Oberon Zell, co-creator of the word, on polyamory today – and being hated on in the NYC community
Oberon Zell-Ravenheart is a legendary figure from the beginnings of the modern poly movement. In 1961 as a college freshman, he discovered science-fiction author Robert Heinlein's new Stranger in a Strange Land and became the book's foremost evangelist, helping it to become a "bible for multi-love believers" by the late 1960s. In the 60s and 70s he helped advance and popularize Neo-Paganism with his Church of All Worlds, inspired in part by Stranger. And he became a practicing wizard.
His life partner Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart is especially known for inventing the word polyamory. In a kitchen-table discussion at the home of Deborah Anapol and Paul Glassco in Mill Valley, California, around 1988, the four of them were trying to come up with a succinct word for their community's deep belief in, as Morning Glory defined it, "having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved." "Polyamory" was what they settled on. Morning Glory first published the term poly-amorous in the Beltane (Spring) 1990 issue of the Church of All Worlds magazine Green Egg, and Oberon says they published polyamory in a glossary leaflet at a convention soon after. If you wonder why the early poly movement was so full of Pagans, Scadians, and science fiction fans as it started to take off, their influence is why.
Well into his 70s now, Oberon is currently on a "Walkabout" around the Americas, visiting friends, lovers, pagans, and poly groups and looking for his next life direction. His belief in magical thinking — literally, via ritual magic — does not seem to have had much practical result; after many failed ventures he has been impoverished for years and has been living by his wits and the generosity of friends and lovers.
Earlier this month he was in New York, where he met with local poly organizers — who apparently chastized him about current identity-politics orthodoxies (he's an old white male) — and he gave an interview to the new website Polyquality, which is produced by longtime poly organizer Leon Feingold with help from Sarah Taub.
Some long excerpts:
A Conversation with Oberon Zell-Ravenheart
Posted October 5, 2018
Oberon Zell-Ravenheart... visited New York City this week for the first time in years, and was gracious enough to sit down and answer some questions....
PQ: What brings you from California to New York and what are your plans while here?
OZ: I have a number of wonderful sweet lovers around the country, and I’m currently on Walkabout to visit and spend time with them all. While here I plan on attending the Poly Drinks and Thinks at Retro this upcoming Monday, and enjoying conversations and food with whomever shows up to join us, after which I admit I am quite curious about Poly Cocktails and would like to take a look.
...PQ: I read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land in middle school, and I identify it (along with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in college) as the most important book I’d ever read in my formative years, guiding me both with respect to ethical non-monogamy, and many more aspects of my personality. To what extent did the book shape your vision for polyamory and Church of All Worlds?
OZ: SISL was a HUGE influence on all of us! I (and a number of reviewers of the time) considered it to be the most significant influence on the entire sexual revolution of the ‘60s, as well as the real-life CAW which gave rise to the entire modern Pagan movement. Heinlein’s definition of Love as “that condition in which another person’s happiness is essential to your own” became our fundamental concept, and a core of what today is called compersion. And the poly relationship dynamic described in the book became our model for our own relationships, which we eventually labeled “polyamory.” SISL was kinda our “Bible,” and everyone who came into our lives was expected to read it, if they hadn’t already (unsurprisingly, nearly all had)....
The actual experiences [of group marriage] vastly exceeded all expectations and visualizations. We found we could do and be so much more as a group family than we ever could without each other. Even though we are now geographically dispersed since MG’s death, we’re still very close in our love; and our kids, now grown with kids of their own, still consider themselves dear brothers and sisters.
PQ: I’ve always wanted to ask this question: why “polyamory” and not “polyphilia” (Greek) or “multiamory” (Roman)?
OZ: That’s the exact conversation MG and I had that led to the term. Many people had been trying to come up with terms to describe such relationships that preferably didn’t have the root “gamy” (marriage) in them. Terms such as “polyfidelity,” “responsible non-monogamy,” “panfidelity,” “omnigamy,” etc., were being tossed around in the many articles of the time. “Polyphilia” sounds like a disease, or worse, an affliction, like pedophilia. “Multiamory” just sounded awkward. But “Polyamory” sounded perfect and self-explanatory, so that’s what she went with....
PQ: How has polyamory changed since you and your family first started practicing it?
OZ: There are actually two main answers I have to this question, one positive and one negative. The first revolves around evolution of word usage as relates to identity, perspective, and definitions. Please keep in mind that MG wrote her 1990 “Bouquet of Lovers” article as a request from our third partner, Diane, who was editing Green Egg at the time. They’d been discussing someone who was claiming to be in an “open relationship” (the best term we had at that point), and being sneaky and dishonest about it. MG said, “Well, he’s just not following the rules!” And Diane said, “You’re always referring to these unwritten ‘rules.’ How about you write an article on them for GE?” So she did.
But at that time, MG was writing from the perspective of a couple looking to open their relationship (or marriage; the most common term was “open marriage”) to include other lovers. So those were the “rules” she wrote up, on how to do that successfully to the positive benefit of all. So a core element was that of commitment priority, so as not to jeopardize the relationship between the initial couple. Hence reference to “primary,” “secondary,” etc. relationships.
Diane, MG and I (and later MG’s previous husband, Gary, who married Diane to join our new family) felt our Triad was entirely stable, and we all knew where we stood in it. But insofar as MG was advising other couples on how to open their relationships, the element of priorities was crucial for the security of all. ... However, as time went on, we realized that often the secondary partners in such relationships were not happy about being relegated to second place. ...
As to the negative change I referenced, there seems to be less of the innocent Hippie/Pagan love and exuberant idealism that so characterized the early glory days of the ‘80s-‘90s. ... Some of our biggest challenges within the polyamory community have taken place quite recently; it’s been challenging maintaining clarity of the definition with people who keep wanting to change it to something else in order to fit their own reinterpretations of value, ethics, and history. The movement seems to have gotten more politicized, and downright meaner. We are now seeing poly people using their public platforms to be judgmental, disrespectful, and exclusive, ironically the opposite of what we always stood for as cultural groundbreakers in the United States.
PQ: I understand you had a surprising experience along those lines recently....
OZ: This week, for the first time, I experienced what I can only describe as unmitigated hostility coming from certain vocal poly folks, who seemed to despise me for my role in launching the movement they apparently think of as theirs alone. It left me just stunned. I’d never encountered such a hostile reception in the communities I’ve founded and been involved in, all my life. I’ve attended countless Poly and Pagan gatherings around the country and in Australia, often as a guest of honor, and I’ve always received a warm welcome as a founding Elder. But in this scenario, I was rudely and ignorantly accused of being a colonizer, a racist, and worse, by people I’d never met, based exclusively on my being a white cisgender male who was credited alongside others in my peer group with the development and popularity of modern polyamory, and their assumptions about what that meant. Anyone who did any research – or engaged in civil conversation – would learn that MG (who was part Chocktaw for whatever that is worth) and I were avid students of cultural anthropology (I have a degree in it), and were always particularly interested in learning all we could about sex and marriage relationships in other cultures, as we ourselves had always been naturally poly long before we coined terms for it. ... As far as we knew, there simply hadn’t been any other name for exactly what we’d come up with, and certainly none we could find in English.
Polyamory was just our term we came up with for precisely how MG and I and our community lived. ... But these angry people were not only insisting that MG didn’t even coin these terms, but that they were invented long ago by some unidentified non-white people! (As if all white people were always monogamous – they’d presumably never heard of the ancient Greeks, Sumerians, Celts, Vikings, etc.) Nonmonogamous relationships have existed in every human culture.... A major point of both Paganism and Polyamory is that they are INclusive of all people who wish to identify with them, regardless of any other attributes, such as skin color, etc. Ancient Pagan peoples were of all places and colors.… We all lived in tribal villages and communities, and shared far more in common than our differences.
PQ: Sounds like you walked into a firestorm you weren’t expecting. Welcome to New York?
OZ: Certainly I had no idea what I was stepping into when I just blithely and innocently accepted an offer to attend a poly party, exactly the sort of thing I’ve been doing all across the country (and in Guatemala) for the past 4 months.... The saddest thing to me is that a movement that started out being all about love – expansive love, “Loving More” – has now degenerated into a campaign of hate, directed particularly towards its very founders. ... I acknowledge that because of my status as a white, cis, male Elder, there very well may have been situations in my orbits where racism existed and I was unaware, or a power dynamic was in place that I didn’t see. I by no means am trying to take away or denigrate anyone else’s experiences or emotions. ...
PQ: So let’s focus instead on the positives. What have been your best memories since you first identified as polyamorous?
OZ: Group sex would have to be high on that list for me! Many sweet and delightful threesomes, and a few wondrous orgies. I always say the biggest problem with monogamy is that nobody gets to sleep in the middle. Our wonderful group marriage families, and all living together, working on family projects, raising our kids together, presenting at festivals and polycons, going on camping trips and other adventures, such as the International New Age Trade Show in Denver every Summer Solstice, etc. Especially when the whole Ravenheart clan all lived together in a beautiful and spacious eco-house on 94 acres near to Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm in Laytonville, CA. ...Creating amazing rituals for our community, including reviving the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries; developing Mythic Images as a family business, and sculpting statues to produce and market. Our group handfastings (marriages). 20 years of this! Enough beautiful memories for several lifetimes!
PQ: How have YOU changed – other than years going by – since you first identified as polyamorous?
OZ: ...Not a lot, other than growing older (which is far better than the alternative!). But I haven’t really slowed down much. I’m still quite sexually active, with a number of enthusiastic sweet lovers around the country, ranging in age from 38 to 77, who all know of each other, though not all have met in person. Polyamory has been one of the best things in my life, running neck-and-neck with Paganism and Magick. I cannot imagine how I could have gotten through the death of my beloved lifemate, Morning Glory, without my other lovers giving me a reason to go on. ...
MG and OZ
PQ: What is the most important message you have to share, whether people are new to poly or consider themselves veteran poly people?
OZ: Remember, it’s all about the Love. Be impeccable in your open honesty with each other, and with yourselves. Not everyone is cut out for polyamory, and that’s OK. I think the most common default relationship dynamic for most people is probably serial monamory, not polyamory. Be honest with yourself: is this really who you are? Can you handle your lovers having other lovers? Being poly means no cheating, no deception. And no jealousy. If you can’t handle that, don’t claim to be poly! But if you truly are polyamorous at heart and by nature, don’t try to mate with someone who isn’t. That will just result in everyone getting hurt. ...
Also, never make [unrealistic] rules, such as “It’s OK to have sex with other people, but you’re not allowed to fall in love with them.” This is the major reason many poly agreements fail.
PQ: What is next for you?
OZ: I identify with no home; everything I own is in storage in Santa Rosa, except what I brought with me in my car for my Walkabout. Ultimately, I’m searching for a new (and hopefully final) home, and someone to share it with. Where that search will take me, and with whom, is still open. This could be a long journey, and since my lovers are so widely scattered, I will want to keep visiting with them from time to time, which will mean many trips away from whatever home base I may eventually settle into. I have cast my life (and my fate) upon the winds. ...
Read the whole interview.