It never rains, but it pours… today my profile appeared in Chris Barry’s very cool column in the Montreal Mirror (check it out here if you’re interested). Whee! Tomorrow at 4 I’m speaking on a McGill University panel on diversity in the queer community – check my Workshops section for details if you want to show up, it’d be lovely to see some familiar faces in the crowd! And then I got a call from a reporter last night, and tomorrow morning I’m going to be interviewed in studio for the French-language TV show “2 Filles le matin”, which airs on TVA every weekday from 9 to 10. They want me to talk to them about polyamory. (I’m not sure when it airs but I’ll post when I find out.)
That last one inspired quite a thought process, which of course I felt I should write about, so here it is…
The show researchers found my name because a couple of years ago, I was interviewed for Châtelaine magazine (the French-language version) about polyamory as part of an article on “different” ways of doing relationships. It was an interesting experience, and one I’ve frequently thought about since. Especially the photo shoot, in which I had to set some firm limits with the make-up artist (“Do NOT come near me with that mascara! Okay, maybe just a bit, but now STOP!”), and in which the photographer looked at me and guilelessly thanked me for “not being ugly” (?!) before he went on to sigh and moan about how reporters don’t consider the attractiveness of their interview subjects before talking with them, and how difficult that makes his job sometimes. I don’t remember if that was before or after he asked if I’d be willing to take off my shirt for the photos. His artistic concept was doubtless intended to be tasteful, since this was a mainstream mag and not a porn rag, but nonetheless I was the only poly girl to be interviewed and somehow, in his mind, that made it appropriate for him to attempt to have me show skin when none of the other subjects did. Yowza. Hello, mainstream media. Needless to say, I kept my shirt on. And buttoned all the way up. The idea of showing skin isn’t scary to me, but the idea of a reader associating poly with cleavage just seemed to fall into the realm of titillation rather than education.
The vast majority of the speaking gigs I do and interviews I give are aimed at a fairly queer and/or kinky audience, and that’s a place where I feel at home, comfortable, and fairly sure that I’ll be understood. (At the very least they don’t care about whether or not I plucked my eyebrows that morning, and won’t be asking me to disrobe while I make my points.) It’s not that the people attending my workshops are necessarily in the same place as I am, either politically or personally, when it comes to sexuality and relationships; but we do tend to have a common language and at least fall within a similar range of cultural reference points. When I use the word “queer” nobody wonders what I mean, for example. We all know that it’s a fluid and umbrella-like term that each of us can define for ourselves, and while the specifics can be intriguing to tease out, the general idea is loosely assumed and that’s pretty much fine.
When I speak to a more mainstream audience, though, things quickly get a lot more… interesting. It’s easy to do education work for other queers from that place of comfort; it’s a lot more challenging to educate a mass audience of middle-aged heterosexual women who read popular glossy magazines and watch morning television. If my past Châtelaine experience dictates, they’ll be totally open-minded, even eager – we do live in a tolerant society, after all – but culturally they’re just vastly different from me.
This is not a bad thing. In fact it’s quite good as I always treasure the opportunity to feed the minds of people who aren’t already exposed to alternative ideas, but it definitely takes me outside of my comfort zone and makes me stretch. I always find myself facing a plethora of questions of what to say and how to say it so that people can actually hear it – walking the line between not wanting to give them anything with which to create a potentially sensationalized interpretation and yet wanting to educate; wanting to be accessible as an educator to people outside the world of politically conscious queers and yet not wanting to leave pieces of myself behind as I go or make myself “palatable” in a way that compromises the values and politics I’m standing for in the first place.
Sexual orientation is often the first place where the questions come up. “Bisexual” is an idea that most people can handle – they might have a set of prejudices to go along with it, but they at least have a basic understanding that a bisexual person is interested in both men and women. But my bisexuality doesn’t look much like the bisexuality that would be the next step out from the heterosexual mainstream. I’m not a straight-leaning heterosexually-married traditionally feminine woman with a traditionally feminine lover on the side – nothing wrong with that, it’s just inaccurate when applied to me. And when I talk about being bisexual in the context of polyamory – and I refuse to not mention it, because otherwise I’ll be presumed straight – a mainstream interview audience will plug me into that model, which happens to be the closest available one but which doesn’t fit at all.
When I talk about dating “men” and “women” it’s not untrue, it’s just that my definitions of those terms are completely different than the accepted standard. Most of the men / guys / boys / bois I am or have been involved with were born in female bodies, and the ones born in male bodies don’t exactly hold up the cultural norm of the gender identity that’s supposed to match with their physical selves. Most of the women / gals / girls / gyrls I am or have been involved with bend their genders way into the territory of masculinity, or were born in male bodies and take on femininity from a completely different angle than the norm. And then there are those wonderful people whose pronouns and/or presentations shift around the spectrum, or whose bodies never fit into the simplistic boxes of “male” or “female” in the first place. So as a person who dates from within this fantastic pool of individuals, when it comes to naming my orientation, I colour way outside the lines of the classic understanding of “bisexual,” even with the lavender overlap between the pink and blue bars on the flag.
How the hell do I convey that richness to an audience that watches “2 Filles le matin”? It would take an undergrad survey course to even begin. And yet, how do I stop from gritting my teeth when people make mistaken assumptions?
And that’s just the question of sexual orientation. Never mind the concept of poly itself. Most people out there have some idea that not everyone is monogamous. But the relationship model the mainstream world starts from is one of heterosexual monogamy, and then it presumes that everything else must necessarily be a step out from there. But the terms and foundations of queer poly are just so culturally different from those of straight poly that sometimes even when we speak the same words they come from two sides of a gaping chasm.
My poly is not a variation on hetero monogamy; it’s a completely different creature born of a completely different set of parameters about relationships. Queers, even the monogamous ones, fuck with the standard definitions. Our relationships often flow from friendship to sexual relationship to romance to being exes and back again. This doesn’t mean we have no boundaries, or that we have poor ones, or that we’re constantly confused. It just means that the relatively small pool of people within which we are likely to find our relationships of any description holds a multiplicity of possibilities, and each relationship holds that multiplicity, and it’s up to us to assess and define each one based on its merits rather than on the usual criteria of gender segregation, strict boxes and easy assumptions. And the smallness of that pool (the whole “two degrees of separation” thing) means that the same person may take on very different roles in our lives over the course of a given relationship. All of this combined makes us conscious of relationship nuances in a way that others don’t always have to be.
So for me, poly is a profoundly queer philosophy – it’s a logical extension of that multiplicity of possibilities, where instead of saying that as soon as one possibility blossoms into a romantic relationship the others must be dropped, I simply allow each possibility to blossom into whatever it naturally wants to be. And that means sometimes I’ve been single, sometimes I’ve had a primary partner and a couple of lovers, sometimes I’ve had a circle of partners of varying descriptions and no primary, and sometimes I’ve had two or three really significant relationships at the same time.
Certainly there are a lot of monogamous queers out there, but they tend to be laid-back about the idea of poly – it’s not a strange, mysterious, titillating practice, it’s just another way of choosing to conduct one’s relationships, one choice among many. And lots of predominantly monogamous queers will dabble in non-monogamy without really getting their panties in a knot about it, even if they don’t turn it into a full-blown life philosophy. It’s, like, no big deal that Bob and Joe sleep with Bill or visit a bathhouse every once in a while, or that Mary and Sue sometimes fool around with other girls when one of them is out of town, or that Janie and Julie chose Julie’s occasional lover Kris as their baby’s godfather, or that Valerie and Davida cruise together for fun scenes at play parties even if they don’t bring anyone home.
So when I talk about “polyamory” or “non-monogamy,” the context in which this approach to relationships takes place for me is a far cry from the idea of a heterosexual primary partnership with satellite lovers. It’s a way of being in my community, a way of moving through the world that’s not particularly unusual, a way of being… well, just being me. It’s only transgressive if you compare it to a whole other mode of thought.
Which is exactly the audience to which I’m supposed to speak about poly tomorrow: people who will be coming at the question from a whole other mode of thought. How do I translate my ideas about this stuff into a language they can relate to, without dropping the richness of the whole thing along the way?
As in the past, I don’t have any specific answers. It’s a balancing act every time I do this, and sometimes I feel good about the results and sometimes I feel the wires have crossed and I’ve been less successful. All I can do is try my best to explain my points of view simply and without sacrificing depth; and to refocus the questions in ways that help reframe an audience’s thought processes rather than letting the terms of the discussion be set for me. Admittedly, doing this on TV will come with its own set of worries – for some reason live media always stresses me out more than print – but maybe I can just think of it as another form of university panel discussion and forget about the cameras. So… wish me luck for the show.
Oh, and I could also use some good vibes to help me win the battle against the scary mascara-weilding lady.