Are you poly?

Part 1: Sexual Ethics & the Church

As I sat in my first public board meeting recently, a newly-minted Member of the Gay Christian Network’s (GCN) Board of Directors, I was prepared for anything. Or, so I thought.

GCN had endeavored, especially over the course of the last three years to become a home for diversity. The organization’s public stances supporting both conservative and liberal relationship practices – called Side A and Side B, as well as its intentional welcoming of straight allies, including conservative parents and their viewpoints, was already seen as somewhat controversial. There was a significant effort to incorporate broader issues within the annual conference’s agenda, which included keynotes and workshops representing a range of viewpoints and experiences. Even our board had diversified significantly, no longer being a stronghold for primarily white, male, gay representatives.

Now, there is still much work to do, but I am struck with how far the organization has come. So, naturally, I was saddened when the first question raised of the Board was from a woman from the Northwest part of the United States (let’s call her Jenny) who rose to share her story of being actively discriminated against for being Polyamorous by volunteers/staff at the conference.

Please, allow me to explain.

For those unaware, and before you start Googling, being Polyamorous is a sexual identity in which a person shares serious romantic connections with people of any gender and is involved in some form of long-term relationship with one or more people. In other words, said person is in love with many people. It is one of a few growing social phenomena where monogamy is not the end purpose or result as people accept their full sexual identities. Even though it sounds a bit like polygamy, such as that which might be found in the Bible (see 2 Samuel; Genesis; or, Judges), it actually is a bit more postmodern than that. Instead of the relationship being in the form of one relationship with multiple partners, it is rather focused on individual connections developed between different people over time. Sometimes these relationships are developed within a community, but not necessarily. It also differs from bisexuality, which connotes a desire for monogamy.

All cards on the table, I am not a sex expert, sociologist, medical doctor, or mental health expert. In addition, I am only beginning to receive training in pastoral care. So, if you are confused by my description, I can relate. I have had minimal interaction with the polyamorous community; thus, my study of this community is only a little over two weeks old.

For my part, returning to the setting of the Board meeting, as I listened to Jenny explain her situation, it was heartbreaking to me to hear that she had been excluded. The whole purpose of GCN, and, especially the conference, is to bring people of different backgrounds together in the love of Christ, to examine our lives together, empower each other to live fully into the creation of which we are designed, and to recharge with a host of activities and social interactions. It is a simple formula, which is always complicated to create, but the results have been transformational to many people’s lives.

It turns out in Jenny’s case that a great deal of bias had been exposed. Most of this bias stemmed from a misunderstanding of Jenny and several of her peers whom were in attendance.  They sought to gather and discuss issues related to their lives as Christians, but others saw them as attempting to bolster an agenda. This misunderstanding quickly devolved to fear on the part of several volunteers and staff who thought that a willingness to embrace Polyamorous relationships openly at the conference could signal political and social fights inside and outside of the organization. A perfectly valid fear, as similar moves to be inclusive had resulted in such fights.

The Board listened, offered apologies for the poor experience at the conference, and asked that, in partnership, if Jenny and others would be willing to educate the Board and staff further on the experience of being Polyamorous. An appropriately human response in my opinion. Jenny agreed and the matter was resolved for the moment.

Afterward, as I heard my fellow Board members express their concerns and desires to address the situation better in the long-term, I found my mind wandering to think about various scenarios. If we openly allowed discussion of non-monogamous ideas and theology, would there be a cost or a benefit. Was the risk worth it? How did I feel about the idea of polyamorous relationships? Did it matter how I felt in contrast the to my bigger desire to see that all people felt welcome to the conference and Christ’s love?

I hate to admit that I don’t have adequate answers to these and many more questions. My mind runs to the political risk, while my heart beats to support Jenny and her peers. It is an awkward struggle that I feel a need to control. And, maybe, that is the ethical lesson for this post, do we need to control, especially control over the sexual identity of our communities, or should we live into an ethic that promotes more freedom of choice? It is a gray area for sure.

As this blog series develops, I hope to examine and share lessons that I learn. I look forward to finding more human stories and their connection to God. Along the way, I hope to discover ways to talk about sex and sexuality within my faith community. I hope that you will join me and share the experiences of discovery in your life. If not, then at least, I hope that you will not judge me for being curious and open to the lives of others. Regardless, let’s learn how to be better humans together!