Unlike some people, I’m a big fan of Valentine’s Day. Sure, it’s been commercialized to the point that Valentine’s day candy appears on the store shelves the day after Christmas, and yes, you shouldn’t need to wait for one particular day of the year to express your feelings for the person (or people) you love, and yes, perhaps it’s a day that appears to rub coupledom in the face of all the singletons, but I still love it anyway. Even when I’m single, I still don’t have that guttural loathing for Valentine’s day that seems to be held by many. How can it be a bad thing to have a day devoted to love? Everyone can make their own choices about the extent to which they participate in the commercialized side of the holiday, it’s up to you whether you fail to express your love on the other 364 days of the year, and there’s no law that says you can’t give chocolates, a card or a hug to a friend or family member if you happen to be single. But perhaps the reason I am such a fan of Valentine’s day is because I see it as a creative challenge! Unfortunately, I quite out-did myself last year with an elaborate scavenger hunt, so this year has been especially challenging - hopefully Ashley doesn’t expect a linear progression of Valentine’s Day experiences over the years!
When I say challenge, I am mostly referring to the challenge of coming up with an idea that is unique, avoids plush animals, and has some element of the ‘Wow’ factor. You know, like a surprise weekend trip to Paris, but alas, that was out of the budget. (I hope I get points on the ‘it’s the thought that counts’ factor). Despite my interpretation of the ‘challenge’ that Valentine’s day presents for me, there’s another more insidious challenge that it presents, one that I personally try to ignore as much as possible, but that this year has been just a little bit more difficult to ignore. For all the changes in the lives of LGBTQ individuals, for all the legalizations of same-sex marriage (here, there, certainly not everywhere), Valentine’s day is a horribly heterosexual holiday. I’m sure there are a large number of LGBTQ folks who purposely boycott the day simply for that reason - we must always reject heteronormativity - right? But why? I repeat, what is so bad about a day devoted to love? (and/or chocolate?) Not everything heterosexuals do should be likened to the dancing with the plague. But I digress.
Perhaps the challenge to see past the heterosexism of Valentine’s day has been exacerbated by celebrating this year’s incarnation of the day in Utah, the land of rampant heterosexuality. But the heterosexism of Valentine’s day is hardly held hostage by Utah. I would wager that wherever Valentine’s Day exists, it exists predominantly in a heterosexual form. Being a self-professed Valentine’s Day fan, I’m not going to all out bash the day, but given my recent post on vulnerable populations and how the exclusion of LGBTQ individuals from research can exacerbate feelings of heterosexism, I thought that other examples of day-to-day heterosexism might follow nicely. To be made to feel like one lives on the ‘outskirts’ of society or that one does not belong doesn’t require experiencing explicit exclusion or discrimination, it can be as simple as shopping for a Valentine’s day card or planning a Valentine’s day date.
The Valentine's Day Card Dilemma
I know what you’re thinking. It isn’t hard to find a Valentine’s day card that works for same-sex relationships, and you’re right. It isn’t. There are plenty to choose from. Plenty, so long as you are satisfied with representing your relationship in the most abstract of terms and pictures. Even Hallmark admits that they just haven’t quite figured out ‘the mystery’ of marketing Valentine’s Day cards to same-sex couples (we are THAT mysterious). Update: 3 years later, in 2016 - Hallmark has released a cute ad targeting Same-Sex couples and their love on Valentine's day. However, the question remains, will this translate into actually finding an appropriate selection of cards to buy for your same-sex partner or spouse when you go to the store? The answer is unlikely, unless you live in a specifically queer area.
Option 1: Cute Animals
I live in a house with 5 dogs. Two toy poodles, a miniature pincher, a lab crossed with a beagle (according to his DNA profile), and a White Shepherd crossed with a million other things including an Argentine Dogo. Suffice to say, I am fond of dogs, especially cute ones - so of course I don’t mind a Valentine’s day card that pictures cute Dalmatians with heart-shaped spots. In fact, one of the cards Ashley will get from me this year does indeed feature two dogs (the one to the right - it describes us perfectly).
Option 2: Somewhat Weird, Inanimate Object
If you aren’t up for selecting a card with cute Dalmatians, wiener dogs sharing a drink, literal lovebirds or a pig, I found some great alternatives that involve absolutely no animals. First, you can represent your love with red cowboy boots, because what says ‘soul-mates’ better than a pair of boots! (I’m sure the inside of the card says something that will just pull it all together for you). But if boots aren’t your cup of tea, then there is my personal favourite for this year - silverware. A spoon and a fork. Tied nicely together with a ribbon. Day by day, we spend our lives together, like cutlery, on a napkin... I’m so happy I found you - let’s go play in the dishwasher?Of course these aren’t the only ones. There was also one with a key, one with Snoopy - wishing you great amounts of happiness this Valentine’s day, and some with pretty flowers.
It isn’t that there aren’t options. These cards are good. They’re cute. They’re nice. Some of them come in the fancy cellophane wrapping that let’s you know it’s really truly worth the $8.50 you are about to spend. If these were what all of the cards were like, then I wouldn’t have anything to say - but what if I don’t want to represent myself as a dog sharing a drink with another dog? What if I’m just not feeling like a spoon today (and let’s not even get into analyzing the spoon and fork one any further or else I fear I will have to remove it from the list of options for same-sex couples). Surely there must be some other card that uses some human image that could possibly represent me and my love? A cartoon perhaps! Yes, a cartoon!
Option 3: Life is A Cartoon ... And We Are Cartoon Bears
Cartoons, like heart-spotted Dalmatians, can be very cute. And with a little stretch of the imagination, I’m sure that plenty of same-sex couples can seem themselves in the cartoon valentine’s day cards available. Like this one here -- after all, Ashley does wear dresses and I do own a few ties.... this could be us - if we were cartoon bears. Sometimes, when I think I’m having a hard time picking out a card, I try to imagine one of my gay male friends picking one out. I don’t think the cartoon bears would do it for them - even if they really are bears themselves! And should we really have to stretch our imaginations to make the card fit?
Option 4: Ambiguous Shadows and Clasped Hands!
If you happen to be a yoga expert and are very good at stretching, then you might find quite a few options in this section. I fancy myself an expert on ambiguous shadows of couples. I’m always looking for pictures to use on my website that appear as though they could be any couple - two men, two women, one of each, none of either - so I have a keen eye for the ambiguous shadow. But alas, when it comes to Valentine’s day cards, the shadows never seem to be that ambiguous. Here’s an example (left) of a lovely couple sitting on a bench, saying something to each other in Spanish, because there are cards in Spanish, and French, and every other language (indicating Hallmark’s understanding that Valentine’s Day crosses languages - if not relationship types), and they are but a shadow of themselves - but luckily, we can still tell it’s a heterosexual shadow. Phew! And again, with some stretching, this could work, I have short hair, Ashley puts her hair in a pony tail when we go swimming, so this could be us - but I don’t think it would pass very well for Justin and John.
The non-shadow-art shadow figures aren’t much better - these are the ones where it’s just barely the outline of a couple in the far off distance. Sometimes they seem just far enough away and just out of focus enough that you could make it work... but more often than not, the shapes are just a bit too distinct. Of course, even when you do find a picture that just might pass, it always ends up being on the card with the giant “For My Husband” scrawled across the top in red foil.
Along with ambiguous shadows comes the closeups of couples holding hands. These ones always lure me in. I can’t even count the minutes I spend staring at the cards with clasped hands on them trying to determine if the one arm just seems to have a little bit too much arm hair to possibly pass as being another girl’s arm. There’s usually something that gives the heterosexuality away - the difference in arm size, the quantity of arm hair, the style of watch - all those minutes closely examining the cards and I’ve never found one that could pass as two women, let alone two men.
So if we can’t be a shadow, and we can’t be a closeup of clasped hands, maybe we could be feet! Yes!! We could be feet! Lots of cards feature feet. Feet on a picnic blanket, feet on the beach, feet poking out from under the covers... and Ashley has BIG feet compared to mine, so surely I can find a card with feet that could be our feet! Yes! Yes We Can!
Note: What if you *do* want a Valentine's card that mentions your husband or wife? Same-sex couples are getting married all over the place these days, and gee, wouldn't it be nice to hunt for a card that says wife or husband for that special 1st Valentine's Day after being married? Here's where you'll definitely be let down. Finding a card that mentions a wife or husband but that doesn't gender the relationship as being heterosexual is next to impossible. So even if you do get lucky with some feet that could plausibly belong to your wife or husband, chances are something else will still dictate that only wives have husbands and only husbands have wives.
Option 5: Cute Kids!
To summarize, thus far, for the same-sex couple not interested in stretching their imaginations to the point of seeing themselves as cartoon bears, red cowboy boots or cutlery, we have the options of cute dogs (or pigs or birds) or the feet sticking out from under the blankets. But what about those cute cards with kids on them? You know the ones. They’re usually black and white, maybe with a splash of colour. The 1920s boy and girl, dressed in their Sunday best, one leaning over to give the other a kiss. I SO want to buy one of these cards. I think they are adorable. I don’t know why, they just are. Sometimes you can find one in the “best friends” section that features two girls, but usually it will say something referencing sisters or friends, and that just doesn’t work - without more of that imagination stretching. But Ashley let me know of the flip side to this this morning when she gave me one of these very cards! Apparently she sees a loophole for the cards with kids because they’re just cute kids and who knows what socially constructed genders they may or may not be, thereby allowing her to ‘see’ us in the card below - and it was a cool card, it played music AND the words on the inside lit up! That’s a good card! But even so, we’re still engaging in some kind of imagination stretching to make it fit ‘us’ - which was underscored even more by the fact that the inside of the card says “I Love Us”.
Option 6: You didn't think there would be a sexy Valentine's day card for you, did you?
What about the cards where adults kiss instead of kids? What about the ones that imply Valentine’s day might have something to do with more than flowers and chocolate? Or what about just the ones that humourously make reference to any kind of physical intimacy at all? We’re way beyond the scope of cute Dalmatians now, and even the cartoon bears aren’t entering into this field. Here are some of the cards that might fall into this category that were available at Walgreens - and I just don’t see any form of cognitive gymnastics making these ones work for same-sex couples. And let’s not even begin to look for a card for a same-sex couple in their golden years - society just doesn’t seem to have the ability to conceive of such couples in the first place!
Cute Animals It Is!
After spending a good hour perusing every single card available in more than one drugstore, grocery store, card store... the conclusion is that the best bet for same-sex couples seems to be the cute animals and inanimate object categories - failing that, we can attempt to see ourselves in disembodied/fragmented closeups of ‘body parts’ that just might be genderless enough to meet our needs. Besides, chances are that even if they had a card with two girls making out on a motorcycle I’d probably still pick the cute dogs anyway...... No! Of course I wouldn't!! If I found a card with two girls making out at Walgreens I’d buy 10 copies - and use the same card each year for the next decade!The point isn’t that we can’t find cards. The point isn’t that we can’t participate in Valentine’s day - of course we can, and we do. We pick great cards, we write our own love notes, we order specialty cards online, we deal with the awkward glances from the florist as we dictate the note to go with the flowers that aren’t for our grandmother (because girls only buy flowers for sick people and old people). The point is that shopping for a Valentine’s day card is just another example of the small instances of heterosexism that are everywhere we look, that happen multiple times, every day in our lives.
I’m not going to back out of Valentine’s Day because I had to choose from the cute animals and inanimate objects section of the card displays, my day won’t be any worse for the experience of picking a card with cute dogs (actually, I picked 3 because I couldn’t choose just one). But would my day be better if I had stumbled upon the PERFECT card that actually reflected my relationship with images of actual human beings? Maybe a little (or maybe a lot).
Who Cares? What's The Big Deal?
Maybe I have put too much thought into all of this. The dog card was pretty much perfect for Ashley and I anyway, as was the key one, and one with an @ sign on it - they all fit really well for us, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that humans - all of them - have a need to belong, and one way that they gain a sense of belonging is by seeing their reflection in the world around them. This is especially true for young people. What they see around them gives them feedback about how they fit into this world (or how they don’t). I’m not talking about the need to conform or advocating that we all be formed by cookie cutters, but when you see your reflection, it’s comforting and reassuring. When a gay kid today sees gay couples on TV, it tells him or her that they aren’t the only one in the world - a thought that was not that foreign to many gay kids growing up 10, 15, 20, or more years ago when there weren’t gay characters on TV or in the movies. The changes on TV and in the movies are big - and great - but it still isn’t real life. How often do gay kids see themselves reflected in the real world that swirls around them every day? For all the positive changes, there’s still progress to be made - and Valentine’s Day is certainly one of those places - and spaces - where the predominant message is that love, relationships, and romance belong in the sphere of heterosexual experiences and anyone else seeking to participate must do so from the sidelines. Why should a message like that be any part of a day devoted to love?
Specialty Valentines Carried by Mainstream Stores
Thus, it would appear that it is easier to find a Valentine’s day card to represent the relationship between you and your dog than it is to find one that accurately reflects the image of a same-sex couple (that is, without relying on more dogs, pigs, red boots, cutlery or cartoon bears). If you want to get a card for your grandma, your brother, your brother-in-law (that’s kind of questionable isn’t it?), your teacher, or any relative you could imagine, you’re in luck - the card will be there, probably at any store that sells cards. But for the mainstream stores to carry a card specifically targeted at two women or two men celebrating Valentine’s Day ...just seems like it must be too much of a stretch of their imaginations when selecting the cards to sell at their stores. (And no offense to my brother, he is a nice guy, but I’m slightly more inclined to celebrate Valentine’s day with my partner than with him!) I understand that stocking a store and selecting inventory is all about supply and demand - you don’t want to stock your shelves with something that won’t sell - but does Walgreens, Shopper's, or the Grocery Store seriously expect to sell more Spanish Valentine’s Day Cards for Great Aunts than Valentine’s Day cards for same-sex couples? Do they seriously want me to believe that the Spanish Great Aunt Valentine’s are hot sellers that bring in the big bucks while carrying a few cards for same-sex couples would spell certain economic ruin? Stocking Valentine’s Day cards for same-sex couples would do more than sell more cards, it would contribute to a sense of belonging for every LGBTQ person who walks past those cards, especially any queer or questioning kid searching to buy a card for their very first crush.
I’ll leave you with a video from the Self Evident Truths Project - that seeks to show the basic links of humanity that underlie all forms of difference. As the artist says - “I challenge you to look into the faces of these people and tell them that they deserve less than any other human being.” Even on Valentine’s Day.