When Three Is Not a Crowd

Is the queer community on the edge of assimilation, or a sexual revolution?

BY BRENDEN SHUCART

2015 has been a monumental year for the queer communities. The admittance of gays into the military and the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage represent the culmination of the long fought equality agenda that has dominated the LGBTQ political landscape for more than a decade.

Admittedly, there’s still lots of work to be done; many states still lack employment nondiscrimination, and a Republican in the White House could undo much of our recent success. But as, so many minority groups before us, the queer communities stand poised to become a part of mainstream middle-class America. (Yay?)

Yet even as same-gender couples across the county face the newfound opportunity and mounting pressure to assimilate, another sexual revolution is quietly building momentum—no, not PrEP (at least, not yet).

I’m talking about polyamory.

POLY COMMUNITIES

Not to be confused with polygamy, an often very repressive system where one dude is entitled to multiple wives, polyamory can be described as the practice of accepting non-exclusive romantic and/or sexual relationships-basically ethical and honest non-monogamy.

There are growing poly communities popping up in out of the way places like Louisville KY and Lebanon OH. Practitioners are taking over apartment complexes in Brooklyn. It’s even seriously being discussed by Chinese economists as a solution to their country’s cavernous gender gap.

Polyamory is clearly experiencing something of a “moment,” and the fact that it doesn’t occupy a radically more prominent position within public discourse seems like it can only be attributed to its being overshadowed by the bombardment of news about PrEP and marriage equality.

FACING STIGMA

Trying to get solid statistics on practitioners of polyamory is basically impossible. There is no “poly” box on the census and even if there were many would be likely not to check it. Like many other groups engaged in sexual and relationship practices alternate to the mainstream, poly folk often face stigma and discrimination. But the best estimates of organizations like “Loving More,” a polyamory advocacy group, there are anywhere between 1 million and 1.5 million people living in the United States who poly-identify, and I am one of them.

My first real relationship was with two men I met in San Francisco—and quickly fell in love with. There were men before them of course—men I fucked, men I lived with, even men I loved—but if I’m being honest, the three years that I spent in the home that we shared just off 18th, where the mission meets the Castro, was the first one, I think, that I regarded with complete and total seriousness.

The boys (let’s call them Elijah and Enoch, after my two favorite characters from Hebrew mythology) had been together for two years, and moved to the city together not long before I had met them. Elijah loved to cook and work in the garden. He was both a lover and a fighter, who radiated a smoldering sexuality that captivated even straight boys and possessed a scathing temper it was best not get to close to. Enoch and I worked together at gay bookstore which was once beacon of queer culture and history in San Francisco’s Castro district, and which now, sadly, no longer exists. He had a beautiful angelic face beneath a tangle of dark silky curls, and eyes so achingly sad they inspired in me a desperate need to put my arm around him and keep him safe. We shared a love of books and old movies and drinking far too much when we felt uncomfortable.

There is a lot of responsibility that goes along with being invited into the relationship and home of a pre-existing couple. There’s a sense of obligation to do right by them, to tread carefully and not somehow weaken their bond, matured long before my arrival. Also outwardly, I felt responsible to represent us as a valid and fulfilling unit, every time I pointed across a bar, or a pool table, or Dolores Park and told some incredulous queen, “I’m here with them, and I’m going home with them.”

In fact, I held our relationship with something approaching reverence, at least in the beginning.

WORSHIPFUL SERIOUSNESS

Looking back, I think that was the only way it could be. The notion of the three of us, fierce young wild faggots such as ourselves, with our often hungry eyes and prevalent impulse control problems, could form a serious partnership seemed so laughable on its face, so far outside even the relatively lax societal norms of our California upbringings, that the only way to make it real (for myself and everybody else) was to treat it with an almost worshipful seriousness.

Not that translated into me being an awesome boyfriend necessarily, or even a consistent one. I was young, and oftentimes selfish and cruel in the way young men can be, but I was devoted to them, in my way, and I loved them more than I ever thought possible.

In a real sense they taught me how to love, how to communicate. Any poly practitioner you talk to will tell you that the essence of any successful poly relationship is communication, but they don’t explain to you what communication is—it’s listening with an open heart even when you don’t like what you’re hearing, and doing your utmost to speak your truth clearly, even when you’re afraid it’ll hurt.

HUNGER FOR NOVELTY

Of the interpersonal quirks I had inherited from my parents, a penchant for serial monogamy is probably the most boring. I had a pattern: I would meet someone awesome and fascinating, spend three passionate months with them, and then I would begin to wonder “can I really spend the rest of my life with this person?” and bolt; either into the arms of one of the two guys I dated in high school (because I also got my dad’s painfully romantic love of lost causes and inability to admit defeat) or into a shiny new three-month tryst.

I could never articulate to any of these guys that my feelings for them hadn’t diminished in any way, I was just horny, and worse, I was curious. I wanted to try everything. Initially I think some part of me thought that hunger for novelty—which always seemed to be getting me in trouble—would be satiated by two men. In retrospect it fed it.

ABUNDANCE OF LOVE

My SoCal friends would tease me and say I had developed “San Francisco Values,” one even told me (with deadly seriousness) that I was being selfish and should just be satisfied with one guy. When I laughed he threw his hands up in the air and called me a “slut,” and I only laughed harder, because I totally was. The three of us fucked constantly.

It was both amazing and exhausting. But on those rare occasions I didn’t have it in me, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself excited for their good time and pleased by the pleasure. Most poly practitioners refer to as ‘compersion’, the feeling of happiness at other people’s happiness or success. I came to believe in principle what I had always felt in my heart, love and sex are not scarcities to be jealously guarded but are instead abundances to be shared.

That abundance of love, which suffused our relationship is the real heart of the polyamory revolution. When things eventually broke down, it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of love.

NEXT IN LINE

I never expected to get married, not really; more importantly, I didn’t grow up with the expectation that I’d get married-and mine will probably be the last generation of gay men for whom that’s true.

Growing up I was conscious of the pressure on my brothers to “meet a nice girl and settle down” that seemed to emanate from our parents and the very fabric of society itself that seemed to bypass me altogether. The notion of two men getting “gay married” seemed to me to be fantastically far-fetched, a practical impossibility. And that societally imposed gulf between me and holy matrimony in some ways made polyamory both more appealing and more possible.

Part of me thrilled at the inherent queerness of three men together.

But I think much of one’s perspective in these matters can be attributed to the generation into which we are born.

You see, I came out in 1996, the same year Ellen went on “Oprah” and got denounced by a bunch of nice-looking mid-western mom types, with their overabundance of denim and vaguely moist-
looking perms.

I remember thinking “If they don’t like Ellen, they’ll never like me.” And if had ever secretly held hopes of a big gay wedding, I quickly abandoned any notion that I’d land the staring role in any ceremony that didn’t involve keeping a good friend in the country.

I suspect that that my fiancé had a somewhat different experience growing up queer.

Whereas my only gay role model options growing up were basically limited to be “Xena, Warrior Princess” and Ricky Vasquez from “My So Called Life”—both of whom are fucking awesome, let it be known—my fiancé, just four years behind me, had a much richer, more varied, and (frankly) more empowered cast of queers to choose from.

I’m pretty sure he was always confident that there would be a wedding in his program. If he felt excluded from the straight world, it was with the expectation of someone next in line to get in. For me the line was too long to think about the party inside. I made my own fun.

SENSE OF EXCLUSION

It made me melancholy at first, the sense of exclusion. I used to consider my brothers over the protective wall provided by whichever sci-fi paperback had my attention for the moment and try to take stock of the gulf that seemed to languish between us. As I gradually came into my own as a gay man, melancholy receded to make way for that certain wistfulness one reserves for countries they’ll probably never visit, until gradually, by the time I found myself living in San Francisco I had come to regard my queerness as a gift. The sense of otherness that separated me as a teenager began to seem like a blessing as an adult.

The proverbial world of normal boys seems enticing to those of us who are, for whatever reason, denied entry. But I realized long ago that what looks like a carnival from the outside can also feel like a prison for those unhappily trapped inside its metaphorical walls. As a gay man, I knew I would have had to fight if I wanted to get married, or have a kid, or serve in the military, I knew that I’d have to struggle too if I wanted a life that resembled those of my friends from high school, but I knew that I would have chosen it, because I wanted it.

That’s the gift of being queer, I think. The freedom of choice being different forces us to reckon with.

OUTSIDE THE CARNIVAL

I have a sneaking suspicion that my fiancé (who grew up in the Midwest, in a very nice, upper middle class family of doctors and lawyers) regards my time with Enoch and Elijah with the same bemused affection one might have for a partner’s time in college spent chained to a tree of following The Dead around the Pacific Northwest.

He’s spent practically his whole life waiting just outside that carnival, and now that he can go inside, he can’t imagine why anyone would want anything else.

And I’ll be honest, now that I have this ring on my finger, I feel the allure of state-sanctioned matrimony. I appreciate the idea of standing before my friends, family, and community with my man and saying “We are a family. We are in this together.” I find myself using the word “fiancé” in conversation to lend my relationship extra weight. However—it’s worth noting that all across the western world marriage, that institution which conservative heterosexuals fought for more than a decade to exclude us from, is dying. Fewer and fewer heterosexual couples get married each year, and those that do end in divorce about half the time.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. “Marriage” can be redefined. If it can include two people of the same sex? Why not three?

Assimilation works in both directions, as we are changed by acceptance into the mainstream, the mainstream itself is changed. And perhaps, now, those lessons, hard learned, can be our gift to the broader culture.

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