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The Sting of Discrimination: When Polyamory Is Considered a “Red Flag”

Posted on June 25, 2019 by
- 9 Comments

Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

Today I am playing board games with my boyfriend and my neighbor Z and Z’s boyfriend. The small living room is crowded and warm. Behind me my husband and my girlfriend are playing cribbage and she is strumming Z’s guitar. It’s early February and we have snow and ice on the ground. Guests who were visiting for the weekend are trapped here until the roads clear. My boyfriend had planned to be back at his own Intentional Community by now. Z’s boyfriend needs to get home to his wife and kid in Oregon. But no one is driving anywhere in this weather. We are taking advantage of the day off to gather, make music, drink tea, and play board games. We talk about politics, community issues, books, the weather, and cats. They ask how my article is coming. I wrote some earlier, but my friend O and his girlfriend were watching a movie, and O’s wife and their housemate were working on a project for our women’s group. The article isn’t done because there are always so many interesting things going on in a Community. Despite the inconvenience of the snow, today was a Good Day.

● ● ●

There’s a story that I want to tell, and it’s different than the one we tell ourselves. I think we have an unspoken taboo not to talk about some things. I’m breaking that silence. Telling this story might cause discomfort, maybe anger, but I think it needs to be told. I hope that it will help us all to look more closely at our blind spots. I hope that my story spurs discussion in whatever communities you are a part of.

The story that “enlightened, progressive, West-coast liberals” tell is that other people are racist, sexist, or bigoted, but we are not. We talk about “them” discriminating, but rarely see the ways in which we discriminate. So I’m going to share my story of experiencing discrimination from within the Communities movement.

I am a cisgendered female. I am more or less gender-conforming, though I wasn’t as a child. I am not white, but I “pass” for white. My childhood home was dirt poor, but full of books and love. I was raised race-blind, but as I grew up and began to see race and class divides I often chose my friends from among those who were outcasts and marginalized. I have lived in trailer parks, migrant worker camps, and under bridges. I know what systemic discrimination feels like. It feels like a child eating at a lunch table alone because their clothes are shabby. It feels like my friend Rosa, child of probably-illegal migrant workers, disappearing in the night, never to be seen again.

As a female I have experienced sexual assault, harassment, condescension, exclusion, patronization, objectification, dismissal of my views, and violation of my boundaries. This gender discrimination is, sadly, so prevalent in our society that it becomes background. The water we swim in may be murky, polluted, and sometimes a barrier to movement, but it is the water we have always swum in. We don’t notice it much because it is always there. We put on our armor every day and accept that having to armor ourselves is “normal” and inevitable.

Because the gender discrimination was background, and the class discrimination was systemic rather than personal, I had never felt the direct sting of bigotry, the shock of exclusion based on stereotypes…until I tried to join an Intentional Community. I was raised in Intentional Communities, and as an adult I decided that this was how I wanted to live, this is my path, my passion, my activism. My husband and I visited many communities, looking for the right place for us. I thought maybe we’d found it in a place I’ll call Pine Tree Village.

Pine Tree Village (PTV) is a medium-sized cohousing community in a small town on the West coast. The demographics are average for cohousing: mostly white, educated, middle class, with a handful of other races. More diversity in religious practice, basic binary gender perceptions, at least publicly accepting of homosexuality. The residents of PTV are leftist liberals who consider themselves open-minded and alternative, sort of grown-up hippies. PTV has a Welcoming Committee that handles enquiries, orientations, and prospective members. This Welcoming Committee consisted of two women in their 50s, who I’ll call Angela and Becky. All went well for three months, we’d made a few friends, there were kids our son’s age, we’d investigated income opportunities in the area. We were at the stage of exploring long-distance membership options, trial periods living there, and figuring out if it would make sense to build or buy. In short, this was exactly the kind of community I had dreamed of.

Then it came up in conversation with Angela that we are polyamorous. We weren’t hiding it, neither were we making a declaration. To us being polyamorous isn’t something we wave flags about and make a big deal of. It’s just us, quietly living our lives, finding lasting love and support and connection like anyone else. For some people it may be a choice, but it isn’t for me. It’s just the way I’m wired. Like being gay or straight, this is how I am, an inherent trait.

We explained that we were not interested in dating within the community or disrupting any existing relationships. We know how to be respectful and responsible with our relationships. We weren’t looking for a “poly community” because that’s not a primary consideration. We just wanted a home where our other sweethearts didn’t need to be hidden. I don’t want to have my partner of 20-plus years over for holidays and say he’s “just a friend.” I want to be able to kiss people goodbye on my front porch, just as I would kiss my husband. I want to acknowledge the role that others have played in my son’s life as role models.

The reaction from the Welcoming Committee was immediate: please do not come back or contact us again. The closing line was “I would not choose to join an ecovillage where polyamory was being practiced.”

Read that again. Let it sink in. They wanted no further communication from us whatsoever. Ouch! (I still can’t read that without tears.)

There was no discussion. When we offered to have a discussion with the community so that they could ask us questions we were shut out. We were told that we would only bring complications and distractions to the community without any benefits. We wrote a couple of emails to which we got only the briefest of responses…then no responses at all. I think the comment about us bringing no benefits was the most confusing, since prior to that our reception had been entirely positive.

Imagine yourself in our shoes. We were in shock. It took us a while to talk through what we were feeling. My husband, a white cis male in a liberal city, had no experience with discrimination and didn’t even know how to process it. I was less unnerved, having lived with discrimination all my life, but this wasn’t a place I expected to find it so I wasn’t prepared. It’s easier to take a kick to the gut if you are tensed than if you are relaxed. That’s what this felt like: a kick to the gut. I felt like I’d had the wind knocked out of me. For the first time I felt like I wasn’t safe to be myself in my own progressive liberal social circle.

Becky was the veto on our presence. She said she “had a friend who was polyamorous, and her life was full of drama and instability.” Those dreaded words “I had a friend once who…” are the cliche of exclusionary stereotyping. It says “I am not *-ist! How could I be when I just said this person is a friend?” It bases a rejection on a single experience, the definition of stereotyping. Becky even excused herself from honesty by saying she had “immense respect” for said friend. I am always amazed by people’s ability to lie to ourselves to protect our self-image!

My research for this story included rereading all the emails we traded with the people at PTV. We wrote a lengthy and reasoned open email to all of the members of PTV whose email addresses we had. In it, we explained ourselves a bit and asked for open, honest communication. Reading that letter now I can see between the lines the anger and sarcasm I was trying so hard to reign in. I wrote, in part: “The most shocking part of this decision is that it was made without any discussion with us. That was quite unexpected. We know that people are often wary of anything that is different from their experience, and we were prepared for many questions. One thing that has stood out with the members of PTV that we have met so far is an over-all high level of emotional maturity. That is important in an Intentional Community, and one of the things we look at when evaluating a group. From such a group I would have expected a request to discuss this issue in person.” Yeah, that was snarky and a little bitter. We were trying to write a calm letter, but once we got over our shock, we were also furious.

Our response to the part about us bringing nothing of value to PTV was “Unfortunately, it seems that there will not be time for the skills and attributes we offer to be explored, because it would take a bit of listening and talking to understand this single choice first. Were you to get to know us, you would find that in most ways we are a fairly normal couple, interested in a traditional country life with old-fashioned family values, enjoying the same hobbies as other people, thinking more often about what to have for dinner than how to handle sleeping arrangements (most people’s first question when they know nothing about polyamory).”

That letter still stands as one of the best defenses I have ever written for treating people as individuals rather than as a single characteristic. But…it’s pretty angry. I’m not sure if I could have kept my feelings out of it, or even if I should have.

After that our search for a community was darkened by caution, fear of being judged. We were careful how we spoke, considering whether every sentence would “give us away.” We put our best foot forward and hid ourselves. That’s not a very good way to look for a group of people to share your lives with. It felt icky. Even now it makes my stomach churn to remember.

Eventually we found a good cohousing fit. I already knew that one person there was openly polyamorous. People there were cautious, curious, embarrassed, supportive, or totally didn’t care. He was still a respected leader. We didn’t “come out” to the community before we moved in. A few people knew, and considered it to be our business. We kept that part of ourselves quiet out of fear. Slowly, over the first couple of years, we told people one by one. It turned out okay, but it felt like a tightrope without a net.

It was nine years ago this month that we got that five-line rejection note. I thought the feelings of hurt and anger I felt then were gone. I thought that finding my place in a community, my Forever Home, had healed the pain of rejection. But now…I have to take breaks while writing this article. My chest hurts. Reading through those emails, reading their current website, I realize I still carry disappointment. I see the photos of a dozen children romping through the garden, of their thriving community businesses and store, of the peaceful rural landscape…and a part of me still wishes that was my life. Seeing that brings me face to face with an uncomfortable fact: when I choose Songaia I was “settling.” I love this place now, and never intend to move, but…still…this wasn’t my first choice.

Maybe writing this, being this publicly vulnerable, will help heal my heart.

Reading the PTV website is also a bit of a slap in the face. I see the words “diversity,” “inclusive,” “respectful dialog.” They say over and over that they support individuality. Their mission statement says that all “family configurations” are equally respected. That wasn’t our experience, but maybe Pine Tree Village has grown and learned in a decade. Maybe meeting us helped that to happen.

Here’s the ironic twist: I am more firm today about being accepted as I am, sweethearts and all. I am much more “out.” I still don’t consider myself a polyamory activist or crusader but I stand up for love choice in conversations and I never hide anymore. I don’t back down from my convictions. I don’t save the hard parts for last when I meet people. If they can’t accept all of me then I don’t need their respect, and I certainly don’t want them to be an important part of my life! I think that I would not be this unapologetically myself had I not had the experience of being discriminated against and excluded.

● ● ●

The neighbors and sweethearts who gather together on this snowy day to keep warm by fireplaces, watch movies, drink cocoa…this isn’t a political statement or a movement. It’s just life. Dinner is cooking in the Common House. Kids from three families are throwing snowballs outside. People work from home on laptops if they can, or borrow a neighbor’s four-wheel drive car if they must go out. Intentional Community is the revolution here. If we’re radical about anything, it’s the idea that neighbors can help each other out. If we have two extra boyfriends at dinner, it’s “the more, the merrier.” Someone walks the old ladies home so they don’t fall on the ice. That’s what matters.

Sylvan Bonin lives at Songaia Cohousing, near Seattle, Washington. She spends most of her time gardening, cooking for the community, putting up the abundance of the garden and orchards, building and fixing things, and teaching edible wild foods and mushroom foraging. Between “suburban homesteading” and raising a son, she makes as much time as possible for art and dancing.

Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.


9 Replies to “The Sting of Discrimination: When Polyamory Is Considered a “Red Flag””

RVG

Dear Sylvan, I am a fellow wild food instructor. It is a highly discriminating line of work now isn’t it? What would happen if you didn’t discriminate those destroying angels or death caps from your chanterelles and porchinis? What if people went through the woods eating whatever they felt like? I think these natural realities mirror the spiritual realities of how healthy discrimination in thought and deed is vital to our survival. Are you more careful over how your feed your temporal stomach than how you care for your eternal soul?

Eric

Hey Sylvan, Thanks for a great and so honest article about your experience. Great stuff. My experience with those that oppose you or “red flag” you out and can’t even talk about why; is that fear is the operative factor within them. The opposite of love. Same for those who express concerns about unexpressed or unspecified ‘boundaries’. – Eric The MariposaGroup.org

Arthur Fogg

Hi Claire Frye,
I must comment on your June 6 response to Sylvan Bonin’s article regarding polyamory.
While I certainly must agree with your observation that ” polyamory lacks boundaries in the eyes of most” (and that is a reality); still, that the majority feels a certain way, that does not make it right or just.
I have been, in the past, a member in a community that embraced, rather quietly, polyamory. While I and my wife did not participate, we did not feel threatened in any way. Polyamory was simply there and not central to those who practiced it.

Cara Kelly

Ultimately we each must do what we will will with wherever we are at in our growth as humans. To seek the approval of others for our choices will never work. Worse is to demand others accept whatever we believe. Living in community highlights all our insecurities. Having said so, I feel that Polyamory is an immature, deluded and confused way of living, ultimately leading quite sadly to suffering, to all involved or living around it. May God help them.
There are societal taboos in place or majority rulings for valid reasons. Each community will decide what it is willing to tolerate or not. And, that is the way it is.

Lark

Hi Cara Kelly,
I hear you that you “feel that Polyamory is an immature, deluded and confused way of living, ultimately leading quite sadly to suffering, to all involved or living around it.” I used to think that way too.
As an openly polyam person, I am happier than I had thought possible in my monogamous religious days (which were my 20s and 30s, by the way–I did not embrace polyam until my 40s).
I had been taught by my church leaders that this lifestyle was wrong. I too was convinced that people who chose a non-monogamous lifestyle would suffer greatly.
It’s very easy to judge something from the outside. Before judging us, it might be useful for you to actually get to know us. Perhaps you might even find we’re not all as immature and deluded and confused as you first believed.
In peace, Lark Premshakti

Cara Kelly

I’ve seen generations of families DESTROYED due to such backwards experiments with so-called open marriages/relationships. Get mature. This is no longer the 1960’s.

ClaireFrye

Sorry you felt discriminated against. However you found another community. And, this issue is not all about how you would feel when living in community. Polyamory is not for everyone to embrace, support or accept. Your lifestyle would impact others around you. Healthy boundaries are needed in communities more than ever, and polyamory lacks boundaries in the eyes of the most.

Lark

Healthy boundaries are indeed needed for healthy relationships, whether monogamous or polyamorous.
While I understand that it can feel unsafe to have other people who choose different boundaries than yours, I am curious as to whether you read Sylvan’s description as to how she and her husband practice polyamory. It is clear to me that they are respectful of other relationships and indeed have clear boundaries, albeit boundaries that are created by the individuals involved rather than by society at large.
I am one of the persons referred to in Sylvan’s article, not by name, but by circumstance. I started practicing polyamorous relating in my early 40s. I found it completed something in me that I didn’t even know I was missing before.
Today (at age 60) it enlivens my relationships and imbues them with greater meaning.
True, it’s more work determining boundaries, when it is I and my lover(s) and paramours who must decide them. It was easier to let cultural norms decide boundaries for me, yet my life is far richer now.

Martha Oie

Very well presented article. Thank you. So sorry for the “kick in the gut” you experienced; thank you for bravely sharing your story. It gives pause to reconsider my own *isms, despite believing myself to be beyond it…

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