A different kind of love: Inside Atlanta Poly Weekend

A different kind of love: Inside Atlanta Poly Weekend

“Charlie Sheen is giving polyamory a bad name!” the glittery-eyed redhead hollers.

It’s Day One of Atlanta Poly Weekend at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Airport-Atlanta and I am not really sure what to expect. (The man next to me is knitting.)

Redhead Kelley is one of three speakers about to guide the panel on “Polyamory & Skeptism.” About her disdain for Sheen, Kelley explains she recently came out as a polyamorist to her parents and worried they would associate her lifestyle with the erratic actor’s rants about being in a relationship with two women.

With the projector finally set up, she moves on to a PowerPoint presentation about the importance of speaking the same language in a verbal and social context.

“Polyamory,” Kelley begins, “does not equal cheating.”

So what is polyamory?

“Is it like that show Big Love?” a friend of mine asked me when she found out I was coming to check out APW. (The answer: no.)

Merriam-Webster defines polyamory as the practice of having more than one open, romantic relationship at a time, but if you were to ask any of the participating panelists (a range of professors, therapists, attorneys, web developers, lieutenants, dance instructors, BDSM enthusiasts and steampunks), their definitions are more intimate.

“Polyamory is a different kind of love; it’s a family of love,” says Billy, a 34-year-old married father of three. “Polyamory, ” he adds, “is not a disease. Polyamory is about being in a healthy, open, honest, responsible, ethical, and non-monogamous relationship.”

A poly for 14 years, his current relationship is comprised of his wife as his “primary partner” and a male “secondary partner,” terms used to distinguish levels within a polyamorous relationship, in this case a “triad,” or the romantic involvement between three people.

The most common symbol is the red and white heart (♥) combined with the blue infinity sign (∞).

At the “Coming Out” panel, Billy and his two other partners sit before a group of 20 attendees discussing the personal and social value of polys making their lifestyle known.

“The IT community doesn’t mind so much,” he says. “The more educated, liberal, and open-minded the group, the more receptive they are.”

An open poly for 9 years, Billy is comfortable posting poly-related events on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, despite them being visible to his family and co-workers. His partner, Jeremy, on the other hand, whose Inbox was inundated with Bible verses from his mom after he came out as an Atheist, has yet to come out to his family.

“Are you ready for everyone you know to cut you from their lives?” a woman in the back raises her hand and asks him. “Yes,” he replies.

With the exception of a few people in their 20s and a few black couples, the average attendee is white men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Most people are coupled up, while others sit alone.

They drove here, I think. They marked this weekend on their calendar and made plans to come out and meet other people with the same viewpoint as them, people who won’t judge them. It’s admirable. There are people in sexless marriages who can’t even address their dry spell with their supposed lifelong partner, and yet these men and women invest their time and attend a conference to discuss their socially taboo romantic and sexual amalgamation aloud in front of strangers.

Panelists and attendees are well-spoken, polite and seem to have perfected laughing off cultural adversity, but not without raising questions about Georgia morality clauses that restrict poly coupling, case briefs that could be used in a court room, and how some companies are willing to sponsor Atlanta Pride, but not APW.

“Apparently, there’s a line,” Billy says, “and we’re it.”

Despite a foundation based on having more than one romantic relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved, polyamory is a system most often associated with recreational sex without ties, and is often confused with swinging, open relationships or polygamy.

When Melissa, Billy’s wife, tells people she has a boyfriend, she usually gets the same response: “But how does it work?” they ask. “Would you like me to draw you a diagram?” she jokes, alluding to the sexual roles in their relationship.

Listening to people speak, I notice the reactions people receive about their lifestyle depends on their sex. The response women seem to get is more of a *howcouldyou?!* gasp, while non-poly men seem to socially high-five poly men involved with more than one woman.

In reaction to those who pass judgment on her polyamorous lifestyle, one attendee admits her go-to response is: “How are you monogamous? How can you only love one person at a time?” The room laughs and cheers at this.

As the conversation flows, Billy and Melissa’s preschool-aged daughter sits next to them, crayon in hand, concentrating on her drawing. For the most part, she doesn’t look up during the lecture. Raising children is no easy task, and I wonder how having polyamorous parents affects a child growing up. A part of me wants to take the progressive route and think it has no averse reaction, but another part of me keeps wondering why she’s not wearing ear muffs during the panel.

It surprises me how many children are here. When I first arrived, my illusions of wild sexual exploits and threesomes were immediately shattered as my eyes landed not on a triad couple holding hands or sharing a three-way kiss, but young children running across the room laughing. Throughout the weekend, the children will participate in a scavenger hunt, watch Saturday morning cartoons, and make cardboard flowers, among other scheduled activities.

Upon entering, my eyes also land on a man with a pony tail, which, to quote Seinfeld in a respective, yet different context, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but my superficial side finds itself contemplating: Where are all the pretty poly people at?

When it comes to sex, I don’t really care what anyone is into, so long as all participating parties consent. It’s true I am not a polyamorist, but it’s also true I haven’t ruled it out. After all, who knows what I’ll be into five years from now? (It’s a slippery slope, or so I’ve heard.)

But, as I look around, my imagination cannot help in shapeshifting attendees into a group of hipster-looking types. If the average attendee bore the same physical appearance of Hollywood hotties such as James Franco and Mila Kunis, then maybe I wouldn’t be leaving alone today. Instead, I have a Danny DeVito look-a-like giving me the eye.

The poly pride flag consists of three equal horizontal colored stripes with a symbol in the center of the flag. The colors of the stripes, from top to bottom are blue, red, and black.

At the “Interpersonal Communication” panel, a shaved-headed 8-year poly and BDSM enthusiast, Ms. Noel passes out a rubric on how to better communication, a crucial component to the lifestyle. Among her advice for a healthy and happy relationship is for all partners to meet once a week and discuss what has and has not worked.

As she speaks, I am distracted by a woman who walks in and sits down. She looks so familiar, I think to myself. I go through my mental filing cabinet, sifting for her identity. The man next to her is shorter than she, wearing a billowy-pirate shirt, a corset and goggles atop his head that he may have purchased from the Indiana Jones set on eBay.

Then it hits me: Dear sweet Jesus and Mary Chain, she was a professor of mine.

Seeing a an academic mentor out in the real world can be odd enough, but this is something else altogether. My memory flashes to that time she missed class because her husband (or was it her?) injured himself in a cycling event. I consider events and conferences other panelists discussed participating in—KinkFest, S&M Convention—and I realize there exists a possibility her husband didn’t injure himself at a cycling event, my imagination drawing an image of him acting as her leather-bound submissive.

Suddenly I feel dirty, and not the good kind of dirty either. I’m intruding. I know too much. Sex drips from our culture’s advertisements and entertainment, but no matter how it is exploited to sell products and agendas, it remains an intimate and private affair most of us are not willing to discuss, especially when it comes to specific fetishes and sexual preferences. I ask myself, Would I feel comfortable if my professor knew certain sides of me? I’m not quite sure, but I get up and make my way to the door.

Outside the hotel, I phone my mother. “I just left PolyCon,” I say. She wishes I didn’t tell her everything, I know.

“Guess what,” I continue. “I saw one of my old professors.”

“Did he recognize you?” she asks.

“It wasn’t a he.”

“Oh.” I can hear her silent judgment through the phone. “I don’t understand your generation. You’re all so weird,” she says.

I laugh.

In truth, polyamory is not a new concept. Records of its practice have been around for centuries, and is a lifestyle carried out globally and across a wide range of cultures. Charlie Sheen might have brought it under the spotlight as of late, but there are many historically significant and successful figures who practiced polyamory both closed and openly. For some people it works, for others not. And, so far as I can tell from Atlanta Poly Weekend, there were a lot of happy couples in attendance, and at the end of the day, a happy and loving bond is what any type of relationship should be about—even if you don’t understand it.

For more information on Atlanta Poly Weekend, visit www.atlantapolyweekend.com.

Click on the photo below to visit our gallery on some of the most famous polyamorous couples in history.