To Whom Should You Come Out?

Background on Coming out:

The term coming out originated with the GLBT community (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered) and originally referred to the act of disclosing one’s homosexuality. Since polyamorous people and others of alternative lifestyles have experienced similar persecution and prejudices – with much of the same invisibility – as the GLBT community, the term has now come to refer to the act of disclosing anything about oneself that might be received negatively.

If coming out refers to the act of disclosure, to whom is it directed?

Who might you come out to? Coming out of the closet or being outed doesn’t have to mean having your identity splashed across national newspapers; although it could. You can come out to friends, family, co-workers, neighbors – anyone who didn’t know of your preference before you told them (or before someone else told them for you). Why would you come out? There are several different reasons why some of us choose to be out and several different groups of people to whom we come out.

  • Coming Out To Family
  • Coming Out To Friends
  • Coming Out Publicly

Coming out to family:

is a big deal for most people. Many of us come from conservative or religious families who would not approve of their children engaging in premarital sex or “cheating” on their spouses or having wild sex orgies… because, of course, that’s what polyamory is all about, right? Living an ethical non-monogamous life is a difficult concept for many people to grasp, and most of us seek approval from the people we grew up with. Why would we want to shock our stern mothers, risk condemnation from our fathers, or upset our frail grandparents?

When we begin to build our intentional families, that is exactly what we are doing: creating a family. Just as our monogamous relatives will, with automatic recognition, when they marry. Our partners are more than just playthings, they are special people in our lives, hopefully for a significant portion of our lives. We share ourselves with our partners, our day-to-day activities, and our most intimate thoughts. When this life with our partners intersects with our biological family, we have to make some choices. Do we protect the delicate sensibilities of our bio-families in exchange for hiding or lying about these very special people? Or do we honor the commitment and life we are building together and insist our bio-families respect our choices?

I chose to come out to my family when my partners started becoming family. I visit my hometown every year for Christmas. It was natural to invite a serious boyfriend home each year, to “meet the parents” if they hadn’t, or to remain included in the family traditions if they had previously. But one year I didn’t have one boyfriend, I had built a triad with two other people. We had bought a home together and were building a life together. I couldn’t see spending the holidays without them.

Rather than give up my Christmas in my hometown with my parents, which was meaningful to me, I chose to invite my new family to share my most cherished family traditions with me. I could have explained my two guests in any number of ways, maybe saying they were both just friends or that he was my boyfriend and she was a good friend. But the restrictions involved in carrying off that lie, in constantly censoring our speech and actions to prevent accidentally slipping and giving the secret away, in not acknowledging the relationships and commitments we had, in the manner that any single partner or spouse would be recognized… these just felt wrong. It would dishonor the family we were building.

So I told my parents that I was inviting both of my partners, and that we were a family. The conversation wasn’t as difficult as it could have been, because my parents translated what I said into she is bringing home her two friends and roommates. After this I have had this conversation with my parents with each evolution of my romantic network. They continue to misunderstand, but each conversation brings them closer to understanding, and some family members have understood and accepted with surprising clarity.

Coming out to your family can be difficult. Some people are lucky enough to have been born into a family that is accepting and open-minded about alternative sexuality and relationships. Some people have far worse situations, coming from families in which they are in danger of being disowned and losing communication entirely. Some people are even in danger of retaliation by their family “for their own good” in the form of interventions and child-custody cases, or worse. It is up to each individual to decide if the consequences of coming out to their biological families is worth the acknowledgement and respect due to their loved ones. I, personally, am willing to lose the family I was raised with, that I had no choice in creating, for the sake of those I intentionally choose to share my life with, if they are not willing to accept me as a person that has made this choice. Fortunately, I have not had to make that choice yet, but each time I have the discussion about my partners with my parents, I stand ready to make that choice. It is tough, but my intentional family, my sweeties, my lovers, are important, special, valuable people and they are worth acknowledging to the point of losing contact with people who, although they made the ultimate sacrifice in raising me, might not actually know me or respect my values. Just as lovers throughout history have eloped or formed partnerships without their families’ approval, for the sake of love, my partners and our life together are no less special, important, and loving. With love and compassion, though, I hopefully won’t have to make that harsh choice.

The most important thing is family; they’re the ones you come home to. Sometimes it’s the one you’re born into, sometimes it’s the one you make yourself. – Queer As Folk

Coming out to friends:

can be either easier or more difficult depending upon the kind of social circle you have built for yourself. 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? But it does affect them! What happens when your friend hosts a party and invites you to bring a date? You can choose who among your partners gets to attend the party and risk hurt feelings for your other partners. Then the next party you can either choose the same partner and further hurt your other partners’ feelings, or you can rotate among your partners and then deal with answering questions from your friends like “Who’s the new guy?” or “What happened to Jill?”. Sometimes, being seen with someone not previously identified as your partner can cause friends to intervene with lectures of how you’re “hurting” your known partner or calling him up themselves to tell him you were spotted “cheating”. All for your own good, of course. You can also avoid all parties and all discussions with your friends about the rest of your life, building a wall of secrecy and prohibiting any emotionally intimate friendships. Or you can explain up front about your relationships and choose to expend your energy and emotion on maintaining friendships with people who accept you for who you are and welcome your loved ones because they love you.

I prefer to maintain friendships with people who are not so judgmental that they would sever our friendship or intervene in my life simply because we choose different kinds of partners. I feel that anyone who would do such things isn’t really a good friend at all, even if I’ve known them and called them a friend for a long time. If they are willing to drop me or try to change me once they find out about my romantic partner(s), then obviously they can’t respect me, and I can’t call someone who disrespects me a friend.

So, should I come out to my friends? I think this is even more important than coming out to family, provided you can put the kind of distance required into your familial relationships that can accommodate keeping your partners secret. But your friends see you regularly. They often know you better than your family does. Your romantic partners have a very good chance of running into your friends sooner or later. I think the effort it takes to hide your lovers from your friends is far, far more taxing than the effort it takes to overcome the fear and acknowledge and respect your lovers. Keeping your partners a secret is much more damaging to your romantic relationships than outing yourself to your friends is to that friendship – indeed it should strengthen the friendship.

Coming out publicly:

What about coming out publicly to people you don’t care about and who have no business in your personal life, like co-workers and neighbors, or even the greater public via news articles or TV shows? Your romantic life is not their concern, and some people might lose their jobs or children if they are found out. So why invite that kind of trouble?

Precisely because it invites trouble. The gay community continues to fight for equal rights, but they have made great strides. Many states have laws protecting their rights to work and have families. In the U.S. people still seem to think that what happens between consenting adults behind closed doors is everyone’s business and should be subject to regulation. The growing success of the GLBT community is in a large part due to strength in numbers and an organized front. When employers are faced with a significant portion of the work force demanding fair treatment, changes are made. The larger our numbers appear, the more pressure we can apply to affect change in our favor. Right now, our numbers appear very small and very scattered. We will not make any significant changes unless our public number more closely resembles our actual number. If we hide who we are, society gets to pretend that either 1) we don’t exist or 2) we are ashamed (or should be).

Some of us are not in danger of losing our jobs or being dragged into a custody battles. Yet many remain silent because, frankly, it is nobody else’s business. But I believe we have an obligation to fight for the rights of those who cannot fight for themselves. We should stand up and add ourselves to the number of people who demand equal treatment under the law, and to demand removal of prejudice and legal persecution from those who aren’t actually hurting anyone else. We should have the right to remain silent out of preference for what we want to discuss, not out of fear of retribution if we talk. Until that happens, I believe it is for the greater good that those of us who can put away our personal preference for discretion and contribute to changing our society into one in which we are allowed to keep personal discretion, rather than forced to keep silent.

Every positive article, reference, and role model about polyamorous relationships makes it easier for other people to find happiness in their own lives and easier for society to accept non-traditional relationships. By being out, we open the doors for others to live without fear. Just like those pioneers of gay rights and of other groups who have faced discrimination, someone had to be first. Those people who were first paved the way for the future. This is not a matter of disclosing personal, intimate, bedroom details. This is about acknowledging your relationships as valid and important to the general public the way monogamous people are allowed to acknowledge their spouses. Being out allows others who might feel like they are the only ones to have “strange” feelings know that they are not alone. It lets society in general know that these “weird” poly people are not just a few freaks, easily hidden and easily persecuted. We are mothers and sons and English professors and Christians, as well as hippies and computer geeks. We are people.

I treat my relationship choices as though there is nothing unusual or wrong about them. After all, if I behave as if there is something to hide, as if I am doing something wrong, then how can I expect strangers to believe otherwise? I treat my romantic life as though I have the right to have it exactly the way it is and as if I expect to be treated as though I have that right. That means talking about it when I want to talk about it and not talking about it when I don’t want to talk about it. If someone asks me a question, they’ll get an honest answer, no matter who they are or what I think about how they’ll respond. If you speak with language and information appropriate to the setting, but in a tone that assumes you have every right to mention your relationship choices just as your monogamous companions do, you will find much less resistance to your private life than you might think.

Also, being willing to discuss your relationship choices in public with anyone who indicates an interest will help you to find others like you. You can’t expect to get what you don’t ask for. Many people try to hide their polyamorous relationships, and then act surprised when they can’t find anyone to “join their family.” How is anyone supposed to know you are open for a relationship if you’re not willing to talk about it? And why would anyone even want to partner with you if you’re going to hide them away, not acknowledge your relationship, act as though you are doing something worth hiding, something wrong, something to be ashamed of? While no one expects you to tattoo “I’m poly” on your forehead (although I know several people who have the heart/infinity symbol tattoo), you have to be willing to clearly state your desires and expectations up front in appropriate context or you will never find what you’re looking for.

Another very important reason to be out to the general public is because some day, you might not have the choice. The word polyamory is gaining nationwide recognition as talk shows and prime-time TV shows are noting alternative groups with more frequency and accuracy (and less bigotry). Reporters are getting wind of this “new movement” and starting to do stories about poly people, even going “undercover” when the group they target is unwilling to talk with them. The media has always broadcast whatever it wants to, and you might find yourself inadvertently outed. Keeping secrets can increase your liability. They can give other people great power over you. The only way to prevent that is to take control of your life and your choices. You cannot be held hostage by your secrets if you have no secrets. I am in no danger of being “caught” at a poly meeting, because I have no one to hide that from. I am in no danger of losing my job because my work already knows. Your secrets can be a weapon used against you. The media will get its story one way or another, so the best defense is to make sure you tell them what you want them to know, so they don’t find out what they want to know. If you’d like some assistance on how to answer questions and handle the media, you can sign up at The Polyamory Media Association and use their media training resources.

This is not meant to scare anyone. The odds of any individual being targeted for an undercover news report are low. But being accidentally outed can happen. Maybe your coworker happens to be at the grocery store while you’re shopping with your two sweeties. Maybe your niece draws a picture at school of Auntie 1 and Uncle and Auntie 2. Living honestly and openly removes these surprises, and consequently, their power over you. Yes, you may lose family or friends when their disagreements over how you conduct your personal life interfere with their ability to be close to you. But how can those people really care about you if they don’t know you? If they’re willing to throw you away because of who you love and they refuse to accept that you are happy with your choices, isn’t it better that you find out now and concentrate your energy and emotion on those who do love you and accept you? The stress and strain of maintaining a facade, whether it is for friends, family, or the public, can weigh heavily on a person’s well-being and interfere with their happiness and satisfaction of life in general. Secrets allow other people to have influence over your life and your happiness. Take control of your life and your happiness. Don’t give anyone the power to hurt you. Live honestly.

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