Feature image of Gaby Dunn by Robin Roemer.
When there aren’t any models for how you want to move through the world, it’s harder to move through the world. There’s no one right way to do ethical non-monogamy, just as there’s no one right way to do ethical monogamy, and no way is better or worse than any other, just better or worse for those involved. Poly Pocket looks at all the ways queer people do polyamory: what it looks like, how we think about it, how it functions (or doesn’t), how it feels, because when you don’t have models you have to create your own.
Gaby Dunn is a 28-year-old polyamorous cis white woman. “I say bisexual but then people say no you mean pansexual and then I say fine queer and then people say queer is a slur how dare you so WHO KNOWS.” She’s a writer and YouTuber and actress/comedian.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Carolyn: When you say “poly,” what do you mean?
Gaby: I’ve said poly as a broader catch-all, but it’s weird because I do YouTube videos for a mostly younger audience so I think they’re just learning these terms and aren’t surrounded by any sort of different relationship models. Unless their parents are swingers in the suburbs. Or not even kids, for adults who watch the channel who are used to mainstream TV and movies. I try to… simplify. You can see them arguing in the comments about what it means. They’ll say, “Is he her boyfriend? Why does she say she has a girlfriend in this video? Why is she talking about dating?”
I have a primary person and then I can hook up or casually date or even have other relationships. So while I’ve been with my boyfriend, I had a girlfriend for a while. I do date/have somewhat serious relationships with other people. This girl was on and off for like a year and was a big emotional part of whatever else was going on. I think non-monogamy is just physical, right? And poly is relationships? That’s how I understand it but I could be wrong!
And I don’t always have to have one primary person either. I had two people I was seeing for a while who were pretty even in terms of how often I saw them and the level of commitment.
Carolyn: How do your relationships impact each other?
Gaby: I like having all my friends be friends so I think that influences how I do relationships. I want everyone to hang out! Which can be sort of shortsighted or selfish because I sometimes don’t understand why people wouldn’t want to. But it helps me a lot if they all get along. The last situation fell apart because of fighting between my boyfriend and the girl I was seeing. They were seeing each other some. They broke up but she wanted to keep seeing me, and that became a problem because now she was his ex.
Carolyn: Does the way you approach relationships impact what happens when they’re over? (Personally I seem to know a lot more poly and also queer people who are friends with exes, for instance.) Or maybe a better question is, how would you characterize your approach/attitude toward relationships?
Gaby: The queer people, everyone stays friends. But I’ve also never had the bad experiences with queer people that I’ve had with cis men so… Take from that what you will, world.
“That always seemed missing to me in monogamy. How can you be with this person and never talk to them about these things? But then I think about how hard it is to do and of course no one wants to do it.”
I think people would say I’m maybe too loose? Not enough rules? Which is a big thing I like about poly actually. It forces me to express myself and emotions in this very clear way that is VERY unnatural to me. I think of the poly discussions I’ve had and I feel like I sound pained. I talk so slowly and have to be so direct and explicit and it’s a thing I don’t think people in monogamous relationships ever have to do?
That always seemed missing to me in monogamy. How can you be with this person and never talk to them about these things? But then I think about how hard it is to do and of course no one wants to do it.
Carolyn: I think it’s a lot easier to do/not do when you’re in a relationship there are lots of models for instead of… not. What were your monogamous relationships like? How did you start to explore poly?
Gaby: That’s true. I think people don’t think it’s an option, or at least a viable option. My monogamous relationships were not great! But they also always had weird caveats for being open. I remember saying to college boyfriends, “Make out with whoever you want. Just don’t lie to me.” Before I even knew what poly was! My only concern was, “Don’t lie to me.” They always did. I think because they thought it was a trick.
Even grown men have been like, “This is a trick.”
It’s not a trick! Just don’t lie!
Okay but how can I lie then?
Seems like a trick, no thanks.
In high school, I had a boyfriend but I was obsessed with this girl and I had this very teen movie thing in my head that hooking up with girls didn’t count, reinforced by, idk, every TV show and movie I ever saw. So for a long time, poly was like, “I have a boyfriend. I’m gonna be with hot girls too. Is that chill?” And the boy would be like, THE MOST CHILL. THE BEST. THIS IS GREAT. Except a high school boyfriend who lost his mind when he found out I’d been making out with this girl. He was really upset! And I remember feeling so confused. Why is he mad? It’s just a girl? Shout out to that guy for getting it.
With my college boyfriend, I was like, we can be together and see other people too. (I still didn’t know the word.) And he took that to mean, I will lie to you constantly about where I am and who I am with and also hook up with people in front of you even though you are clearly mad. All of college was me being like, “This can’t be right! You’re not supposed to lie!” And him being like, “I will now lie all the time.” I felt crazy. Because “don’t lie to me, but do what you want” seemed so simple???
And I was like, other people must be able to pull this off.
I was monogamous again for a while, and cheated on both those people and felt resentful. And then I dated another dude who was a repeat of college dude where I’d say, “Literally all I want is for you not to lie to me,” and he’d go, “Seems like a trick,” and then I found out all he was doing was lying and he’d fall back on “WELL YOU WANTED TO BE OPEN.” So it was my fault he was cheating because I was the poly one.
Then I dated a poly girl who was lovely, if a little too jealous.
Somewhere along the way I met a comedian named Myq Kaplan who’s pretty big and openly poly and talks about it and does jokes about it on TV and such. He’s rad. He became my best friend around that time and he was like, here are some books you’re going to be okay.
“I AM NOT WRONG. I am not broken! This is just different but it doesn’t mean I’m a fundamentally bad person!”
Carolyn: When did you evolve into your current form?
Gaby: Myq really normalized everything and I saw this successful, happy dude just talking about his life on TV and stage. And he sent me The Ethical Slut and he sent me links to Dan Savage and was like, “Right? Right?”
After the you-made-me-cheat-by-being-poly guy, I was so angry. And that anger became, “Okay, I AM NOT WRONG. I am not broken! This is just different but it doesn’t mean I’m a fundamentally bad person! I don’t have to be good enough for anyone!” Around that time I dated that girl who was great, but I think she wanted someone to be obsessed with her (which she’s since found so that’s a relief/great), and then I met my boyfriend.
He was not an obvious answer at all. He was monogamous and like, on paper the type of dude who says, “My father will hear about this!” But that was the first time I explained everything to someone and they were like, “Oh cool.” And I was like, you’re… fine? And he was like, sure yeah I’m interested in learning this. He’d had relationships fall apart in the past because of crushes he had on other people and didn’t understand why that had to be the case, so I think he was looking for poly too but hadn’t found it until he met me. And with him, it’s been what I fucking thought poly was all along! I knew I was right! You can just not lie!
Because he never thought it was a trick. He was like, “Oh, if I tell you this I’m just telling you. You’re not trying to trap me or get information to use again later.”
FUCKING FINALLY SOMEONE GOT IT
Gaby: I think monogamy is painted as a war between two people. Like any sitcom! Or even, I’ve had a lot of married men come after me in my life (I must give off a vibe?) and I always say, “Why don’t you just tell your wife you’re talking to someone?” And they laugh like I’m naive. One of them told me, “There are things married people keep from each other.” That really sat wrong with me. Why would I want that? Why would I want to be in a long-term relationship where I’m gaming the other person? Or being gamed? That would make me feel so unsettled. But it’s always in every movie or every show or every song or everything we consume: a couple against each other. They’re never shown as a team!
Carolyn: You never see just simply happy not-jealous not-obsessive long-term couples. Married people hate each other, or someone is trying to pull something over on the other, or there’s this “oh I must manipulate you all the time!” edge to everything.
Gaby: Yes! Why??? I don’t understand and sometimes I feel like an alien! Especially when monogamous married people make me seem naive for it.
Carolyn: “How dare you expect to like your partner?”
Gaby: Or even that you can talk to them! Why is it INSANE that you would say to your wife, “I have a crush on someone how funny.”
Carolyn: Above you mentioned that talking and expressing yourself and your emotions is very unnatural for you and that you have to force yourself to do it instead of falling back on rules. In those moments, what’s particularly challenging? I.e., Even when it’s okay to share, does anything make sharing especially hard?
Gaby: I get embarrassed about asking for things. I think because everyone wants to see themselves as above human emotion and as maybe the coolest person to ever live. So when something hurts me or makes me jealous, my instinct is to go, “No, you’re better than that.” But no one is!
I don’t like telling people not to do things, because I get resentful and my worst fear is someone resenting me in a relationship as being like, the old ball and chain. “Un-fun.” So when I have to say “no” to something someone wants and explain why (based on my personal feelings or my reaction or the emotions it brings up in me) I want to be like I AM A ROBOT I HAVE NO FEELINGS.
But then you have miscommunications. Like if I say, “Don’t hook up with that girl. She’s your friend’s roommate and your friend wouldn’t like it.” And then my boyfriend asks and the friend is like, “Oh go for it. I don’t mind.” He thinks my objection was because the friend would be mad. And once he gets the go ahead from the friend, he thinks he’s in the clear. (Which is a thing that happened.) What I should have said was, “I don’t want you to,” instead of making up reasons other people might be upset to seem like I don’t get upset.
Carolyn: It’s so much easier to make things about other people! How do your relationships shift when you date or sleep with someone new?
Gaby: Time management becomes a big thing. There’s periods where we see each other all the time and then where we don’t really. (We don’t live together.)
I think a lot of my monogamous friends go into a vortex when they start dating someone and hang out exclusively with them all the time so it becomes, “What are we doing tonight?” “What are we doing this weekend?” and that’s not a given here. With other partners too. You have to make a plan. Which is actually more interesting and leads to less boring “I’ll come over after work and we’ll just sit.” But there’s comfort in that assumption that the person is coming home so I get that too.
And I’ve tried to shoehorn like, “Okay I’m going out of town so everyone let’s just hang at this bar together tonight,” but my ex-girlfriend bailed once because she didn’t have any interest in competing for my attention while out at a bar.
Carolyn: How does being poly influence how you understand yourself or move through the world?
Gaby: I think it’s way less stressful because I’m free to be a person. To be flawed in the traditional societal sense. To not have to meet a mold that was set up a long time ago for agricultural reasons and then has continued I assume because of Valentine’s Day? It lets me create a community and to keep people in my life and experience all the different things I want to experience. I don’t feel like being with someone is the end of my life.
I’m not sure I agree with the common wisdom that a relationship is sacrifice. That seems horrible. Why would I want someone with me who is sacrificing enjoyment or experiences?