Atlanta Poly Weekend 2012: On the Way Up
"Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined two years ago that we would be able to do this," an emotional Billy Holder told the crowd at the conference-closing meeting on Sunday afternoon. He and his triad partners Pocket and Jeremy ("PB&J") first got the gleam in their eye about creating a Southern poly conference while lying in the sun one October afternoon in 2009. They proceeded to grow the Atlanta Polyamory Meetup group into a large and vibrant social happening. Then, drawing on experience working for science-fiction cons, they took the plunge, fronted a scary amount of money, and in March 2011 put on the South's first poly conference, aided by local volunteers. I was there; see my writeup.
Although that first Atlanta Poly Weekend was a success on many levels, drawing 113 people all told, it lost money. But not much, and only because of one hotel-contract glitch. PB&J were announcing the dates for APW 2012 even before the 2011 event was over.
Now — after a whirlwind three days of seminars, workshops, evening dancing and socializing among friends old and new — we were gathered for the goodbye meeting, suggestions and feedback. "We had 151 total attendance," announced Billy. "We had a 27% increase in paid attendance over last year. And we already have 41 pre-registered for 2013."
Poly Theory and Practice
This year APW had nicer hotel space on Atlanta's northern perimeter. Friday began with an introduction by PB&J and the volunteer staff from Atlanta Polyamory Inc. (created as a 501(c)7 nonprofit after last year's con). I arrived in the middle of Joreth Innkeeper's seminar on Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages and took a seat. As Joreth explained, Chapman's concepts have taken hold in the poly community (despite his Christian perspective) as useful tools for uncovering the different relationship expectations and needs that you and your partners hold unconsciously. I've found Chapman's ideas to be unexpectedly revealing about myself.
Next I stepped into a room where Vrimj, polyactivist and legal eagle, was giving a rundown of the Kody Brown polygamy case in Utah — which promises, or threatens, to have a direct effect on us. The Kody Brown family are the stars of the "Sister Wives" reality show. The five of them are bringing a federal case to overturn state bigamy laws against multiple people living as if married. Legally speaking, the Brown family (originalist Mormons) are identical to a secular poly household. They assert only one legal marriage within the group; the other wives don't claim to be more than single girlfriends of Kody's under the law. But they're illegal anyway, by living together and also by "purporting to be married" spiritually. For better or worse, said Vrimj, "this case is the most exciting thing that's happened on a polyamory legal front in the U.S. in quite a long time." Living with partners and/or calling them spouses (spice) will either be legalized in the states that now outlaw it, or will be affirmed as criminal-izable. "Either way it's going to affect us."
Dinner that evening (in the reasonably priced dining room next to the conference area) brought a chance to join in with tables of strangers getting to know each other and hear each other's stories. After dinner, Maymay delivered the evening's keynote address a theory-heavy brain-bender. He challenged the poly world's careless use of relationship terms based on role-positions ("metamour," for instance) and couple privilege ("dyadism") rather than framing things around the meta-relationships between relationships themselves. "Language is a superpower, and invisible, so it goes unexplored," Maymay said; "relationships are roles one acts, not positions." From there he went into metaphors from fractal geometry that were beyond my abilities. One challenging bit stood out: He asked for shows of hands for various positions that people consider themselves in. "Within the polyamorous world," he said, "the most marginalized people are those who consider themselves only- or mostly-secondaries. That is why [after no hands went up for that category] none are here. The non-privileged do not show up at conferences organized by the systems that oppress them."
Here's his whole talk, not a light read. Is he deep or just scattered, or both?
After that, Billy's down-home welcome to the crowd and introduction to the evening dance floor (with excellent professional DJ-ing) was a needed decompression. People kicked loose till late.
Much to Choose
For most of the weekend, three simultaneous tracks of talks and panels gave a range of choices that meant you had to miss 2/3 of them. I gravitated toward the sessions around activism and theory more than the relationship-help workshops and hands-on exercises. Barry Smiler spoke on his theme that poly is just the latest aspect of the centuries-long trend toward personal self-determination the long, gradual shift away from your life decisions being mostly made for you by your culture, to the modern paradigm of building your life yourself. He predicted that poly and other forms of relationship choice will be normalized a lot faster than we think, in maybe just 10 or 15 years.
Terisa Greenan of Seattle, renowned in the poly world for her media presence and her 2008–09 web-TV series "Family," led a lively discussion on coming out: why people do it or don't, for reasons good or bad. She revealed that she herself still struggles with people viewing her as slutty or weird; "I find it hard to swim upstream" against constant social currents "saying I'm wrong." Despite being a public poly spokesperson, in personal life "I struggle with coming out to new people," she said. "People's reactions are highly unpredictable." She recommended practicing delivering The Talk for friends and family facing a mirror; "it really works." Professional actress that she is, she suggested that projecting ease, spontaneity, and lightness about yourself takes studied work and rehearsal beforehand.
Some members of the audience recommended a different approach: letting information about your poly relationships slip informally in bits and steps, "and let people pick up as much as they're comfortable with." The less of a big thing you make it, someone pointed out, the less your listeners will. Especially your kids. Whatever else, project pride and confidence, not unease or embarrassment; people take their cues from you. And consider carefully who really needs to know, and why.
Elsewhere, Barry and Cathy Smiler discussed how they grew the meetup announcement group BmorePoly in the Baltimore region, creating cross-fertilizations between poly, kink, swing, and related alt-cultures that were isolated from each other in the same areas, "silo-ized."
Joreth gave a presentation on the volunteer Polyamory Media Association. It offers out-and-proud polys training in how to represent themselves well in public and to the media. There are tricks to this. Joreth explained how the PMA can help you pick your agenda, craft your media persona “using your best aspects to get your message across,” develop your message goal, and create the necessary sound bites to have on tap for this goal. She emphasized the need to decide the boundaries between your public and private spheres and enforce them. You need to choose to keep focus on communicating what you intend to (“you must look and seem like your target audience”) and not what you don’t (“de-emphasize those aspects [of yourself] that will distract your audience”).
The PMA also helps members of the poly community examine media inquiries for their agendas and possible warning flags. It can provides advice in negotiating with writers and TV producers. Joreth focused mainly on TV, since that's the medium where your details matter the most.
This is fairly standard stuff, but it usually comes in high-priced professional training and seminars. Amazingly, the PMA's training and resources are free. It runs by volunteers, Joreth primarily. The media demand for poly spokespeople exceeds the supply, so if you get on the PMA’s list of available people, your phone may start to ring. Want to be a public poly explainer? The way is open.
A Coming Flood of Poly Swingers?
Lawyer Stephen Cobb owns a swing club in Florida and represents swingers or "lifestylers" as they prefer to be called and their businesses in court. He told a roomful of people that the swing/lifestyle community is both huge (my guesstimate is it's at least 20 to 50 times larger than the self-identified poly world; some say 100 times) and changing rapidly. With many lifestylers moving toward poly living in all but name.
Traditionally, the swing world has had unwritten rules that swing sex is strictly no-strings-attached, couples remain sacrosanct, emotional monogamy is jealously guarded, and falling in love is bad news. But, said Cobb, today's swingers are the first generation with the internet, and it has exposed them to wider ranges of possibilities for different kinds of connections.
Last year Cobb came to APW and was blown away to see the relationship insights and practices that the poly community has to offer. "The Lifestyle has had a real fear of dealing with the emotional component," he told the crowd. But now "your next wave of people coming into polyamory is going to be from the Lifestyle. It's going to seem like they're coming in overnight. And they're going to flood it.
"The tipping point is going to happen quickly, and this community needs to be ready," he continued. "...We need your insights and level of authority on these subjects." He made a public pledge to work his connections to double APW's attendance to at least 310 people in 2013. All this echoed a theme that I've been hearing from various other directions: silos are breaking down; poly soon won't be just for polys anymore.
Dare to Examine, Dare to Challenge
As her Sunday keynote, Joreth gave a provocative PowerPoint on poly and skepticism.
A little background here. I've always noticed that spiritually speaking, the poly community tends to divide into two opposing camps: New Age/ pagan/ all-purpose-"spiritual" people on one side, and atheists/ rationalists/ skeptics on the other. Both sides are way over-represented compared to their numbers in society at large. (In a similar vein, the great poly political axis seems to be leftists/progressives/greens versus libertarians, with Democrats and Republicans being incidental third and fourth parties. I wish the rest of the country was like that.)
Joreth, an outspoken atheist/skeptic, gave a bang-up presentation on how this way of thought applies to choosing and negotiating successful relationships. She described some known bugs in human nature, in particular confirmation bias and especially the "entrenchment effect" whereby a false belief or assumption becomes more entrenched, not less, when its holder is confronted with strong evidence against it.
The scientific/skeptic approach to life offers "excellent tools for evaluating poly situations and fears and assumptions," Joreth said. "Using the scientific method for relationships is not intended to remove emotions from a decision, but to test the factual basis of the emotions." What this means is, submit your "emotional theories" about a situation that you're getting into "to testing, and try to poke holes in those theories." As opposed to what most people do: look only for evidence that confirms what they believe.
(My example: "Suzie likes fried eggs! I like fried eggs! Suzie really is the greatest! The people telling me to be cautious are just full of negativity.") Instead, as an experimental scientist would do, seek evidence that challenges your emotional theories, to test how well they stand up. ("Are the people telling me rumors that Suzie has two restraining orders against her just full of negativity? I can test that theory, by doing a records check.")
One of the great things about poly intimate networking, Joreth pointed out, is that you may have several intimates and metamours who know you deeply and can provide informed second and third opinions the equivalent of scientific "peer review."
People who approach life this way, said Joreth, fare better as they move through the world than people who blunder from error to error via confirmation bias and the entrenchment effect.
If these workshops and topics sound pretty intellectualized, it's because those were the ones I mostly went to. Happening on the other sides of the walls from the rooms I was in (and sometimes slightly audible through the walls) were "Clear and Confident Kissing," a learning-by-doing workshop from which I saw people emerge rather dazzled; poly household management from chores and schedules to finances; "How Not To Read Your Partner's Mind"; "Casual Intimacy" by Spicey Spice; and "Maintaining Identity in a Sea of Awesome" as you move out into the wide poly world. Anita Wagner Illig gave the Saturday keynote talk on her ever-popular Making Peace with Jealousy workshop, and also gave workshops on living in a poly/mono relationship and "Defining Your Relationships and Living Your Dream." And there were more. Here are the panel descriptions.
And as if these three days weren't exhausting enough, I stayed over for the all-day regional meeting of the Polyamory Leadership Network on Monday in the same hotel.
I'll be back in 2013. I'd better be. Billy has recruited me to be a keynote speaker!