Polyamory – Another Form of Family

Mim Chapman, PhD
A sermon presented to the
Anchorage UU Fellowship

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So there was Noah, according to the story, building an ark to save life on earth. Who was admitted and sheltered in his ark? Good old Noah and Mrs. Noah, of course, and a pair of each creature: male and female - two by two. Male and female - two by two. Male and female - two by two. And our society, rain or no rain, still maintains those requirements for being accepted into the ark of familial safety, legality, and acceptability: male and female - two by two.

The Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender (GLBT) community & their allies are fighting to give male and male / female and female couples the right to enter the ark of social acceptance. Polyamorists are now taking on the second half of the Noah syndrome, the two by two bit.

What is polyamory? It is a lifestyle based on the belief that it is not only possible but perfectly normal to love more than one person at the same time. It holds that love is like the light of a candle. If I light your candle, then light a second candle, the second candle does not diminish the light of your candle, nor of mine. In fact, the group of candles can preserve the flame more securely than can any one or two candles by themselves.

Of course life is never as simple as a simile. Polyamorists admit that creating and nurturing multiple relationships is not easy. It requires massive amounts of communication, trust, honesty, commitment, dedication, and a fairly high level of maturity and self-confidence. But who said any relationship was easy? 

So what does a poly relationship look like? Well, there may be as many kinds of polyamorous relationships as there are polyamorists! Some look like the good old-fashioned “open marriage,” whether the primary partners are gay or straight. Then there are polyfidelity families - groups of three, four, five or more people who have a long-term commitment to each other and are sexually exclusive within the group. Polyfamilies may include gay, straight, and bi members. Many formed specifically to provide extended family for their children. Another common relationship form is the intimacy chain sometimes called a Z, N, or W, i.e. A+B and B+C and C+D etc. with no particular intimacy between A and C, B and D, or A and D, although they all know each other and are friends. Sound confusing? Try adding children and jobs and dating schedules! But the benefits of trading “ownership” for freedom and diversity in love relationships more than outweigh the challenges, according to members of the poly community.

Critics claim that poly relationships won’t last. Well, divorce rates certainly don’t speak well for the longevity of monogamous relationships! According to Dr. Deborah Anapol, author of Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits, polyamory facilitates longevity because a relationship does not need to end just because a partner develops affection for another person. She says monogamy, though the only officially sanctioned relationship model in our culture, is in actuality seldom practiced. True, there are couples that fall in love and maintain a happy, loving, exciting monogamous relationship for their entire lives. But many others have relationships that are actually polyamorous but which charade as socially acceptable monogamy. The first she calls serial monogamy – loving many people but across time, as in I love only you; we break up and it’s over. Now I love only YOU; then we break up. And now I love only YOU, etc. Another is monogamy in name only - monogamy with a wee bit of cheating: I love only YOU, but I sneak around to love him, and if YOU ever find out, there’ll be hell to pay! The former causes the pain of serial break-ups, the latter the pain, guilt, and lack of intimacy that comes from dishonesty, not to mention fear of getting caught. The upfront work involved in creating and maintaining a polyamorous relationship is intense, but it is at least positive, honest, and constructive!

Of course, more than two is not new. Polygamy (one man, several women) as practiced in the Old Testament, in Mormonism, and in parts of the Arab world, is a patriarchal system where a man rules his harem – the extreme ownership situation. In contrast, polyamory focuses on creating egalitarian relationships where all members have equal authority and responsibility.

I've always been a poly, but just didn't know there was a word to describe my affectional orientation. When I was married, my husband and I decided the nuclear family was a nuclear disaster. Children have always been raised by an intimate network of loving people, and the idea of two people behind a picket fence both working and raising children is a rather modern idea which, in our opinion, wasn't working very well and certainly wasn't for us. We decided we didn't want to bring children into the world unless we could find or form an extended family to help us raise them - and neither of our blood families were options! We had several intimate relationships with other couples in search of the extended family we wanted. But he died at 34 before we found the couple(s) we were looking for, so we had no children.

After his death, I continued my search for an intimate family. Back then, when everyone was reading Harrod Experiment and Stranger in a Strange Land, looking for a group to “grok” with was not that unusual. But as the 70’s turned to the 80’s and 90’s, I began to feel pretty out of place. I had my share of friends and lovers and a handful of viable marriage proposals, each of which I turned down, not because I didn’t like the person, but because a traditional marriage just wasn’t what I was looking for. But after a while, I started to think that something was wrong with me. Perhaps I needed more therapy, was afraid of commitment, or was fixated on trying to create the family I hadn’t had the good fortune to be born into.

Some of my older gay friends have told me about growing up thinking that they were the only ones in the world, because they didn't even know there was the word "gay." That's how I felt about myself. Then one late night after hours stamping envelopes for the "No on 2" Campaign [an Alaskan gay rights effort] we ordered pizza, put our feet up, and started talking about our personal dreams. I took the risk of sharing mine. "But there IS a word for you - Polyamory!" said the woman from GLBT Task Force who was there to help us with the final days of the campaign. "And there are websites, national gatherings, local discussion groups, and political activists. You're not alone! Just look up polyamory on the internet and you'll find links to lots of groups of people who share your affectional orientation!" Who says there are no personal benefits in working for political causes!
I then came out to several of my close UU gay and lesbian friends as we were on the road to Seward to lead a Welcoming Congregation seminar for their UU Fellowship. None had ever heard of polyamory. They had mixed opinions as to whether the GLBT community would be welcoming. One said, "Right now, we're focusing on winning partnership rights by showing society that we're just like straight couples except that we're the same gender that it just isn't the right time to mention relationships of more than two people. That's way more scary than gayness!" But another said, "There's never a good time to come out, or a guaranteed safe group to come out to. But if not now, when? And if not us, who?"

But I wanted to know more before I said more. This winter I spent several months in New York and went to the meetings of the New York Polyamory Society, held in the big New York GLBT Center in the Village. I found a wonderful, interesting, welcoming group of people there, people of all sexual orientations, races, and a wide variety of ages. It felt like coming home! I became friends with one of the founders of Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness. (Leave it to us UUs to welcome every stray social radical, right?) And then I discovered Loving More, a 20-year-old national polyamory organization with quarterly magazines and annual conferences. Check them out at www.lovemore.com.

But now I’ve really come home, and I’m lonesome. I’ve discovered nearly 200 poly websites, but none in Alaska. If we’re all over the world, from Australia to Sweden, is it possible that NONE of us except me lives in Alaska? Or are there others out there suffering from the Noah syndrome and thinking, like I did, that they’re just weird, sick, or hopelessly out of step with society?

For more information, check out the polyamory on the Internet. Can you tell this is just a little scary for me? Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And if just one other person out there discovers that they are not alone in their affectional orientation, it’s worth the risk! So here’s to more loving, and maybe to Loving More!

Originally published in 
 An Alaskan GLBT magazine, May 2002

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This page last updated: March 29, 2013