Knowing me, I have mentioned this before, but also knowing me and my faulty memory, I’m not sure whether or not I have. In other words, please forgive me for repeating myself if I am, but this is important to me. I find myself being a sour jerk when others make a certain gesture of apparent support, and I am going to use this essay to both figure out why and explain. Or by explaining, figure it out.
In the last few years, it has become the fashion for folks to erect signs in their yard which read LOVE IS LOVE, usually in rainbow colors. This is, I get it, intended as a show of support, acknowledging non-heterosexual relationships as legitimate. As a queer woman married to a genderqueer AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) person, I do feel reassured and even happy to see such shows of support. Most usually, around where I live, the signs are put up at the houses of what appear to be very straight, middle class families. (And actually, the signs tend to be longer, all the same sign design, probably bought in the same place: IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE… and then a laundry list of things: Black lives matter, science is real, women’s rights are human rights, love is love.)
I do understand the impulse, especially given the political climate in recent years. But something about it just sits wrong with me, and every time I walk my dogs past one of those well-meaning house signs, I get itchy and cranky and am tempted to let the dogs do their thing in the yard and not clean it up. I don’t do it, but the temptation is there.
It’s not that I think people don’t mean the support they’re showing—I’m sure they do (though real support extends, in my mind, well beyond yard signs to action, which doesn’t seem to be quite as popular as the signs). Part of it is the list—what gets included, what gets left off (economic justice, for instance, or defunding the police, or eliminating the death penalty). It’s a prefab list. Nobody’s making their own. How deeply-held or well-reasoned can these beliefs be if you can buy them as a list on the internet?
But that’s just a side crank. My main crank is about the phrase LOVE IS LOVE, which extends well beyond the purview of these signs. In the last several years, the phrase has been everywhere. And I understand what it means to say: we should not distinguish between heterosexual, two-person reproductive relationships and other kinds of relationships. If you love the person/people you are with, that should be enough. I’m not even going to tackle the assumption that relationships need to be built on love. Okay, well, a quick tackle: there are many reasons to be together, romantic love being only one. Why not financial? Filial love? People who don’t love each other but share love for someone else (a child, a dog, a cause)? Convenience or need? Or—and this is a large reason for my first legal marriage (though not why I cared about the person)—health insurance? And I could also mention the assumption that a love relationship necessarily involves two people. I mean, for me it always has so far, but I’ve seen many relationships based on love that involve more than two people, and I’m capable of recognizing as real something other than my own experience. Ahem.
But all that aside, my beef with the phrase LOVE IS LOVE is beyond that. Because I disagree with the phrase itself. All love is NOT the same, especially if we are talking about queer love and societally-sanctioned “straight” love. To be clear, I am not hierarchizing one over the other or valorizing one experience over another, but I do insist that there is a very big difference. Queer people are different from straight people, and our experience is different. We love at risk.
Even in the years since marriage has been legalized in the United States for gay and lesbian couples, things are still often very different. My wife and I plan vacations carefully—there are parts of the country and places in the world that are not even a remote possibility for us to visit because we feel endangered. Even visiting my mother-in-law in Florida, we steer clear of public places when we can—we’ve been in restaurants with anti-gay propaganda displayed, for instance, or parked next to cars with homophobic bumper stickers. The air, in some places, just feels dangerous. Even in New York, our home, we’ve been followed, harassed, yelled at. When we lived in Brooklyn, my visibly-genderqueer partner had a beer bottle thrown at them by a drunk and a neighbor (three doors down from us) disgustedly shouted “I don’t need to see that!” when we walked by holding hands.
A 2020 study at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law determined that “LGBT people are nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault” (1). Another study shows that over 45% of LGBT workers experience employment discrimination (being fired, not hired or harassed because of their sexual orientation/gender identification) (2). LGBTQ folks are disproportionally homeless. Numerous businesses have made bank on publicly denying our rights (remember the bakery that proudly refused to bake a “gay” wedding cake?). Even finding a safe place to pee for genderqueer and trans folks is often difficult.
Suffice it to say, LGBTQ folks face violence and discrimination based on the fact that we are not straight. This is old news. LGBTQ folks of color face an even higher rate, by the way. So how can I get behind a sign that claims that LGBTQ love is the same as straight love? When you cannot walk hand in hand on your own block without risk, does that change the nature of holding hands? When you must plan where you might travel based on how much risk you face for your sexuality, does it change what it means to take a vacation? Does it change how the map of the world looks to you? When you risk ostracization from family, community, church, school simply because your love is queer love, does it change how love feels or what it means? Our love is formed and expressed in the face of resistance and disapproval and risk. That’s different. Love is not love. We love at risk.
To ignore all this, to insist that “love is love”, seems heterosexist to me. The underlying suggestion is that “we should accept LGBT people because they are just like us.” That leaves so many of us out of your formulation. To predicate your acceptance of me upon your ability to understand and make sense of me (because I am like you) is narcissistic and small-minded. Queerness (the Q that often gets left off the letter list in discussions like these) is about resistance to heteronormativity. It’s about being illegible to the mainstream. When my wife was at a job interview in a strange town and walked down the street, someone loudly remarked as my wife walked by, “What is it? Is that a man or a woman?”
It is the opposite of open-minded to say you accept someone because you can recognize their sameness to you. This means you can only accept queer love between two normatively-gendered, marriage-minded, monogamous, permanent, reproductive, able-bodied people, a slightly-altered but essentially-the-same nuclear family. It means you still will not be able to accept the vast majority of queer love in all its different permutations.
Queer love is different from straight love. Often, it’s brewed in a crucible not a teapot. Often, it challenges the very assumptions which found straight culture. To accept queer love is to accept that “love” might mean something very different from what you’ve been taught to understand. Actually, to accept queer love might mean that you must accept something without understanding it.