Confessions of a Polyamorous Unitarian Universalist
Speech given at Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, June, 2003
Hello, everyone. It’s a great pleasure to see you all here this afternoon . It’s gratifying indeed to see so many people come to hear what we of UUPA have to say.
I want to thank my fellow UUPA Board members for giving me the opportunity to be one of the speakers today. I was not able to be at General Assembly last year because one of my primary life partners, Gloria, had just undergone some very serious but ultimately successful neurosurgery. I was, as I’m sure you can understand, needed at home with my family. And so I had to miss the momentous occasion when UUPA had it’s first formally scheduled presentation at a UUA General Assembly. I have, however, heard the audiotape of the presentation, and I’m proud to be able to follow in the footsteps of Valerie White and Tom Stevens, who did such an admirable job in this position last year.
The moderator last year was Amy Bradburd, who, as I recall opened the proceedings wryly with the comment that polyamory is a lifestyle that enables you to “have your Kate and Edith, too.” And then Valerie White defined polyamory as “the lifestyle to have when you’re having more than one.“ (One of the vendors in the exhibition hall at this GA has that slogan on a button, by the way.) Well, as I pondered how to start out today, I my thoughts were somehow drawn to memories of an old TV situation comedy--specifically the one called Newheart--you know, the show in which Bob Newheart runs a little inn in Vermont. Now, my sister Valerie, who now lives here in the Boston area in a three-adult, two-baby household, used to live in Vermont, and while she never owned an inn there I could well imagine that she might have. And being who she is she might well have advertised her inn as catering to polyamorous tourists--rooms for triple and quadruple occupancy, romantic tables for six in the dining room. And there came to me the image of a man and two women coming into the inn one day and walking up to my sister at the check-in desk. And the man in a countrified drawl says, “Hi. I’m Larry. This is my lover Cheryl and this is my other lover Cheryl.”
After giving it considerable thought, I’ve decided not to spend my talk today giving you a lot of philosophical pronouncements about polyamory. I hold philosophy to be very important with regard to polyamory, but a good deal of philosophy is provided in our UUPA brochures and on our web site--UUPA.org. No, today I’ve decided to tell you something of the story of my own polyamorous life. I don’t do this because I think of myself as a “typical” polyamorist, if such a person exists. As a matter of fact, when I look around myself at the field of relationship and love around me, I think of myself as perhaps the most fortunate and well-blessed polyamorous person I know of. No, I’m going to focus on my own story today for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s a story which is fairly intimately intertwined with the history of UUPA. The other is that I think our own personal stories are in fact what people want to hear. When people ask us questions about polyamory, what they really want to know is what are our lives like? How does this odd idea of polyamory actually work for us?
One question that’s often asked of poly people is, “When did you first realize that you were polyamorous?” Well, in my case, this question has two different but equally valid answers. The first answer takes me back to about 1991 or 1992, when I had just gotten my first Internet access account at the computer center at the University of Hawaii, where I was a clinical faculty member at the time. Now back then when you got an account at the comp center you were immediately given about a three-inch stack of the old fan-fold computer printout, which contained, among other things, a list of all the Internet newsgroups available on the UH system--thousands and thousands of them. Scanning down that immense alphabetized list, I found one title which arrested my attention--alt.polyamory. Hmm, I said to myself, I’ve never seen that word before, but I think I know what it means. That, in my early forties, was indeed the first hint I had that there was a whole movement of people like me in the world, and that there was a word for the way I had known I was all my life.
Which brings me to the other answer of when I first realized I was poly. For that I’d have to go back to about age twelve--when I first started having any serious thoughts about life and love and relationships. I can only say that from my very earliest ponderings on such things, the notion that my capacity to love and be intimate with other people should be boxed up in a little two-person package for the bulk of my adult life struck me as truly bizarre. How anyone could have developed such an idea as a romantic or moral ideal was beyond my comprehension. It might, I thought, conceivably be endurable, but it was hardly a consummation devoutly to be wished. I was supported in my point of view by a couple of major influences. One was my mother, a rather remarkable woman who actually enjoyed talking to her young son at length about love and sex and relationships and religion and philosophy and values. I am a second generation Unitarian, by the way. She made it clear to me that as far as she could see both love and sex were beautiful life enriching things, and that they didn’t always necessarily happen with the same person at the same time, and that loving and/or lusting after one person did not, in fact, prevent you from loving and/or lusting after someone else. The other major support for my point of view came from my reading. During my teen years several books were published which challenged the idea that monogamy was the one true way. The first in my experience was Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and it was followed by the same author’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I Will Fear No Evil, and others, as well as books like Robert Rimmer’s The Harrad Experiment. These books had a lot to do with shaping my expectations about love and relationships as I was growing up. Perhaps people were right back then about science fiction poisoning the minds of young people.
Be that as it may, entering adulthood was a frustrating affair for me, as I discovered there were precious few people in the world around me whose minds had been similarly poisoned. I felt indeed like a Stranger in a Strange Land. I seem to have missed the hippie free love movement and the great open marriage experiments of the 1960’s and 70’s. Perhaps if I had gone to college in Berkeley instead of Bloomington, Indiana, my life might have gone considerably differently. But as it was, it was in my early forties, with medical school and residency behind me, that the wonderful word polyamory came into my life and the fulfillment of my own dreams of romance and family became possible.
Besides the Internet newsgroup alt.polyamory, there were also some newsletters to read and organizations to join, and there was also an annual conference--the Loving More Conference--held, yes, in Berkeley, California. In the summer of 1993 I went to Loving More, and spending three days in the company of 200 or more other polyamorists was a life-expanding experience for me. I went home to Hawaii with a clear path ahead of me. I was clearly poly and had been all my life. I wanted to live my life polyamorously. This meant I had to find some other poly people, and there were no poly bars that I knew of in Honolulu. Besides, I don’t drink. So, I placed an add in the personals column of the Honolulu Weekly. The ad read: ARE YOU POLY? Polyamorous, that is? Polys believe we can deeply, richly, and ethically love two or more partners at once. Join our casual weekly talk-story group on responsible nonmonogamy.
Well, people started to call, and indeed we soon did have a discussion group meeting at my house every Sunday evening. After several months, though, it occurred to me that there might be a better place to meet, more centrally located and more comfortable for newcomer’s than a stranger’s home. So I went to a meeting of the Adult Program Committee of my church--the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu. I told them that I had this discussion group and that I’d kind of like it to be able to meet in a room in the church. I tried to make it abundantly clear that I was not asking the church to sponsor the group or even acknowledge its existence; I was just looking for meeting space at a reasonable rate. Well, the committee said the discussion group sounded quite interesting and that , yes I could use the church library at a price of $1 per person per meeting. And so, the Pali Paths discussion group began meeting there on Thursday evenings, and continues to do so even to this day.
But the UU Church, bless them, were not through with me. I became aware, somewhat to my surprise, that the “polyamory discussion group” was appearing on the church calendar and in the schedule of events in the order of service. After a few months, the minister asked me if I would write a short blurb about the group for the “Within Our Circle” section of the church newsletter. And then, the chair of the summer program committee asked me if I would give a sermon one Sunday during the summer. I said, yes, I supposed so; what would she like me to talk about? I had in mind that a few months before I had given a Sunday sermon on health care reform. Her answer startled me considerably. “Polyamory,” she said. The sermon I preached that summer, “Polyamory: What it Is and What it Ain’t” is available on the web. And it was after I gave that sermon that I was elected to the church board of trustees and the ministerial search committee.
Meanwhile, I had not lost track of my own personal goal in creating Pali Paths, and that was meeting more polyamorous people and hopefully finding lovers amongst them. Within the first year, I began dating two women, both of them participants in the poly discussion group and both of them, as it happened, also members of the church, and both of them close friends with each other. This had been going on for about six months when Gloria and Joan proposed to me that we should consciously acknowledge ourselves as a triad family. My life as a genuinely and actively polyamorous person had begun. My memories of the year that followed are very happy ones, and one of the things I found most remarkable was how the church community responded to us. We were by-in-large treated like any other family in the church , we tended to be invited to events as a threesome, and if two of us showed up without the third people would ask, “Well, how’s Joan?” or “How’s Gloria?” And when we walked into Sunday service hand-in-hand-in-hand, no mention was made of it--at least not to us.
After about a year, Joan sadly came to the conclusion that polyamory was not for her after all--that it was her nature to seek out one man to call her own. And so she withdrew from our triad, and while Gloria and I grieved her decision, we respected and honored her for it. We’ve maintained a caring relationship with Joan ever since, and in fact she came to visit us last year when Gloria was having her surgery.
Joan’s departure left Gloria and me in a peculiar situation. We loved each other, considered each other life partners, and wanted to live together. But we had never considered ourselves, nor did we have any desire to be, “a couple.” For several years we described ourselves as “a tribe of two, looking for the rest of our tribe.” The search went slowly for a while, partly I think because in our strongly couple-oriented culture, even within the poly community it was a challenge to convince new people that in our minds the potential truly existed for them to become just as important to us as we were to each other.
In the late summer of 1998, Gloria and I made a major change--not in the nature of our relationship but in the context of it. We moved from Honolulu to Seattle where we’d both dreamed of living for a long time. Interestingly enough, we had both formed that dream independently before we met, and long before we realized that Seattle is home to an amazing poly community which is many times larger, more diverse, and active than anything we’d yet been able to develop in Honolulu. Living in Seattle the past five years has been rather like living in a continuous Loving More conference, surrounded by hundreds of poly people in a fascinating array of open marriages, group families, intimate networks, and intentional communities, as well as a fair number of singles either looking for poly partners of their own or just enjoying themselves as independent members of the community. They are poor and rich, professionals and craftspeople, gay and straight (and bisexual and transgendered), black and white (and other), parents and child-free, shy and outgoing, restrained and libertine, and, yes, healthy and neurotic. They are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, atheist, humanist, and Unitarian. We have our own local chapter of UUPA. There are a bewildering number of events going on all the time, potlucks, workshops, discussion groups, parties, dances, rituals, movie outings.
In this atmosphere, Gloria and I have indeed had breakthroughs in building our tribe. We now live in a three-person household--me, Gloria, and Gloria’s lover and my co-lover, Tom. We also have two other women, Theresa and Deb, who are growing closer and closer to us in a genuine sense of family. They don’t live with us now, but they might conceivably do so sometime in the future. One of the impediments to the growth of poly families in our culture is what I often call “the tyranny of architechture”; there are very few houses built in America over the past sixty years that are appropriate for housing a family of five or more equal, independent adults.
Of course, our Seattle tribe extends beyond the five of us. We have perhaps a couple of dozen people who are frequent guests in our home, with whom we share bonds of kinship, affection, sensuality, and perhaps sometimes sex. We also have bonds of love which stretch over much larger geographical distances. Back in Honolulu there are Julie and Chris, and down in California there are Rosie and her husband Dave and her lover John. We have established our own nine-person e-mail list to facilitate a sense of extended family which spans three states and half an ocean.
How stable are these relationships, you might ask. Well, I’m not one who judges the value of a relationship by its longevity, but I can say that I have at least three lovers who have been in my life longer than the lifetime of the average monogamous marriage. Well, you can judge for yourself. Gloria, the longest standing relationship of my life, has been my lover for nearly nine years. Rosie has been a cherished presence in my life for over seven years, despite the fact that we have never lived in the same state. She and Dave have been married for over ten years and John has been her lover for about three. Our connections to Julie and Chris go back over five years to our former life in Hawaii. Theresa has been closely connected with us for about a year and a half and Deb for about seven months. Theresa connected with us just shortly before Gloria had her surgery last year, and she found her self courting a family during probably its most intense family crisis. How did she do it, you ask? My answer would be, “Very well.”
I couldn’t begin to tell you in any reasonable amount of time exactly how all these people are related--who is lovers with whom and who used to be lovers but are now just caring tribe mates, or who think they might be lovers before too long. I can tell you that on my third date with Theresa I presented her with a hand-drawn flow chart of my intimate network, which looked like a structural diagram I might have drawn for an advanced biochemistry class. I wanted her to be clear about what she might be getting into if she pursued a relationship with me. When I asked her how she felt about it, she replied, “A little daunted.” But she was smiling at the time.
Not to lose track of the issue of Unitarian Universalism, I believe it was in 1998 that I attended a Loving More conference which included a seminar for poly activists--people with an interest in helping polys live more peacefully and openly and comfortably in a largely monogamist world. Out of that seminar came the establishment of a national “Polyactive” e-mail list, and over the next few months we made an interesting discovery. A fair number of us on the polyactive list also identified ourselves as Unitarian Universalists, far too many for it to be sheerly coincidental. Out of our conversations grew the decision to form yet another e-mail list--UUPoly. Before long, UUPoly had over three hundred subscribers nationwide, engaged in an ongoing conversation about the interweaving of our love lives, our family lives, and our spiritual lives, and about the need of polys, like everyone else, for safety and acceptance in their larger spiritual community--for most of us, a UU congregation. Most of us, it seemed, were still in the poly closet as far as our churches were concerned, and those who had revealed themselves had met with a mixed bag of reactions, very few of them as warm and welcoming as what I had experienced at the Honolulu church. Out of our conversation came an intention to form what we think is the first national membership organization of polyamorous people, what became Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness. In 2000 at GA in Nashville, a first organizational meeting was held, and a committee formed to create the corporation. In 2001 in Cleveland, our first official membership meeting was held, and last year for the first time, UUPA was officially represented, as a UUA related organization, in the parade of banners and the workshop schedule of the General Assembly. It has been my honor to serve on the organizational committee and on the first Board of Trustees of UUPA. I have been particularly proud to take part in the writing of our Mission Statement and our Definition of Polyamory, and a couple of our informational brochures.
I have come here today to offer a bit of my own personal story as a polyamorous Unitarian Universalist--to help put, as it’s said, a human face on the UU Poly community. I am definitely not here to suggest that polyamory is the one true way or a panacea for the relationship problems of all UU’s. One of my strongest messages in all of the workshops and discussion groups I have led is that polyamory is as full of challenge and complexity as it is of joy--it is not right for all people and it is not something to be undertaken without a great deal of soul-searching and painstaking analysis of the basic philosophical underpinnings of one’s life. That is one of the reasons why I think Unitarian Universalism and polyamory have so much to teach each other. It’s true, it is my personal hope that the UUA will before long become the first officially poly-accepting mainstream religious denomination. I hope that our congregations will become consciously welcoming to yet another element of diversity. I hope that the poly seminarians now in training can become openly polyamorous members of the clergy, serving churches just as openly gay and transgendered ministers now do. And I hope that the next time President Sinkford writes an essay in the World magazine about supporting family diversity, it won’t just be gay and lesbian marriages he’s writing about.
One of the questions most often asked by people curious about polyamory is, “Does it really work? Is it really possible to love more than one other person at a time?” Now, many polys will answer that with the argument, sure it’s possible to love more than one person at a time; you do it all the time with your children. Loving one of your children does not stop you from loving all the rest. Some people find that argument persuasive, but others will say, “Yes, but that’s different.” And, yes, parental love is different from adult peer-to-peer romantic love. But polys have another answer to that question, a simple, bald, experience-based answer. The answer is yes. Yes, it does work; yes, it is possible to love more than one person at a time. We know because it’s true in our own lives, day to day, thousands of us across the country. It’s true for us and our families from year to year just as it’s been true for me and my family over the past ten years. We know it to be true, and trying to convince us otherwise would be like a blind person trying to convince us that color doesn’t exist.
Thursday evening at the opening ceremonies of this GA, I was sitting next to a man who turned out to be an employee of the UUA. He asked me which banner in the parade of banners it was that I was applauding. I told him it was the banner of Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness. He said, “Oh, yes, polyamory. I’ve been really interested in that, but I don’t think I could ever do it myself. I sometimes think that polyamory is a higher form of love, and I doubt if the human race is ready for it.” I thought about what he said, and I thought, you know, I don’t know if polyamory is a higher form of love; that’s not a kind of thinking I like to get into. I’m not in any kind of petty competition with monogamists about whose lovestyle is better. I just know that polyamory is the kind of love that works for me. And as for the question of whether humanity is ready for polyamory, I can only say what I said to that man in the grand assembly hall. Some of us are ready. And many of us are Unitarian Universalists.