Tyson Downey has fallen in and out of love numerous times during the span of his nearly 20-year marriage to his wife.
“My wife, my longest partner, we’ve been together for 18 years, made a lot of mistakes and made a lot of changes in our relationship to one another since we opened up our relationship to include more than one person,” he said.
Downey is polyamorous—being in more than one significant romantic relationship simultaneously—and polyamory was the focus of RelateCon, the first-ever Boise convention for polyamorous people, which took place March 31-April 2 at the Riverside Hotel in Garden City.
The event, which brought 120 people to Boise from across North America, was a big moment for people who have disavowed monogamy in favor of having their romantic, emotional and physical needs met by multiple partners. RelateCon brought into the open a community that has gained momentum online but, because of Idaho law and misrepresentation in the media and broader society, has been largely secretive.
"I just want people to not feel so alone in what they're doing," said Jennifer Hyde, who is president of the Boise Polyamory Network, a mostly online group of approximately 450 people who practice or are interested in polyamory in the Boise area.
The purpose of the convention was for the group to meet openly, expose members to national resources and discuss pressing issues related to what they call "ethical non-monogamy."
How to Find a Partner
Many of the presentations at RelateCon were lighthearted, with titles like "50 Shades of Real Life," "The Cuddle Puddle Project" and "Painless Poly Dating 101." One of two talks Downey hosted was about regaining passion in long-term relationships in the midst of "new relationship energy" from other partners.
"For years, my wife and I would check in every night before we went to bed, but the conversation wasn't of much substance," he said. "We made an effort to have extended conversations about our feelings and our passions, and we found a lot of changes had taken place for us over the years that we weren't aware of."
Another presenter, Masami Tadehara-Hinkle, offered attendees a "relationship shopping list" for identifying new partners and maintaining healthy relationships with existing partners. More than a checklist to be applied to others, however, Tadehara-Hinkle said it encourages people to be introspective, considering carefully what they want out of their new relationships.
"The idea is that it's more effective in terms of relationship structure to define the relationship in terms of individual needs, rather than having a set of rules," she said.
Tadehara-Hinkle's idea for a checklist came from the website morethantwo.com, which she described as "the poly bible." There, site curator Franklin Veaux has collected tutorials, tips, how-tos and common mistakes by newcomers to the practice. There's also a "relationship bill of rights" and advice on when and how to be openly polyamorous.
Websites like More Than Two are ways for people to connect online and build a sense of community, but talking about ideas face to face offered Tadehara-Hinkle some satisfaction she couldn't find online. A frequent self-help conference and workshop attendee, she delivered an address for the first time at RelateCon. When it became clear her audience wouldn't fit in the room where she was scheduled to talk about the relationship checklist, the group moved to another, larger space. Tadehara-Hinkle was thrilled there was so much interest in what she had to say.
"It was a good experience to get the feedback and see how many people were excited about the idea of using the checklist in their daily lives," she said.
Conference organizers said socializing was one of RelateCon's most important functions. Activities included poly bingo; a fancy dinner where polyamorous couples, triples and beyond could mingle; and meet-and-greet events at the hotel bar.
Because polyamorous groups are spread across the state, the informal events were some of the first times people who may have known each other online could meet in person.
Connecting to a National Conversation
The Boise polyamorous community started small. For the past three years, Hyde and the Boise Polyamory Network organized monthly potlucks at members' homes, sang karaoke and went bowling. Though they typically met in small groups, attendance at some events could reach 30 people. Most of their interactions took place online, but Boise Polyamory Network aimed higher—for a must-attend event that would bring the community together and connect it to the national polyamory movement.
"We're reaching and we hope to spread," said RelateCon organizer Heather Franck. "This is a national conference and we want reach across the nation."
Most RelateCon attendees were from Idaho and the Treasure Valley area, but many came from Utah, Oregon and farther afield—from the East Coast and even Canada. It also pulled nationally recognized speakers and organizers, including Atlanta, Ga.-based Relationship Equality Foundation, which has connections to established polyamorous communities in places like Columbus, Ohio; Chicago and on the eastern seaboard. The group's mission is to offer education and resources to conferences on relationship structures and affiliated organizations. When Boise Polyamory Network asked REF for support, it sent four educators to the City of Trees.
"It's part of our mission to support new and up-and-coming organizations," said REF Vice President Billy Holder. "Relationship Equality Foundation is growing by leaps and bounds, and we're doing it by grassroots empowerment of organizations like RelateCon."
Beyond affiliating with national communities, REF collects data about polyamorous people through its legal survey, spotlights local events and organizations, and helps present large conventions like Atlanta Poly Weekend and the Chicago NonMonogamy Conference. It's also an awareness-raiser, spreading the word on ethical non-monogamy—a job that gets a little easier every year thanks to increased media attention given to the lifestyle.
That attention, however, is of mixed quality. In 2013, CNN produced Polyamory: When Three Isn't a Crowd, an expose of the growing culture that featured Holder, his family and relationships. Filming and research for a similar NBC segment took months and, when it aired, it offered monogamous viewers a glimpse into an alternative lifestyle that shares many characteristics with their own—including emotional satisfaction and family life.
Though Holder said the CNN report was a relatively fair introduction to polyamory, subsequent profiles have been less balanced. In 2014, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly described the lifestyle as a "logical progression" from same-sex marriage, despite the fact that it is not a sexual orientation. Some fictional representations of polyamory are equally problematic, with many focusing on salacious sexual aspects of open relationships and its associations with the "swinger" lifestyle. Others, like The Magicians, normalize the practice by presenting polyamorous characters in an understated way.
"It's been a lot more prevalent in the media, and there's a lot less stigma now than there was five, six, seven years ago," Holder said.
Ethics, Children and Faith
Jennifer Hyde has seven children. Heather Franck is trying to conceive with her partner. Tyson Downey and Billy Holder are both fathers. Children are a fact of polyamory and a test of the ethics of the lifestyle.
"If you exclude any element of the family—a child, a partner, a husband, a mom—you're excluding the element of family," Holder said, describing the importance he places on being honest with his children.
Ethics was a central feature of RelateCon, encompassing nearly every aspect of polyamorous relationships, from intersections with the law, sex, introducing the practice to partners and discussing the lifestyle with children.
Holder had been polyamorous for 20 years when he brought a new partner into his home. At the time, his children were aged 14, 12 and 4, and he knew he couldn't—and shouldn't—hide the facts of his lifestyle from them. That said, each child needed a different level of knowledge about the new living arrangement.
"We didn't want to be sneaking around, lying to our children," Holder said. "That creates a huge trust issue."
Conversations about the polyamorous lifestyle between parents and children can be uncomfortable. In many cases, parents' goals for such conversations are to express their affection for their kids and their partners, and reinforce a sense of family stability. However, they often run into social norms around monogamy that make their jobs harder.
During one of these interactions, Hyde's then 5-year-old daughter called her a "cheater" for dating more than one man. When Hyde asked her where she learned about infidelity, the child told her she learned it from the Disney Channel.
"Here's my daughter, who's only been on earth for five years, and already she's been ingrained," Hyde said.
The cultural emphasis on monogamy poses a legal challenge for polyamorists. Poly parents have lost children in custody battles because of misconceptions about the stability of non-monogamous families. According to Franck, in right-to-work state Idaho, polyamorous people have lost their jobs because of the perceived ethical failings associated with "swinging."
Several RelateCon presentations sought to address these and other issues. Topics included identifying abusive relationships and how to help people in them, safe sex practices and BDSM, the roles of consent and honesty in the lifestyle, and legal issues related to polyamory.
Missing from the roster was the relationship between polyamory and religion, but attendees to the conference were happy to talk about their experiences with faith—often distancing themselves from it.
"The biggest difference is always the ethical portion of it," said Franck. "Polyamory really focuses on adult consent. And polygamy often does not have that because it would be more of a cultural norm and you can marry outside your age range."
Despite its strong undercurrent of ethical practice and the ongoing fight for recognition in the wider culture, polyamory still bucks against its association with polygamy—particularly the form of polygamy practiced by some members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
"Polyamory brings up the religious polygamy mindset, and it takes explaining to understand how it actually works," said Jeremy Hall, a web administrator for Boise Polyamory Network and RelateCon attendee.
The fight for acceptance, he said, is far from over; but RelateCon pushed Boise's polyamorous community toward achieving its goals. It helped to burst that community out of its (mostly) online bubble, reinforced the ethics of ethical non-monogamy and put Boise on the polyamorous map.
Speaking a week after the conclusion of the conference, Hall said he believed it served its purpose.
"It gave people a chance to be themselves," he said. "They didn't have to feel like they were hiding from themselves or anybody else."
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized the relationship between Tyson Downey and Jennifer Hyde. Boise Weekly regrets the error.