"When I was little, my mother had a talk with me about having a 'public face,' because not everyone would understand our family," says Koe Sozuteki, a 20-year-old woman who grew up in a large poly household in Seattle. "That was a hard conversation to have in elementary school."
Sozuteki has a bio mom, a bio dad, a stepmom, three other poly moms, "several other matriarchal women in the community who I think of as moms," and an uncle. She also has a brother and half a dozen poly siblings—children she grew up with but is not related to by blood.
Sozuteki was teased in school about her family, she says, and she didn't get much support from teachers.
"Back in the mid-'90s," she says, "people just didn't know how to approach it."
One experience in particular sticks out in her memory. "In grade school, I had a friend over for a sleepover, and my father and mother were living together at the time, and my father had a partner downstairs—a date night, with his fiancée, now his wife," recalls Sozuteki. "This friend had never been over before, and I was explaining how things worked in our household—mom might come out topless, dad had a date downstairs."
When her friend's parents asked their daughter how the sleepover went, she told them it was fine—and she also told them that Sozuteki's household was "nudity-positive" and that her father had a date in the house who was not Sozuteki's mother.
"She wasn't allowed to come over to my house anymore," says Sozuteki.
"People in poly relationships—particularly if they have kids—fear judgment and rejection," says Quintus, an electrician who lives in Kitsap County with his wife and two daughters. "They fear being rejected by their friends, by their families. It's why so many poly families are still closeted."
Quintus and his wife Francisca, who have been poly for a dozen years, are the new heads of Polycamp, an annual summer retreat for local poly families. Polycamp began as a one-day picnic in Redmond and now takes place over four days at Millersylvania State Park outside Olympia.
Sozuteki attended her first Polycamp when she was 13. "We got to run around," she says, "a passel of kids and teenagers, with a sense of freedom because we could be open as poly kids. It was great."
While families with children were Polycamp's original focus, Quintus and Francisca explain that Polycamp now strives to appeal to all poly people—"poly people with kids, poly people who can't stand kids, and people who are single but identify as poly."
So in addition to more traditional activities for families with young children— canoeing, puppet-making classes, drum circles, and Frisbee golf—Polycamp now offers workshops for grown-ups. "We added some adults-only stuff," explains Quintus, "things like life-drawing classes, a snuggle party, an adults-only variety show, a bondage workshop."
Speaking as a parent myself—a sex- positive, kink-positive parent—um... a bondage workshop? At a family camp? With kids running around?
"The adults-only workshops are held indoors, in specific cabins and shelters," Quintus explains to me. "Kid-friendly activities are scheduled at the same time, so the kids are occupied whenever there's an adults-only workshop or activity going on. We have chaperones; we have rules."
What Polycamp may not have now, however, is a clear-eyed mission. "We try to appeal to all the different niches in the community," Quintus tells me. "There's a lot of overlap: There's the kink community, the sci-fi community, the nature/granola/hippie community, the pagan community. We want to be a resource for everyone." While Polycamp once was about meeting the needs of children whose parents were poly, Polycamp now wants to be all poly things to all poly people.
Quintus and Francisca's daughters are about the same age that Koe Sozuteki was when she first started to attend Polycamp—and they face some of the same pressures that Sozuteki did.
"At school, they keep it private," says Quintus. "We've told them it's their choice whether they talk to their friends about it. They may receive some judgment or be teased, so it's their choice. We're involved in the poly community, so they have peers that they can talk to. They know there are other families like theirs."
Quintus and Francisca were monogamous when they married and when they had their first child.
"I made a joke about a threesome—half joking, half testing the waters—and Francisca said, 'I've thought about it, maybe with a friend of mine,'" he says. "That was how we first started talking about it."
Quintus says the couple didn't jump right in, but gave it serious thought.
"It wasn't just, 'Hey, sweet, more vagina, let's party!' We talked about how we were going to handle jealousy, other partners, and being parents. Because we had kids—two by the time we did anything—we needed stability, so we decided we wanted a real girlfriend, someone who could be included in the family, someone who enjoyed children."
In the 12 years they've been poly, Quintus and Francisca have had two long-term relationships with live-in girlfriends, women who became parental figures in the lives of the children but then moved on.
How do their children understand their parents' relationship and their relationships?
"Children want to love and be loved," says Quintus. "Children grasp the concept easily. As they've gotten older, we've explained that ours is not the traditional form that most relationships take. We're not ashamed of our lifestyle. We're open with family and friends. But they had a right to know that their family is unique."
Sozuteki says she's happy and that she's grateful to have been "born into a tribe of intimate friends."
After a long period of celibacy, Sozuteki's bio mom is now involved in a quad.
"When I turned 7, my mother became celibate because she wanted to focus on me," Sozuteki explains. "I was having a hard time when people my bio parents were dating came into my life and then left my life when things didn't work out."
Sozuteki identifies as poly—her first relationship, she notes, was a quad—but her closest sibling, her brother, is in a monogamous relationship. She currently works at the Center for Sex Positive Culture, is studying to become a sex educator, and coined a widely embraced term in the poly community: "polycule."
"I was in high school at the time," she says, "and one day I started making a chart of what my family situation looked like. I wrote down names, drew lines between the names, how some bonds were strong, how some shifted, showing all the connections."
Sozuteki was studying organic chemistry at the time.
"I finished the chart and thought, 'Oh, my God—this looks like a molecule, like the diagrams in my biology textbook!' It really helped me to understand my family."
Polycamp 2010 takes place Aug 26–29 at Millersylvania State Park. For more information, go to www.polycamp.org.