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20 October 2009, 2:00 pm 18 Comments

Zack's Ramblings: I, Non-Monogamist

This post was submitted by Zack Rosen

Wikipedia has told me this graphic stands for "love outside the box." I really like it.

Wikipedia has told me this graphic stands for "love outside the box." I really like it.

Sitting on the bottom of a 7-foot tall bookshelf in my living room is a work entitled Opening Up, by sex author/feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino. As its title implies, it’s a guide for those who are or would like to be in some kind of open relationship. My boyfriend and I have never made a secret of our non-monogamy in our social group. We have especially not hidden this fact from the guys we sleep with. What should we be apologizing for? It’s a choice, and people make choices every day.

Yet this book always gives me a light shiver of worry when I remember where it is. What if my boyfriend’s parents happen to spy it on one of their frequent visits to our house? What if his 6 year-old nephew opens its pages and asks what a “group BDSM” is?  I can picture the horrified looks on the faces of our guests as they gather their things and run to their cars, genuflecting and spewing vomit like they’re in a three-minute version of “The Exorcist. ”

Luckily, this anxious fantasy has never become a reality. But it is emblematic of a question I wrestle with frequently. The Book stays on the shelf, because I believe that queer people, bug chasers aside, should never have to apologize for how we express our sexuality. Yet I would never think to tell my parents or other “polite” friends and acquaintances about the nontraditional aspects of my relationship. Does this make me a self-loathing homo, or just someone that doesn’t think the UPS guy should get the all the details of last weekend’s hot three-way?

It all comes back to the issue of being out. Though October’s status as GLBT history month is often overshadowed by its harlequin cousin June, last week’s National Coming Out Day is often observed. However, I think a lot of people miss the point of coming out. It’s not something you do once to your friends or family. Coming out is a series of decisions a queer person must face every day. Do you hold your boyfriend’s hand at Target? Tell the woman at the grocery store who you’re buying flowers for?

Or more frighteningly, do you explicitly state in an article like this one that you have a lot of sex outside your primary relationship? See where I’m going with this?

As long as I am not in physical danger, I make an explicit point of being gay when I’m in public. I don’t wipe the poop off my dick at the supermarket, but at the dog park I say “my boyfriend and I” instead of the more nebulous “we.” I take vocal pride in running a business with the word “gay” in its very title. The point in this is to show that you’re not ashamed of what you are.

Yet I usually treat my relationship arrangement as something dirty, something to be done under the cover of night and not spoken of later. It’s funny, because my boyfriend and I have talked endlessly on the subject — why we allow it, what rules are set up to keep us both comfortable in it, how to handle the little hitches that may pop up here and there — but in the company of others we just dismiss it as an indulgence or necessary vice.

The fact is, love and sex are very separate things. I cannot imagine loving anyone more than I love my boyfriend, yet I’ve been dating him since I was 23 and can hardly say that I’ve sown all my wild oats. I’ve barely even finished eating my wild oatmeal, for that matter, so to think about putting my plow in storage gives me the cold sweats. My boyfriend is ten years older than I am and has gotten a lot of this behavior out of his system. He knows I’m not going anywhere, and allows me the freedom I need to keep it that way.

So for most of our life together, we do things like make dinner, watch episodes of “The Wire” on DVD and argue over whose turn it is to walk the dog. And at eight o’clock on the occasional Saturday night, after all the aforementioned activities, I kiss my boyfriend goodbye and head out of the house. At five in the morning, I crawl in bed next to him and a couple hours later we head to brunch before I do laundry.

And in between? I could bore you for hours with details like a rooftop covered in condom wrappers, the brown crust on my index and middle finger as I hail a cab back to Adams Morgan, a fifteen minute interlude in the alley behind Cobalt that lead to both a new friend and a great story, but it’s beside the point. Single people do stuff like this all the time. Its salacious, yes, but hardly newsworthy.

The person who gave me Opening Up in the first place was an old co-worker of mine who also functioned as a sort of accidental spirit guide. He one told me something which I will paraphrase below:

When you grow up, you are told that the “normal” way people live is for men to be with women. Once you realize that’s not true, you see how many other societal norms are just arbitrary. You become free to pick and choose which ones to follow and which to ignore.

So it’s not that gay people are heathen sex-maniacs that can’t even keep their dicks dry when they’re married. Instead, we’re simply a group of people who discovered that marginalization has the unintended side effect of freedom.

It might not be a “normal” way to be in love, but the concept of “normal” has done more damage to queer people than Fred Phelps and Carson Kressley combined. Instead of dreaming of a world when all people are free to live their lives as they see fit – whether gay, straight or other – queer people are striving towards a non-existent state of being in hopes that we can suit-and-tie our way into first class citizenship.

Or to put it this way: If straight and normal are synonymous, no one reading this will ever be normal. So instead, we should focus our energy on being happy.

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  • B! said:

    Y’know, Zack…
    Borrowing your “coming out” theme, I’ll do this publicly.

    Quite simply, there’s no need to out your non-traditional relationship (with not one but two gay-sex poop references!) in order to clumsily “reflect” on the relativity of normal. …especially when said reflection amounts to an hour’s worth of Psych 101.

    At best, this is just in poor taste; at worst, a fundamental confusion of shocking with important and a desperate plea to be seen as so out there.

    Oh, and before you throw on your all-comments-equal-important-community-discussion shades, know that there isn’t anything to discuss here other than how maybe you should wash your hands before getting into cabs. I write this merely wondering where the hell this project’s gone wrong…

  • Kyle said:

    Zack, I like this post, and I think it’s validity will be overwhelmed by an oncoming flood of comments regarding it’s controversialness. Therefore, I would like to say, the whole LGBT community, when it comes to sex, relationships, and kink, need to chill the hell out, because we are all so freaking wound up about these things, and seem not to be happy unless everyone agrees with us.

    If you’re monogamous, fine. If not, fine. Do and be what makes you happy. Be adult about it, and don’t try to get everyone else to agree with you.

    And if someone’s writings about their sex lives grosses you out, just stop reading. Really. Don’t feed the addiction of your indignation by continuing to read something you don’t like.

    As for monogamy vs. non, I’ve been on both sides of this issue in my relationships, and found that neither kind of relationship is guaranteed to last. A boring sex life killed one monogamous relationship. And a non-monogamous relationship ended because one of us fell in love outside the relationship. There are no easy answers.

    As for single guys, having lots of casual sex is it’s own conundrum. If you are looking for a partner, having a lot of casual sex probably will turn off a lot of potential mates. On the other hand, doing without sex while waiting for Mr. Right to appear is, well, doing without sex. I don’t know what the solution is, although right now I’m living out the second option almost by default.

  • Mark said:


    This post isn’t “controversial.” Gay open relationships are pretty old news… and so is talking about them.

    You say this post is “valid.” I think the ultimate point–that non-monogamy is seen more favorably through queer eyes because of the queer experience–is a valid topic for discussion. In fact, I would tend to agree (to a point).

    However, I think the above commenter is right. This post is more self-aggrandizing than insightful. Is it a book review or a commentary on Zack’s total studness?

    It kind of reminds me this staff survey, where Zack asks himself, “What’s the oddest thing you’ve heard in bed” and then answers his own question by bragging about the size of his dick. He’s basically saying, “Well, now that I’VE brought it up, YOU should know what a big-dicked stud I am.”

    Monogamy is a valid topic. Zack’s sexual prowess really isn’t. I don’t like seeing posts like this. It makes TNG look more like a vanity blog than a social project.

    I know what someone will say: “Zack is just using his personal life to shed light on an important queer topic.” That’s partly true. But ultimately he’s doing the opposite: using an important queer topic to shed light on his personal life… and he assumes anyone cares… like he’s some sort of celebrity.

    You have to think you’re pretty damn important to feel the need to “out” your non-monogamy–a pretty regular, everyday, stereotypical, “old gay” part of urban male gay life.

  • adam said:

    oh come on. it’s not like his bragging is totally rampant around here. maybe it’s not the most elegant argument, but clearly you see the argument. and i think the current (and inevitable future) backlash to this is pretty illustrative; would people criticize zack for delving (maybe too far) into his personal life if he were writing about something other than sex?

    maybe i ask because i like hearing people brag about their sexual exploits. i think if more people were frank and honest about their sex lives everyone might feel a little less shame attached to them. or, call me crazy, maybe i just have a thing for big-dicked studs.

  • Queer Blogger said:

    Sex is very easy to come by in the gay world if you have low standards. Simply having sex, even a lot of it, is no major accomplishment worth bragging about. Nailing every hot guy you’ve spotted in the gym showers, now, that would be bragging. Simply noting three specific anecdotes that show examples of someone having had sex: definitely not bragging. Stomach-turning, yes, but not bragging.

  • MarkDC said:

    Hi. This is regular cantankerous Mark. I did not post at 5:52pm. I’ll guess I’ll now have to use the screen name MarkDC.

    For the record I think Zack’s post is just fine. Is there really anything to argue about here?

    @ Mark

    “You have to think you’re pretty damn important to feel the need to “out” your non-monogamy–a pretty regular, everyday, stereotypical, “old gay” part of urban male gay life.”

    Do not confuse old Gay promiscuity with contemporary new Gay non-monogamy. The two are very different. Each was produced by vastly different cultural and political circumstances decades apart from each other.

  • Miss Bliss said:

    Does everyone know that “it’s” is a contraction for “it is” and not the possessive third-person pronoun?

    Or am I confusing old gay grammar with something new?

  • Bryan said:

    I had no problems with this post until I read this comment:

    “Do not confuse old Gay promiscuity with contemporary new Gay non-monogamy.”

    And then I was like, “Wha..?” I mean gay life must’ve cruised me by at 100 MPH because I totally missed when being horny meant anything more than simply being horny. And in the context of this quote, I actually think the Old Gay promiscuity (assuming I even understand what that means) is better because it’s (more) transparent. No explanation needed, right? You don’t have to append an asterisk pointing out that you’re partnered, but open, and that’s okay because we’re gay and not limited to arcane definitions of sexuality that require being a one-man-only kind of guy. It’s actually kind of ironic because the idea of the virile red-blooded male’s inability to keep his dick in his pants must be one of the oldest stereotypes of straight men out there. But I digress.

    You know, at the end of the day, I don’t care how many people ya sleep with, if you’re partnered with one, two or three different guys at one time and if all y’all ride the hobby-horse like a carousel gone mad. And I would even go one step further and say most people around you probably don’t care either. However it’s these platitudes like “gay men can’t and shouldn’t be monogamous for x, y and z reason” that tend to make me pull what’s left of my hair out. It’s the new “gay men make great interior designers.”

    Just do your thing, and leave it at that.

  • Jon said:

    I don’t agree with the last part where he says that freedom is the unintended side-effect of marginalization, or that normality is the enemy. To me, the enemy is the psychological issues so many people have. If you approach those with intelligence then you will be more apt to have the best of both worlds: normality, but a very well-developed and therefore unusual form of it.

  • MarkDC said:

    @ Bryan

    The “old Gay promiscuity” was before or just after AIDS where men didn’t know or understand anything about safer sex practices, where the culture in general was so hateful of Gay men they were forced to have sex in parks, bathrooms and only pick up guys in bars. Those “old Gay” men were told they were shit and encouraged to hate themselves. A man who feels like shit about himself is a man who really doesn’t think he deserves a relationship and stability.

    “New Gay non-monogamy” occurred after AIDS and takes into account safer sex practices. Because of AIDS, Gay men have been forced to examine their motives and protect their health by Gay health organizations all over the country whose sole mandate was to improve the lives of Gay men by providing healthcare and mental health services. Because of AIDS activism Gay men no longer feel their sexuality must be closeted but that their lives and can now be openly, avowedly celebrated. This is new, a profound paradigm shift most younger Gays cannot grasp and do not understand. Now that the media has a clue and features Gay people in television, print and film Gay men see themselves in a different way and aren’t living in fear, the kind of fear that means you have to have sex in a park and do not deserve a the love of another man. Younger Gays grow up seeing themselves reflected in the culture as a part of the culture. The consequences of this generate the transformative changes we’ve seen in (Official) Gay Culture and, most importantly, in Gay men’s opinions of themselves.

    Sure some crazy faggots still have sex in parks and bathrooms today. Those guys are not forced to do so because they have no other options available. Some guys do it for the thrill, some (most?) guys do it because they’re married or identify as heterosexual. In addition today we have sex clubs that offer safe spaces for anonymous sex and promote safer sex with condoms and posted information.

    Sure some guy just died in that sleazy place on 14th street. He wasn’t forced to go there. He had options which he didn’t use because he was most likely heterosexual and on the down low. I get that impression because The Blade won’t report further about it when they usually do (see the Robert Wone case).

    Most guys still go to bars for a hot, sweaty, smelly hook-up. But today they’re looking for a boyfriend or just want to have sex. Unlike the past where bars were scary, dark places where most guys were nervous bars today have the lights on and everybody goes, not just the guys looking to hook-up. Thank god we still got places like The Eagle but we also have places like Duplex Diner, Nellies and Halo. These bars are nothing like the bars before and during the 70s/80s where men only went looking for sex and nothing more. The expansion of Gay consciousness and culture has transformed the “Gay bar” into a meeting place and a hangout…in addition to a place to meet hot guys and hook-up.

  • Joseph T said:

    LOVE this post and it certainly got the comment section going.

  • MarkDC said:

    One more thing: I do not think Zack is out all night every night having unsafe sex in parks and rest stops. That is not what he is writing about here. Most men I know of who are in committed relationships with a non-monogamous component have talked it out and set guidelines for these experiences. For example:

    1) Always pick someone you feel safe with, whose name you know.
    2) Make sure someone, if it’s at a bar, sees you or knows who you left with.
    3) ALWAYS have safer sex.
    4) Always come home after.
    5) NEVER pick a guy so hot you think you are in love with him. NEVER. The point is to have sex not find a new boyfriend.

    The mind-set of men in relationships who are non-monogamous is very different. I’m not arguing some men in relationships don’t go out and break all of these rules but those men are not engaging in non-monogamy as described here. They don’t care and are probably looking for the next boyfriend.

  • Juan said:

    Fun post! Thanks, MarkDC for the comments. You’ve made a clear and accurate description of how gay culture has evolved from pre to post-AIDS activism.

  • Anon and anon said:

    B! and Mark, can we have a threeway?

  • lazy blogger posts link « The Dating Algorithm said:

    [...] The New Gay – I, Non-Monogamist [...]

  • Non-monogamy in all it’s glory. « said:

    [...] in all it’s glory. Alright dear readers, you want a clear, real life example of successful non-monogamy? Read this. (And for that matter, while you’re at it, read this and this [...]

  • Laura said:

    I found this article fascinating. Your explanation of the daily ways you come out was an interesting revelation to me — there are so many things I take for granted in my life. I hope that it won’t be too many years or generations before everyone, no matter their sexual preference, can take them for granted.

    As for what you divulge about your sex life. I smiled a little at the line, “Does this make me a self-loathing homo, or just someone that doesn’t think the UPS guy should get the all the details of last weekend’s hot three-way?,” because I think that should sum it up for all of us.

    With the internet and reality-tv show culture, we’re becoming inundated with hearing every little tidbit of everyones lives. And it’s not such a bad thing to keep some things private and intimate, even as we diversify. Yeah, maybe we’re testing out poly or open relationships. And yes, maybe we do need to discuss in communities how to handle these relationships.

    But I still don’t see any need to make ones sex life a topic of discussion. If it’s brought up and you’re asked about it, sure, talk about it as much as you’re comfortable. But otherwise . . . why draw attention? It’s a private thing.

    Of course, this is from the girl who was treated to a detailed description of what her dad is like in the sack from his new wife. Trust me, when you’re talking to family, the less you say about sex, the better.

  • Jake Holden said:

    details like a rooftop covered in condom wrappers

    Cool, but make sure to pick up your litter…