In most polyamorous communities in the United States, the majority of the community members are either bisexual (especially the women) or heterosexual (especially the men). Both in person and online, mainstream polyamorous communities have a marked lack of people in exclusively same-sex relationships. I do not mean that people in same-sex relationships are not having consensually non-monogamous relationships, but that they are just not doing it in the mainstream poly community. This blog explores five reasons why lesbians and gay men might not appear in the mainstream US poly scene as much as their bisexual and heterosexual counterparts.
Although my research indicates that poly communities tend to have lower levels of homophobia than conventional society, it does not mean that they are without homophobia. Parallel to mainstream society, poly communities value female bisexuality and same-sex contact among women far more than same-sex interaction among men. Gay men usually do not enjoy dealing with homophobia in their social environments, so it is no surprise that they are rare in mainstream poly circles.
The flip side of homophobia is objectifying sex among women for male consumption. Given the tremendous popularity of “girl on girl” porn in the US, many heterosexual American men are obsessed with watching women have sex with each other. Even better, in many of their minds, they hope to “get in on it” with the women in a threesome where the man comes in and “finishes off” at least one of the women (I know this because they have expressed it to me in vivid detail far, far too many times). Many lesbians are tired of fending off straight guys who want a threesome with two women. Because of the comparative rarity of single women in many poly communities, lesbians would be competing with hetero men for a limited pool of bisexual women while simultaneously avoiding the enthusiastic men – too much work for too little fun. Rather, many lesbians who want polyamorous relationships socialize in lesbian groups and skip the mainstream poly scene.[i]
3. Gay men invented Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM)
When I asked a dear friend – who had been partnered with the same man for more than 10 years and both had regular flings with friends and strangers – why he and his partner did not identify as polyamorous, he responded: “Honey, we invented open relationships and certainly don’t need another label for them.” OK, so maybe they didn’t actually invent it, but research indicates that CNM is a regular feature of gay male society in the US.[ii] With community norms already in place and a social pool of potential dates already open to CNM, gay men don’t have to approach a different community to find partners or seek advice. Remaining in gay settings also means they don’t have to deal with homophobia (or at least not as much).
4. Queer-identified folks incorporate CNM
Queerness allows for a large sexual spectrum, including not only varied levels of CNM from polyamory (on the tame side) to relationship anarchy, but also degrees and types of kinkiness, gender expression, bodily modification, and personal expression. Like gays and lesbians, queers in same-sex relationships already have access to a circle where CNM is part of the social fabric, so they don’t need to seek it out in the poly community.
5. Political Expedience
Although there are plenty of lesbian and gay poly folks, the fragile state of sex and gender minority rights in the US makes it uncomfortable politically to align with any form of consensual non-monogamy because it reminds conventional folks of polygamy -- the end of the slippery slope. Some in the mainstream gay and lesbian power structures are actively hostile to polyamory/CNM as posing a potential threat to recent gains in civil rights. Even though they may in principle be open or even supportive of poly, to secure their civil rights as a practical matter the lesbian and gay power brokers must remain strategically hostile to any attempts to bring up poly in U.S. politics.(iii)
So where are they?
Even if they do not appear in the mainstream polyamorous community, there are definitely lesbians and gay men having consensually non-monogamous relationships. Some of them even label those relationships as polyamorous. When I asked Alexandra Tyler, an LCSW who specializes in serving LGBT+, poly, and kinky folks in Atlanta, about the lesbian and gay poly scenes, she responded:
I became aware of CNM in the gay communities back in the early 1980's and I'm sure it was popular long before my personal awareness of it. The LGBTQ communities created their own structures for this long ago. Now that poly is becoming more mainstream and more popular among heterosexual people, I see the sexism and homophobia that separates these communities beginning to fade. Hopefully that means that those barriers will fall away.
[i] Munson, M., & Stelboum, J. P. (1999). Introduction: The lesbian polyamory reader: Open relationships, non-monogamy, and casual sex. Journal of lesbian studies, 3(1-2), 1-7.
[ii] See for instance Parsons, J. T., Starks, T. J., Gamarel, K. E., & Grov, C. (2012). Non-monogamy and sexual relationship quality among same-sex male couples.Journal of Family Psychology, 26(5), 669 or Klesse, C. (2012). The spectre of promiscuity: Gay male and bisexual non-monogamies and polyamories. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
[iii] Thanks to a reader for this idea.