We are gays. We fuck people we met on Grindr and we move on. That’s just how things are. If you want ‘romance’, probably should go and watch Fifty Shades of Grey.”
That’s probably the last time I spoke to D. By that time, I had been seeing D for three months, and, he had a boyfriend.
I often think about that conversation—partly because I never watched Fifty Shades of Grey, and partly because I have an ambiguous feeling towards open relationships.
It can be liberating, or so we are told. It can be particularly important for queer people, as it signifies a rebelling breakaway from heteronormative norms, a loud and reassuring “fuck you” to the mainstream. It is a performative act of transforming (‘destroying’) the norms around relationship and marriage to the face of conservatives.
In addition to and because of its political and ideological significance, the ability to opt into and enjoy non-monogamous relationships can often be a yardstick for our queerness. It is not “queer enough” to settle with one person, just as it is not queer enough to settle for sex that’s not kinky and adventurous. This competition to be the queerest and the coolest is also a platform for power relations. The ability to be detached and the readiness to move on often indicate to others and ourselves how much capital we have in this competitive market.
Of course, this is not to suggest that queer people who subscribe to open relationships do so necessarily because of these reasons. For too long, society has consistently stigmatised any relationships that deviate from traditional norms. We should, therefore, celebrate any social progress that affords individuals greater freedom and more choices. The point, however, is that social movement whose ultimate aim is inclusion should not to entrench further exclusion. Ultimately, what we need is a better and more genuine discourse about open relationships.
It is tempting to downplay the importance such a discourse with a conclusion, “what matters is simply everyone chooses what they want. If this is not for you, don’t do it.” That ignores the reality of queer community today. Just as there is a pernicious heteronormative norm dictating what’s ‘normal’ in the society, there emerges a concurrent specific norm prescribing what’s ‘queer’ in the queer community. Namely, it is hard if you don’t make certain choices.
Perhaps it is also not that liberating. Some people in open relationships have very strict and details rules about who they can and cannot do. No kissing; oral only; only when travelling. These rules certainly do not render their choices illegitimate and it can be crucial to define clearly what each other is comfortable with in a relationship. However, encounters with these people do make me wonder how reliable is the picture of ‘unfettered freedom’ that some are only too ready to paint.
On a deeper level, discourse on open relationships propels us to examine some underlying shifts in the queer community. Last year, Huffington Post columnist Michael Hobbes published an article titled “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness”. The piece sparked heated debate while resonating with many others. It points to a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon—the social progress in greater society doesn’t seem to improve the wellbeing of many queer individuals. It argues that apart from transforming laws and people’s attitudes in the society, we also need to take a critical look at the norms in the queer community.
There is no easy answer. But we should at least challenge the current discourse on open relationships that is framed exclusively around freedom and defiance. This will require us to ask some hard questions: the value of mobility and stability, the ideal of intimacy, and how power dynamics operate to include while excluding.
This article appeared in the autonomous queer edition, Queer Honi 2018.