Valentine’s Day, the activist way

Valentine’s Day. For some, it’s like heaven on earth – particularly for those who are experiencing the infatuation and bliss of a new relationship. But for others, frankly, Valentine’s Day is sheer hell. If you’re in a relationship, you’re eventually hit with the harsh realization that the picture-perfect Valentine’s Day – complete with flowers, chocolate, candlelight dinner, and amazing sex – is merely a commercialized illusion. If you’re single, you feel like a big loser because you’re alone. If you’re not in a relationship, or if you don’t have Big Plans for Valentine’s Day, then there must be something wrong with you.

There must be something wrong with you.

Over the years, I have learned that whenever the voices inside my head tell me there is something wrong with you, the voices are actually speaking in code. (For the record, I’m not talking about hallucinatory voices. I’m talking about the general background noise of cognitive chatter we all have going on in our heads.) Those voices are not saying what I think they’re saying. Rather, they are the collective voices of oppressive cultural attitudes that have become lodged within my psyche. When I feel like I don’t measure up, or I don’t fit in, or I’m too this, or not enough that, those statements are not the truth. The reality, in contrast, is that the standards of “normalcy” and “okay-ness” in our culture are incredibly restrictive and marginalizing. If you fall outside the box, it’s not that there’s something horribly wrong with you. Maybe, instead, the box is too small and rigid.

So let’s unpack the small, rigid Valentine’s Day box in our culture. What is so oppressive about this holiday?

Let’s start with sexism. For some reason, Valentine’s Day seems to give the media license to run amok with sexist stereotypes., for example, published an article titled, “An Aphrodisiac Valentine’s Day” that included the following quote:

An all aphrodisiac dinner is bound to delight and may just turn a standard Valentine’s eve into a scorching hot love fest.As the 1960s Pillsbury TV ad boldly claimed, ‘Nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven.’

The Pillsbury ad (and the catchy jingle) is a good example of 1950s traditonal, old-school sexism. Fast-forward to 2012, and we have Teleflora’s Super Bowl commercial, which insinuated that buying a woman flowers will get her into bed. Or Zales Jewelers, whose ad suggested that buying a woman expensive jewelry will . . . well, you know the rest. Respecting and empowering women doesn’t seem to be a part of the commercialized Valentine’s Day narrative.

Of course, for many years women have found ways to subvert, reclaim, and take back Valentine’s Day. Some choose to celebrate Singles Awareness Day, which, interestingly, isn’t necessarily gender-specific, but their suggestions on their website for how to spend the day are VERY gender-specific (“Why not schedule a hair and nail appointment at your favorite salon? Or consider getting a massage or other spa treatment that you have been hold off on [sic] for whatever reason?”). But others have seized the opportunity to put Valentine’s Day on notice for its inherent, embedded sexism. One of the most political examples of Valentine’s Day subversion was the establishment of “V-Day” in 1998 by Eve Ensler, a day where performances of The Vagina Monologues raise consciousness about the prevalence of violence against women. In conjunction with its 15th anniversary this year, V-Day has launched a more ambitious global campaign called One Billion Rising, an invitation to one billion women and men to “WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND” an end to violence against women.

Why am I devoting so much blog space to sexism, when I’m really supposed to be talking about LGBTQ issues? Because homophobia (and heterosexism) are tools that keep sexism in place.

Think about it. In her book, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, Suzanne Pharr describes how she asked a group of workshop participants the following question: “What would the world be like without homophobia in it – for everyone, female and male, whatever gender identity?” These were the responses she got:

  • Kids won’t be called tomboys or sissies; they’ll just be who they are, able to do what they wish.
  • People will be able to love anyone, no matter what sex; the issue will simply be whether or not she/he is a good human being, compatible, and loving.
  • Affection will be opened up between women and men, women and women, men and men, and it won’t be centered on sex; people won’t fear being called names if they show affection to someone who isn’t a mate or potential mate.
  • If affection is opened up, then isolation will be broken down for all of us, especially for those who generally experience little physical affection, such as unmarried old people.
  • Women will be able to work whatever jobs we want without being labeled masculine.
  • There will be less violence if men do not feel they have to prove and assert their manhood. Their desire to dominate and control will not spill over from the personal to the level of national and international politics and the use of bigger and better weapons to control other countries.
  • People will wear whatever clothes they wish, with the priority being comfort rather than the display of femininity or masculinity.
  • There will be no gender roles (Pharr, 1988, p. 7).

See how much of this is about sexism? If we’re going to effectively address homophobia and heterosexism, we have to see that those forces – combined with economics and violence – converge again and again to reinforce women’s subordination and uphold patriarchy.

So what can you do this Valentine’s Day that supports and empowers women and LGBTQ people? You could participate in One Billion Rising and speak out against violence. You could engage in HIV/AIDS awareness, protecting our right to engage healthy, informed sexual activity. You could attend a marriage equality event (of which there are many scheduled on February 14th) and support all loving relationships. The possibilities are endless – and far more empowering than buying flowers. And the most powerful action you can take is to remember this: I am exactly as I should be.


Filed under gender nonconformity, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, LGBTQ, relationships, same-sex marriage, sexism, stereotypes, Uncategorized, violence

2 responses to “Valentine’s Day, the activist way

  1. Gary Hollander

    Thanks as always for your thoughtful and timely post, Gayle. You rock! I share your apparent admiration for the equally thoughtful — and groundbreaking — work of Suzanne Pharr. I devoured her small but highly significant book when it first came out. It was a life-changer for me.

    When you have some time to think about this, I would love to hear your ideas about society and culture and how these terms are commonly used in connection with and by LGBTQ people. For example, I hear people say things like, “It is part of gay culture to eat our own and criticize all leadership.” Culture? Or, “It is part of lesbian culture to sleep around and keep all of your old lovers close.” Culture? Or, “Heterosexual men have homophobia as part of their culture.”

    My reason for raising this here? I was wondering about the mechanisms in modern society that have translated the rich interior life fostered by self-talk into a mental illness confused with auditory hallucinations. Further, how has US culture been conflated with a consumerist society not only for Valentine’s Day and all things sexual or romantic, but for self-worth and even self-concept. But then I find myself getting into the weeds of society and culture.

    Shedding any light?

    • Oh wow – there’s a huge question! I should probably give this some more thought and then devote a post to it. I’ll say this: Each of the statements you quoted seem to be made in defense of one’s “culture,” as if criticizing it (or at the very least, deconstructing it) is off-limits. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily part of “lesbian culture” to sleep around and keep all of your old lovers close, but if it is, I’d want to dig deeper and ask WHY that is the pattern. Identifying with a community (or “culture”) is critically important, I think especially for marginalized groups. Failing to question why components of that culture have emerged (especially if they’re potentially harmful in some way) is severely problematic – and I think due to deep internalized homophobia.

      The other thing that comes to mind is that we (LGBTQ people) are a community that lacks clear roots. We have roots, but they’re not always easily identifiable because of our invisibility. Because of that – and I often see this with the young people I work with – it’s easy to identify present-day behaviors and patterns, but it’s harder to trace those behaviors back to their roots.

      There! That’s my quick two cents. Again, a lengthier and more thoughtful blog post is probably in order. Thanks, Gary, for reading and commenting.

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