They Do,They Do
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
By Dave Mann
Austin’s progressive and health-conscious Central Market, with its exposed brick and steel, is the kind of store that stocks two sets of vegetables — one regular and one organic. On a warm, bright May evening, Central Market’s restaurant floods with young, hip professional families, crunchy college students, and even crunchier starving artists. The polyamorists are here too, blending into the bustle at a long patio table for the weekly Wednesday dinner of the Poly Austin group — the only giveaway is their trademark stuffed parrot resting on the table. About 15 people turn out tonight, though several hundred belong to the group’s e-mail lists. “We always meet out in a public place so people can come and just watch us and decide if we’re freaks or not,” says Bryce Maryott, a 36-year-old video game creator and polyamorist who runs the Poly Austin e-mail list.
The group tonight is a diverse mix: men and women, young and old, singles and couples. Usually group members talk about anything but poly issues at these dinners. But my presence on this night spurs a discussion of marriage, love, and monogamy. One man, who wishes to remain anonymous, ruminates on the hypocrisy of our monogamy-centric model. No one practices true monogamy (just one lover) anymore, he argues. It’s more like “serial monogamy.”
The polyamory trend seems part of a larger deconstruction of marriage, debunking traditions in a society coming to accept divorce, open marriages, infidelity, and, perhaps soon, gay unions — in which “family values” has become an empty political catch-phrase. Love is pliable now. We love the one we’re with, because, the thinking goes, there is no “one true love” out there, but rather a series of “possible loves.” If you lose one, another will come along eventually. Thirty years ago, the Beach Boys sang, “God knows where’d I’d be without you.” Now we know where — out looking for someone else.
The polyamorists at the table argue, if you can love numerous partners during your life, who says you can have only one at a time? What if you meet two or three at once? Why should you have to choose or, worse yet, cheat on your significant other? If you push the envelope a little further, they say, you soon realize that loving more than one person at once is quite possible. And so is dating or marrying more than one person.
Polyamory or poly-fidelity is a spawn of — and you knew this was coming — the Free Love movement of the 1960s, though it didn’t go by those names. The practice has formalized in only the last 10 years, as the web has brought more poly-friendly people together and spread the idea. Says one member, “The internet changed everything. I never would have found poly without the internet.”
Sitting at the end of the table is a handsome twenty-something with a puff of blond hair. Call him Matt — not his real name. He’s attending his first poly meeting tonight. A little while ago, his girlfriend cheated on him, he says. She told him, and, instead of breaking up, they began talking about the possibility of a three-way relationship. So Matt began researching it on the internet, a trail that’s led him to Central Market tonight. He’s warming up to the idea of his girlfriend having a relationship with someone else. He’s found his problems weren’t necessarily with the idea of multiple partners but with “my own insecurities. I was afraid of losing her or that she’d like him better,” he says.
Polyamorous relationships are not all the same — many people make up their own rules and situations. The most common is the “V,” meaning one person dating two people separately. But there’s also the triangle, in which three people date one another. Beyond that, there are constellations of designs. “We spend a lot of time diagramming our relationships,” says one group member, laughing.
General rules are scarce, but all polyamorous affairs are closed, committed, and structured relationships. It isn’t, polyamorists insist, simply about sex or swinging (the term swinging has come to represent another growing “alternative” lifestyle that partially involves open-sex parties between dozens of couples). Occasionally, Maryott says, people come to meetings looking for sex and to “put notches in their belt.” The group quickly sniffs them out and dispatches them. Maryott says he was drawn to polyamory because of its trend toward open, honest relationships — generally, few secrets are kept in a polyamorous situation, which can be beneficial and difficult. “Imagine being in the doghouse with two people at once,” says one club member.
Fundamentally, polygamy and polyamory can be light-years apart. Maryott contends that the Poly Austin group has nothing to do with polygamy and doesn’t advocate breaking any laws. And to a certain point, polyamory seems more, umm, mainstream than polygamy. For example, Maryott is dating two women but, he says, would never marry both. Similarly, some polygamists sneer at the very mention of polyamory. Yet, not surprisingly, those distinctions aren’t hard and fast — polygamy and polyamory can be remarkably similar, and some people seem to move seamlessly from one to the other, almost to where they’re the same thing. Certainly, once you reach the point of loving and dating more than one person at once, it’s not an extreme stretch to picture marrying more than one person.
Like polygamists, polyamorists keep a low profile — and seemingly for good reason. One man at the Wednesday dinner asks that his name not be used in this story because he’d be fired if his employers knew of his multi-partner lifestyle. Even though that sounds a lot like discrimination, it’s a chance many polyamorists won’t take because they believe a polyamorist couldn’t win in court, either in a discrimination or child-custody case.
Polyamorists with children must be especially careful, says Terri Avalon, sitting at Central Market. Child protective services in many states view poly lifestyles as “deviant” and have taken children from otherwise fit parents, she says. The most famous case was that of April Divillbiss, who lived in a male-female-male triad in Tennessee and was featured in an MTV documentary on polyamory. Divillbiss had a 3-year-old child, who wasn’t mentioned in the show. Yet after the broadcast, the child’s maternal grandmother showed the tape to a judge and had the child taken away.
But for Avalon, the lifestyle is worth the risks. “For me, it only adds to my life for my partners to be happy with other people,” she says.
A few weeks before that meeting in Austin, another polyamory dinner was held, this one in Fort Worth. The poly pulse in Cowtown is faint, but still beating. Polyamorists from Fort Worth and Arlington are quietly trying to revive a group in the area.
On a Saturday night in late April, seven of them gather at the Rodeo Steakhouse downtown to discuss poly issues. As secretive as polyamorists in Austin and Dallas are, they are even more so in Fort Worth. Several among the group aren’t comfortable with a reporter’s presence and, as soon as I arrive, they ask me to leave. The meeting is organized by a woman I’ll call Eileen (none of the names used in Eileen’s story are real). She agrees to speak with me if her real name isn’t used and no identifying details are revealed — her Fort Worth neighbors, friends, family members, and fellow parents (she has two children) don’t know of her male-female-male triad relationship with her husband and, as she puts it, “a second love.” The servers at Rodeo Steakhouse, where she’s a frequent customer, are among the few she’s told.
Eileen has been married 21 years to her husband, whom we’ll call Phillip. As far back as she can remember, Eileen felt able to love several people at once. It’s in her nature, she says. “But for a long time, I thought the poly tendencies in my nature were a hole in my moral character,” she says, “and I was going to correct that.”
Despite those tendencies, Eileen remained faithful to her monogamous marriage for 17 years. Until four years ago, when she met and fell in love with another man, whom we’ll call Brian. Why should she have to choose, she wondered. So she tried to incorporate her “second love” into her life. While her husband remains monogamous, Eileen and Brian have maintained a flourishing relationship, she says, even while her marriage sails along smoothly. Soon, she may consider marrying Brian or inviting him to live with Phillip and the children full-time. That would make Eileen one of the few practitioners of polyandry (multiple husbands), a practice frowned on by some “traditional” polygamists.
In fact, Eileen seems quite middle of the road — if there is such a place in the poly universe: She’s sufficiently conservative, preferring not to be associated with the generally more leftist pagan polyamorists. “My husband and I are against abortion; we think it’s murder,” she tells me at one point during our interview. Earlier she’d talked at length about the many Bible passages that support multiple spouses. A picture emerged in my mind: white, middle class, ultra-religious, and ultra-conservative. In a word, Bible-thumper. But, a few minutes later, my image started to fracture when she argued that Christians must be more tolerant of gays and lesbians and that, contrary to views of the religious right, the Bible does not label homosexuality a sin. Her youngest son, she says, once sat through a Sunday school class about the evils of homosexuality, then raised his hand and told his teacher that, in fact, “God loves everyone,” including gays and lesbians. She attends a United Church, a progressive house of worship for sure: The church contains no crosses (except for one that’s covered in flowers) because the congregation prefers to emphasize life rather than symbols of death. Her minister knows about her three-way relationship and thinks nothing of it.
Rowenna Erickson practiced polygamy for more than 30 years as part of a cult based in Colorado, where she witnessed the many horrors of polygamy: child abuse, spousal abuse, sexual abuse, family dysfunction. She finally worked up the courage, with her eight children, to leave her husband and, in 1994, co-founded the group Tapestry Against Polygamy, based in Salt Lake City.
The organization works simultaneously as a support group for women fleeing polygamous marriages and as a lobbying group, pushing legislatures to enact stiffer laws against polygamy, especially in Utah (even though that state has among the strictest bigamy laws in the country) and prodding law enforcement to crack down on polygamous families.
Erickson says the group has helped several hundred women escape polygamous relationships, providing legal and psychological counseling and, in some cases, helped protect women from violent former husbands. “These women experience a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Erickson says. “They’re like victims of war; it takes a lot of therapy.” The group’s polygamy hotline receives several calls each month, including one recently from Texas.
Last year, the group’s investigations led to the prosecution of Mormon polygamist Tom Green, Utah’s first bigamy case in half a century. That would be the Tom Green who lived with five wives and 29 children and made a fateful appearance on NBC’s Dateline to flaunt and defend his lifestyle. Green had also divorced five wives, married mother-daughter combinations (including several as young as 13), and abandoned several of his children to welfare. Still, Erickson says, Utah prosecutors were unwilling to go after him until the group brought them direct evidence. He was convicted in May 2001.
“Tom Green’s wives just didn’t know any better,” Erickson says. “They’d never been told there was another way.” She argues that most polygamous marriages are simply about a man wanting sex with multiple women, and that the resulting children are often dysfunctional. “One man can’t be a father to that many children,” she says. “These kids are so messed up. How can they have a normal view of women? How can they ever have a normal relationship with the opposite sex if they’ve never seen one? I don’t care what they say — it doesn’t work.” When asked about polyamory, Erickson concedes she doesn’t know much about it.
Murray-Wachtendorf confesses that the Tom Green affair was a “black eye” for polygamy and reinforced all the stereotypes he’s hoping to dispel. “He’s an idiot,” Murray-Wachtendorf says. Still, when asked what Green did wrong, he doesn’t mention the statutory rape or the kids on welfare. He says Green became too public and was a fool for taunting prosecutors on national television. The Green family is still together, by the way, even with Tom in prison for at least five years, and has vowed to resume its lifestyle when he gets out (several polygamy web sites are accepting donations to help support the Green family). Green’s highly publicized trial didn’t stop the rise in polygamy, Murray-Wachtendorf says.
To see just how potent the web has been in polygamy, take the case of Beth (another fake name), a highly religious Arlington resident who had never considered polygamy until — and she remembers this date exactly — Feb. 26, 2001. That was when, surfing the internet with her new computer, Beth stumbled across a polygamist couple’s personal ad. She was 32 at the time and had never dated anyone; something about a monogamous relationship with a man wasn’t attractive to her (dating a woman was out of the question — that was a sin, she says). All but resigned to a life of celibacy, Beth says that when she discovered polygamy on the web, she started crying on the spot because “it felt so right.”
“I’m the elusive single female,” she says. “There are lots of couples out there looking to add a female, but relatively few single women like me looking for a couple.” She’s in high demand.
Now after more than a year of scouring the web for a couple and sifting through hundreds of responses to her personals ads, she believes she’s found a couple in their mid-50s who may be right for her. They arranged a first meeting in Arizona a couple of months ago, and “we just cried together the whole time,” she says. She’s considering moving to Oregon to live with the couple, and she envisions an eventual three-person marriage. Yet obstacles remain — Beth says the couple’s grown children find the idea revolting and won’t allow it.
Several years ago, a friend and I became embroiled in a fierce dinner-time debate over homosexuality and the definition of marriage — the kind of pop-philosophical argument that erupts whenever young liberal-arts majors go on vacation together. He argued that the traditional concept of marriage is the union of a man and a woman. And once you break that tradition, say, by legalizing gay marriage, which he advocated, then you also must accept any type of non-traditional marriage, polygamy included. I wasn’t sure if he truly believed that or was taking the radical position just for the hell of it; you could never tell with him.
But I was reminded of that discussion often while researching this story, especially when, as happened many times, someone responded to my interview request with a suspicious, “What’s your angle?” The truth is, it’s almost impossible to have an angle on polygamy and poly — the subjects are too big, too diverse, and too devoid of common patterns. People who practice polygamy and poly raise some interesting social questions, though: If a society becomes tolerant of gay marriage, why shouldn’t it be more tolerant of multiple partners, either married or unmarried? In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union refuses to denounce polygamy because it would violate freedom of expression and religion and the “privacy for personal relationships among consenting adults,” according to a 1991 ACLU policy statement. And yes, child abuse and dysfunction seem like close relatives of polygamy, but, as Murray-Wachtendorf points out, there’s a ton of child abuse and dysfunction in monogamous relationships too, yet no one questions the institution of monogamy because of them.
Still, some aspects of polygamy ring hollow. When asked to describe the challenges of a polygamous relationship — and surely there must be many issues to address when living with three or more people — Murray-Wachtendorf offers this: “The biggest problem is, there’s no place on the form. Every time I fill out a form, there’s no place to put my second wife.” Michael Shone, who runs 3coins.com, responds this way: “There really aren’t any emotional issues. The women take care of that stuff.”
Regardless of public opinions about it, polygamy and polyamory are growing. So maybe it’s time we actually thought about them — beyond the jokes.
Dave Mann, formerly a Fort Worth Weekly staff writer, is now a freelance writer in Austin
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