We good queers try not police each other, but often we end up doing exactly that. We put up gates where admittance is based on just how “queer” one really is. Lately this takes the form of policing the kinds of romances we have: how open or closed they are. I am guilty of this, and so is everyone I know.
It was like that on a Halloween over three years ago. For my entire adult life up until that point, I’d only dated monogamously. But I met this man who’d just moved to New York and we spent that night criss-crossing the city together. Within a couple days we were sharing dinners, holding hands, spooning ice cream into each other’s mouths, sitting in dark movie theaters, sleeping on each other’s chests.
But he was married and his husband would be arriving soon. Their open relationship permitted sex, but not what we had. Romance, intimacy — all of that was out of bounds. I was angry at them, upset that the feelings we’d shared were so easily superseded by what they had. Instead of trying to comprehend the boundaries of what an open relationship means, I refused to believe that their bond was real at all.
Over time, though, that man and I became friends, and as our friendship developed I started hanging out with his social circle. Those men identified as queer and had relationships that were predominantly open. For them, it seemed, queer identity was tied up with rigid opposition to monogamy. They greeted my tales of one-on-one love with the same eye rolls as I responded to their polyamorous and open affairs, no one really trying to understand the other.
Queerness as an idea wasn’t new to me. I was familiar with scholars like Lee Edelman and Eve Sedgwick, and I put myself to bed at night reading Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson. But I also aspired for a life that was in many ways quote-unquote normal. I had fantasies of a husband, dog, stable housing, romantic trips — all of those sort of typical things one is trained over time to share with a lone, single partner.
However, I also hated that there was a way of life I knew nothing about, and coming off of a series of heartbreaking monogamous relationships, I decided to change my approach to love and sex. There seemed to be some great secret joy to be found in having an open approach. One could get off and get love and do it with as many people as one wanted, without emotional consequences.
This new lifestyle gave me easy entry with the very social groups with which I felt previously combative. In fact, it was liberating to move in spaces in which sexuality didn’t have to be this thing that was papered over with niceties or modesty or anything like that. I went to house parties and traded notes on shared lovers. I made my way through raves with my arms around my best friends, mutually making out with guys as we threaded the crowd. I let the lines blur between what could happen with who. I eased up.
There seemed to be some great secret joy to be found in having an open approach. One could get off and get love and do it with as many people as one wanted, without emotional consequences.
I also traveled a lot and met a man in Mexico City who didn’t believe in traditional relationships. We had a fairly intense connection and so we tried to forge a long-distance open relationship. I flew down every couple of months, we talked on WhatsApp, and we set some basic rules: Either of us could sleep with whoever we wanted and if we developed any emotional attachments, we had to be straightforward and honest as soon as it happened.
I recognized that sexual needs and emotional fidelity might not be indivisible, and it quickly became clear that my wiring wasn’t suited for our arrangement. Men in New York became appealing beyond their appearance, immediately complicating the aforementioned rules. I started hanging out with someone else, going on dates, having romantic little moments. He wanted more than I could give him, and I wanted more than I was allowing myself. I found that having to abide by rules in which there was some level of permission to explore was too much permission for me.
Some time later I found myself on a couch with an impossibly handsome foreign man. We’d been hooking up for a few days and I showed him around some of my favorite neighborhoods. It was all very cute.
“I’d love to sleep next to you,” he said. “If you’re cool with that.”
I analyzed how to respond in a way that was respectful but direct. He and his boyfriend back home had an open relationship.
“I’m sorry,” I told him, stumbling over those two simple words, immediately second guessing myself. “I just. I’ve had to put some boundaries in place. It’s wild out there, right?”
He looked confused.
“I can’t sleep next to a guy who’s already taken,” I said. Holding another man while I slept felt somehow even more intimate than sex.
It was uncomfortably quiet for a moment or two. “I respect that,” he finally replied. “But I don’t really get it.”
I told him about the boundaries I was starting to draw, the distance I was putting between my own wants and the wants of my lovers. I let him know that I only wanted to spend emotional capital on guys who could spend the same on me.
“But monogamy is selfish — you can recognize that, right?” he asked.
“How is it any less selfish than having an open relationship?” I responded.
I still don’t have the answer to this because I think that in the end, love always sprouts from some self-serving place. The problem is that we’ve come to equate the way in which one loves with an affirmation of whether or not they are queer — and while there are certainly normative ways of life that deserve dismantling, in a time where LGBTQ people are being targeted with greater furor and violence, this type of judgment within the community takes an unfortunate toll. The safe space disappears. Michelle Tea sums it up well in her essay, “How to Not Be a Queer Douchebag.”
“But this thing happens in queer scenes where it’s like the most unconventional way becomes the only way,” she writes. “And frankly it’s just as rigid, punishing, and unrealistic as enforced heteronormativity.”
As a community, queers often received no support in forging romantic bonds as kids and young adults. Many of us didn’t even get a chance to have a partner until well into our adult lives. And with that, all of the fumbling to get it right takes place when the stakes between two or three or four people are higher. We are grown-ups now. We are navigating the stresses of that and playing catch-up at the same time. That queerness has led to some brilliant things, and I’m glad that among this community there is space for partnerships of all shapes and sizes. But to claim the mantle of queerness only for those within the LGBTQ spectrum who hew to every non-normative rule out there is essentially an oxymoron. Being queer means that you have the right to play with your own rules and boundaries, and to feel them out and judge them only for yourself. It took me some years to understand that, but I think I’m getting there.