As far as brands go, Valentine’s Day has a pretty strong one. Teddy bears, cards, roses, jewellery — and just about any other object you can imagine contorted into the shape of a heart — have all become strong visual cues for the day dedicated to celebrating romantic love. But it’s also a brand that until recent years has had a fairly rigid target audience: straight people. The successful love stories we’re shown and incidentally told to aspire to are pretty much always between men and women. This excludes LGBTQ+ people and tells them their relationships aren’t worthy of celebrating. It also fails to recognise that not everyone experiences romantic attraction. And, if you’ve ever tried to buy a card for your same-sex or non-binary partner, you’ll know it’s a nightmare.
It’s been encouraging to see that — in response to the stigma around being single slowly lifting — more people than ever are instead celebrating the importance of female friendships on Galentine’s Day, on February 13. But we’re still yet to see an alternative that actively includes queer people.
For Paula Akpan, a 26-year-old lesbian, Valentine’s Day has traditionally provoked strong feelings of exclusion. “I always wanted a valentine because, otherwise, it felt like I couldn't partake in this coveted day where people demonstrated love,” she tells me. It’s a feeling shared by many LGBTQ+ people including 27-year-old Jeff Ingold. “I felt a sort of underlying resentment that this particular day wasn’t ‘for me’,” he says. “All I saw growing up was images of opposite-sex couples and even before I had come to terms with who I was, it never sat right with me.”
It's this sense of not being included in the hetero and cisnormative traditions of Valentine’s Day that is leading LGBTQ+ people to reclaim the day, redefine the meaning of Valentine’s and make it queerer than ever.
Here's how they're doing it...
Recognising the queerness in Valentine’s Day
Of course Valentine’s is majorly marketed towards straight and cisgender people, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find that aspects of it are actually pretty queer. Francesca Forristal, a 24-year-old bisexual drag performer has found that recognising the queerness in the day has allowed her to see it can be relevant to her.
“If you think about the traditional heteronormative narrative associated with rom coms and mainstream love stories, it’s usually two people overcoming an array of obstacles to be together,” she says. “It’s a trope that actually aligns better with queer romance. Most queer couples have had to fight to be recognised on their own, let alone as part of a couple.”
She feels it’s beyond time Valentine’s Day had the “queer glow-up it deserves”. She adds, “Love is cool, romance is cool, and none of these things are limited to heterosexual people.”
Francesca has found this perspective shift on the meaning of Valentine’s Day has helped her to feel more connected to it, and is passionate about helping others to do the same. But although all of this is true, it still places the idea of romantic love as the central theme of the day, so what about for those who don’t experience this type of love at all?
Celebrating all types of love
Valentine’s Day works on the assumption that the people celebrating it are alloromantic – meaning those who experience romantic attraction. But romantic attraction, just like sexuality and gender, exists on a spectrum. For Yasmin Benoit, 23, who is aromantic and doesn’t experience romantic attraction, Valentine’s is a day she didn’t pay much attention to growing up. She says, “It felt irrelevant to me as it always felt like a day for celebrating romantic relationships, which I’ve never wanted to be in.”
But as an adult, she’s found her own way of queering Valentine’s, instead using the day to celebrate platonic love and other forms of relationships that aren’t romantic. "I've redefined it to celebrate things I actually care about, like self-love, or the love of friends or family. I always have a Valentine,” she says. “They’re usually a close friend, and we’ll go for dinner or do something to mark the occasion.”
This year, she’s hosting an event to promote understanding around asexuality and aromanticism, before attending a Galentine’s Day party on the 14th. “All relationships are worthy of celebration, regardless of whether they’re romantic or not,” she adds.
Jeff has also used the day to honour his platonic loves. “For me it’s important to find time to celebrate the love that sustains me — and in my case, friendship is a huge part of that,” he explains. A few years ago Jeff took a mate on a friendship date on Valentine’s Day “as a kind of ‘f*ck you’ to the whole thing”. They had such a good time they’ve kept up the tradition. “This year, we’re going to see queen Mariah Carey perform in Las Vegas! What could be gayer? Celebrating it by watching such an icon in the LGBTQ+ community perform definitely feels like a fun way to queer the day.”
Paula also has found events that celebrate queer love in all its forms. on the hunt for nights to celebrate queer love in all its forms. “Organisations like OutSavvy, as well as queer Black and Brown collectives like MISERY and Pxssy Palace put on nights where we can feel safe and held,” she says.
Adapting Valentine’s Day to suit you
Paula and her girlfriend are using the day to celebrate their love, but they’re making Valentine’s queerer by taking some of the more traditional romantic aspects of the day and shedding others that don’t work for them.
“We make a point of going for a nice date at the end of every month to celebrate ourselves and unpack the month that's just gone by,” she explains. “So we're not waiting on Valentine's Day to come round in order to demonstrate how we feel about one another.”
This month, they’ll be observing their monthly ritual on the 14th. But their tradition isn’t about reclaiming the day. “I don’t think Valentine’s Day, the big consumerist occasion that it is, is a day that we need to reclaim when there are so many ways that Black queer people show up for one another every day in far more meaningful and demonstrative ways - romantically and platonically. My girlfriend and I are just taking it as another opportunity to treat one another.”
Celebrating Valentine’s Day as it is
It’s not all about changing Valentine’s Day to fit into queer life, though. Benjamin Butch, 25, is a queer recently-married drag performer who says he really enjoys the day just as it is. “I’m a hopeless romantic. I like to spoil my wife and do things to surprise her,” he says. “Every year I pretend I’ve forgotten and then I do something unexpected — take her for dinner, buy her flowers, etc.
“I see the day as an opportunity to celebrate romantic love as a concept, rather than just heterosexual love. As far as I see it, Valentine’s is for everyone, and it’s also a convenient excuse to bring out my more demonstrative side and show my wife just how much I love her — and celebrate the love we’ve found as a queer couple. "We feel as entitled to celebrate our love as anyone else — so why wouldn't we celebrate it on Valentine’s Day?"
Thinking of Valentine’s Day like Pride
Francesca is passionate about what Valentine’s Day could mean for queer people. She wants it to be another day in the calendar year for queer people to celebrate their love and the community, much like Pride. It’s why she hosts events around Valentine’s Day with her drag collective Dragprov.
“We perform in large spaces full of queer people,” she says. “We want to bust the stereotype that love, romance, cuteness and gooeyness are only for straight people. We’re passionate about celebrating relationships that ‘defy all odds’ — that is to say, those that overcome all the stigma that is piled on LGBTQ+ people and find something really, and truly loving, caring and nourishing.”
It’s the same sentiment that underpins Pride marches across the world every year.
Making Valentine’s Day sexy
With such a focus on ‘love is love’ throughout Pride season, it’s also refreshing to be able to unashamedly celebrate queerness in all it’s erotic, sexy glory. And this is why many queer people will be spending the day at sex-positive nights like Harpies, a popular LGBTQ+ strip night in East London.
“I don’t know a better place to celebrate queer love, sex and bodies,” Francesca says. “[Events like Harpies] celebrate nakedness and queerness in such a beautiful way, and it’s a fun night out among other queers.”
Undoubtedly, for it'll be a difficult day for many LGBTQ+ people. But Paula's found a way to focus on the positives. She says, "Take a second to think about the rich complexity with which you're loved by any of your chosen family throughout the year.”
What could be more worthy of celebration than that?
You can catch Francesca Forristal performing at the Vaults festival on Valentine’s Day or the following week in Dragprov.
Harpies - Europe's first LGBTQ+ Strip Club joins forces with He.She.They. for a very special one off collaboration for London Fashion Week AW20 to celebrate LGBTQ people, bodies and push diversity and inclusion in fashion.
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