Posted February 4, 2008
Looking backward: The following piece is from almost five years ago, and my own views continue to evolve. Sometimes I feel like they devolve. However, I think that the subject is worth Left discussion and commentary, because, as my friend A. says, why don’t lefties fucking GET personal politics? We can rag on “social conservatives”, but often our own views come off as some kind of queasily tolerant personal-as-political Not In My Back Yard. So I am posting this, and will rebut it in the comments, and hope other people will chime in, too.
“Coming Out” as Poly?
I think I used to romanticize the notion of “coming out”, the same way that I romanticized the notion of being an armed rebel in the IRA or the FSLN or the FMLN or the Spanish Civil War. In my mind it was dangerous, heroic, exciting, adrenaline-filled, brave, proud, and sort of gloriously STUBBORN. All of those characteristics appealed to me. I’d known best friends and relatives who came out, in fact, and it was like that for them. I didn’t actually KNOW any IRA members, etc., though I’d met relatives of the Hunger Strikers and active service members of the IRA, and political refugees whose pasts were probably linked to armed struggle of various kinds. But “coming out”, if by that one means coming out as interested in or identifying as “polyamorous”… that’s not romantic. So far, I’d say it’s much more nerve-wracking, embarrassing, and just filled with social discomfort. It’s productive of long, awkward silences. It provokes throat-clearing and bitten lips and sideways glances and overly hearty “Really?”s And it has succeeded in being the only thing I can ever imagine doing that might, in fact, have shocked my family.
My family is three generations of atheists and two generations of revolutionary marxists. There have been (closeted) queers in every generation I can find, and openly gay men and dykes in the last two generations. No one has ever been shunned for their sexuality in my family, on either my mother’s or my father’s side. People might have politely ignored the implications of certain behaviors, in the 1920s or 1930s, but it’s hard to imagine no one knew. In some cases it is clear that EVERYONE knew. And then, the politics. It’s hard to shock the older generation when the older generation was on the barricades (figuratively speaking) and being arrested for Civil Rights marches and antiwar demonstrations (literally) before you were born. Oh, I guess I could shock them by losing my mind and becoming a Republican. Or, worse, a Democrat. But short of becoming suddenly stupid, there was never much of an opportunity for me to rebel. I sometimes wonder if I am doomed to perennial immaturity because I have NOT gone through the stage of rebelling against my parents.
I couldn’t even rebel via drugs, because my folks both smoked weed most evenings, watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. And I lay quaking in bed, imagining the cops bursting through the front door to arrest them. When my dad OFFERED me a toke -I was fourteen, at a party of grownup Socialist Workers Party opposition members I wasn’t interested in the least … (as I recall, we were all intently discussing whether the hijab and veil could EVER have any progressive character, and the position of women in the Iranian Revolution… but this was BEFORE the Embassy takeover…) And they didn’t care if I drank on the weekends, as long as I didn’t go too far. There wasn’t much left to rebel against, you know?
My sister managed. As she decided to pursue spirituality -not Christianity, though our great aunt was a nun, but sort of New Age crystals and affirmations. Stuff I had enormous contempt for at age 20, when she got into it (which should imply that I don’t have as much automatic contempt, now, having lived in the Bay Area for years). And she was a pacifist, too, which was kind of beyond the pale for our revolutionary family. She may even once have flirted with voting Democrat, though I think she remained pure even in the voting booth. But when she came out as a dyke (twice: once in high school and once in college) no one flickered an eyelid. My GRANDMOTHER told her “I’ve always thought that was a reasonable option.” My father did wistfully say, once in a while, that he thought it might just be a stage. And at the same time, he looked at me, wondering, unsure of MY sexuality, despite my sleeping with various men on his damn SOFA. He’s always kind of found me hard to define.
Well, now I’m even harder for him to define. And telling my father, stepmother, mother, and various comrades and friends that I am interested in the idea of polyamory… huh. I’ve finally had my own coming out experience. As I said, it hasn’t been particularly romantic or brave or glorious or adrenaline-filled. I don’t have any barricades to storm. I feel kind of foolish and exposed. I see the reactions of political comrades and just fellow union activists – and it follows that sequence described above. Blankness in the face. Shifting eyes, from the sign I carried to my face to the ground, back up to the sign, back down to my face, then off to the side. There are long gaps in the conversation. They don’t know what to say. In the Bay Area, few people are going to criticize anyone’s personal choice about his or her sex life, love life, sexual orientation, or lifestyle. But people (in my limited experience, so far) find it hard to know what to say.
For me, it’s been interesting. In January of 2003, an anarchist date mentioned two books to me, Deborah Anapol’s Polyamory, the New Love Without Limits, and Catherine Liszt and Dossie Easton’s The Ethical Slut. The first one didn’t light my fire, particularly. But the second one… the second one was like coming home, somehow. Finally there was a language to explain how I’d experienced my own early sexuality and the reflowering I’ve been having more recently. So much in that book was recognizable. Things I’d argued with my family members about years before suddenly resurfaced -for instance, one reason some of them seemed tempted to think that I was a dyke or at least bi was simply that I argued in favor of women claiming their sexuality and being full of sexual appetite and desire and lust and pure enjoyment. They could NOT get their heads around that notion. Not with a heterosexual woman. Or maybe, to be fair, not with a young heterosexual female relative, in a drunken conversation. But for them, I think that sex is part of an economy of scarcity, which is a notion I don’t understand at all, and a notion I have NEVER understood, from childhood. To that extent, and in that way, The Ethical Slut struck sounding chords in me, chords that had been muffled for too long. Joy and openness and multiplicity in sex, in human connection? That should be revolutionary. That should be part of sexual politics. That should be part of progressivism and the Left. That should be a pretty damn glorious Coming Out, in fact.