Queerelational

These are some collected ideas, thoughts, and musings that have been brewing in my head for quite some time. They comprise the current state of my perspectives on various aspects of how I relate to myself, other people, and the world in general; I do not, however, think of this as any kind of culmination, as that would imply a most unfortunate cessation of further seeking. ~ Amelia, September 2021

What This Is Not

In a perhaps unconventional (but very much "me") sort of style, I want to start out by being very clear about what I am not intending this document to be, or do.

  • This is not an argument that any particular experiences or approaches or ideas are superior (or inferior) to any other.
  • This is not a proposal for how people "can" (let alone "should") operate their lives.
  • This is not rigorous science, properly studied academic research, or even particularly highly-informed socio-political discourse.
  • This is not an "answer" to anything, let alone a particularly good one.

Under no circumstances should the phrasing, rhetoric, or logical explorations herein be considered any of those things.

Please proceed accordingly with this understanding.

What This Actually Is

This is a very personal description of my experiences, and my approaches to certain aspects of life. It is also an artifact of a particular moment in the trajectory of my own life: a summation of thinking, experiences, and questions all rolled into one. I fully expect that in due course my views will drift away from this summary again, due to the accumulation of more experiences, the conducting of more thinking, and the discovery of entirely new questions.

It is informed by my own notions, my reading of others' ideas, my conversations, and my explorations of life. As such, the breadth (or lack thereof) of any of these concepts is solely a reflection of my own personal reality.

I share this not because I think of it as a specifically meaningful artifact on its own (see "What This Is Not") but because I hope to inspire additional questions, conversations, and explorations, both on my part, and on the part of anyone who finds this stuff interesting.

OK… But What Are We Talking About?

This is all about people, and relationships.

This is about my experience of interpersonal existence - a very fundamentally human experience - as being slightly "out of phase" with normative, consensus reality.

In that sense above all others, I consider my experience to be queer - as in the theoretic notion of challenging or transgressing "norms" as a means of illuminating them as nothing more than statistical prevalences, rather than innate universal inevitabilities. Once a norm has been revealed to be commonplace but not fundamentally essential, it can be questioned, circumvented, and even replaced with upgraded ideas - and that is why I'm writing all this down.

More specifically, this is about my experiences of deliberately undermining relational normativities.

I want to be exceedingly clear at this point, however, that there’s more here than just "queer politics" or a purely voluntary set of decisions at play. I do this first and foremost because this is a part of who I am and how I work - to use some other common queer language, what I'm setting out to explore here is what I consider my orientation towards people.

I choose to lean into this orientation, to map its edges, to fill in its details, and to explore its possibilities, for much the same reason I choose to embrace other facets of my identity: trans, lesbian, non-binary, femme, autistic, and so on. I could, as some kind of fanciful hypothesis, also choose to deny these things and exist without them.

However, to me, this experience - of being queerelational - is equally fundamental to my reality as any of those other traits. So while, hypothetically, I might exist without embracing this part of who I am, I certainly wouldn't call it living. I have spent more than enough time in externally-forced denial of my reality. I have plenty of practice taking the road that, less-traveled though it may be, actually fits me.

Attraction and Connection

I experience quite a lovely range of forms of attraction to people. I talk about attraction as a desire, a potential, an interest - but not necessarily one that gets acted upon or realized. When attraction is mutual and acted upon with some amount of symmetry, a connection occurs.

My attractions include platonic, emotional (although I find "alterous" to be a more useful term since all of these have an emotional aspect for me), romantic, sexual, aesthetic, and intellectual. All of these accompany subtly different experiences and sensations for me. They are not inherently easy to tell apart, and in truth, I've spent many years both profoundly confused by this melange, as well as an easy target for abuse and neglect due to that confusion. This has also left me drifting for periods in my life where I wasn't really sure I experienced any of those things, let alone all of them.

For the moment, I'm less interested in diving into what those attractions mean for me, though, and more interested in the aspects of mutuality and action and how those occasionally produce varying types of connection.

On a general human scale, beyond just my personal experiences, my view is that attraction without action is, fundamentally, little more than potential. Consider a quick heart-flutter in response to a socially-expected but ultimately empty smile from a passing stranger; if nothing else is done, this flicker of attraction - whatever kind it may have been - simply disappears again, and nothing materially changes in anyone's world.

Longer-lived attractions (without action) can evolve into phenomena like silent crushes (common with celebrities for instance), obsessions, and so on. These are not always strictly dangerous or unhealthy; by way of a personal example, there are plenty of people who I admire but, for various reasons, will never actually be able to interact with, and therefore, my intellectual or aesthetic attractions - while certainly not fading away any time soon - don't really have anywhere to go.

But this is really just one sort of "bucket" of possibilities. What about attractions with action?

Acting on an attraction is what we do when we walk up to someone we've never met and find a reason to interact. The intensity of that attraction often (but not always) correlates with how hard we’re willing to work to invent such a reason if necessary. The core attraction can be many different things, but the bottom line is, something gets us to go attempt a connection that didn't exist before, and we go act on it.

Mutuality describes whether or not that initial action actually "goes anywhere" and what form the connection may take.

At this point, I'll drop back down from talking about collective human experiences to personal examples.

Acting on an intellectual attraction is what led me to meet quite a few of my professional colleagues with whom I did not have reason to work directly. In particular, one of those people turned out to offer mutuality - we had things we could talk about at great length, ideas on which we saw eye to eye, and we found in each other someone with whom we could share certain things that we didn't necessarily have other people to share them with.

The mutual interest and action formed the basis of a connection.

Change Over Time

However, as is the case for any of the connections I've experienced in life, this one changed shape over time.

In a way, I think that's inevitable. People change, grow, learn, experience the unexpected, and generally either try to adapt, or occasionally get stuck. The persistence and resilience of a connection can have tremendous impact on how that connection changes as life transpires. It's the difference between life-long, seemingly impervious relationships, and quick, tempestuous, volatile encounters - but it occurs along a very broad spectrum.

Sometimes a connection simply doesn't survive the shift in circumstantial reality that enabled it to exist in the first place - as in my experiences of sharing really deep, interesting, and even intimate conversations with people for a few hours because we happened to attend the same social function, and then never encountering them again.

Other times, connections evolve, deepen, and mutate. In the case of this particular colleague, although we started by simply talking shop at a professional conference, we eventually developed a strong working relationship, tackled some projects together, and, over the course of several years, became very close personal friends.

The Core Ideas of Being Queerelational

Early in my explorations of ethical non-monogamy from a theoretical standpoint, I found I had an intense dislike of certain kinds of "structured" approaches. Hierarchy, privileging "primary" relationships, discounting "non-romantic" relationships, vetoes, contracts, and other common "poly" phenomena seemed counterproductive to me.

At the time, I met them mostly with instinctual distaste, but no real clear intellectual notion of why they seemed to bother me. It took some time (and some harsh real experience) to figure that out, but I eventually ran across a notion called "relationship anarchy."

I immediately found the ideas of RA to be useful and to resonate quite a bit with me on a personal level, but also not quite there yet. It'd take another significant chunk of time, and even worse experiences, to understand the nuances there.

The first and most obvious quibble with RA, for me, has always been terminology. For as much as the textbook notion of deliberately rejecting and questioning structured, hierarchical, prescriptive ideas gets an emphatic nod of "yes" from me, the word "anarchy" has been deeply tainted - particularly within the United States - by centuries of political, colonialist, and capitalist oppression. It no longer carries a useful connotation, but rather one of chaos, disruption, disloyalty, instability… not exactly flavors I wish to bring to my interpersonal interactions.

I found other objections to "RA" as a slogan, as well; all too often, they pertained to people actually practicing disruption, disloyalty, and instability under the (imagined) banner of the "movement." But there were also cases where I saw the term being used as just another mechanism of dividing and othering - enforcing of the notion that "if you do this thing (or don't do that thing) you’re not doing RA hard enough" - which was often paired with criticism, judgment, or even social backlash including outright ostracization.

I knew I didn't want that label, even if some of the original ideas (clouded though they seemed to be by various interpretations and implementations) held a lot of merit in my mind and heart.

I'm not looking for anything that inhibits or undermines connections, even if only via the route of becoming a tool for telling people they're "doing it wrong."

So I chose to bide my time, awaiting a better phrase, a clearer notion, a way to capture in words what I'm really thinking about.

There were a few core ideas that I kept pondering - some key notions that, while forming a fairly small list, quite nicely capture the essence of what I'm really thinking about.

  • Every person is unique, and therefore every connection between people is also unique.
  • The only people who should determine the nature and trajectory of a connection are the people involved in it; the activities, priorities, and timings are for them to decide, while maintaining a mutual acknowledgement that there is a larger context in play (other relationships/connections).
  • Nothing lasts; everything changes, including people, and therefore also our connections. To sustain a connection requires adaptation.
  • A connection will only survive and be healthy if it is established - and continues to adapt - on a foundation of transparency, mutuality, respect, consent, trust, and communication.

And as I waited, and mused, and lived a bit more, and had some more experiences of my own, I realized there's far more to what I see in my interaction style than can be captured by what feels - to me - like an essentially individualist concept like relationship anarchy.

There are some implications to this "queerelational" approach to interaction that are also specifically different from what I commonly saw prescribed in RA circles. For example, a natural corollary of the reality of change is that connections sometimes end, and that is OK. I feel no need to hide from or deny the reality that a connection, by nature, has a limited lifespan. If anything, acknowledging the impermanence of a connection helps motivate me to take it as seriously as I can, and invest in it for its real value. I try quite hard not to take my connections for granted.

This also leads to an interesting conclusion about prioritization: unlike some of the stricter approaches to non-monogamy or RA that I've encountered, for me, being queerelational isn't in opposition to setting priorities. In fact, prioritization is rather vital! It does mean that, like everything else, I acknowledge that my priorities can shift and change over time - they can ebb and flow along with the rest of my moment-to-moment existence, and the overall rhythms and events of life. Because I try not to take my connections for granted, I tend to invest in them seriously (for whatever depth is appropriate in that specific moment and relationship), and that means I expend a lot of energy! Prioritization, for me, is not about controlling or privileging others - and indeed I work hard to avoid falling into either of those dynamics. I shift my priorities as needed, largely as an act of self-respect and self-care. Sometimes what I need can come best from a specific person, or a particular kind of connection - and in that window of time, I will prioritize (where I can) those people and connections.

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