The PolyBureau
by Alan Wexelblat

Borrowing Their Language

Are poly people born, or are they made? Once upon a time that might have seemed like a terribly important question. These days, it's a fun topic to discuss, but not particularly important. We like to think that we accept people as they are, regardless of how they got that way.

Others may not accept, and I've had people insist on an answer. My personal feeling is that some people are indeed born this way. Some people use poly as a way of "playing the field," and may cease being poly when they decide it's too much work or they find someone who wants to be monogamous with them. Other people can choose to be poly or not, depending on their circumstances, mood, or current interests.

It is also my opinion that someone can identify as poly without necessarily being in multiple committed relationships or even practicing any form of responsible nonmonogamy. This, of course, raises the question of what does it mean to "identify as." The best answer I've been able to come up with to questions like this has been to use what I'd call sexual orientation language.

That is, I often refer to poly as my sexual orientation. In doing so, I find myself borrowing liberally from the language and descriptions used by gay/bi/lesbian people to describe their sexual orientations. I've been fortunate to have many such people as friends who have been willing to share their stories with me. As I hear them talking, I identify parts of what they say with my own experiences.

There are similarities around whether we were born or made this way, and similar insistence that it doesn't matter. There are similarities in that each of us lives a life that is different from the accepted mainstream, particularly the mainstream as popular American media portray it. There are significant similarities in our stories of dealing with friends, relatives, lovers, and employers. And of course there are the comparative stores of coming out - revealing one's weirdness to some part of the outside world. I'll talk about coming out in a near-future column.

There are similarities in that each of us can "pass" if we so choose. Gay men may decide not to hold hands or kiss in public. They may refer to each other as "roommates." Similarly, poly people may have extra people-referred-to-only-as-housemates, may only list one mother or one father on a form, may only bring one date to a company function, and so on.

Fundamentally, both gay and poly people choose to walk a more difficult road, or are compelled to walk it by dint of wanting to be true to themselves, to their feelings, and to their view of the world. In a word, to their orientation.

Orientation language helps me talk about the process of discovery that I went through. A realization that I was, somehow, different, and a struggle to accept that difference and be true to it, despite significant conformist pressures. An ongoing struggle to figure out how the person I am and want to be fits into my vision for my future. What I want to do should not, in some ideal world, be limited by who I am, but we do not live in that ideal world.

Orientation language also speaks to our respective searches for acceptance. Whether that acceptance comes from an inner peace, from the comfort and support of one's closest friends and family, or from the town, city, country or society in which we live, there is still a common sense that we start from some kind of off-balance position and a common desire to find a stable ground of equilibrium.

In a sense, orientation language is about trying to package up a whole set of questions, problems, trivia, and potentially deep, scarring issues and put them into a neat and well-defined package so that we don't have to think or talk about them all the time. It is much easier to say

Oh, yes, this is very much like that over there and since we understand that over there we don't have to start from first principles to understand this.

Of course, this kind of shorthand has its dangers, in that it obscures certain very important details. In the details, no two stories are identical because they happened to different people and in different times and circumstances. When you are trying to tell your personal story, and not a general story about poly people in the abstract, a reliance on orientation language can confuse the issue. It may not describe what you feel, how you relate to things, or what your experiences have been like.

As with so many things, I'm not trying to put forth this particular approach or choice of language as the One True Waytm. Rather, I think of orientation language as a tool, one among many, that can be used to describe that which is poly. And if I start using it in my columns, well, now you know why.

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Copyright © 2001 Alan Wexelblat
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.

Last modified: Wed Jan 15 06:51:42 2003