As far as mainstream holidays go, Valentine’s Day is perhaps the most heteronormative of all. From greeting cards and gifts, to television shows and movies, society inundates us with messages that Valentine’s Day is an occasion to celebrate monogamous, heterosexual relationships. It’s a day when men buy flowers, chocolates, and (for the more adventuresome) frilly panties for their ladies before having a candlelight dinner punctuated by kisses and declarations of love and fidelity. So on a day when almost everything seems to be about “devoted husbands” and their “beloved wives,” what are gays and lesbians supposed to do?
Research suggests that single gay people often respond to Valentine’s Day by trying to ignore the holiday altogether, teaching themselves to view it as “just another day.”1 Many single heterosexuals adopt this strategy as well in order to cope with the societal stigma attached to flying solo. Thus, regardless of sexual orientation, single folks tend to pursue the common strategy of distancing themselves from the holiday. In contrast, partnered gays and lesbians tend to take a quite different approach. Rather than ignoring Valentine’s Day, many same-sex couples view it as an opportunity to rebel against a heteronormative society and express pride in their gay identity.
As some real world evidence of this, in recent years we have witnessed gays and lesbians holding kiss-ins and mass weddings in very prominent public locations on February 14th. Likewise, there’s an Occupy Valentine’s Day movement sweeping Tumblr this month to protest heterosexual “couple-talism.”
Such demonstrations are at least partly a response to heteronormative retailers and media messages, but they are also a way of calling attention to same-sex couples’ lack of full marriage equality. As the legal and social standing of same-sex relationships continues to change, it will be interesting to examine whether the holiday is marketed any differently and also whether gay and lesbian couples come to celebrate it more like their heterosexual counterparts, or if they will make their own unique traditions.
1Newman, P. J., & Nelson, M. R. (1996). Mainstream legitimization of homosexual men through Valentine’s Day gift-giving and consumption rituals. Journal of Homosexuality, 31, 57-69.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.