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It's bedtime at the Bishop house, and everything inside the pink two-bedroom apartment seems normal. Little Andy, with a thatch of red hair on his two-year-old head and his nightshirt tucked up into his Underoos, has a serious aversion to sleeping. So does six-year-old Alex, who keeps racing out from the bedroom to explain the breaking developments in the story of his loose tooth. Like all little boys, they like to stay up past bedtime and sneak leftover Halloween candy when no one is looking and make growling noises with their plastic toy trucks. And like all little boys, they lend a halfhearted ear to their parents, who are gently chiding them to get back into bed.
There is daddy John, a stocky, dark-haired man who is quick with a joke and even quicker to laugh at it. His voice gives away a Chicago accent, and he still retreats to the kitchen to enjoy the occasional Marlboro cigarette. And there is mama Brianna, curled up on the couch, whose sweet, giddy voice confesses, "Andy is cute, and the trouble is he knows it!" And there, in a chair by the door, is mama Charlotte, who is a whiz at making Oriental food and has long red hair just the same shade as her son Andy's.
John and Brianna and Charlotte are husband and wife and wife. And father and mother and mother. To be completely straight about things, it should be explained that John and Brianna are the biological parents of Alex and Andy. That means Charlotte and Andy's similar hair color was just plain luck. But hair color is apparently the only thing left to chance in this unconventional family. Over the past year and a half, John and Brianna and Charlotte have made planned, steady steps to create what they call a polyamorous family -- a family of many loves. They are not neohippies eager to re-create a 1960s commune vibe. In fact, they live in a gated community outside the Sam Houston Tollway. Neither are they part of a breakaway sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), believing that multiperson marriage is okayed by God. For the most part, Brianna identifies as a pagan, and John and Charlotte claim no religious affiliation. But these three adults are part of a quiet Houston subculture that finds the idea of lifelong monogamous love either outdated, unrealistic, constricting or simply not enough.
"This feels right, comfortable and natural," says Brianna, after she has sent the children off to bed for the umpteenth time. "This is the way for us."
It might be easier to describe polyamory by first describing what its practitioners swear it is not. Polyamorists are not swingers. There is no anonymous sex with multiple partners at low-lit parties where names are unimportant. Polyamorists are not religiously affiliated with any one group. Many do identify as pagan, perhaps because it is a liberal faith that celebrates the concept of multiple adoration of numerous gods and goddesses. Polyamorists are not cheaters. The highest tenet in polyamory is honesty, and there is often constant discussion about the many different relationships going on among polyamorists who are also involved with each other. But polyamorists, if they are telling the truth, could be somewhat superhuman. Because many of them have decided that jealousy is a learned emotion that deserves to be examined, explored and then put away on a shelf. Because if you cannot tame your jealousy, polyamory simply cannot work for you. And that is because even though there are several ways of "doing polyamory," the bottom line is that if you are a polyamorist, someone you love and adore is sometimes going to be sleeping with somebody else. And you are going to know about it.
Although they would shun the title, Taylor Brown and his primary partner, Lisa, are the closest thing Houston has ever had to leaders of a polyamorous community. Taylor is a tall man, with a salt-and-pepper beard and a Shreveport, Louisiana, drawl. He and Lisa, who has waist-length hair and a penchant for clove cigarettes, do computer consulting work together. They have known each other for ten years and have both had romantic relationships apart from each other with the other person's knowledge and support. Unlike John, Brianna and Charlotte, Taylor and Lisa are not part of a "closed" polyamorous relationship, one where multiple members are involved only with each other. But they still fall under the large umbrella of the polyamorous community.
It was this community that Taylor attempted to galvanize when, right around the birth of the Internet, he began a Houston newsgroup for others interested in what is often referred to as an alternative marriage. As the newsgroup transformed into an e-mail address list, he and Lisa also began organizing monthly dinners at the Black-eyed Pea and the Cosmos Cafe to try to meet other Houston-area polys on safe, neutral ground. There are 100 to 120 people on the mailing list, Taylor says, and as many as 35 have shown up to the monthly dinners, although the average number of people to venture out is somewhere between 12 and 20. They range in age from 20 to 60, and most are white professionals, Taylor says. These Houstonians are part of a national group of polyamorists who post on alt.polyamory in droves, read the so-called poly bible Love Without Limits, by Deborah Anapol, subscribe to the 16-year-old Loving More magazine (10,000 circulation at present) and attend national polyamorist conferences, mostly in the Bay Area. Their lifestyle has a lingo all to itself. There are triads, line marriages, primaries, secondaries, polyfidelitous relationships, open quads and so on. Although there is some debate surrounding the issue, it is generally accepted that the term polyamory was coined in the early 1980s by Morning Glory Ravenheart, who belongs to the six-member Ravenheart clan based in Sonoma County, California. If there is a first family of polyamory, it is the Ravenhearts, who claim former Houston resident Wolf Ravenheart as a member.
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