Faithful Polyamory (a Unitarian Universalist sermon)
Hello, I'm Elise Matthesen; I'm bisexual,
polyamorous, and a member of this congregation.
I hope you'll forgive me if I'm a little worn-out and grumpy -- and
maybe tearful -- today, but it's been a big week. I got home on Monday
night from a visit with the chosen family of one of my partners, and
when my other partner picked us up at the airport, he said, "Your
sister says to call her as soon as you can. It's urgent."
It was. The mother of my closest high school friend had died
unexpectedly, and my sister wanted to tell me, and to make
arrangements with me for getting to the funeral, which was back home in
southeastern Wisconsin. I got back last night at Midnight.
I felt it was especially important to be with my friend for this funeral
because her father died just a few months ago, after a long, difficult
illness. Her mom, as my sister pointed out, was one of the best mothers
we knew; she had lots of love for her kids, and enough to share with the
numerous friends of her offspring who came through the house. My friend
and her husband were in the process of leaving their home and jobs in
order to move in with my friend's mother and take care of her and be
with her, but it wasn't to be.
One of the other reasons I really wanted to be there was that my friend
is a very wonderful, gentle, and loving person. She was one of the
people who supported me when I came out as bisexual a quarter-century
ago. And when, years afterwards, I went back to tell her, "You know
all those years ago in high school? I, um, I think I was in love with
you," her response was one of the most thoughtful I've ever heard
of. She sat there for a minute, considering, and then she looked me
square in the eye and said, "Thank you." Which was perfect --
I wasn't asking her to do anything about it, other than to know how much
I cared about her. I didn't tell her way back in high school, because I
wasn't ripe to say it yet, although I was able to say that I was
bisexual, once I found out there was a word for it.
When I worked the night shift at the canning factory, one of my
co-workers was a strong, graceful, young Spanish-speaking migrant
worker. One night on break, as we watched the mist rise off the river
behind the factory, he asked me, "Do you think it's wrong for a man
to.... you know, to go with another man?"
This wasn't small talk. What could I say? The church I was raised in
called homosexuality an abomination. I knew they meant me, too -- and I
didn't think they'd give me a discount on eternal damnation for being
bisexual. (Bashers haven't offered to beat only half of me up, either.
Bigots are generous with their abuse; in fact, they're much more
inclusive than our allies, sometimes.)
I knew what I was told in church and Christian day school.... and I knew
what was in my heart and mind. I had pondered the idea "God is
Love" a lot -- especially when the adults around me seemed to be
under the impression that God was Shaming and Threatening. But I knew
the feelings inside me were good; they were like morning reflecting in
raindrops on the phlox in the flowerbed. Like how the mint fields
smelled at harvest time. All the places I had been taught to see God's
handiwork were places of wonder and intricacy and life. It seemed to me
then that God was impossible *not* to love... and by my young logic,
following love with integrity and whole-heartedness was a way to get
closer *to* God.
I didn't say all this to my co-worker. I said, "Do they treat you
He froze, like a rabbit not sure whether to run yet.
"Are they nice to you?"
He shook his head. I don't remember his words, but I remember the pang
when I realized he thought "going with men" and being treated
badly were inextricably linked.
"Oh, honey," I said, "I think it's okay to love men,
women, whatever, but hang on and wait for the ones who treat you nice,
okay? Don't go with the ones who are mean to you."
If God is Love, then love can be a pathway to God -- but you gotta hang
on and wait for the ones who treat you nice. And you gotta treat *them*
nice, too -- and you've got to follow your pathway with integrity.
If you missed the controversy in the UU magazine, "poly" means
several (or many, though one person's many is another person's few);
"amory" means "love" -- so, "many loves,"
or "several loves." As the one I'm married to and I describe
it sometimes, "we're very faithful; we're just not
I am proudly -- and gratefully -- involved in two long-term partnerships
and one relationship which cheerfully defies
description. For the statistically-minded, these have lasted fifteen
years, eight years, and seven years respectively. I sometimes joke that
I'm "an old boring settled poly person," but I'm happiest with
long-term relationships. I wouldn't be very good at practices like
serial monogamy or trading beloveds like baseball cards.
I have told partners: "The fact that I love you is not
negotiable.*How* I love you is always negotiable."
My feelings bloom inside me -- like that delight in the dew on the
phlox, or my love for my beloveds, or the big deep joy I called
"God." My actions are my choice and my responsibility. I
cannot be rude, hurtful or cruel to one beloved and then claim I was
"only acting out of love" for another. I believe nobody can
build real and lasting happiness at the expense of another -- whether
they're monogamous or polyamorous or celibate.
I won't "proselytize for polyamory," bisexuality or anything
else. I don't get toasters for signing people up- though I did laugh at
the joke that we bisexuals don't get toasters; we get waffle irons. But
seriously, I don't value polyamory, ethically and consensually
practiced, any more highly than monogamy, ethically and consensually
practiced. Or bisexuality over monosexuality. I'm not under some
impression I have the One True Way. I don't believe there *is* One True
Way. I think there are many paths, and that our path is between each of
us, our consciences, our conception of good (or god), and our
I'm glad people are curious about bisexuality and polyamory, but I
wonder why so many questions are about sex. Aren't people curious about
love? Or is sex the thing we can talk about nowadays, and love the
Some people think they know what I must mean by "bisexual and
polyamorous." They come up and say, "Oh, I get it -- you're bi
and poly because no one person can meet all your needs, right?"
Wrong. I don't get up in the morning with a checklist of
"relationship needs" and start pushing my cart around doing
comparison shopping. Love and relationships are more about giving, about
the privilege of building something together, of cheering each other on,
or sometimes up. About interdependence -- another word associated with
our UU principles.
The last thing I want to say is about polyamory as opposed to cheating.
(And the way I practice it, polyamory is very *definitely* opposed to
cheating!) Monogamous people who are cheating sometimes pull me aside
and say, "I'm telling you this because I know you'll
understand." Now, how a person like me, who has gone to a lot of
effort to communicate and negotiate early, often, and thoroughly, is
supposed to be a kindred spirit to somebody hoodwinking their trusting
spouse, I haven't a clue. I feel at those moments like a Unitarian
Universalist who's just been told, "Oh, I really admire your
ability to throw all that outdated morality, belief, and ethics stuff
out the window!"
As Thomas Moore said in his book THE CARE OF THE SOUL about the word
"poly" in a different context,
without investigating the idea deeply enough, have assumed that this
means that morally anything goes, that there is no code of ethics, and
that whatever happens, happens; but poly means 'several,'
May you have strength, luck, and grace in all your relationships, of
whatever description. Thank you for asking me to speak today. I look
forward to continuing conversation.