I Approach Polyamory With the Same Drive I Do My Work

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

One summer, I stayed in Cedar Key, Florida, a once-thriving port that was now a sleepy island. I was newly bisexual and polyamorous, and a bit lost. I had opened up a long-term relationship with a cis man in order to date a genderqueer, disabled person.

“Everyone just has affairs,” my friend said when I told her I wanted to be polyamorous.

“Well, I don’t want an affair,” I said.

I was done playing mistress. I’d done that in my 20s. I was pretty good at it, but I wasn’t a good person. I hate the imperative that marginalized women have to be saints. I was born disabled. I walk with a computerized leg and have chronic pain. I spent so many years in the Lutheran Church where my body was used as a teaching tool, a side note in a sermon, inspirational fodder.

To turn away from that, I sought pleasure for my own pleasure. There’s no shortage of guys just dying to sneak away from their domestic lives. I thought, I don’t want that domesticity. I want agency, ambition, and freedom. But it wasn’t all adrenaline and kisses in the rain. I saw too clearly the paradox of time: In one moment, I was the truth with a person. In another, I was the lie.

So I went into my 30s thinking, Enough with all that. I’m taking this honest. If I’m going to have multiple loves, they will know about each other.

The new person and I did not start as friends. I was smitten as soon as I met them. Why was I blushing? Why was I wearing jeans and a T-shirt? Why was I irritated? A friend at the event asked, “Are you okay?”

No, I was not okay. I had finally found a monogamous relationship with a guy, as stubborn about alone time as I was, and with no restrictions on my ambition. I could make anything: I wrote a speculative novel and a book of poems where he appeared, created a satirical web series, and performed as a nondisabled character, Tipsy Tullivan, for several years. As I hopped across genres, and from page to screen, nondisabled people would ask, “Why don’t you just be yourself?” and I would hear, in their question, Tell the story we expect: Your disabled life is very hard, you are very sad, but then you overcome it and are very happy. I refused. I’m not Cyborg Cinderella. I’m not a parable. I’m an artist.

I got engaged. And then, suddenly, I was having intense feelings for another person. I felt some kind of wild desire, like a fire toward a forest.

My partner of several years kept saying, “Are you serious about this person?” and I kept saying, “Yes.”

This new person had their own life with someone else, too. They asked for a “don’t ask, don’t tell” disability accommodation for mental health. As I understood the arrangement, they wanted to keep the appearance of monogamy, to all the world, so their primary relationship wouldn’t suffer. I agreed. If I didn’t, there would be no relationship. And I was already too far in. So what?, I thought. I’m a disability rights activist. I learned from all of the activists who came before me and taught me about access and having equal rights. Why shouldn’t I consider access in how I practice polyamory? I honored the request, thought of it like a curb cut, a ramp, some way in. It never occurred to me, until much later, that all of us have minds. And by consenting to their “don’t ask, don’t tell” as mental-health accommodation, I was consenting to ignore mine. To pretend, into perpetuity, that my mental health was not important.

It took a long time for that “to land,” as they say in therapy. I felt that I could be physically disabled, but I could not be anxious, depressed, or scared of what my future looked like with this person. I had to be consistent. I could be physically disabled, with this partner, but not psychologically disabled. I had to be one thing. Or lose my love. For asking too much.

So once again, I went private. Made myself small. Did not share space with my love in certain geographic locations. Did not appear together on any social media. These were the parameters. This was called “care” in disability circles but felt far from it. I was tolerated. But I was not welcome. I had wanted equal and equitable relationships with both partners.

Walking around Cedar Key, I thought, How did I get myself into this mess? What kind of pattern do I insist upon repeating?

Now, academic creative writing is a small world. My partners both got invited to present on the same panel at a conference. This invitation came a year in advance, ruffled everyone’s feathers, and raised all kinds of questions. Nobody could know that I was with the one partner. Everyone already knew that I was with my fiancé. These two people, whom I loved, knew about each other. How were they to act on this panel? Why even go to it?

To my surprise, they both decided, independent of each other, to accept the invite. Travel to that city. Present on the panel and keep it professional.

Did I want to go?, my fiancé asked.

Hell no. I stayed in Cedar Key.

I was wrecked on the island. I ate fried shrimp every night and watched TV and called friends who thought I was losing my mind. I looked at the seagulls and wondered why my loves traveled away from me and toward each other. I felt polyamory was a failure, and I was a failure, if I could not love two people openly, could not join them at the hotel bar after the panel, could not raise a toast in celebration of them, both of them, for their scholarship, sure, but also for all the work, and communication, and processing — the processing! — we had done to make this style of love possible to us.

On that island, I felt for the first time: Everyone who’s monogamous is right. Polyamory is too hard. Who am I to think that I can have two partners? Who am I to think that I can keep in mind what one partner wants, and what another partner wants, and honor both of their wishes, contradictory as they may be? Where am I in all of this?

“Center your own pleasure,” the writer Vanessa Carlisle told me when I was becoming polyamorous. It seemed selfish and apolaustic and wrong. It seemed impossible. I was used to making other people comfortable around me, adhering to certain beliefs, endorsing other people’s ideas of what my life should be.

I spent entirely too much time — decades — reading and thinking about nondisabled people’s notions of what a disabled life was or was not; could or could not be. I freed myself from that in my work, but wasn’t doing it in my romantic life. I’d consented to hide.

Polyamory defies every love song, every romantic comedy. But disabled people are rarely in love songs or romantic comedies. Why should I try to make my life look like a traditional romantic story? Why should I limit myself to one identity?

The truth is, I have many. I’m disabled and bisexual and that includes pansexual and queer. I’m white. I’m a cis woman with some ambivalence about gender. I’m a feminist. I’m an activist. I’m learning how to be religious without religion’s homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, sexism, and ableism. I’m polyamorous and a maker. I’m neurodivergent and, right now, I’m in chronic pain. Why should this be radical? Why can’t I be all of who I am? What happened is, my mind changed. My mental health tanked. It was no longer safe for me to be in the hidden relationship. I got out of it.

“Are you still polyamorous?” my friend asked after the breakup.

“C’mon,” I said. “Would you have one monogamous breakup and then decide all of monogamy was flawed?”

As a disabled woman, I’m determined to create my own freedom. That’s what I’ve always done with my work, defined myself as I want to, not how others do. And it’s what I’m trying to do with love. I deserve to be whoever I want in my romantic life, too. So yes, I’m still polyamorous.

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I Approach Polyamory With the Same Drive I Do My Work