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Issue 8

Queering Valentine’s Day: Navigating singlehood and ‘compulsory heterosexuality’

It is inevitable for people to feel choked during February, with all the hype around love and the joys of coupledom. It is an important month to analyse how ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (in Adrienne Rich’s terms) has hijacked our understanding of love, desire, and sexuality in our society. Valentine’s day takes me back to my teenage years. As a queer person, I remember having to force myself to fit into the idea of love that is constructed by this notion of ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’ A concept coined by Adrienne Rich, ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ expounds on the way heterosexuality becomes a political institution having the privilege to limit our understanding and expression of ‘other’ desires. This heterosexual compulsion feeds the popular cultural metanarratives of greeting cards, and other media to celebrate love, desire, and sex as heterosexual. 

Love and desire are understood as heterosexual in our society which leads to the alienation of ‘other’ identities and sexualities on valentine’s day. This raises questions like: Why is it that we have a special day to celebrate one kind of love, but not others? Do such celebrations reflect (and reproduce) a kind of hierarchy of love that is present in our culture? And how might such hierarchies be problematic, both for those who are excluded from them and for those who are included?

The problems of exclusions are more obvious than those of inclusion. Who is really included or excluded on Valentine’s day? Is it necessary that a ‘heterosexual’ couple is included, and queer couples and single folks irrespective of their gender and sexuality are excluded? 

Singledom is not the only exclusion. Valentine’s day reminds us that the romantic love that is accepted is hetero. Most cards portray pictures of heterosexual couples, or male and female animal soft toys, etc. Similarly, commemoration cards are generally intended to be from a wife/girlfriend to a husband/boyfriend and vice-versa. Sitting with a ‘same-sex’ partner in a café on Valentine’s night feels different. While most outlets—after the decriminalisation of section 377—are now welcoming, there surely is a difference to the experience of a queer couple. There may well be a similar feeling for others whose relationships aren’t considered quite as acceptable: mixed-race couples, couples where either one or both partners don’t meet the ideals of conventional attractiveness, those with an age-gap, or people who want to celebrate with multiple partners on a night where every table is set out for two.

Romantic love is intrinsically linked to sexual love, and popular Valentine’s gifts include both the sentimental gifts (such as flowers, chocolates, and soft toys) and the sexy gifts(underwear, sex toys, and erotic games). For this reason, other exclusions may include those who are assumed not to be sexual (by virtue of being too young, too old, or disabled, for example), and those who are assumed to be sexual but in fact are not. A person who is asexual and romantic, or a couple whose relationship started out as sexual in nature but is no longer so, may feel painfully aware of assumptions and expectations around Valentine’s night.

Turning to those who are included in Valentine’s day, there are difficulties here as well – although they may not be so obvious.

If a person wants to include their friends on Valentine’s day, it is deemed questionable. But then the question is: Why should the partner be considered more important than those other people that we are probably closer to? Isolating ourselves from friendship can be daunting in a relationship. It can make a person feel lonely despite being in the company of their partner, regardless of how much they love them. There is a sense of privacy around the couple whereby we aren’t meant to share what is going on with anyone outside of it. As well as exacerbating the sense of exclusion of our single friends, this can be damaging for those in the relationship as they come to rely upon each other for everything and feel unable to get support from outside when they are struggling. Hence, Valentine’s Day and an overtly heterosexual understanding of love can limit our growth as individuals. 

Valentine’s day can add to the pressure for those who are going through a tough period in their intimate relationship. There are expectations and assumptions about how we must feel on Valentine’s Day and the kinds of declarations that we must want to make to each other. Two common responses to such pressure are to either assume that the relationship must be wrong and to bolt from it, or to focus on presenting an outside image which seems appropriate whilst denying (to others and to oneself) that we are struggling, until it has reached a critical point.

One way to release the pressure is by expanding the meaning of love; it does not have to be ‘romantic’ in a very heterosexual way, but rather in a queer way. Knowing what we want to feel as opposed to knowing what to feel or what we are expected to feel can narrow down our understanding of desire, love and intimacy. This kind of re-evaluation can also expand our understanding of what might be included in romantic love, friendship, and in the blurry space in between (the friends-with-benefits arrangement, the romantic relationship which has developed into friendship over time, the friendship that has all the intimacy, passion and challenge of a romantic relationship).

So instead of ignoring Valentine’s week or the fourteenth of February, we should ‘queer it’. Make it unconventional, challenge the heterosexual ground that it is built on and re-work/re-model it to fit our identity. Prescribing a way to do it would be going against the argument of queering it. So, it is important to decide for ourselves what we want, rather than what they would conventionally want us to feel. Just remember love is not one thing or one kind of feeling; it can hold myriad feelings or meanings. Love begins when you are truly yourself. 

Artwork by Muskaan Kanodia.

Roshan Roy is a senior student of English Literature at Ashoka University. He can usually be found reading anything non-fiction, listening to John Mayer or contemplating life while listening to and singing along with Passenger’s songs. His areas of research and writing include sexuality and gender. He navigates life by writing performance poetry and non-fiction.

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