I wasn’t sure what I expected entering the house of Gabbi, Adrian and Bernie – a polyamorous triad, who work as sex workers and are active and enthusiastic members of New Zealand’s fetish scene. It's not that I was expecting to find chains hanging from the ceiling, or handcuffs on every bedpost - it’s just that I wasn’t prepared to find a home that was quite this… wholesome.
Gabbi, Adrian and Bernie are cuddled up together on their lounge. They seem desperate to tell me something. Glancing at each other, the polyamorous triad proudly announce that they are engaged. We quickly cover the classic questions that come with an engagement - how did you all propose? When is the ceremony? But one nagging concern quickly comes to the forefront of my mind.
“How will that work legally?”
“It can’t work legally right now,” Adrian tells me.
For these three Wellingtonians, their wedding will be simply symbolic – a ceremony that celebrates the love and commitment they have for each other, but not one that will be recognised under New Zealand law. It is the same kind of ceremony many gay couples performed before same-sex marriage was legalised in 2013.
Are Polyamorous relationships another example of a fringe culture which will one day be accepted and acknowledged by New Zealand society and law?
There have been rumblings that this could be the case. In speech notes from 2008, Labour MP Ruth Dyson is attributed with a suggestion to redefine the way the government recognised families and couples. “Social development is about considering the wellbeing of the whole population, and communities within that population, rather than solely focusing on the traditional family group. We must cater for the diversity, we know it exists. By this I mean the range of relationships from single, couples, triples, blended, de facto, and so on. That’s where we’re going with social policy.” After the speech was published by the media, it was pulled from the Beehive website, and Dyson told the press that she did not write or deliver the speech - despite reports that it was delivered at Victoria University on May 6, 2008. Regardless of who wrote it or if it had been presented, the suggestion had been raised in the public sphere, and with her staunch denial of any involvement with the speech, the movement was quelled - and polyamory remains on the fringe.
As a triad, Gabbi, Adrian and Bernie are on the fringes of mainstream culture – not just in their relationship, but also their work in the sex trade and their hobbies as fetishists.
But the lounge we settle into looks like your average Kiwi flat—a little cluttered, but warm and lived in. The walls are adorned with posters: a Celtic flag, an Adventure Time poster and a rainbow coloured sign which reads “I’m here, I’m Queer, I’m full of existential fear”.
Adrian, a trans man with a short mohawk, absentmindedly runs their fingers through Bernie’s pink hair as we chat. As the most extroverted of the group, Gabbi—a bubbly women with green hair—tells how their triad was formed.
“I had tied [Bernie] up in his underwear before we had even gone out on a date,” Gabbi laughs.
“Yup! We met in a dungeon,” Bernie chimes in. “Just your local BDSM dungeon.”
Bernie, a tall man with a warm, goofy grin, first met Gabbi in 2016 at a play party – a gathering in which the guests engage in or watch different fetish acts, such as Japanese rope bondage Shibari, or light erotic flagellation. Gabbi says the parties range from intimate gatherings, to meet-and-greets with upwards of 50 people.
Gabbi was instantly drawn to Bernie, because she says, “he just had this magnetism – this bubbly, bright energy”.
Despite the instant attraction, the gender and sexual complexities of the fetish scene meant that it wasn’t quite as easy as ‘boy meets girl, they fall in love’. When these two met, Bernie identified as gay and Gabbi says she was presenting as quite “butch” at the time – so even though they had developed crushes on each other, both thought the other was not interested in their gender.
Despite this unconventional meet-cute, their relationship progressed in today’s most conventional way – on social media. It was through these various platforms that the pair began stalking each other, before sliding into those DM’s. From there, they broke through their initial uncertainty and began dating. From the outset, Gabbi and Bernie agreed they wanted to explore a polyamorous relationship – but, it would be another year before they would find the third in their triad, Adrian.
Though Adrian is also part of the fetish scene, it was in another realm of counter-culture that Gabbi and Adrian first met – the drag scene.
With Gabbi’s blessing, Adrian and Bernie started dating as well, forming the three into a triad - or as the group call it, “a true love triangle”.
While there are no fixed rules for how polyamory operates, Gabbi says their relationship is one of the more common forms of a triad.
“We have three independent relationships,” Gabbi says. “Me and Adrian, Me and Bernie and Adrian and Bernie. But then, there is also the Triad – the relationship we all have together.”
The biggest challenge of a polyamorous relationship is scheduling, Gabbi says.
“People think [polyamory] is just a lot of steamy threesomes, but it is actually a lot of work.”
Bernie says open communication is one of the cornerstones of polyamory and is as integral to the philosophy as having multiple partners.
“[Polyamory] makes you better at relationships,” Adrian says. “I mean, this is the healthiest relationship I have ever been in.”
This communication allows them to unlearn the expectations set by society about what a relationship should be, Adrian says.
“In a poly relationship, when you have all this poly theory in your head – in practice, there is still all this societal conditioning which says, ‘you should be feeling bad right now, because someone you love is sleeping with someone else, or spending time romantically with someone else’.”
Once you have worked through these barriers, Adrian says, there are experiences beyond jealousy that most people don’t know exist.
“There is this cool psychological phenomenon which happens in a poly relationship, called compersion. In this case, it is the opposite of jealousy – where you enjoy watching someone you love spending time with someone they love. It just makes you feel all gooey and lovely inside,” Adrian says.
Yet, they are not allowed to marry or be legally recognised and have the rights and responsibilities for each other that any other couple can have.
“Even being in a de facto relationship, only one pair of us gets to be de facto,” Adrian says.
“We don’t want one couple to get married, and not another,” Adrian says. “Because that seems like we are prioritising one couple over another, and that isn’t our dynamic, and it isn’t fair,” Adrian says.
“Because me and Bernie were dating first, our relationship is recognised legally. But, if anything were to happen to Adrian, I won’t be able to come in and say ‘this is the care they want’,” Gabbi says
“It isn’t just about us wanting to get married, it comes down to real-life situations.”
Their real-life situations are a present concern for the three of them, as Adrian struggles with health issues caused by their hormone treatment.
The trio say they understand that it will probably be a long time before there are any legislative changes which will make their relationship be legally recognised.
Though these three will be married in each other’s hearts and minds in the next year, they hope that one day soon they can also be married in the eyes of the law.