Is it OK to list my relationship status as “open” on Facebook if my girlfriend isn’t out publicly?

This question came up in the Poly Weekly inbox this week. It’s one we’ve touched on on the podcast several times, but it’s worth a quick evaluation here on the blog as well. Social networking sites such as Facebook have really changed the definition of being “out.” Facebook currently has over 800 million users, Twitter has 250 million and even budding visual social site Pinterest crossed the 10 million user mark faster than any other site in history.

And since Facebook is notorious for having complicated privacy settings that are difficult to navigate and not entirely guaranteed to ensure privacy levels, online privacy on social sites is a growing concern.

Polyamory’s legal status

Now, in general, I’m not a fan of being too much in the closet. Unlike sexual orientation, however, polyamory isn’t a legally protected orientation. Practitioners can be fired or not hired due to their lifestyle and have no legal recourse. So keep in mind that apart from your family and friends discovering orientation through Facebook, your employment status may be at risk as well. After all, Facebook is the second most trafficked site in the world, and many recruiters use Facebook as a recruiting tool; it would be irresponsible of them not to take all the information available into consideration for future employment. (And users benefit from using Facebook for job hunting, too–that same infographic shows that 48% of job seekers have performed at least one job hunting activity on Facebook in the last year and that 16% received a job referral from a Facebook friend.)

Outside of Facebook, it’s also true that any responsible employer will Google new prospects and have access to any of your personal information that is publicly available, including anything you might have posted about your religion, sexual orientation, political views, and medical status. It’s not legal for an employer to ask for this information, but it is legal to Google a prospective employee and peruse publicly available information.

How open is OK?

So this is a case where your boyfriend’s openness could in fact affect not only your private family life but your ability to remain employed as well. Personally, I solved this issue by keeping two Facebook accounts–one vanilla one in which I’m listed as “single” and so can talk about dating, and my Minx account, which lists my open status and LustyGuy as my boyfriend (who links to his wife). However, I wouldn’t recommend that for most people. It’s cumbersome to manage two Facebook accounts and frankly wouldn’t be worth the effort for most users.

But the truth is that the internet and social sites such as Facebook have indeed changed things. Your boyfriend’s public open status does affect you in many ways, not the least of which is that now anyone with mutual Facebook friends can discover you are poly. For most people, this might be a public embarrassment or cause some eyebrow raises at the office or at Thanksgiving, nothing more. If that’s the case, no worries. But keep in mind that in addition to your your mom and grandma being able to discover your open status, that bitter ex-husband might also see that Facebook status. And unfortunately, that documentation has been used in child custody cases to argue against a person being a fit parent.

I don’t mean to be too gloom and doom here. The point is that since data lives forever online and Facebook has shameful privacy policies, it is perfectly acceptable–nay, it’s your responsibility–to discuss public online disclosures of your relationship status in order to protect your own privacy.

Rule of thumb

A good rule of thumb is the “grandmother rule”: assume that every piece of information you are putting online will be read by the one person you don’t want to see it (i.e., your grandma). Also, ask permission before posting any public information about a partner. It is a good idea to ask before you post:

  • Location information
  • Relationship status
  • Photos
  • Information about dates, parties or events

I’m curious about how others handle privacy and posting to social networks and other Googleable information. What is your policy?


Commenting area

  1. I’ve been working on this issue lately. Personally, I have a very strong inclination to be as publicly open about stuff as I possibly can. But I value and respect the needs and sensitivities of those I’m involved with, and those that *they* are involved with. I want to be able to shout my relationships and loves and crushes and feelings from the mountaintops, but I’m aware that that’s irresponsible, so I check in, and discuss, and communicate, and double-check, and wait for decisions to “make it through committee” before I follow through on my desires to overshare… and usually by that time, the initial impulse to cry out my joy and love has diminished enough that I can conduct myself with a bit more decorum. 🙂

    My main concern is that I don’t overwhelm my loves and their loves with my need to be so precisely clear on what’s okay and what’s not. Being on the autistic spectrum, the intensity of my focus can be disruptive, and my problem seems to be erring on the side of *too much* communication and double-checking. Trying to figure out a better way to find balance with that.

  2. I’m out. That’s non-negotiable with me. I can try not to link to my partners’ profiles on social networking sites & I can try to use their pseudonyms when I do newspaper interviews, but if someone really has a concern about being found out, it’s just better that they don’t date me.

    It’s not that I’m dismissing anyone’s concerns, it’s that I try to only date people who have similar relationship goals as myself so that it’s not an issue.

    I have partners with slightly different levels of being out than myself, and, as I said, I try to not directly link to their pages or to use their handles. But not acknowledging my partners at all, or not being acknowledged at all to family & friends is a deal-breaker for me. IMO, if their job is that important to them AND that picky about what they do in their private, off-the-clock time, then they shouldn’t be using their networking profiles as personal social profiles. If you can’t mix the two, you either have to stop doing the things you can get in trouble for doing, or you have to stop mixing personal & business.

    Having a business/family-friendly profile with your real name and another profile with your “social” name is a common compromise for the out/closeted problem.

  3. Arizona grey May 13, 2012 at 1:51 am · ·

    I am a teacher by day so i have to keep my relationship status, religion, and orientation very quite online attached to my name. I have my legal name as my “work” account which has work people and relatives i’m not comfortable sharing information with, then i have my personal account. This psuedonym over laps with my facebook, twitter, tumblr and fetlife account. Those are all personal things where i post as Arizona. That and now most of my kink, pagan, poly people know me by that name.

  4. Silenus May 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm · ·

    As a poly grandpa who takes his grandson to Poly Camp, along with his grandma and a lover or two, I must voice an objection to the idea that “grandma” is iconic of the person you don’t want to be out to. Often children have more comfortable relationships with grandparents than parents, and come to them for advice on personal problems. Perhaps “prospective employer” should be the icon for the person you don’t want to know about your private life.

    • Cunning Minx May 17, 2012 at 10:57 pm · ·

      My apologies. Many of us choose not to come out to the older generations because the moeurs and morals they learn in their youth are hard to overcome–and not everyone had the wonderful upbringing that you did! That being said, “employer” would be a good litmus test as well.

  5. Vanya Tucherov May 15, 2012 at 1:41 pm · ·

    My partner to whom I am married is listed as such. There’s no concern there. My other partner I have listed as my ‘partner (female)’ but due to her career, we’ve agreed that it is likely imprudent for her to acknowledge it and it’s good enough for us that she knows that I view her as one with whom I choose to share my life.
    I have colleagues who read my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and I am unapologetically out there, but I don’t tag either of my partners in pictures or mention them by their full names (or names as used on the sites)- when I mention them it is by initial or by first name- so that it doesn’t have a direct bearing on *my* out-ness, but preserves some level of anonymity for each of them. It seems to be an equitable and (so far, at least) viable way to both be open and proud of my best-beloveds without exposing them to external scrutiny which they have not directly chosen of their own volition.

  6. I am put on my part, my family and friends know about it. But my girlfriend’s side it she is not open so I have to jump through hoops not to accidentally reveal anything of Facebook.

    From professional point of view I do give them clues, but I do not say it explicitly.
    There is always a risk that some paranoid colleague would think that I have something with is wife. Or maybe even be jealous that he cannot do that in his marriage.

    Funny thing is that the sister of my girlfriend subscribed to my twitter account a few weeks ago, and I am waiting for it that she will discover that I Polyamory weekly is one of the things I am subscribed too. And I have left big huge traces of polyamory all over the Internet. Once she starts digging…
    I only hope that if she reads my posts that she will understand that I really really love her sister and have no intention to let her go.

  7. Work is hard to find and great friends who don’t judge you for your private life can be equally hard to find. So I do not begrudge anyone in the closet. But I would like to suggest nevertheless that we consider coming out–on facebook, at work, everywhere we can–to be important socio-political work that can make life better for all poly people in the future if enough of us take the risks here in the present by putting ourselves out there. Gay people have come out in unprecedented numbers in the last few decades and that has led to some long overdue legal and social change. If enough of us do the same, we can win a freer future for our grandchildren. By all means, it’s everyone’s choice and noone should shame you for being in the closet, but I hope we all at least consider the option of risk and/or sacrifice in the name of a better future for all of us. I am a teacher and am out at work, btw.

  8. People generally use the “grandmother test” for gauging whether to post something online, but I suggest remembering the “current employer” and “prospective employer” tests as well. With apologies to Silenus and other open-minded members of the older generations, yes, the “grandmother test” is the common name for “Do I want the more judgmental members of my family and social circles to know about this?” and it is a good test.

    However, as Silenus points out, even those who are comfortable and confident enough to share with those near and dear to them still have to earn a living. While you might be willing to make a “Take me or leave me” stance with your family and friends, you have to decide whether you are willing to risk losing your current job and/or not being able to be employed in the future for being public with statuses/preferences/lifestyles that are not legally protected.

    Being out or closeted is a personal choice, but one that should be made with the awareness that a hostile family member is not the only potential repercussion.

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