~ SEPTEMBER 2022 ~
When Atlanta City Council member Liliana Bakhtiari won the 5th District seat last November, it represented two major firsts: Bakhtiari was the first queer Muslim person elected in the state of Georgia and the first nonbinary councilmember of a major U.S. city.
But Bakhtiari, who uses they and she pronouns, wasn’t entirely out of the closet at the time. While they had been with their partner, Kris Brown, for 10 years, the duo kept quiet about what they’ve both described as one of the best parts of their lives: They are nonmonogamous, and are in a relationship with a third person, Sarah Al-Khayyal.
Now, a year after Bakhtiari’s election and two years into their relationship with Brown and Al-Khayyal, the three of them have decided to come out in an exclusive interview with NBC News as they plan to build a family.
Bakhtiari said that too often stories like theirs will come out “in a scandal.”
“But we’re openly showing it and proud of it,” Bakhtiari, 34, said during a video interview, as Brown and Al-Khayyal sat on either side. “It should be destigmatized. It’s a very valid familial structure that people should embrace.”
‘We can have this fluidity’
Bakhtiari said they’ve known for a long time that monogamy isn’t for them. Prior to meeting Brown, Bakhtiari was doing international crisis relief work that required a lot of travel, saying it was easier to have short connections that turned into friendships.
Bakhtiari met Brown in Atlanta in 2012 the old fashioned way — at a gay bar. When the two started dating, Bakhtiari said they were upfront with Brown that they are nonmonogamous, meaning they prefer to date and form relationships with more than one person.
“I was like, ‘That’s cool with me,’” said Brown, 33, who was a professional dancer at the time and now works in political campaign management and fundraising. “It was the first time that I had been with anyone who didn’t want to be monogamous. For me, it was kind of a relief as well to be like, ‘OK, I don’t have to be this person’s everything all the time. I can be as much of their life as works for us, and we can have this fluidity,’ and I really liked the feeling of that.”
Bakhtiari said their relationship with Brown was the first serious relationship they had, and they were coming into it at a difficult time in their life.
“I grew up in an overbearing household that didn’t allow for a lot of independence to happen,” Bakhtiari said, adding that they left home at 18. But they didn’t have “adult skills,” so they experienced homelessness on and off for the next five years, living on friends’ couches and out of their car.
“I was assaulted a lot during that time,” Bakhtiari said. “I was mugged during that time. I was very rough. So I met Kris, and there was a lot of trauma, and this was the first person that I ever felt safe with.”
Their friends and community members saw how positively the relationship affected Bakhtiari, they said, and it became publicly romanticized. But, Bakhtiari said, that meant “when people would find out that we were open or nonmonogamous, it was like someone destroyed a fairytale for them.”
As a result, Bakhtiari said, they carried a lot of shame about being nonmonogamous and feeling “that I was a terrible partner, that Kris was only doing this for me, that I was keeping them home while I went out to have my cake and eat it, too — all of these things that were very untrue,” they said.
‘We want to claim it upfront’
In the fall of 2020, Bakhtiari met Al-Khayyal through a virtual nonmonogamy support group. Al-Khayyam is a policy manager at a nonprofit and is on the Atlanta mayor’s LGBTQ advisory board.
Al-Khayyal started practicing nonmonogamy about five years ago when she began to explore her queerness, though she said she doesn’t want to conflate being queer and being nonmonogamous, because straight people can be nonmonogamous.
“For me, practicing nonmonogamy is a part of this greater unlearning and deprogramming of societal conditioning,” she said. “Nonmonogamy for me doesn’t have to be having multiple partners. It’s also breaking down the platonic-romantic binary and being able to have these relationships that kind of exist in that gray area.”
Shortly after meeting, the two went on a roller skating date and they have been dating ever since, Bakhtiari said.
About a month later, Al-Khayyal met Brown, and the three began dating. Around the same time, Bakhtiari started their second run for a nonpartisan seat on the City Council after they ran unsuccessfully in 2017.
For the sake of their professional future, Al-Khayyal said they all decided to only share the relationship with close friends and family.
“There’s absolutely some sacrifices you have to make being with someone who’s in politics,” Al-Khayyal said. “But they were clear that there would be a day where we could be out, and that was also important for me. I didn’t want to be in a relationship where I was always going to have to be essentially in the closet.”
Six months after the three began dating Al-Khayyal moved in, but only after the three had attended couples therapy to plan and talk about boundaries.
Brown said the three of them see nonmonogamy as an umbrella term, and under it there are a variety of relationship styles that can be romantic and/or sexual. One of the more well-known styles is polyamory, which means having more than one romantic partner, they explained.
Brown said the three of them prefer the label nonmonogamy over polyamory. “There are many more ways to be nonmonogamous than there are ways to be polyamorous, and we invite and enjoy the fluidity of the term nonmonogamy,” Brown said.
In their situation, the three of them are in a relationship together and see each other as life partners, they said, though they did not specify further.
Over the last two years, they’ve been enjoying and planning their lives together. They traveled to Mexico last year and went to Utah earlier this year. They are converting a school bus into a living and working space, and they plan to buy land at some point as part of their dream of starting a “queer commune.”
Bakhtiari said it’s been difficult to hide the relationship from the world, in part because they and Brown live a very public life. People will ask where “the other half” is if Brown doesn’t attend an event with Bakhtiari, they said. But they wanted to come out on their terms.
“This is the sort of thing that a political opponent or someone who has some ax to grind might pick up on and twist around and turn into something negative, and we want to claim it upfront, and say this is the best thing about our life,” Brown said.
Bakhtiari said that when they tell people about their relationship, people often respond in two ways: with support and/or curiosity. Older adults have more often asked questions like, “Who do you love more? Do you all sleep together? What happens? What are the rules? Don’t you have to choose?” Bakhtiari said, laughing.
Their families have also been supportive, Bakhtiari said. For example, the three of them visited with Brown’s family for the holidays in 2020. Though they had only been dating a few months, Brown and Bakhtiari wanted to make sure Al-Khayyal felt supported and included, especially since her father died that November, just a year after her mother died, in 2019.
Traditionally, Brown’s Grandma Teri will knit a custom stocking for every family member with their name on it. “We wanted to make sure that Sarah had the perfect Christmas, and we didn’t have to say anything to grandma,” Bakhtiari said. “On Christmas Day, there was a custom stocking with Sarah’s name on it hanging on the fireplace, stuffed with presents.”
‘Offending people from the sidelines’
In addition to allowing them to live openly and address stigma, Brown said that they hope coming out will allow them to raise awareness of barriers that nontraditional families still face.
For example, Brown was in the hospital this year, and only one person was allowed in the hospital room with them.
“There’s an opportunity for us to kind of shed light on that, and be like, ‘Hey, there are nontraditional families out there,’” Brown said. “We’re going to grow our family, and we want those kids to also be able to navigate the world how they want to navigate the world.”
Bakhtiari is likely the first elected official in the U.S. to come out as being in a nonmonogamous relationship, according to the Victory Institute, which researches LGBTQ political representation and trains queer candidates running for office.
Bakhtiari’s term doesn’t end until January 2026, but they said they’re prepared for their relationship to potentially affect their re-election if they run again.
They focused their platform on addressing the need for affordable housing and Atlanta’s backlog of infrastructure projects. Last month, after Georgia’s ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy took effect, they introduced a resolution to allocate $300,000 to a nonprofit that helps people access reproductive health care. The mayor signed the legislation after the City Council passed it unanimously.
“If people don’t want to re-elect me because I’m in love with two wonderful people and in a happy and healthy relationship that is possibly the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me, then I’m good,” they said.
Ultimately, their goal is to continue doing international crisis relief work, which they said they don’t have to do from an elected position.
“I’ll just keep offending people from the sidelines,” Bakhtiari said, sarcastically.
In the meantime, the three of them joked that they’re “very boring” when they aren’t attending political events or traveling. For example, they recently picked out paint colors for an accent wall, and they can typically be found hanging out with their eight pets.
Bakhtiari and Brown had three cats and one dog, and when Al-Khayyal joined the family she brought her two cats. Then, when Al-Khayyal’s parents died, they adopted their two cats.
“For the record, I want more dogs,” Bakhtiari said. “And I never intended on having seven cats.”
“None of us did,” Al-Khayyal said, laughing. Brown chimed in “Yeah, here we are though.”