This Valentine’s Day, Magda Szubanski came out as a lesbian in support of gay marriage on national television. Social media went mad. We’re still talking about it a week later. Why do we care so much about coming out when the most common media catchphrase following her disclosure was that sexual orientation doesn’t matter? With a banquet of examples of discrimination to choose from, why does gay marriage grab so much of our attention?
There are such terribly tiny spaces carved out for the social expression of love. We have marriage, Valentine’s Day and love song dedications. Even if we think we’re too cool, our love too special, better, chiller, more real or less corny than everyone else’s, we’re pretty much at a loss as to how to express it publicly if we dodge these rituals.
What Magda Szubanski did last week, among other things, was to express her love for women and her desire for gay people to participate in one of the few rituals of love still available. And she chose Valentine’s Day to do it.
Marriage, not unlike Valentine’s Day, is a sore spot for many people. It’s a celebration that separates the partnered from the single, the cherished from the rejected. In most parts of the world it separates gay from straight. It doesn’t really matter that we may see both marriage and Valentine’s Day as a sham or as commercial pap, or as patriarchal capitalism at its worst. Both marriage and Valentine’s Day can still have the power to induce pain and shame in those of us feeling alone and excluded.
It’s only easy to be indifferent to cultural ceremonies of love when you feel loved and included. It’s not just about whether you want to go — but whether you’ve been invited. The privileges of these rituals are many, the legal and economic perhaps most obvious. But the welcoming of public displays of love is hugely important to our wellbeing and to the healthiness of our partnerships.
In my childhood family, being shamefully commodified North Americans, we celebrated Valentine’s Day across the board. We didn’t reserve the holiday for lovers. My mother would bake a cake, sometimes in the shape of a heart. There would be small presents and cards for everybody.
As a kid in high school, Valentine’s Day was celebrated in class. It was painfully anticipated morning when some of us had cards and chocolates on their desks from secret or declared admirers, and some did not. It apparently still happens in the great white north, and only recently have gay Valentines been accepted in some schools.
One year, in grade 9, I "cheated" on my boyfriend Blair by kissing Trevor while Blair was on camp. This was a shocking sin, and I was sure not to get a card on my desk from either of them. No one else would risk giving a card to a floozy, so the day loomed pretty bleakly.
Not one to be shamed by sexual etiquette, my best friend hatched a plan. Being a jock and terrifying to boys despite looking like the Bionic Woman, she was sure to miss out on Valentine anointment as well. She decided we would give cards to each other. We would make them anonymous, but passionately heated. We would spring for something more than the tiny candy hearts that said things like "bee mine" and "I luv u". We would buy actual chocolate. I got her the tiny ladybug ones and she got me a gold wrappered heart. It was my favourite Valentine’s Day ever. Nothing has really topped it since.
It took me years to realise that I had been in love with her, that I was bisexual, and to come out. Being bi means that coming out is a regular event; because of course the assumption is that whoever you’re with at the time defines your sexuality. Or if you’re single, then the assumption is that if you don’t speak, you’re straight. The choice to come out or not is not really a choice between the private and the public, but more a decision about how we bear our identity in the world. There are consequences to privacy and there are others when we declare our sexuality in public.
Our sexuality is such a core part of our identity it can never be irrelevant, whether we make it public or not. When Szubanski came out, when she spoke of both her pride in her sexuality and her pain at the prejudice against gay people, she was still asked to justify why the sacred rules of marriage should be bent. She was in many ways talking about love, and like many people who dare to really talk about love, she met with some fear.
The struggle for recognition, rights, parity and safety is far from over. Civil union recognition is a mere four years old. And there is a long way to go before there is freedom in the expression of love.
Boy meets girl, cancerously farmed roses, heart shaped chocolates, white dresses and blood diamonds are all part of our mythic story of heterosexual monogamous love. I wish it wasn’t so. At least I wish we didn’t excavate four swimming pools of earth for a small bag of diamonds. I wish the cocoa was fair trade and the flowers weren’t toxic. But at the moment it’s the only public show in town.
I think we’re pretty keen to hear people talk about love. And part of the discussion of gay marriage and coming out includes stories of love. Who we love, how we love and how we show our love. We just can’t get enough.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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