Non-Monogamy Letter #2
The Non-Monogamy Letters (2/4)

Non-Monogamy Letter #2

In her response to Simon(e) van Saarloos, Kim TallBear discusses finding her polyamorous community, cross-border lovers, and navigating multiple relationships in a lockdown.

September 16, 2020

Dear Simon/e van Saarloos,

Forgive my delay responding. I have been on the road crisscrossing the US visiting family after months in lockdown from Covid-19 restrictions. I am excited to finish your book Playing Monogamy.  When you wrote and introduced yourself, I Googled and found interviews with you. I nodded my head repeatedly as I read your comments about what I would call “non/monogamy” (to use Angela Willey’s term from her book Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology and idea that monogamy and non-monogamy are enmeshed and co-constituted) and the need to go beyond, as you say in letter, “multi-love as an individual lifestyle choice.”

I have certainly benefitted from polyamory conversations that focus on individual challenges and strategies for “deprogramming” from monogamy, but from early 2013, when I first began pursuing polyamory as a practice, I felt dissatisfied with conversations that were stuck on an individualistic level. Other polyamorous people who I encountered in Austin, Texas, where I lived at the time, never seemed to understand their dissatisfaction—indeed sometimes their deep feelings of sadness and oppressiveness—as not simply individual difference. I grew so tired of “Monogamy is a valid choice too! So is polyamory! Be tolerant!” when I knew that my ancestors had already been “non-monogamous,” that monogamy was imposed on us and many other Indigenous peoples by European settlers who also forced Christianity, English, and eventually US citizenship on us, while using all of these so-called marks of greater civilization to justify pushing my ancestors off of their homelands, imprisoning, starving, and massacring them. Personal choice? How individualistic and erasing of colonization is that idea?

I felt the need to think through my frustration with mainstream (if there is such a thing) polyamorous discourse in the form of the Critical Polyamorist blog. As I explained in early posts, I created it to attract like-minded people who I knew must be out there. I didn’t write it to preach to or convert others who were not already discomforted in the way I am. I come from a non-proselytizing culture and I take that seriously. But I am here to converse with those who want to come sit next to me, share, and figure out how to re-think this world together. One way of re-thinking this world is not only to question monogamy, but to not replace it with yet another form of settler sexuality in the form of individualistic, apolitical, and historically de-contextualized non-monogamy. Thank you for sitting and speaking virtually with me though we are physically separated by many thousands of kilometres, a continent, and an ocean.

I think in terms not of ‘breakups,’ as much as transitions from a marriage or other romantic/sexual relationship to another kind of (hopefully) good relating…

Simon/e, you say that non-monogamy “challenges this linearity” [of monogamy?] that mandate[es] all action involved “in ‘getting to know each other better’—serve progress.” You also relate this to the more familiar idea of the monogamous relationship escalator that many polyamorists critique. I do not know the Black Quantum Futurism collective you mention, but I do resonate with your description of their critique of linearity. I think rather in terms of what we in Indigenous Studies call Indigenous “relational frameworks.” I use relationality to discuss the positive relating that is possible when we work to decolonize relationships away from compulsory settler-colonial monogamy. So I think in terms not of “breakups,” as much as transitions from a marriage or other romantic/sexual relationship to another kind of (hopefully) good relating that does not therefore stop the “progress” of a relationship and result in its total loss.

Rather, a relational framework can help facilitate us thinking about shifts in relationships as transitions more than endings. In my conception of time and space, we live in an ever-changing present, say one place on a web connected to other different places on the same web (in the same time). So we can have change, but over space, not over linear progressive time. Not exactly how you describe Black Quantum Futurism thought, but perhaps similar? Thank you for prompting me to think of the conception of space-not-time in relationship to my non/monogamy practice and ethic.

Like you, I want to think about non/monogamy in a time of Covid-19. If there is never a post-Covid moment—if we are now living with this new viral relation (which I’ve believed is the case pretty much since this relative appeared on the global scene in March 2020), then what? I am in practice and theory unwilling to concede non-monogamy as a price to be paid for living carefully with Covid-19. I find it fascinating that you mention you have a “white and ableist attachment to hope, expecting access, assuming things will have to be somehow more ‘normalized’ than this.” That helps me understand why I perhaps do not have or need “hope” (in the classic sense) for Covid passing—for a vaccine to end the virus.

I had not understood “hope” or a desire for “normalcy” as a mark of whiteness or ableism, but it makes sense now that I think about it. For example, I’ve struggled in the time of Trump and the obviously falling US empire to articulate why I am dismayed with all of the liberal lamentation around Trump, the ahistorical cries that “this is not normal,” and subsequent pleas to “end this national nightmare.” Whose normal? Is my first question. Anyone’s surprise or newly found anger at the apocalyptic turn, be it US fascism or a global pandemic, tells me that they believed at some level in the myth of US exceptionalism, including a doctrine of progress. Yes, I guess that is whiteness and also ableist although I need to hear more about the ableism in these ideas since I am not as familiar with those analyses.

Like you, I was dismayed when the Quebec premier, in response to the Covid crisis, advised monogamy. It showed his (or his advisors’) ignorance of the extensive communication and “personal protective equipment” (PPE)—not masks, of course, but condoms, etc.—used by openly non-monogamous people who are often much more schooled in and skilled at risk management practices in their close personal/physical relationships. His statement was also, as you say, inconsiderate of the fact that nuclear families are often some of the most lonely and violent places for some of its members. Such mono-normative and nuclear family chauvinism shared by local, provincial, and federal government agencies across Canada stands to harm a lot of people. As for persistence of colonial sexuality in The Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, I never know how to describe that since I don’t understand well the relationship of their colonialism abroad and how those beliefs emanated from/turned back into their own lands. So, I tend to talk about “settler-colonialism” in the so-called Americas rather than the larger umbrella of colonialism.

Knowledge may be gifted to you, or it may not. It is not your individual right.

What you say about Dick Swaab and his assertion that homosexuality is “in the brain,” is interesting too. Even if something is more “hormonally” common why is that the default “normal” state of being? In my culture, non-common is still often considered non-deviant. For who is one to question the mystery of the universe? We had people considered “backwards” —those who danced or walked against the grain. They had their role and belonged perfectly. Indeed their specialness might be revered if not totally understood.

But again, I come from a non-proselytizing and somewhat agnostic Dakota culture. We were taught to be humble about what we know, and to accept that there is much that we do not or may never know. Knowledge may be gifted to you, or it may not. It is not your individual right. This does provide us with a great reverence for knowledge, I think, but not necessarily for our individual selves as knowledge “producers.” How arrogant. This scientific or settler “right to know” manifests itself, for example, in the excavation of the bodies and brains and lands of others in order to achieve the so-called right of knowledge. How hierarchical, how colonial!

I am interested to understand more about how in The Netherlands there has not been a reckoning with mono-normative relations as part of the colonial project as you indicate. I’m surprised. Have you read Angela Willey’s Undoing Monogamy? She writes about the emergence of monogamy and marriages of “love” and choice in the theorizing of turn-of-the-20th-century sexology, and how European thinkers participated in cultural evolutionary thought that marginalized the arranged marriages and polygamy of the supposedly less civilized, often non-European cultures, especially Islam. She wrote especially about sexual science researchers who were German and English.

Thank you for making the link between the origins-thinking embodied in genetic ancestry testing (a topic of my book Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science) and that embodied in compulsory monogamy. In the monogamous ideal, one person is supposed to complete you, recognize you in your deepest authenticity, then love you and you alone. Both of these ideas—genetic ancestry and compulsory monogamy—manifest settler identity and kinship. To counteract such thinking, I often cite the pithy, anti-“origins,” pro-relational assessment of zoologist Peter D. Dwyer: “The idea of evolution has conditioned the odd understanding: we are what we were and not what we became.”

I recently finished writing a chapter for a critical Indigenous Studies volume to be published on Routledge next year. The chapter, “Identity is a Poor Substitute for Relating: Genetic Ancestry, Critical Polyamory, Property, and Relations,” explains how both genomics and non/monogamy deploy settler concepts of property and properties, thus claiming rights to Indigenous bones, blood, ancestral knowledge and claims over lovers and nuclear family respectively. These are both literal property claims to human bodies and knowledge of those bodies (wives and children in the latter case), land, and resources.

October 11, 2020

I am picking this up again Simon/e after putting it aside for a month of suddenly blossoming deadlines. Since I last I worked on this letter, there has been another prominent display of settler-state mono-normativity in Canada. The federal government decided to ease the cross-border Covid-19 travel restrictions related to family reunification. The Canadian border has been closed to all non-essential travel, including with the US, since March. This is a strange situation for these two countries that are accustomed to easy movement between them. While immediate family and legal spouses were from the beginning technically allowed to cross the border to be reunited (finding an international flight was another challenge), Canada has now elected to also allow extended family of Canadian citizens and permanent residents to cross. This extended group of kin also includes those in an “exclusive” dating relationship of at least one year. How mono-normative!

Sounds like the relationship escalator also operates here to make the one-year dating mark a commitment standard. I’m not sure how they’ll judge “exclusivity” or relationship duration in the border-crossing process. I would not be surprised if the Canada/US border closure to non-essential travel continues for another year. It should be interesting to watch. Meanwhile I read social media posts from polyamorous friends in Canada who have been separated from partners on the other side of the border since early March, with no end in sight. I’m waiting for one of them to ignore the exclusivity clause and try to take advantage of the expanded family reunification regulation, or for the policy to be officially challenged.

A person straddles a wooden fence. Grass grows up from inside their jeans.

I do still have a lover in Austin, Texas and am quite friendly with his wife. I last saw them both in January and expected to see them again this summer. It is a slow burning long-term relationship in which we are comfortable whether we see each other once every couple of years or a couple of times a year. It seems to be okay either way. The more challenging situation is to navigate my two polyamorous relationships in Edmonton, both with men in open marriages. I have become comfortable with seeing the person with whom I’ve related the longest, over two years, although it took us six weeks after we went into lockdown in Edmonton, to work it all out. We talked a lot, and waited until there was comfort all around with safety precautions and shared risk tolerance.

The newer relationship that started only a couple of months before Covid started has felt much riskier because of adding additional risk to the equation. It’s not that he and his wife live very differently or have a much larger bubble than I do or do my longer-term person and his wife. We are all middle-aged, can work from home much of the time, and are in general, risk averse. But re-opening to the second relationship feels like a risky expansion of the bubble. My polyamorous situation of seeing one married (to someone else) lover is already more porous than the mono-normative state would like. Although in Alberta where there is a rather loose provincial approach to Covid-19 management, there are no doubt many monogamous people frolicking in crowded places maskless, while I avoid indoor gatherings, wear masks strictly in public, and fret about whether to see my second also pretty careful lover. But when was mono-normativity ever very rational beyond property and control?

My task before our next set of letters is to finish reading Playing Monogamy. I’ll take detailed notes as I read. I often make my own index in a book, noting especially where insights about Indigenous politics and cultures might help expand the conversation. In the next letter I hope to give your work the same careful attention you have given mine.

Best wishes,

Kim

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) (she/her) is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta. She is the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.

Illustration by

Whess Harman is Carrier Wit’at, a nation amalgamated by the federal government under the Lake Babine Nation. They graduated from the emily carr university’s BFA program in 2014 and are currently living and working on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh as the curator at grunt gallery.

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