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Vivienne Chen

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Poly-Baiting: Why We Need a More Inclusive LGBT Movement

Posted: 03/20/2012 12:52 pm

Anti-LGBTQ campaigners have often used the issue of polyamory -- or rather, a twisted media presentation of "polygamy," which is distinct from ethical nonmonogamy and polyamory -- as a slippery-slope argument against LGBTQ equality, particularly when it comes to marriage.

The worse thing about this? LGBTQ activists left and right take the bait.

Just take a minute and watch this short video (TRIGGER WARNING: Rick Santorum):


Notice the crowd's reaction to his statements:

Santorum: Are we saying that everyone has the right to marry?

Crowd: Yes!

Santorum: So anyone can marry anybody else?

Crowd: Yes!

Santorum: So anybody can marry several people?

Crowd: [Mutterings and incoherent babbles of "No!"]

Cut to Santorum getting booed off the stage.

The problem is Santorum is right. Did I just say that? (This is where I say things that not everyone in the LGBTQ community agrees with, so my post should not be used as a monolithic representation of LGBTQ activism.)

He's right in the sense that once we realize it's stupid to keep any two loving, consenting adults apart, we may start wondering whether it's equally stupid to keep three or more loving, consenting adults apart. However, he's totally wrong in assuming that the latter is necessarily a bad thing, and thus deserves to be booed at any opportunity.

But before we go any further, I'd like to clarify that this argument isn't about marriage. Talking about marriage rights assumes that legal marriage recognition is the goal of most LGBTQ and most polyamorous/nonmonogamous (poly/NM) people, which is simply not true. It also opens the door for discussing the logistical barriers to institutionalizing poly relationships, which is a separate conversation. Instead, I am discussing here the general acceptance in society for the concept of a non-straight or nonmonogamous partnership/relationship.

Just as Santorum fears, I believe entirely in the possibility of a "slippery slope" between queer and poly/NM relationship acceptance. However, I challenge the fundamental assumptions underlying the so-called "dangerousness" of this slope. After all, not too long ago in history, a relationship was about the marital union of one man and one man's property, colloquially known as a woman. Then, we as a society redefined relationships between men and women to be about love and commitment as equals, with or without marriage. Now, we are fighting for a genderless distinction.

But if LGBTQ activists continue to say that relationships are really about committing to the people we love regardless of gender, race, creed, etc., then maybe society should allow us to commit to the people (plural) we love. Note the assumption here: I believe it is, in fact, possible for some people to love more than one person.

The fact is that the struggles of the poly/NM community are not unfamiliar to the LGBTQ world. Couples in open relationships have lost their jobs and even custody of their children after people around them outed them as polyamorous. Sound familiar?

By distancing themselves and trying to divorce their struggle from the struggle of the poly/NM community, LGBTQ progressives end up throwing another sexual minority -- indeed, a minority within their own minority -- under the bus (a significant contingency of the poly/NM community is queer/bi and vice versa). Those who oppose progressive social movements have used this tactic countless times before -- divide and conquer. I'd say something trite about how we are only as strong as we are united, but you get the point.

In order to build a more inclusive LGBTQ equality/acceptance movement, we as activists need to learn how to combat the poly-baiting that occurs on the opponents' side. Regardless of your own personal opinions about the feasibility or acceptability of an open or nonmonogamous relationship, we need to have the language to call out anti-equality bigots on their bullshit and false logical assumptions every time they make a "LGBTQ relationships = polyamory (= bestiality = total sexual depravity)" comment.

I offer you this script as only one example of how to respond to someone when they make these claims:

When you try to analogize LGBTQ relationships with multiple relationships, you falsely assume that the idea of polyamory will spark an outrage that will force us to alienate another group. You're using polyamory as a straw man to avoid dealing with the fact that our Bill of Rights makes it impossible for you to ignore that LGBT relationships are as legitimate as heterosexual relationships.

(And if they even dare go into the "man-on-dog" bestiality comparison, please kindly refer them to this graphic: "How to Explain Gay Rights to an Idiot.") If you aren't squeamish about standing behind a poly-inclusive LGBT movement, you can also add: "Your belief that LGBTQ equality will lead to acceptance of polyamory is right. It could. And it should."

This piece originally appeared on Equal Writes.