I never told my ex-husband I was interested in women. I never had the courage. We didn’t speak about my desire for an intimate connection with a woman or the attraction that I buried deep under the surface. He just knew — a fact that’s even more surprising considering that, in retrospect, I barely knew.
At the time, I wasn’t sure if I was queer, bisexual, pansexual, lesbian, or plainly bicurious. I did know, and had known for most of my life, that I wasn’t straight. But I had spent my childhood in a place that lacked LGBTQ+ representation, and then I attended a private Baptist university. As a result, I had grappled for years with the idea of being categorized as other, and I pushed away my desire to experience a connection with a woman, clinging to the hope that I’d be content never exploring it.
So when my husband came home one day and said, “I know you’re not straight. I’ve known for years,” I was surprised. As I heard this come out of his mouth, I felt the hot shame travel up my body, making me red in the face. I fought that lump in my throat, the one you get when you’re holding back tears. The wall I had always put up within myself had been forced down. I now had to face that, whether I identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer, I was other. And although I didn’t see it then, other could feel okay.
“I think it’s really important for you to be able to explore,” my then-husband finally said, “so if you’re up for it, I think that we should have an open marriage.”
At first, I was averse to the idea. I thought the usual: I couldn’t do it; I’d get jealous. But beneath those objections was the fear that perhaps I’d discover something about myself that I would no longer be able to look away from. I grappled with the idea, but I was comforted by the reassurance that it wasn’t permanent; if I didn’t enjoy it, I could stop. Slowly I began telling myself that I deserved to at least try it out, to see how it felt, that maybe I didn’t have to give up anything in order to explore this part of myself. So after considering it for months, my then-husband and I decided to give ethical non-monogamy — a catch-all term for relationships outside of monogamy — a try.
When I met Sierra, I had been on exactly one date with a woman. I was, as Urban Dictionary has coined it, a “baby gay.” A less-than-romantic, first-world way of dating — swiping my way through an app — led me to a conversation with one of the most beautiful women I have ever known.
I remember her picture so vividly, even now. She had a tall frame, and she wore a little black dress that hit right above her knee, with a pair of black lace-up Dr. Martens. Her skin was a cocoa shade, and her luscious, dark curls framed the light smirk on her face. In her last photo, she wore the same outfit and had been caught in the middle of a huge burst of laughter, her hair blowing in the wind. It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was certainly an instant swipe right. And luckily, she swiped right, too.
We connected and agreed to meet at a local café. It was a small, plant-filled coffee shop where she was a regular. I had the same first date jitters as always, but something also felt different this time around. A few hours into the date, we moved from the coffee shop to her favorite Irish pub, where we drank Guinness and she told me about the night she got drunk with her best friend and got her first tattoo at the shop right next door. She wasn’t afraid to divulge that her last relationship was with a man and how it shaped her. And with a huge smile, she explained how she came to accept her own sexuality.
She was patient and kind when I told her I had never been with a woman before. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to experience it, I explained, but that I just didn’t know I could — a feeling that I’ve since learned isn’t uncommon amongst queer women in relationships with men.
As we sat in the bar, I found myself wishing I had met Sierra sooner in life. I felt that I’d been found — or, rather, that I’d been seen for the first time.
It got late, and eventually, I offered Sierra a ride home. She asked if I’d stop at the gas station so she could pick up a pack of cigarettes before I dropped her off. I welcomed anything that would delay our departure. We sat in the dark car. She said she wasn’t ready to leave just yet. I wasn’t, either.
My then-husband was at home asleep in our bed. He knew I’d be home late. He knew exactly where I was.
Sierra and I kissed slowly and then fast, pulling each other closer as if we already knew it would be our only chance for a while. A few days later, she would go to Brazil, where she’d fall madly in love with a woman and get married, turning what was supposed to be a month-long trip into a much longer one. Almost two years would pass before we saw each other again.
During her time away, I further explored myself. Having met Sierra provided me with the courage to go on many more dates, most good and some bad. When I had sex with a woman for the first time, it was like finally being awake. Holding a woman’s hand felt natural and easy. I had the courage to be myself.
Meanwhile, my then-husband only took a few opportunities to partake in our open relationship. He struggled with jealousy often, and in moments of deep sadness he’d say, “Maybe you’re just a lesbian.” I knew I wasn’t a lesbian, but I also knew that these newfound relationships with women felt extremely meaningful and fulfilling. We stopped being intimate; we fought often. I felt the most me I had ever felt, and he felt the most hurt. We went on like this for two years.
It turns out, he didn’t offer an open marriage because he truly felt it was something he wanted. It was a proposal made out of desperation. He offered it only to please me. And because of that, it ultimately failed. It’s true what they say — ethical non-monogamy isn’t for everyone. But the freedom and capacity for love that I felt during this time was unparalleled to anything else I had ever experienced. With or without my marriage, I knew that this lifestyle and practice felt authentic and aligned with my values. And ultimately, he came to know that it didn’t align with his.
The decision to end our marriage after seven years together was mutual. There was no hatred or resentment, but rather a deep sense that each of us deserved to live a life of happiness and fulfillment, whatever that was — it just wasn’t with each other. I’ve learned that not everyone will understand that, but they don’t have to.
It turns out, I am a bisexual woman. And yes, ethical non-monogamy is for me. The path to getting here has been messy, complicated and painful. But without it, I wouldn’t be here, honoring myself. For that, I am thankful.
The day after we made the hard decision to separate, I saw Sierra again. It had been two years since our last meeting. We’d stayed in touch in the intervening time, and I knew that she was in an open marriage with her wife, while I was still in the midst of truly accepting myself.
We met early in the morning in Venice Beach. With coffee in hand, we kicked our shoes off and walked on the sand. It was June, a month signifying a celebration of Pride. The only lifeguard tower nearby was painted brightly with all of the colors of the rainbow. It was only fitting.
I didn’t have to explain much to Sierra. I knew she would understand where I was and what I wanted: to live my only life to the fullest, to be proud of who I was, to love my fluidity, my freedom, and my queerness. But more than anything, I wanted to be honest with myself and the world.
We lay on our backs, looking up at the sky, and then at each other. The waves of the Pacific crashed against the sand. I realized I hadn’t felt that at ease in years. Our cheeks hurt from smiling. With a courage I didn’t know I had, I leaned in to tuck her hair behind her right ear, holding her left hand in mine. I felt completely clear-headed as I grazed my fingers against her wedding band. Children, families, couples, and runners began to flood the beach. But it felt like no one else was there at all.
Later, we sat on a park bench, and she told me about her relationship with her mother. I watched the way her lips curled as she spoke and the way she moved. I grabbed her hand and thought to myself: Hold this moment forever, even if you don’t forever hold her.
Shortly after, I uprooted my life and moved to New York City. Sierra and I would go on to speak from time to time, with whispers of I love you and I miss you sometimes. It is the way of speaking our truth, without having to say any of the other things, at all.
I can’t think of Sierra now without the remembrance of sand, on a beach in Los Angeles, next to a lifeguard tower painted with all of the color I lacked in my life. She brought out of me the courage to live, the courage to be. For the first time, I felt it. I can look at myself without flinching away.