rate among married people) and who would be attracted to a non-monogamous lifestyle have little to no role models or legal recourse to help them. Currently, I know of no non-monogamous celebrities or representations in mass media, and I see no substantive public policy on the horizon that will make non-monogamy legally recognized (it’s still illegal to marry more than 1 person).

What’s worse is that this failure of representation makes it even harder for budding non-monogamists to richly describe their thoughts and desires. They often lack the linguistic apparatus to express themselves, and so the result is a feeling of repression and frustration.

There is a similar problem within the bisexual community, since their experiences are often erased. Many people still don’t consider bisexuality a genuine sexual orientation, and bisexual people are often seen as transitioning into homosexuality, or that (when faced with a decision on who to marry, for instance) they will eventually “pick one.” This phenomenon, known as bi erasure, has bisexual people feeling left out, and it makes it more difficult for young bisexual people to talk about their experiences. In a very similar way, non-monogamous people are often erased and belittled by their friends and families.

And yet, more than 1 in 5 Americans will participate in consensual non-monogamy in their lifetimes.

Is that number surprising to you?

Consider that without media representation or any serious consideration within society, non-monogamous people are fractured and must find enclaves for themselves. There are so many people who feel frustrated and stifled by their inability to express themselves and connect with others who feel the same way.

The movement for gay rights and mobilization of the gay community was born of millions upon millions of gay people undergoing the crucible of their own sexual discovery, and then telling people out loud and proud about who they were. They developed the language to express themselves, and by vocalizing their feelings, they were able to find one another and unify — culturally, politically, and spiritually. They were able to form organizations that helped one another. They could reassure the youth in their community that things get better, that they can fight for equality and justice, and that their experiences were — and still are — valid.

Each successive gay person who walks down the path and vocalizes their feelings and celebrates their existence makes the path a little more well-worn and easier for those to follow in their footsteps. As Marianne Williamson put it, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Importantly, blazing that trail serves more than just those who choose to follow it. Even those who aren’t gay see the well-worn grooves along the path and inwardly acknowledge, “ah, this is a valid path — such a trail exists.”

That’s a necessary exercise, since it proves to individuals in the broader society that there are more paths available than just the one they are on.

It’s time for non-monogamists to follow suit.

We need to start being more vocal about our shared experiences so that we can subconsciously give others permission to do the same. We need to unify for political recognition and equal treatment under the law. And we need to show that there are meaningful alternatives to monogamy that aren’t immoral or outlandish.

It is possible for non-monogamous people to have flourishing, nurturing, substantive relationships with more than 1 person at a time, and the sooner we say so, out loud and proud, the sooner that truth will be recognized and heard.

I’m approachable!

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