These days, there is a certain ease with which polyamory is conflated with queerness. This is partly due to the collision of language and tactics between the two communities. Polyamorous people come out, they push for social recognition, they decry discrimination, and they see themselves in a struggle that is political as well as personal. In short, polyamory is using some of the strategies that queer activists have honed over the years. This is no accident: the polyamory movement is in many ways modeled on queer activism.
Unfortunately, this leads to a certain temptation to place polyamory under the queer umbrella. Poly people definitely form a sort of sexual minority, after all. And one of the enchanting things about the idea of queerness is its wonderful habit of including new forms of oppositional gender and sexuality as they arise. I have heard both queer people and straight polyamorous people say polyamory is queer. However, most queer poly activists (like myself) would rather that we kept the movements ideologically separate, for the following reasons.
First, we are really talking about two different struggles here. Heterosexist and “monogamist” forms of power are applied differently. Poly people do not get queer-bashed, or anything close to it; polyamory does not induce the same level of straight-out revulsion and violent response that is engendered by violations of gender or sexuality. On the other side, the poly movement can be seen as struggling against the cultural dictates around jealousy, and there is no equivalent to jealousy in queer struggles. Both movements are very important, and are addressing significant problems of power, but they are different sorts of problems. We can expect that the poly and queer movements will of necessity operate in very different ways towards their different goals. Sometimes the two movements will be in alignment (such as around alternative forms of marriage), but other times they will be at cross purposes.
Second, while there is a certain overlap between the two communities, poly people are not always queer. Certainly I have encountered straight poly people whom I could not describe as queer, and these people do form a significant portion of the mixed-gender polyamory communities I move in. There is a certain affinity between bisexuality and polyamory, because the culture tends to falsely associate bisexuality with nonmonogamy, and bisexuals therefore find polyamory to be a useful tool. I’ve elaborated on this elsewhere. But while polyamory is definitely queer when it is being done by queer people, that does not somehow make the whole community queer. Poly people also tend to be queer-friendly, largely because of the bi composition of the movement and because polyamory is ideologically descended from queerness. But this tendency does not hold true in all cases, and again does not make polyamory itself queer.
Third, conceptually combining the communities does a disservice to both. Queer activists tend to get a bit annoyed if we think that queer resources are being directed towards non-queer purposes. The right wing has tried to capitalize on this potential rift by claiming that the queer movement is engaged in an underhanded attempt to push polyamory on the masses. We should not listen to anything the right wing says: there is no shame in saying that we have two separate movements here, both of which have value.
Indeed, why would polyamorous people want to be put under the queer umbrella? As bisexual activists will readily tell you, being a part of a bigger movement is not always helpful. Polyamory is doing quite well on its own: we have numerous conferences, a network of social and support groups, a growing set of publications, and a certain amount of ideological mindshare. Polyamory is already a strong movement, and it will gain more visibility as a separate movement rather than clumsily shoehorned into the queer movement. As Elizabeth Emens pointed out in her groundbreaking paper on polyamory and the law, polyamory is accessible to the culture at large in a way that queerness is not.
So, please resist the temptation to push the poly and the queer together into one idea. Polyamory needs its own movement, which will hopefully be in constant alliance with queer movements, while at the same time remaining conceptually distinct. Also, poly activists can and should learn from the example that queer activism has set, which I have written about at length elsewhere.