From a young age, Saira B. knew monogamy wasn't their cup of tea. They found negative portrayals of relationships involving more than two people on TV perplexing.
"I remember watching a lot of things that had love triangles in them and being like, 'Wait, why can't everybody just date each other? Why is there a problem?'" says Saira, a queer, non-binary transgender artist and organizer in Seattle.
Oppressive systems such as heterosexism and patriarchy have conditioned many of us to believe that intimacy, connection, and love are finite things only to be shared between two individuals. The mainstream largely rejects non-monogamy, even though it's an ancient practice that at least 4% to 5% of the U.S. population engages in, according to a Chapman University study.
As they got older, Saira saw the relationship structures they desired reflected in the classic books, The Ethical Slut and The Loving Dominant. Still, these heteronormative, whitewashed texts failed to capture the nuances of polyamorous relationships between queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people.
Despite there being few resources on how LGBTQ+ folks can approach non-monogamy in ethical ways, an increasing number of people in queer and trans communities are creating their own pathways to healthy polyamorous relationships. A recent Journal of Bisexuality study found that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and pansexual participants were more likely to engage in consensual non-monogamy than heterosexual participants, due to their appreciation of new experiences.
What ethical non-monogamy entails differs for each individual. Yet, when speaking to queer and trans non-monogamists about their polyamory values and praxis, commonalities and themes definitely emerge. One of the main ones is the need for clear, consistent, and honest communication: with one's partner(s) and one's self.
Effective communication is key for Saira and their two long-term partners, who all live together in the same house and share space between a couple of rooms. While all three of them value living communally, they also need ample individual space. Their living arrangement necessitates ongoing communication and negotiation to ensure that each person is able to maintain their individuality without feeling disconnected from one another.
"It's about negotiating who gets nights to themselves... who's sleeping in what room with whom. When we have the energy and time, we all have casual dates. Most people can come over to the house when notice is given," Saira says. "We definitely don't have a lot of preset boundaries within our relationship. It's a lot of negotiating based on how people are feeling in the moment."
Shannon Perez-Darby, a queer femme who works as a liaison between the government and marginalized communities in Seattle, refers to ethical non-monogamy as a "pressure cooker" for learning new things, including how to communicate with clarity.
"Asking for what I want has historically been very challenging for me. In order to do an open relationship, especially ethically and lovingly, I have to be real clear about my wants and needs," Perez-Darby says.
It's evident that queer and trans people are defying the popular narrative that polyamory only induces negativity and pain within relationships and individuals. Many have found that polyamory doesn't make them feel any less loved or cared for and actually molds them into better versions of themselves.
For Kaz, a self-described "nomadic" content creator/artist and queer, kink pansexual based in Nairobi, Kenya, ethical non-monogamy has been a constant journey of learning and unlearning that has transformed her into a more open and loving person.
"Different romantic partners are able to understand you in different ways, and that allows you to love and learn and live more. The idea and practice of loving to the fullest extent is possible in ethical non-monogamy because you are living with no lies," Kaz told TheBody in an email.
Oli, a non-binary butch lesbian and retail manager in Asheville, North Carolina, agrees with this sentiment. She celebrates being able to love multiple people at once and getting to witness her partners fall in love. Being polyamorous also relieves Oli of feeling like she has to be one person's "everything."
"With my [former] long-term partner, sex became an issue in our relationship, but then when we started having sex with other people, we were able to really focus on the good parts [of our relationship]," Oli says.
Of course, polyamory isn't for everyone. It's no better or worse than monogamy and comes with the same negative emotions that occur in monogamy, such as jealousy. In ethical non-monogamy, it's common for individuals to normalize jealousy by interrogating where it's coming from and what it signifies, as well as to openly communicate the emotion to their partner(s).
Since no one-size-fits-all approach exists for ethical non-monogamy, queer and trans people considering it should be prepared to make plenty of mistakes. Perez-Darby admits that she and her primary partner have made myriad mistakes while doing polyamory, including trying to confine it within too narrow boundaries.
"What we ultimately realized is the rules didn't work because you can't actually make rules for human beings and for human relationships. It just doesn't work. Human relationships don't fit well into rules," Perez-Darby says.
Having hard and fast rules isn't inherently bad, but ethical non-monogamy recognizes that polyamorous relationships aren't required to be governed by a litany of restrictions to be rendered valid. Perez-Darby and her primary partner chose to have commitments to each other instead.
Ultimately, queer and trans folks should do what feels right to them when practicing ethical non-monogamy, but there are ways to make it easier for all parties involved. Derived from her own experiences and her conversations with fellow non-monogamists, Perez-Darby has a host of tips for queer and trans people aspiring to do ethical non-monogamy.
One of her tips is to move slowly and take your time making decisions when opening up a relationship; "new relationship energy" is intoxicating and apt to lead you astray. She also suggests having strong support networks in place, because there will be people in your life who judge your relationship choices and try to isolate you because of them.
When giving tips, Kaz, who's been practicing ethical non-monogamy for the past 10 years, lifts up the crucialness of trusting your gut in polyamorous relationships.
"Live your life authentically. Find what works for you and walk away from things that don't serve you," Kaz wrote to me. "Listen to your inner voice. Listen to your inner voice. Listen to your inner voice. No one knows you better than you do, so listen to your inner voice."