Annalisa and I spent the last week in San Francisco. In part, we wanted to have a nice vacation: I had never been west of Chicago and we had not traveled together for any real length of time for a while. But one of the major reasons for going was also to attend OpenSF, a conference on nonmonogamy, open relationships, and polyamory organized by Pepper Mint. The conference (and related events) lasted from Friday until Sunday, and I’d like to take a bit of time to talk about some of the interesting panels I attended and some of the people I met in and around the conference itself.
Friday was essentially a welcome/orientation day. Pepper gave an opening address and initiated an interesting icebreaker activity, for which I am thankful because it forced me to meet some new people right off the bat. One of my goals for the conference was to socialize, but walking into a room of strangers, almost all of whom live in the San Francisco Bay area, was daunting for me. I learned an important lesson this weekend: I am extremely bad at approaching people I don’t know, even for casual, “low stakes” chat/interactions. Once I’ve been introduced to people, or compelled to interact with them, I think I’m actually a fairly gregarious person. But the initial awkwardness of “how do I approach that person, and what do I say?” is a huge anxiety trigger for me.
Luckily, the icebreaker required us to move from table to table, each time beginning with a new group of people and a “prompt” question that we were all asked to answer in front of the group (if we chose to answer: enthusiastic consent was a theme of the con, so anyone could opt out of any activity without judgment). Pepper provided excellent questions (“What do you hope to get out of the con,” “What is one of your wildest or most unusual poly moments,” etc.), and I felt mostly at ease meeting 20-30 new people in 15 minutes or so. It was a fun activity, and I might adapt it for use in the classroom.
After the welcome address, many con guests left to attend an off-site lecture/dance/play party. Sadly, I was unable to register in time for the sold-out event, but a group of other event castaways organized a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity, to which I was graciously invited. There I met Dylan of the Life on the Swingset podcast–who had brought a large contingent to the con–and several other people I would see throughout the weekend.
Saturday was a day of panels, beginning with Charlie Glickman’s talk, “Sex, Shame, and Love.” For me, this was a highlight of the convention. Glickman discusses shame as a “tent” or “cloud” of emotions, any of which can disconnect us from people with whom we have relationships. One of his most important points, though, and one on which he disagrees with many writers on the subject (and some of his own psychologist colleagues), is that shame is not always detrimental. For Glickman, feeling shame is an important indicator that we’ve broken a communication/relationship “bridge”–yes, he used a lot of analogies–and need to mend it. Awareness of our feelings of shame is the first step in repairing the relationship (I should probably note here that one of the key relationships we can damage with shame is our relationship with ourself). Glickman elaborates on these concepts here, here, and here (among other places).
Most people in romantic/sexual minorities face shame at some point in their lives, often daily. I found it refreshing to hear someone talk about shame’s adaptive value and about avoiding a shame “spiral” (i.e. being ashamed of feeling shame, which only leads to more shame). As an anxiety disorder sufferer, I found in Glickman’s philosophy some useful coping mechanisms.
One other session of note on Saturday (they weren’t all gems, though I can’t say I thought any one was particularly terrible) was on “Poly Theory.” Joy Brooke Fairfield, a Stanford graduate student, gave a staggeringly expansive and eloquent talk about establishing a branch of cultural studies called poly theory (in the vein of feminist theory, queer theory, etc.). She also expanded on Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor of a rhizome to describe polyamorous relationships. Contrasting her conception with the traditional linear (or arboreal) relationship model–we can see the arboreal model in family trees, corporate organizational flow charts, etc.–Joy argued that our relationships more resembled the root system of rhizomes. Rhizomes lack a central or ultimate root but rather expand from node to node in many directions. If we imagine ourselves each as nodes, we can see how we connect to other nodes, and those nodes to still others, in a complex but interconnected system. It is an elegant, non-hierarchical way to look at groups of linked relationships, polyamorous or otherwise.
After Saturday’s sessions, I got to try Poly Speed Dating. It was a lot of fun, if chaotic. I wonder if something like this would work in our area?
After speed dating was a dance party at Love Triangle dance club, a poly-friendly club in San Francisco’s Mission District. I was heartened to learn that the Mission has not one but several clubs that cater to nonmonogamous folks. Again, I wish our city/region did a better job of providing safe spaces for nonmogamous people to gather to socialize. My overriding feeling all weekend long was that this was one of the first times in my life that I’d found a group of people with whom I fit in totally. Even though I met theists, omnivores, and even (gasp!) political moderates, I felt a deep, almost instant common bond. We’d all wrested loose the shackles of monogamy, and that’s a remarkable thing.
The fatigue of late Friday and Saturday parties began to show for most con guests (and even some of the presenters) Sunday, but the day did bring a few highlights.
Tristan Taormino‘s keynote speech was an enthusiastic call to arms. She made several important points, one or two of which I will write about in more depth another time. Briefly, though, she called on the LBGT community not to throw polys under the proverbial bus in their fight for marriage equality. Conceding our opponents’ post hoc and slippery slope arguments hurts both our causes.
In addition, Taormino called on those of us who have the privilege to be “out” as nonmonogamous to live our lives as openly as possible. One of the things that prompted me to start writing for this blog was that I realized that I am fortunate enough to have a job for which I will not be fired for being polyamorous, a supportive and loving family, economic and emotional security, etc. I really must live my life openly, if only to show other people that people like us not only exist but are happy, healthy, and thriving.
I liked a few of the early Sunday panels, but I was really impressed with Cunning Minx‘s afternoon session on creating a non-threatening, attractive online dating profile (i.e. how not to be creepy guy). While her advice was useful, even for those of us who already consider ourselves non-threatening/non-creepy, I was particularly struck by her polished, stimulating, and well-organized presentation. You would be amazed at how many presenters were not particularly well-organized. We’re lucky to have Minx as an advocate/representative/colleague/peer, and I was glad to have met her.
I was also able to meet Dossie Easton, whose inscription in my copy of “The Ethical Slut” left me smiling with fanboy glee.
Monday and Beyond
I’m still processing the experience of OpenSF–and I expect I’ll share some of the fruits of that processing with you in the weeks and months to come–but right now I feel overjoyed to have spent three days among fabulous, non-judgmental, like-minded people. I increased my polyamory vocabulary, something I wasn’t sure was possible nearly four years into my own poly life. And I left San Francisco, and return home, eager to be more of an activist and particularly to advocate for more sex-positive events and safe spaces in our own city. I think we can do it, but I’ll probably need a bit of help. Who’s with me?