Moving on From One Relationship While Another Goes On

In the immediate aftermath of my last breakup over one year ago, I was overflowing with feelings and words around my experiences, to the point where I was so suffocated by them that I felt like I could barely form a sentence. (Instead I managed to form many. I don’t know if I’ve ever spent as much time processing a breakup before. There just wasn’t as much to say about my past breakups. They were often mutual, ill-fitting, sometimes defined by a clumsy but normal mistake. I had to fight for this one, and I think that’s why the aftereffects lingered.) Nowadays I feel more tight-lipped about it, reticent to reflect too much lest it seem like a sign that I haven’t moved on, or else something which would exhaust others to keep hearing about. But there was a unique aspect to moving on from the breakup that I have never experienced before, something which I’d never read or heard about from friends or anyone else. After a recent conversation of a newly polyamorous friend I felt like it would help to put all of it into words.

Break-ups have a familiar pattern to them, narratives that we tell each other over and over again in literature, whether dumper or dumpee. You’re freed. You spend time mourning what was lost, processing everything that happened, and depending on your dedication to rom-com tropes you eat a lot of ice cream, then you reconnect with your friends and/or get a haircut and move on, sometimes to be single for a while, sometimes on to a new relationship.

Within polyamory, that model breaks down. The pattern is similar, but shifts beneath you in unforeseen ways. People warn you about jealousy in polyamory as if it was the only problem to ever navigate, the root of all sins, but there’s so much more to get your head around than that.

The lessons I learnt here are not cleanly laid out, but moving on is not a clean experience. It’s messy, and you just take what you can and run with it. Continue reading

Why the Xena Reboot Should be Queer, not Just Gay

As an avid, lifelong Xena fan, news of the reboot fills me with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Casting choices and possible Hollywood industry problems with ageing female actors aside, there’s a lot to look forwards to. Xena is camp, fun, dark at times but a love story that always comes to back to its core: that of one of the most beautiful, enduring relationships to ever grace the small screen. Xena and Gabrielle’s love is bright as day, despite the censorship they had to fight past and the wacky plot lines necessary to provide enough plausible deniability for on-screen kisses to get through that. Seriously, how anyone interpreted those longing looks, romantic affirmations of love and kisses as heterosexual is beyond me; but even if it was obvious to me it’s still exciting to consider a reboot where even that flimsy shyness could be discarded, where Gabrielle and Xena could show affection/flirt outrageously more openly and even outright, explicitly tell characters that this is my girlfriend and we’re in love. Gabrielle and Xena are already enough of a hallmark in the history of on-screen gay pride. Getting to admit what everyone already knows while bringing that relationship into this century would be an absolute dream.

But those conservative studio limitations, while they attempted to obscure true love in their fear, did unintentionally do something even more progressive than many other queer shows do today; they showed a successful, long-term queer and polyamorous couple. The characters of Hercules and Iolaus, amongst others, weave in and out of Gabrielle’s and Xena’s love lives with little to no interruption to their own relationship. One of the best examples of this is in Gabrielle’s marriage to Perdicus in Return of Callisto.

Her ex-betrothed from the village she left at the start of the series rocks up at Troy, makes moon eyes at her before she runs off with Xena again, and a while later resurfaces to ask her to marry him. Admittedly, tragedy can be seen a mile away, as the show has an established pattern of introducing love interests only to have them be killed or otherwise removed from the story so that they don’t get in-between Xena and Gabrielle. Still, the most interesting part about these events before Perdicus’ part in it ends are the ways in which Gabrielle navigates a marriage with him while remaining loyal to Xena.

When he initially proposes to Gabrielle, you see her hesitate very clearly, and it’s not her feelings for him that are the problem. She plans on rejecting him, but Xena, seeing how clearly happy Gabrielle is with him, tells her:

“Look, Gabrielle—if it’s me you’re worried about, let me set your mind at rest. Seeing you happy will make me happy. And if that means settling down with Perdicus, then… you have my blessing.”

Not too long afterwards, Gabrielle decides to accept, and Xena stands right by her side as she’s wed to Perdicus. There’s a flicker of seriousness on her face as she watches them; perhaps she’s less certain than before, worried things with Gabrielle will change too much or that she might lose her, but still, she’s there to support her all the way, and once the ceremony is complete they take a moment aside to reaffirm their own bond before Gabrielle leaves for her honeymoon.


Of course, this includes a very non-platonic kiss whilst Perdicus waits patiently only metres away from them.

This entire journey is a really important, excellent example of compersion, a common part of the polyamorous experience. Seeing you happy will make me happy. Though this theme is never again explored as explicitly as it is in this episode, it is one that runs on throughout the series as both ladies find closeness and intimacy with others. Things are not always perfect, metamours are sometimes villains or pose threats, but Gabrielle and Xena support each other throughout it all and work on their problems and signs of jealousy as adults and as a team, no matter how hard it gets. As Xena once advised to Joxer as he sought advice from her on how to seek Gabrielle’s affection: love unwavering and unconditional, “no strings attached”.

Why is Polyamory Important?

In an article on Polyamory and Queer Anarchism, Susan Song wrote:

Queer theory resists heteronormativity and recognizes the limits of identity politics. The term “queer” implies resistance to the “normal,” where “normal” is what seems natural and intrinsic. Heteronormativity is a term describing a set of norms based on the assumption that everyone is heterosexual, gendered as male/female and monogamous, along with the assumed and implied permanency and stability of these identities. Queer theory also critiques homonormativity, in which non-heterosexual relationships are expected to resemble heteronormative ones, for instance in being gender-normative, monogamous, and rooted in possession of a partner.

Xena and Gabrielle are not heterosexual or monogamous, or even homosexual. They are both bisexual women (Although despite constant uses of anachronistic languages, never use this word despite definitionally falling under that umbrella). They are unerringly loyal and committed to each other, but they do not possess each other. Xena does have a certain amount of seniority in the relationship based on having roughly ten years of experience in relationships and adventuring over Gabrielle, but she defers to Gabrielle’s wisdom more and more as the series goes on and they reach an even par with each other. This creates a relationship based off equality which defies the usual attempts to fit same-sex relationships into boxes of traditional gender roles of who ‘wears the pants in the relationship’ (regardless of how many ‘butch’ jokes are tossed Xena’s way, she still also engages with traditional femininity on a regular enough basis to undermine that stereotype). Though they are both portrayed as cisgender, in many other ways they are radically queer, something which is astonishing to see from a show as old as it is. In our modern context, there is so much opportunity for that queerness to be embraced even further, for there to further rejections of gender-normative expectations and ideas of what relationships are ‘meant’ to look like underneath the current hetero-normative paradigm.

That visibility of counter-culture queer relationships is incredibly important, especially around the topic of same-sex marriage. As our culture moves closer to that becoming a reality, pressure builds up from both queer and straight communities to understand what gay marriage means for society and make it seem as non-threatening as possible. People seek to make gay marriage look just the same as straight marriages, to make it seem more and more ridiculous that it could be denied as a right.

Unfortunately, that goal often means throwing polyamorous queer relationships under the bus. Polyamory is hardly as common as monogamy, and many people in polyamorous relationships aren’t interested in marriage as an institution at all, but the process of alienating polyamory from gay communities, saying that gay marriage is not a “slippery slope” that will lead to multiple people in a marriage, is one of demonization, creating new borders of sexual diversity so that homonormative gays are now part of the acceptable “in-group” and everyone else is in the unacceptable “out-group”, quite literally dividing the LGBTQIA community.

This tends to be a fairly harmful process. The bottom line of this mindset is that, no matter how positive and consensual and harmless your orientation and expression thereof may be, so long as it’s not performed according to other people’s rigid expectations of normality, you deserve to have your rights as a human being taken away, to be shunned and treated with revulsion. If we as a society can only accept “gays” but not “queers”, we have not evolved past sexuality-based discrimination, or even shown much of an understanding as a society on why that was wrong in the first place. We’ve simply continued to assimilate without changing society for the better.

It follows a similar line of slut-shaming that gets applied on a daily basis to people with multisexual orientations: that if you are “greedy” or “promiscuous” you deserve to be treated badly and abused, a dark undercurrent of thought that already leads to higher rates of domestic abuse against bi women, amongst other issues. Bi and pansexual people are often directly challenged in their identities through expectations of monogamy; if you’re monogamous, your sexuality is frequently erased by way of defining it by your partner’s gender, while you are forced to choose between communities, excluded and have your unique experiences of discrimination silenced; if you’re polyamorous, you are rejected by society, reinforcing “bad” stereotypes of greedy/disloyal bisexuality, hypersexualised, forced to keep multiple relationships in the closet for fear of being shunned by loved ones, and so forth. Either way, it’s a paradigm in which multisexual people are forever being questioned and judged for their choices. And perhaps it’s that constant pressure which makes it easier for people who aren’t monosexual or cis or otherwise not part of the growing LG ‘mainstream’ to question the real necessity of monogamy and whether or not it actually suits them, and conduct the relationships regardless of external approval. Asexuality adds even more dimensions to the queer polyamory experience, defying the lie that polyamory is only ever about sex. The queer side to polyamory is undeniable.

So, in making Xena and Gabrielle have ongoing relationships with men and other women in the context of the show, even though that move grew from lesbophobia/homophobia, it was one that ultimately created an incredibly progressive, even queerer relationship than they meant to, an expression of queerness that people still struggle to accept in the mainstream today. Their polyamory and their bisexuality build upon each other to defy stereotypes in a beautiful celebration of women loving on their own terms.

Who Cares About Losing That When We Stand To Gain Something, Anyway?

This is the most common response that mainstream gays have to queerer parts of the community when we point out our rights being left behind in the Same Sex Marriage debate. And it shows just how far we really have to go before attitudes, even left wing ones, have to progress.

If Xena and Gabrielle continue to have histories with men but do not openly identify with queer or multisexual labels, then their bisexuality risks being erased altogether, allowing the lesbian community to once again co-opt bi stories and experiences into their narratives while simultaneously rejecting bi women and leaving them out. And even if they manage to get past the stigma in media against the B word, we still risk selling other aspects of their queerness down the river.

It is incredibly likely that their relationship will be recreated as a monogamous one. I have little hope to the contrary. But Gabrielle and Xena have always been a non-monogamous bisexual couple. If that’s changed, we aren’t just making them what they were ‘always meant to be’. We’re taking away what they are. This means we are making a value judgement on facets of their love and identities and what they should be. Do we really want to redefine Xena by legitimisation through assimilation? Or do we want Xena to be defined by accepting people and loving relationships for what they turned out to be even when that isn’t what we want them to be?

The queer and polyamorous community may very well have to say goodbye to one of the few instances of positive representation that they have access to in western media, with barely a nod of acknowledgement from the parts of the community which stand to benefit from this instance of exclusion. And you know what? I’m ready to deal with that. I’m ready to love the reboot and see the best in it. In many ways, those mainstream voices are right: the state of queer representation is so poor that I will take what I can get and still love it ten times more than most heteronormative media. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or that we dont all stand to lose something precious along the way. The old show gave us all something bright and beautiful. The reboot will either carry that over, and be true to Xena, or it will be a show of the same franchise that tries to be but is not Xena. I will not stop loving the old series and what it gave me. I just hope that the new one will show love to me and mine, and the parts of us reflected in the original.

Spirit of Punk – Evening Reflection

On Thursday night I went to a spoken word event for the Emerging Writer’s Festival 2016 about the “Spirit of Punk”. I expected it to be full of activists, queers, old punks and maybe the token posers who think that punk is about music genre purity. The night was advertised as a place to bring or write something about what punk is and read it out to everyone else, to encourage people to really write from the heart.

To begin with, it felt a little disconnected and less genuine than I thought it would be, much more focused around the Writer’s Festival scene than anything else. The guy running the night clearly had elements of old guard punk and nostalgia driving him to run it, but it seemed weirdly mixed in with class privilege in a way that seemed a little oblivious. He waxed lyrical about his aimless desire to rebel in the face of a father who seemed to love him unconditionally and encourage his taste in punk music, and it was heartwarming, but did kind of clash later with his message when he sneered at the memory of young punk guys trying to scare him on the train, repeating what he said then; “Is that all you’ve got?” I was really tempted to stand up and ask him if that was all he had. To ask why he thought he was any different, any tougher than the young men he was disdainful of. If “rebel without a cause” and “punk is dead” were the prevailing attitudes of the night, I wouldn’t have been satisfied. But to be fair, this guy made that night for other words and perspectives to be voiced alongside his own. Still, I was not ready to see that what I expected as a fringe element of the evening feel a little more like the main course.

There were a succession of writers who weren’t there quite as much for the punk as they were there for the spoken word, and while their work wasn’t bad, it did feel off-key. And it was strange to go to an event expecting to share an understanding of  disenfranchisement and anger, to look for an inter-generational community who understood that feeling, only to have a lot of smiles and gentle laughter and flowery prose. There were poems about sex and intimacy and jealousy, and one in which I couldn’t hear the words but I could hear the deliberate musicality of them. It was an open stage, and while I’m glad that different types of stories and levels of experience with spoken word were welcome, I was still waiting to see the energy I felt in my chest reflected on the stage, still waiting to be swept up in the passion for the theme of the night. I paid a little more attention to one guy who got halfway to punk by saying that it wasn’t about aesthetic as much as a political attitude, only to disengage again when he lost the path I hoped he’d go down and started talking about how buying a CD from a store wasn’t the same as exchanging zines and secret mailing lists. I get the more advanced concepts of not selling out or buying into consumerism, but when punk speakers dwell on those concepts in isolation from class issues, they feel like rather privileged discussions.

Maybe he said something more that didn’t have elitist, gate-keeping overtones when I was tuned out but I wasn’t holding my breath or ready to give the benefit of the doubt. I had anticipated that there would be some element of rosy-tinted uses of punk as a vehicle for excluding people who weren’t cool enough or educated enough about who the “classics” of the music genre were or how appreciation for it was meant to be performed. That petty purism and exclusionary condescension towards other disenfranchised youths is honestly why, IMHO, the punk scene stopped being what the old guard remember it as. It’s why the ‘spirit of punk’ has been maintained elsewhere, particularly in the queer + activist counterculture scenes I started exploring in university. I don’t think punk was ever meant to be curated like a piece of art in a rich old museum. It was never meant to turn a cold shoulder to poor kids who were too disliked or isolated to be shown the ropes or crack the secret codes. And god forbid anyone ever draw comparisons between punk and emo subcultures, the latter of which contained the same disenfranchisement and counterculture sense of challenging authority, and was a direct musical descendent. I wondered if any of the adults in the room were the kind who’d complained about the emo scene when it happened. The generational gaps seemed to hang in the air at that point in the night, an emptiness I had forgotten to account for. That drove me to write and perform my piece basically then and there.

honestly not my best or nuanced but it felt as good as I could get in half an hour

After I performed I was followed up by Snow – who’d basically had a lot of the same thoughts and sentiments that I did. We were both quite emotional and angry and ready to flip off everyone in that audience for not saying what we wanted them to say. I think I was simultaneously surprised and not at all to find that the crowd seemed to respond to that energy with enthusiasm.

It was a little confusing when we found afterwards that enthusiasm manifesting in people approaching us – and particularly Snow – telling us how brave we were. I want to say that the encouragement was lovely, but have to admit that those words sounded disconnected from what we had both tried to say. I don’t think anyone who’s felt that kind of anger is ever expressing it to be happily congratulated for it. I feel like usually, by the time you hear those kinds of words in your life, you’ve already made yourself into the kind of person who doesn’t need them. I think maybe we wanted to see, if not an echo of ourselves, then an echo of our own righteous anger against society in the hearts of the people around us.

We got to see the kind of act we had really been waiting for when an older woman wearing the classic punk outfit of a wrinkled white shirt and blood red tie brought her chair up to the front of the room. She identified herself as an old member of the spoken word scene, as a woman who’d had barbed wire wrapped around her naked body during a piece about pain, and had to spend four hours afterwards agonisingly removing it. She spoke directly, had wiry arms that moved her seat and microphone around with a strong grip, with a battle-ready edge to her body. She was the most hardcore person I’d ever witnessed in my memory.

She spoke of all the old punks that she knew – “dead, to a man ” – and of squatting in a house with 12 people and no heating or electricity or anybody who cared for them, using stolen musical equipment to give themselves an emotional outlet, and it was a heart aching story, one that I think continues to resonate in the increasing class divides and rising living costs we deal with today. I felt that the tone of her words were different from a lot of other people there that night. Punk didn’t sound like an elite club of rockers when she sat on the stage. It was a refuge for the disenfranchised. Her set dealt with drugs and death, not about those earlier days as a time when things were better, or some kind of golden age, but as a time when things were worse, when music and culture was the only escape for people who were made to feel that their lives didn’t matter. It was no lighthearted tribute. You couldn’t deny that this was a person who had lived through it; that regardless of what the surface of disenfranchisement looked like, she knew what it felt like.

She finished her set, and there was some more poetry before the night wrapped up, and I went home with my head buzzing.

I know that the movement was art, and fashion, and politics, and it wasn’t just one thing. It was diverse. People empathised with different parts of it to varying strengths. If it wasn’t so malleable and welcoming and resonant, it wouldn’t have been the amazing, big thing in our culture that it was. It’s fitting that a Spirit of Punk night was an open mic, chaotic and sometimes at odds with itself.

I’m glad that I was challenged and inspired to challenge others, and it was right to take even a small moment out that night to dwell on the sense of mourning and loss, of the punks who might have grown up and contributed to the night, but are now only echoed in art and history and our memories. Especially considering the crossovers between punk and queer subcultures; between the losses the queer community faced during the AIDS crisis, and in the days prior to the spoken word event. All of that noise and anger and yearning for freedom and recognition had been intermingling in my head, and I think that night helped me process even just a small part of that.