PQ 25.6 — If I am thinking of staying closeted, is it because I face genuine and serious risks, or am I concerned about being inconvenienced or losing status?
Fear is a funny thing. Often it’s very binary, when you feel fear. You get that worry, that pit in your stomach. The one that grunts caveman style, “Risk bad. Threat possible.”
But fear doesn’t give much more of a detailed readout. You have the gut feeling that something bad could happen, but you don’t get a sense of how bad that thing is from just the pure visceral fear. And you certainly don’t get an accurate assessment of how likely that is — only that the probability is more than zero.
And that possibility — however slim — is enough to turn your stomach.
As I wrote in an earlier post in this series, my ex-husband was rather opposed to coming out as polyamorous even after our marriage had been opened for a while, and we were both actively seeing other people. This meant by extension that I couldn’t be as out as I wanted to be. I did tell my own parents (which took quite a bit of courage as they’re very conservative people and I don’t have the best relationship with them to begin with) as well as my favorite sister and all of my closest friends. I did all of this communication one on one. But blanket announcements were off the table.
Because he didn’t want my in-laws to know. He was really worried what his parents would think. Now, he didn’t have much to materially lose from my being open about the fact I was polyamorous. I was friends with no coworkers on social media. My personal life was completely separate from my professional one at that point.
We didn’t depend on my in-laws for any sort of financial or practical support. We had no kids that they were performing childcare for. There was really no way for them to make our lives hell in a survival sense if they “didn’t approve of our lifestyle” (a cringe-inducing sentiment I had seen other people receive from their parents who didn’t approve of polyamory).
The existential risk here was minimal. Essentially, he didn’t want to have any awkward conversations with them.
He said no to my desire to be more out myself. And I honored his wishes. And darted around awkwardly being as out as I possibly could be without risking his parents finding out.
Real life is sometimes more hilarious than fiction. This was one of those cases. Because as I mentioned in that previous essay, after we went on to divorce and I became even more open about the fact I was polyamorous (since I no longer had a partner who was really worried about it), we did eventually strike up a friendship. And my now ex-husband told me that his parents were forming a triad with a woman that they had met.
He had been so worried about his parents finding out that he was polyamorous…when come to find out, his parents were in fact actually polyamorous themselves.
They were probably polyamorous the entire time we were. Actually, looking back, they were likely polyamorous even longer. A close friendship they had with another couple many years ago, in which they traveled and actually lived together for a time before the couple moved out of the country to retire… well, it looks quite different in hindsight.
That was probably a quad.
But my ex-husband didn’t know any of this when I talked to him about my desire to come out. His fear grunted at him, caveman style, “Risk bad. Threat possible.”
And he listened.
There Are Different Levels of Risks, As Well As Primary and Secondary Risk
But yes, while our fear often treats negative outcomes as binary, there really are levels to risks:
- Existential risks that threaten survival. Risks to jobs, housing, childcare or custody.
- Emotional risks that threaten relationships with friends or family. Depending on the relationship, a risk to certain relationships can also pose existential risks. For example, I knew a mother of a young child who didn’t want her in-laws to know she was polyamorous as she needed babysitting help from them due to her and her spouse’s incompatible work schedules. Others who live with relatives can face similar dual risks — risking that relationship would put their housing situation in jeopardy.
- Risk of potential embarrassment or criticism from strangers, acquaintances, or peripheral characters
None of these are pleasant, exactly, but they are quite different concerns. And it can be difficult sometimes when you’re assessing a situation to know exactly which level of risk being “out” in a certain context will pose.
I’ve found with time and experience that I’ve gotten a decent spidey sense of it. But starting out, I found it much harder to judge.
In addition to these different level of risks, it’s also important to consider the risk of outing other people in your life by proxy. In my situation with my ex-husband, I wasn’t concerned at all about primary risks to myself (as at that point, I’d experimented enough with disclosure and outness to ascertain that taking that particular step was unlikely to pose a large risk existentially, emotionally, or in terms of additional embarrassment or criticism).
Instead, I was bound by the potential of secondary risk — in this case, my partner worried that risk would be borne by him by proxy. Sure, it turned out to be an entirely unwarranted worry on his part. But while his risk assessment turned out to be inaccurate, the worry was real to him, and I respected his wishes.
Balancing Requests for Discretion with Not Wanting Anyone I Was With to Feel Like a “Dirty Secret”
I didn’t want my other partners to feel like they were “dirty secrets” (as I’d been there myself in the past when I had secretly dated straight girls who were closeted and were ashamed of our relationship). So I took great pains to demonstrate my pride for and appreciation of my other partners by introducing them to other key figures that were important to me — while simultaneously honoring any request they had regarding discretion about our relationship, ones borne by existential or emotional risks that they worried about.
When I was dating five people (as I once was), this was often a very complicated and delicate calculation… who I could be out to. And who I couldn’t. Due to a a collective risk management, one that out of necessity was often not built on the actual risks but other people’s perception of them.
But I did my best. And I never did have anyone complain about how out I was, or wasn’t. So that’s something, I suppose.
This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions and answers, please see this indexed list.