I’ve always been wary of sports, competition and falling in love. So growing up, I avoided all three. As a kid, I would shrug when “accidentally” letting goals into the net from the opposing team. I would walk slowly behind everyone else on the basketball court as they ran from end to end. My mother eventually stopped asking if I was interested in signing up for extracurriculars and my friends came to understand my lack of interest in playing board games, card games, drinking games or anything that required competing for the title winner.
I was even able to avoid acting on romantic feelings for a long time but with age I let up slightly. After an indecisive football player, a shady basketball player, and a club bouncer who was as bad at kissing as he was at his job, I decided I had made a mistake opening myself up, and convinced myself that the real issue was vulnerability. I would no longer be attaching any emotional investments to my sexual partners. I never bothered to be competitive or to fall in love because I didn’t care to win.
I met him on HER, a dating app for queer women and gender diverse people. He had long brown dreadlocks with subtle hints of blond and a promising smile. There was something about him that told me he would be the exact kind of fun I was looking for. He approached me with a smooth pickup line, and I responded with something much less cool. Before I could give it much thought he told me that he was assigned female at birth and had transitioned to live his life in the gender that was most authentic to him. “So, what are you looking for?” I said. “Well, I’m in an open relationship. So I’m not anticipating anything too serious,” he responded, adding that he and his partner were engaged to be married.
My friends wanted to know how someone could be committed to a partner while pursuing other relationships. I didn’t blame them: the idea of a relationship where both partners agree to seeing other people while being together isn’t something that most learn about in “the birds and the bees” conversation. My immediate reaction when I learned he was in an open relationship was relief. I would have fun with no emotional responsibility. They were deeply in love and had a strong foundation on which their love was built. They knew that marriage was the ultimate goal of their relationship, and had its benefits both legally and personally, but they also knew that, in order to meet both of their physical and emotional needs, their marriage would need to be unconventional — which, in this case, meant leaving the door open for other intimate possibilities.
What neither of us expected was the fast progression of our feelings. I started wondering more about when he’d see his fiancé next. He wanted details about the dates I went on. We both grew possessive as our unanticipated love bloomed. We began feeling entitled to each other. Yet, while my insecurity grew more obvious, he managed to mostly keep his casual demeanor. And of course he could. He always went home to the loving arms of his partner, and I always went home to thoughts of a lover that I couldn’t truly call my own.
We were everything I vowed to never be: very vulnerable, and very corny. “You hang up first,” he’d say. “No, you!” I’d say, my naturally deep voice suddenly sounding prepubescent. We were inseparable. Soaking ourselves in wet kisses on the Toronto Transit Commission as if no one was around and feeding each other street meat on the corner of Church and Wellesley. Here I was, never having been intrigued by competition, but suddenly up to the challenge of convincing him that I was worthy of being his only one.
I tried to appear unfazed by the uncertainty of our relationship, but with each passing day I could feel my nonchalant facade peeling away. I knew it wouldn’t take long before I had nothing left to hide behind.
One evening, we joined our mutual friends for a night out. I had high hopes that the loud music and many shots of tequila would drown out the unanswered questions of our relationship. The dim club lights and the drink intensified the moment and when he and our friend began dancing with each other, I felt justified in my rage. Watching them dance — two Caribbeans sharing a strictly platonic love language of slow whining and good drinks — amplified everything that threatened our life together as a couple: my fear of losing him and not being able to do anything about it.
It was then that I knew we couldn’t return to our no-strings-attached deal. I wanted to take away the love he reserved for his fiancé and keep it for myself (which is the exact antithesis of an open relationship). Here was this person who was sent to me through a dating app that hosts mostly nude pictures. Here, somehow, I met someone whose presence soothed me, and he had chosen to devote himself to someone else. Someone who had known the smell of his collar and the softness of his lips long before I even knew he existed.
Nothing about that felt fair. I spent that night preparing for the curtain call on our love story. And though we continued to date for weeks afterward, that moment was a clear shift in our relationship. An obvious flag that this “casual thing” had gone too far.
Our relationship came to an unavoidable end; I needed more and he knew he couldn’t give that to me. As I reflected on us, I realized that I was in competition with no one but myself. I assumed that “winning” in this situation meant we would abandon the concept of non-monogamy altogether and walk off into a sunset hand-in-hand. Just the two of us.
But the open relationship wasn’t the problem.
The problem was the strange expectation for Black women to be in competition with each other, even if they are unaware of it. And the even stranger expectation for Black queer relationships to still fit enough into the confines of heteronormativity to make other people comfortable.
The normalization of heterosexuality has been so insidious in my life through the consumption of media, education, and social assumptions and attitudes, that even as a queer woman in love with a trans man, I still questioned the validity of our non-monogamy. I had to learn to quiet the noise of heteronormativity; the idea that being in love can only look one way for it to be valid. That intimacy can only include two people. That there needs to be competition in order to receive the love we deserve.
Black folks have been queering the family dynamic for as long as we have existed in this world. We’ve had stepparents who have loved us like they made us from scratch. We’ve promoted any friendship that has lasted over five years to that’s my cousin status. I have half-siblings that I’ve only ever referred to as whole. The words “half-sibling” were treated as if they were illegal in my household; my parents constantly reminded us that the small, and scientific details of our family weren’t important. When my sister’s mom passed away and my aunt raised her, she called her auntie-mommy. We never questioned that. It never required an explanation.
There has never been anything nuclear about any Black family dynamic I’ve ever known, so why did I villainize, and — in my own mind — compete with a Black woman who loved herself, and her fiancé enough to encourage him to share his love with me? Possibly, all along, I was never scared of competition or losing, but instead, as a Black woman, I couldn’t fathom the idea that, contrary to popular belief, love doesn’t actually require competition. Everyone can feel worthy.
It was because of the open relationship with my engaged lover that I was able to say yes to a date with the next person I would go on to fall deeply in love with. Our non-monogamous ways gave me the freedom to explore other relationships openly. He went on to marry his fiancé and we have managed to remain friends.
In our choice to smoothly transition from romantic to platonic, we stuck up a subliminal middle finger to a world where relationships between Black women — especially when there is a man in the middle — are so often reduced to the notion that there is only ever enough love for one of us.
Open relationships are far from a means for competition, they are an embodiment of love unable to be confined. They have the ability to bring together a small-town, awkward Black girl and a cool island boy with effortless swagger, and somehow allow them to exist together in the Toronto summer heat, exiting their romance more filled with love than they found each other.