Labels, Stiff As Amber

I was never prouder of my wife than when she refused to get her first marriage annulled.

The reason why was because she had been told that to get it annulled in the Church, she would have to claim there was nothing valid about her twenty-year marriage… And she wasn’t willing to do that.  Her first husband had been good for her when they met, providing a stability and sensibility that wasn’t present in her family life then.  Maybe the marriage had soured later on as she evolved, but there were many good years when she was happy – and she refused to deny that valid, useful, and now-fading love.

She hasn’t been back to church since.  So it goes.

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I don’t know whether I’m “a poly.”

Dan Savage went on a tear last week, claiming that polyamory wasn’t an innate orientation the way that homosexuality supposedly is, leading to a long rebuttal from Franklin Veaux  saying that yes, polyamory is something where you can indeed be “born this way,” and we should all acknowledge that.

I agree that you can be born poly.  I’m just not so sure we should be so eager to label that.

I have problems with labels like “poly.”  I mean, I am poly, and I’m loud about it.  I blog in public spaces about polyamory because I think that non-poly people should know more about it, and poly folks should see as many different perspectives on how this strange and oft-uncharted territory can work.  (My poly’s not your poly, mang; that’s the only clear rule.)

But I don’t know that I’d be proud of being poly.  It’s a relationship orientation that works for me.  It’s kind of like defining myself by my pale skin, or of living in Cleveland, or of my sense of rhythm; yes, all of these are things I take pleasure in, but do I want to build portions of my identity around them?

I get skittish around labels like that.  Because what often happens is that you have this marginalized group, like gays or polys or gingers or doms, and the outside world brings the Big Press O’Hate on these poor bastards, and then those folks internalize that label to go, “FUCK YOU, YES, THIS IS WHO I AM.”

A valid empowerment.  I approve of all things that turn external hatred into internal pride.

Sadly, it rarely stops there.  What then usually happens is that for many, that label then becomes a way of justifying their whole existence, and then they start viewing everything through the lens of this new identity… and eventually, you wind up with these folks getting so wrapped up in the label that they start disliking anyone who doesn’t fit into this mold.

You see that in gays sneering at bisexuals, in doms and subs sneering at switches, in poly folks looking down at swingers.  A lot of that hatred comes because you’ve defined yourself as X, and anything that spills out beyond the boundaries of X becomes threatening.  Because hey, you’re this!  And they’re that!  If they’re not this, then they’re fucking with who you are!

What often happens with labels is the same old fucking struggle, inverted; we’re better than you are.

So I am poly.  Am I “a poly”?  Fuck no.  I’m not proud of my polyamory.  I’m proud of the happiness my polyamory brings to me, and I’m pleased by the common emotions I share with others who also like polyamory… but my polyamory doesn’t make me better, or worse, than anyone else.

It just makes me different.  And I feel that internalizing labels often leads to imposing ranking orders.

Franklin was born “a poly,” and good for him.  But I don’t know why the distinction would be inherently meaningful to anyone who wasn’t trying to date him.  I wasn’t always “a poly.”  I was monogamous for many years, often in happy relationships, and monogamous for many years with my wife, happily.  We could be happily monogamous again, if we needed to be.

Does that make me a “poly-switch”?  Or “bi-amorous”?  Or “why the fuck would that even really be an issue”?

I dunno.  I’m not refuting Franklin, for I believe that some are “born that way,” and it makes a difference in a few situations.  What I question is whether it’s ultimately healthy to really wrangle all these labels about.

Polyamory is like sexuality and BDSM in that I wish we’d get away from trying to enclose this mutating, changing, evolving sense of wonder into little teeny boxes.  You over there!  You’re poly!  And that other guy is monogamous!  And that person there was born a poly, and that person is deciding to be poly for now!

No.  I was monogamous, and that was cool.  Now I’m poly, and this is cool.  And like my wife, I’m not going to deny the goodness inherent for me in being monogamous back then, just as I’m not going to deny the goodness inherent in polyamory today.

More importantly: I think that if I’d gotten caught up in asking who I am as opposed to what makes me happy, the labels might have actually served as a hindrance.  Because I’d have been attached to a word that might not enclose me.

Look.  There are those, like Franklin, for whom anything but poly has never been a choice, even as there are those for whom anything but gayness has never been a choice, even as there are those for whom anything but dominance has never been anything but a choice.  But for most of us, there’s this squishy Play Doh-like mixture of nature and nurture at work, seeking our environments in which we’re free to experiment and then discovering what fuels our inner happiness.  And our happiness is mutable; if, at the age of 28, all you like is exactly what you liked at the age of 18, you’ve probably had a very stilted existence.  We should be constantly questioning, experimenting, discovering new happinesses and discarding old ones that no longer work.

Labels are often used to exclude and manipulate those experimentations, and so I’m leery of them.  Even now, on FetLife, I’m labelled as Vanilla.  Why?  Because though I’m often – usually – dominant, I feel like I’m more than any Dom or Master label could bring me.

As for what I am right now, that’s polyamorous.  But that’s not a firm label.  It’s  useful as a short-hand to explain to others where I am in my journey right now… But it’s not anything I think of as being inherent in myself, because I may want something else next year.  Or in ten years.  Or in twenty.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

4 Comments

  1. Seamus
    Dec 6, 2012

    Here we are back to that moment of defining, “Us,” and in that moment of the crystallization of values, creating the, “Them.”

    The challenge of staying, “I,” or even a broad, “We,” is maddening. That urge to draw parenthetical limits around your tribe, and thus shut out the other is so intuitive, it frustrates me, and makes me feel cynical.

    -Seamus

  2. Katherine Marie
    Dec 6, 2012

    My partner and I are part of the local polyamoury group which is always fun when people ask and I have to say “We’re not technically poly, we’re non-mongomous, but I talked to the group leader and she said we could join.” The funny part is, we basically are monogamous, but I don’t want to identify as that, because I want the door to stay open in case someone I really like comes along.

  3. Jericka
    Dec 6, 2012

    I don’t know that I was “born poly” or not. I was monogamous for most of my life. I’m not monogamous now. I tell the folks at work that I just don’t want to settle down and marry again, and that works fairly well.
    I tend to look at poly as a “build your own” system, as opposed to the way monogamy works in this culture where there are piles of assumptions that build up into a kind of “one size fits most” package. When I was married I got blindsided by an assumption or three that my husband had internalized that I had not. So, part of what I like about poly is that you usually have to talk about your expectations.
    The other part that I like is that in my particular situation, I can express affection or attraction to people other than my main. Expressing what I actually feel is encouraged, rather than dangerous or risky. What I have now feels more solid to me because we have examined that ground, and built the structure to our desires; we didn’t just take the plot and plans offered by mainstream USA culture and assume things were solid and would fit. Those plans actually do fit a lot of people, but, no longer feel comfortable for me.

  4. Matt Arnold
    Dec 7, 2012

    Yes. Hear, hear.

    So, it has come to this. Identity politics, squabbling with our best allies over labels that make us feel defensive over our sense of self-worth. It’s sad.

    Life is full of tough sacrifices and tradeoffs. If Dan had answered that man’s question in terms of identity, that would have beenbe a mistake, because people don’t fall in love with relationship styles, they fall in love with people.

    I’m not going to get my feelings hurt by Dan’s answer, because it’s not a statement about me. It was the answer the questioner needed. No one can answer the question for him about what’s right for him. Dan realized that. All we can say is that he has to give up something intrinsic to him– the abstract concept of “polyamory” or this living, breathing woman. Who are we to tell him which part of his deepest heart is his “identity”?

    Unfortunately, many of us conflated identity with legitimacy. I don’t need to legitimize the career style of freelancing by saying freelancing is an identity. Does that de-legitimize the freelancing career style? Whether it be career, relationships, or anything else, you can passionately defend your freedom to choose what works for you, whether it’s your identity or not. And what works for you depends on the self, and on circumstances.

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