Is Polyamory Queer?

A crowd of people, many displaying rainbow flags, walk down an urban street during a Pride event.
Who in this photo is queer? (Hint: almost everyone)(Rosemary Ketchum / Pexels.com)

As we’ve moved through Pride month, there’s been the usual uptick in arguments about what “counts” as queer. This year’s biggest community debate (so far) has centered on whether polyamory is “queer.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and give you an unequivocal answer: yes.

Why? In the simplest terms, because “queer” is anything that is “abnormal” or “strange”—as defined by Western cultural mores.

Polyamory Presents a Challenge to Western Cishetpatriarchy

Why polyamory is a queer practice becomes obvious if we think of it as a direct challenge to cishetnormativity and patriarchy.

Western society focuses on the nuclear family. That consists of one man and one woman and the offspring of their union. There are a few reasons this family structure has come to dominate our current era.

One is that it allows for the practice of primogeniture. Under this system, the eldest male child inherits his father’s estate. Yet it’s much easier to trace kin through matrilineal means, as mothers are usually aware of which children are theirs. An African saying sums it up: “Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe.”

Marriage and monogamy, then, is largely a practice that exerts male control over female sexuality. While it’s often presented as protection against male promiscuity, monogamy more often protects the man. The wife becomes his property. That she can only have sex with him should ensure that any child she bears is also his.

In a polygamous system, this is no longer a guarantee. Relatively few cultures practice polyandry, with one woman having sexual relations with more than one man. Monogamy with one man is the ideal for women, even if men sleep with more than one woman or have more than one wife.

I’ll note here that polygamy and polyamory are not the same thing. Polygamy is simply the system of marrying more than one person. Love need not necessarily be a part of it. Thus, polygamy—particularly polygyny—need not be a queer practice, as it simply serves the aims of patriarchy.

The Nuclear Family and the Capitalist Ideal

That the nuclear family has become the prevalent family formation in the Western world deserves some more examination. After all, if it were purely a patriarchal thing, focused solely on domination of women, why wouldn’t we practice polygyny? In polygyny, a man can have multiple wives. That increases the number of women he has access to and the number of children that might be borne to him.

Three women, of seemingly different generations, sit and prepare food, while a child looks on.
This family seems to have three or four generations working together. (Quang Nguyen Vinh / Pexels.com)

The answer likely lies in capitalism. Capitalist societies need disposable workers, but they also need those workers in relatively desperate positions. Large families tend not to be as desperate under capitalism, precisely because there are more adult individuals to share the load.

That’s why capitalism hates many Indigenous family structures. It also shits on forms of family found in Black and Hispanic communities, where multiple generations often live together. Families form communities, which can then practice redistribution of goods and wealth among “branches,” to ease the burden. Caregiving and reproductive labor also spins a wider net, especially if there are multiple wives in a family. If wives retain good relations with their own families, then there may be extended kinship networks.

These extended networks provide buffers against the worst of capitalism. So, capitalism seeks to destroy them.

The Economy of Family Caregiving

This theory becomes most visible when we think about how we treat new parents. All the responsibility of the infant falls upon the shoulders of two people, the new mother and the new father.

This is ridiculous. Infants require 24-hour per day care, which leaves little to no time for the caregiver to execute their daily living activities, such as sleeping, eating, or bathing. Women often bear the brunt of household labor as well. In addition to caring for an infant, they cook, clean, and do the laundry, among other tasks. And then, in our modern society, they often have jobs outside the home as well.

Yet most women have little choice. They can either caregive themselves or they can outsource the work to paid laborers, such as daycare workers or nannies. Naturally, you have to be in an economic position to do that—this kind of care is expensive. That means most women who have children can’t afford care. They must either drop out of the labor force themselves or they must put the children in care they can ill afford. Either option is likely to impoverish the family, which is precisely what capitalism wants.

Many Hands Make Light Work

In extended kinship networks, household duties can be divided up more equitably. An older aunt with no children of her own may cook or clean. Perhaps she can watch the children some of the time. In these networks, resource pooling occurs, which means everyone gets along better.

That is precisely what capitalism doesn’t want. In turn, it upholds monogamy and particularly the nuclear family as an ideal. The nuclear family forces people into states where they have barely enough resources to scrape by, increasing their desperation. Desperate people are much easier to exploit. It keeps people locked into abusive jobs and unable to escape.

What Does That Have to Do with Whether Polyamory Is Queer?

Polyamory presents a direct challenge to this system. It’s similar to the queer idea of “found family.” If you are rejected by your biological parents, you may find substitutes who are not biologically related. These people render care much the same way a blood-relative family is perceived to. Participants usually give back in equal measure.

In a found family, the “usual” rules of sanguinity don’t apply, so everyone who is there wants to be there. They contribute what they can, which means a pooling of resources occurs. That, in turn, means everyone in the found family gets along better than they would individually under capitalism.

Four people pose together at the top of a mountain during sunset. Close friends may become "found family."
“Found family” can look like anything. (Helena Lopes / Pexels.com)

So, polyamory is simply “found family” with lovers. By taking more than one lover, one forms a family outside of the “nuclear family” ideal. There is a pooling of resources, which directly challenges the cishetpatriarchial system capitalism has set up.

With my working definition, queer is anything outside the “norm” of cishetpatriarchy. As such, women are queer, in as much as they are not men, which is “the norm.” And indeed, women have much in common with queer people of all genders, even if they are otherwise “cis” or “straight.”

In short, if society wants to treat it as “weird” or “different,” then it’s queer.

But Is Polyamory Queer Enough?

There has be a good deal of concern about “accidentally” letting “the straights” into queer community. I’ve written before about how policing the borders of queerness is being complicit in our own oppression.

We determine who is allowed in, groups who are then targeted by the state. We also define who isn’t allowed in, who is then “reabsorbed” by the state. Folks who are “not queer enough” are rejected by the queer community. Cishetpatriarchy can then try and mold them into “good” cishetpatriarchal citizens. We can see this happen with polyamory. These individuals are told they are not queer; they are simply bad. They are cheaters, they are sinners, and so on.

Something similar happens with ace individuals, who are told they simply have broken libidos that need to be fixed. We see it again with bi/pan individuals, who are often considered sluts and/or cheaters who need to be reined in.

Again, all of this is in the name of reproductive control, which only serves the capitalist state. Telling a bi woman that she has to “pick a side” either makes her a lesbian (targeted for discrimination) or “not queer.”

The same thus happens with polyamorous individuals. You’re either queer (targeted for discrimination) or “not queer,” at which point you simply need to be “rehabilitated” into monogamous sexual relationships. That rehabilitation allows your oppression.

It Doesn’t Have to Look Queer to Be Queer

The long and short of this is a lot of people want queerness to “look” queer. That goes hand in hand with the end goal of oppressing queer people.

This is where the hyper-fascination with “accidentally” allowing “straight” people into the queer ghetto exists. We’re exhorted to be vigilant, to keep our borders, to push back people who aren’t “queer enough.”

But, as I pointed out, policing these borders only serves the oppressors. They want to isolate queer people and to keep our numbers artificially low. That way, they can tell everyone we’re freaks, that we’re the exception to the rule—not the norm. And they can tell people who might not fit into the cishetpatriarchal paradigm that they aren’t queer, because they don’t look a particular way.

So, polyamory is queer, in that it blows up cishetpatriarchy, much the same way bi/pan people and ace people explode that myth. This time, the myth is that humans are monogamous, that we are meant for marriages with one other person for decades on end.

Much like the idea that ace people need to be fixed or bi/pan people need to pick a lane, it’s simply not true.

We need not worry that we’re “accidentally” letting the “straights” into the queer ghetto. Rather, we’re enlarging the ghetto, expanding its borders, and embracing the multiple ways people do not fit the “norm”—and are thus queer. In doing so, we can begin to dismantle the pervasive myths about the “normality” of everything from “straight” desire to monogamy.

What about Polygyny and Abuse?

I circle back to the issue of polygamy versus polyamory here. Polygyny is common in patriarchal societies. It is often a way to extend male dominance over multiple women.

Again, I’m drawing a line between polygamy, the practice of multiple marriages, and polyamory. In polygamous situations, many of the wives may not actually be willing partners. We can think of Mormon practices here, where an older man weds several younger women. Some of the wives may be child-brides, and some might be related to each other (e.g., “sister wives”).

This is not the same as polyamory, which I’m defining as a mutually agreed upon relationship. Polyamory doesn’t need to be marriage, nor does it need to be binding. All or some partners may have “open” relationships, but the reality is that all partners are there because they want to be there, because they are in love and have agreed to be there.

That is a very different situation to most polygamous set-ups. That, in and of itself, makes polyamory much closer to queer praxis than polygamy.

Make no mistake that there are people out there who say they are polyamorous, but they are really polygamous. What they want is openness for themselves, to be able to have many relationships, while their partners are beholden to them and them alone. This is not really polyamory.

This doesn’t make polyamory unique as far as queerness goes. All queer relationships are prone to abuse and exploitation. We like to pretend they’re not, but they are. Gay men can be abused the same as women in relationship with cishet men. So the fact that it looks “straight” or has the potential for abuse does not make polyamory “not queer.”

Why Polyamory Is Queer and Not “Queer-Adjacent”

Some people have tried to argue polyamory is a “queer adjacent” practice, because it challenges cishetpatriarchy, but it can contain “cishet” couples.

Again, I argue that gatekeeping the queer ghetto is antithetical to the purpose and only aids the oppressor. So what if there are “cishet” couples who practice polyamory? The mainstream does not accept them. They present a challenge to prevailing norms. What about that is “not queer”? It seems plenty “queer” to me—in the sense that queerness is any sexual or romantic practice that directly contradicts the mainstream “mores.”

In that sense, polyamory can be nothing but queer. The mainstream certainly doesn’t accept it, and people who practice it are “weird” or “strange,” even dangerous at times. Those who want to argue that it’s not queer are lumping together separate practices and confusing definitions.

The long and short of this is who cares what is “queer enough”? Who cares if it “looks” straight? So many, many queer practices “look” straight on the surface. Pushing these people out limits the potential for radical liberation from enforced cishetpatriarchal normalcy. Expanding the borders of queerness is the only answer.

About the author

By Cherry

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