For the past nine months, I’ve been living with my partner—let’s call them Cole—and metamour (apparently a new term for your partner’s *other* partner(s))—he’ll be Andy. We live together in a two-bedroom basement apartment, each bedroom belonging to each couple (it wasn’t always that way!). Cole and Andy have been together for 7 years, while Cole and I have been together for about one and a half. Cole is a PhD candidate and remote graduate student instructor at the local university, and Andy is employed there as a media/technical assist, heading into campus once or twice a week for a few hours at a time. In order to make some cash and get some much needed social interaction away from home, I work a few shifts each week at the local farm stop/coffee shop. Our agreed-upon “pod” since the start of the pandemic has consisted of the three of us and two other friends who live in town, a (mostly) straight, monogamous couple who we occasionally have over to celebrate with over bonfires, Babka, and boozy holiday traditions.
As someone interested in queer theory and architectural studies, I was immediately drawn to the ways in which our little pod became my closest family in a time when seeing friends and folks back home has become restricted as a result of the pandemic. This project ultimately emerged as a result of observing how COVID quarantining has affected, and is, in a way, “queering” supposedly normative (read: nuclear, monogamous, white) living arrangements.
What follows is a selection of personal journal entries accumulated over the last nine months, annotated alongside photos and other personal memorabilia taken since the start of the pandemic. I use this experiential evidence as the primary material for generating a feminist theoretical intervention into exploring how COVID has affected our lives in unseen ways. As an emerging mode of feminist practice, this auto-theory-driven approach describes a
“trans-medial, feminist and queer feminist practice that manifests across fiction, critical writing, sound, film, video, art writing and criticism, and performance art. In auto-theory, theorized personal anecdotes or embodied actions constellate with fragments from the history of philosophy to form potent analyses of gender, politics, academia, and contemporary art.”Fournier, 2015
This project contains three levels of written intervention, both handwritten and typed, that form the structure of this page:
- The journal entries themselves — selected from over 25 pages of personal journal entries beginning in March of 2020, scanned, trimmed, and highlighted for relevance, and captioned by date; including
- Handwritten annotations (in pink) within the margins — casual initial reflections and observations upon rereading the entries; chronologically placed between
- Typed blocks of theoretization and commentary — a more formalized theoretical approach, working to debunk the myth of the nuclear family, suggest reformulations for conceptualizing what constitutes “family” more generally, and describe ways to approach and navigate communal living, both in and beyond the time of COVID-19.
Let’s get started…
I’ve chosen to begin in mid-March, right around the start of the state-by-state shutdowns. From here until the end of 2020 (and, magically, the end of an over 2-year journal), there are around 28 pages of journal entries—but don’t worry, I’ve only included the best parts!
It does look like we’re off to a great start. Up until this point, Cole and I had been mentally preparing for me to spend half a year overseas in Germany for my junior year study abroad program. My time here was supposed to only be a couple weeks’ visit— but three days before flying to Berlin, the program went entirely remote for the semester. While I was definitely pretty bummed out, I was hopeful, curious, and excited at the prospect of being stuck at home with my previously long-distance boyfriend with nothing to do but cook, fuck, and party while we watch the infection numbers tick upwards.
Moving into an apartment with your partner and their other partner didn’t seem too daunting initially. I had already spent around 1 cumulative month’s time living alongside Andy as well as Cole since the beginning of my relationship with Cole. A couple of months prior, for the entirety of winter break, the three of us lived together at a friend’s place while I recovered from top surgery. It felt like an unexpected continuation of that time that we all enjoyed spending together not more than just a few weeks ago.
It’s day Whatever-the-Fuck. Remember when we were all counting the days, as if we would be able to quickly tally the totals when it was all over? I know the world will make it through, but not without a hell of a lot of hurt and change, on levels we can’t even anticipate or know for years to come. I’m anticipating the change that the pandemic will cause in the world around me, but it doesn’t feel quite so personalized yet.
So, what happens when you can hear your partner fucking someone else in the room next to yours? Over, and over, and over again? It feels like I’m “performing queerness” wrong (…) I’m just trying to figure out what it’s bringing up for me. I’ve been in relationships before that approached having multiple sexual and/or romantic partnerships, but they’d always been intentionally kept fairly separate.
Learning when to give each-other time and space has proved immensely valuable. It’s always felt pretty easy for me to navigate spending time with my partner, but it takes an entirely new set of awareness of how to do that in the context of three people with varying levels of involvement and intimacy. We all want to make the people that we love feel seen, loved, and supported, but it’s important to recognize that sometimes you alone can’t be the only answer to a problem or conflict that exists in a cooperative living context.
Alright, but what happens when two people are suddenly able to tease you about the exact same thing? Maybe something that you feel deeply insecure about? I’d never quite experienced the “flight” response of the “fight or flight” instinct in this way before. As is the case when we live with any friends or family members, it can be difficult to approach these topics with people who you don’t afford the same kind of trust or vulnerability that you do in a romantic relationship.
It’s been about a month and a half since then—we’re getting into the thick of summer now, and I’m starting to think about whether or not I want to keep doing this into the fall semester. At this point, I was seriously doubtful that an in-person semester anywhere would be anything but an absolute trainwreck. And when that was juxtaposed with home-cooked meals and living with my partner, it felt pretty easy to choose between the two.
… but I know we can work it out (…) but I know we’ll work it out…
I remember this part well. We had just taken a family vacation up to a family member’s on Lake Michigan while they were away, and it seemed that the three of us couldn’t do anything but fight while we were there. It was at this point when I decided that I couldn’t keep bouncing bedrooms like I had been for the past couple months—I wanted Cole and I to have our own room, our own bed. And then Cole could go back and forth, instead of Andy and I. Learning about my own boundaries and how to communicate them has been one of the most important challenges, and frankly, responsibilities, of living cooperatively.
The main point of conflict that I experience between the three of us is when Andy does or says something that I feel is subconsciously inconsiderate or disrespectful. (Some examples: watching him touch Cole in a way that makes Cole uncomfortable, being the loudest person in the room such that no one else can speak, not doing house chores that Cole and I do, etc.). So, I lash out. I say something passive-aggressive to make him feel bad. It’s important to note here, however, that Andy doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He hardly ever says something with that sort of intent. So, then the conflict becomes how everyone feels like everyone else is being shitty in different ways, and it can feel difficult to find a middle ground.
I encourage everyone in moments of distress such as this to find things that make everyone feel recharged—on both an individual level and expanded ones (in pairs and the entire group). Have those things that everyone can always come back to, even when many of our “normal” vices are on pause right now. Sometimes I have to go be by myself and drink and dance in the bedroom, and sometimes we put up floating jellyfish on the projection wall and all dance together. Sometimes I go watch Golden Girls alone in the bathtub, and sometimes we all watch a movie together and cuddle with our dog. I remember a little random lake getaway one day helping ease tension in ways that still baffle me.
Eventually, I realized I needed to be getting out of the house more than I had been thus far. I’m an extroverted person, and the only people that I knew in town were Cole, Andy, and our two friends. So, I decided to get a part-time job in town at the local farm stop. I started to bring home seconds produce and stories of long-winded conversation with what was left of the social scene of the town, and began to feel a lot better. My job (read: something of my very own) remains an external outlet that is separate from my home and family, and I am immensely grateful for it.
I just don’t wanna psych myself out of a (…) genuine love that teaches me and holds me and cares for me. I’m thinking here about a politics of care — in order for this to work, my ideas behind what care means have had to shift and expand. Inner conceptualization of who warrants particular kinds of attention, when to devote that kind of time, and how to do it in healthy, productive, and pleasurable ways, are all part of the process of negotiating how to live with those that we care about.
At the start of the pandemic, many of us moved (back) in with family members at home, perhaps with those that we would choose not to, had we the opportunity. As I chose to live with my partner and metamour as opposed to my biological family members back home, the concept of “chosen family” is an interesting one to explore here. Whether named as such (as is often spoken of in today’s mainstream LGBTQ activist movements) or not, people choosing to live with others that are not their “immediate” family members (i.e. parents and siblings) has always been in practice. In fact, the U.S. Census reports that less than 25% of households in the country are two-parent family structures (aka the “nuclear family”).
Although the nuclear family arrangement is regarded as a deeply entrenched status quo, it remained an outlier until the 1950s. During this time, New Immigrants (Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans) were given access to near zero-interest loans to buy homes in the newly forming suburbs of the United States. Through the creation of legislation like the GI Bill and practices of redlining, the nuclear family was constructed and idealized as not only heterosexual, but white. Even at its height, it was a minority formation, and undercut the benefits of so-called “non-traditional” family types and living arrangements, such as the multigenerational households common among Asian and Latinx families, or the choice to live with nonnuclear family members, friends, or partners.
The nuclear family hasn’t just been touted as the American dream for 70 years—it’s also been the benchmark unit legislators and everyday people alike use to measure and compare a family’s economic (and overall) health. Everything from taxes to eligibility thresholds for public health insurance and Section 8 eligibility is shaped around a single household’s income. The focus on the single-family has affected state and city zoning policies for decades, contributing to vast levels of systemic and racialized inequality. What could a queer (re)imagining of family look like? How can we show that both financial and emotional security can be found in familial and spatial contexts that contain more diverse makeups?
This is not to say that we should all get multiple partners and all live together in a big happy Haus of Boyfriends (as it’s sometimes affectionately called by the three of us). It’s not like that. Just like all other families, we have our differences, our fights, our challenges. And for each of us, it scratches at deeper fears and insecurities that have built up as a result of the pressures placed by decades of culturally-produced “normative” ideals like heterosexuality and monogamy. My fear of our little queer household being a “failed experiment” is not void of these pressures.
As the nuclear family concept melts down, it will be key for both everyone, including politicians, to consider what that means going forward. That the composition of the American household has changed so dramatically is important — whether it’s because people can’t make the old dream work, or because they have different dreams, or because that traditional dream excluded a whole lot of Americans in the first place.
My favorite nothing TV show is Golden Girls. In it, four older women live together in Miami and experience the joys and angst of their golden years. Strong-willed Dorothy, spacey Rose, lusty Southern belle Blanche and matriarch Sophia, Dorothy’s mom, occasionally clash but are always there for one another in the end. In an episode in the third season, the girls go to group therapy to deal with the growing problems in their friendship. They spend the entire episode reminiscing about times when they somehow couldn’t see eye to eye, and at the end, the therapist says that they’re all simply wasting their time because they’re too incompatible. Saddened and defeated, the girls return home to pack their things. Sitting around the kitchen table, as is customary, Sophia tells a story to cheer them all up. The story is of four women in the 80s in Miami, who live together (in the only house in the neighborhood without a pool):
“They laugh, they cry, they eat. They love, hate, and eat. They dream, hope, eat. Every time you turn around, they eat. (…) The point I’m making is, what’s going on here is living. Just because you have some rough times doesn’t mean you throw in the towel. You go on living… and eating.”Golden Girls, Season 3, Episode 11 (“Three on a Couch”)
After a long pause, Rose gets up to get the cheesecake.
For Auto-Theoretical Approaches:
- I Love Dick — Chris Kraus (1998)
- Testo Junkie — Paul B. Preciado (2008)
- The Argonauts — Maggie Nelson (2015)
For Historicizing Family, Marriage, etc.:
- Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, the Big White Wedding, and Chasing the Happily Neverafter — Laurie Essig (2019)
- The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America — Margot Canaday (2009)
- Marriage, a history — Stephanie Coontz (2005)
- Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law — Nancy Polikoff (2008)
- “Home Making: An Architectural Perspective” in Signs 27 (Spring 2002) — Lynne Walker
- “Housing and American Life” (on Vanport City, Oregon, 1943) in Redesigning the American Dream — Dolores Hayden
- “How Co-Housing Works” in Housing and Dwelling — Durrett McCamant, et al.