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Sex & Love Navigating non-monogamy while non-binary

Apr. 26, 2022

Up until I was 19, I was a serial monogamist. Obsessively so. My friends liked to make fun of me for never being single for longer than a couple of weeks, because I partner up with people so quickly. I tend to justify this by saying that there’s just a lot to love in everyone, which I definitely believe—I struggle with staying single because I just love love.

But my friends were right to call me out on my constant dating. In the spring of my freshman year, I broke up with my long-distance boyfriend of two years and almost immediately went back on the hunt. Everyone was telling me I should take time for myself, but I was desperate for a rebound or some kind of sexual companion to get me through the tumultuous time.

I did end up taking a couple months off from dating, but when I made a return, I intentionally made it a non-monogamous one. For about nine months, I navigated the NYC queer dating scene as a nonbinary, non-monogamous individual. This phase only ended because I met my current boyfriend who, for a variety of reasons, I wanted to pursue monogamously.

There’s no singular way to do non-monogamy. During my nine months of dating around, my non-monogamous partnerships weren’t all structured the same. I had a couple of one-night flings that fizzled out as quickly as they started. Some hookups ended up being more sustainable, edging into the ambiguous space of almost-dating. Even in these cases, though, I was more comfortable with non-monogamy on my own rather than with a partner who was also non-monogamous. I had a lot of one-on-one partnerships and knew my partners had many one-on-one connections as well, but we really never chose to date a third person together as a unit. 

There’s one concern all people considering non-monogamy share: where to meet people. For me, engaging in my communities and frequenting my favorite local spots helped a lot. I was also on a few dating apps (Hinge, Lex, and Tinder), which was fun because I’m someone who loves going out on dates. I love dressing up and feeling the nerves that come with meeting someone hot for the first time. That feeling of never quite knowing if someone is into me or just playing hard to get is intoxicating. Non-monogamy allowed me to experience flirting and all the electric feelings that come with it so often, and without any pressure to commit.

I’m someone who has more of an anxious attachment style than an avoidant one, so non-monogamy was also a means of self-care for me. Every time I could feel myself getting clingy or anxiously checking my phone for a message from one of my partners, I would take notice of my anxiety. Then, I’d be able to contemplate my clingy habits rather than push them down for the sake of the relationship. I was spending more time alone than I was with any one partner. If I didn’t feel like going out or having sex that night, I just didn’t. I had no one I needed to communicate my every move with. This new solitude was refreshing and freeing.

However, though many parts of non-monogamy were very liberating, my non-binary identity complicated the experience. I couldn’t ignore that I was a non-binary person dating non-monogamously, and nearly all my connections and partnerships had to recognize that in some way.

To no fault of my non-monogamous partners, I felt gendered all the time. When I was sleeping with a straight man, I felt that he was seeing me as a woman. When I hooked up with a lesbian, whether femme or masc, I felt she saw me as a woman. When I was with bisexual men, I kept my finger up against the pulse, nitpicking my partner’s every move to try to puzzle out where he placed me on his mental binary.

Like many people, I really don’t think about my gender when I’m alone. I look at myself in the mirror and just see me. But when other people are around, there are so many more variables: fashion, pronouns, vocal tone, education about trans experience. I can’t just expect strangers to always see me how I see myself. I have to negotiate how my gender is coded.

So even though non-monogamy felt good in times of solitude, I was thinking about my gender whenever I was with my partners. I didn’t have the privilege of a safe space with a single partner. I was constantly entering new spaces, new social circles, and new beginnings where I had to make sure I was being perceived how I wanted.

This was especially complicated for hookups. Many of the lesbian woman that I dated accidentally corralled me into the more masculine role in the bedroom, shying away from anything that would “make me feel like a woman” such as penetration or oral sex. Yet, in doing that, I felt like I was being made into a kind of no-touch top, someone who could only give and never receive. I felt hyper-masculinized by these attempts to validate me. At the same time, I felt that they saw me as a woman, someone who fit into their WLW-attraction. 

With cis or bisexual men, the lack of sexual education was clear, and I felt myself delegated to the usual role of giving head and dressing feminine enough for their fantasies. This was consensual but not necessarily pleasurable, and often made me feel dysphoric. I didn’t know how to say that these sex acts that catered to their masculinity weren't really turning me on because, honestly, I didn’t know what would. How could I ask to be validated in my identity without feeling like a narcissist, or like I was just too particular with my sexual preferences?

Perhaps T4T isn’t always the answer, but for me it was the solution to many of these dilemmas. Dating and hooking up with other trans people opened up new spaces for my identity. My partner and I were both navigating gender on our own; when together, we were able to see each other as individuals rather than as people occupying specific gendered positions. This kind of experience is definitely possible between cisgender individuals as well, but I believe that it would require a large cultural contemplation of the flimsiness of gender and its constructions.

T4T aside, nonbinary people can, of course, be successful and content in non-monogamy. Many of the connections that I formed with people were genuine and lasting. Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t understand nonbinary individuals with an appropriate level of depth. Because of that, most people dating right now really just don’t know how to talk about, genuinely acknowledge, and cater to nonbinary identity.

If I were to return to nonmonogamy, I would do so more reflectively. When dating one partner, I have the opportunity to phrase and rephrase my identity to them. I don’t have to get it right in one shot. My partner accumulates the ways I define myself because their focus is on me and only me. In nonmonogamy, the focus is divided, both on my end and the end of my partners. Because of that, I have to be intentional about what I say and also what I expect from multiple partners when I have them.

Having multiple partners also means the stakes are low. You didn’t present your identity in a way that felt right and now you’re uncomfortable with the way a partner is perceiving you? You can either choose to fix it or you can allow this person to exit your life and try again next time. In my non-monogamy, I acknowledged the temporary nature of my partnerships and felt free as a result. 

My time in non-monogamy has made me a better communicator, a better listener, and also a better contemplator. The opportunity to be exposed to so many people dealing with their own questions, reflections, and hearts is not one that should be passed up. It’s like a college course in connection. 

For anyone struggling with their attachment style, ethical non-monogamy is definitely an option. And for anyone nonbinary in that same boat, that same non-monogamy can become a radically challenging and moving act of self-love like no other.