Valentine's Day, for me, always proves bittersweet. Not because I'm single and can't partake in the ritualistic coupledom of giving each other heart-symbolizing red roses, heart-shaped balloons, boxes of chocolates, and then going out to dinner for a very singles-discriminatory two-for-one special, followed by passionate love-making. Rather, it's the incessant reminder to "Legalize Love," a phrase that now pops up this time of year everywhere from human rights organizations' emails reminding me to donate so we can keep funding marriage equality to coupled friends' Facebook posts reminding me to keep fighting for marriage equality. All the while I wonder: Should this fight be about love?
The "Legalize Love" phrase shot into our lexicon almost simultaneously from two separate sources with two separate agendas. In July 2012, Google birthed the phrase, using it to launch a campaign aimed at promoting "safer conditions for gay and lesbian people inside and outside the office in countries with anti-gay laws on the books." A few weeks later, couple Luke Montgomery and Eduardo Cisneros started an independent campaign designed to raise funds for President Obama's reelection. Their campaign focused squarely on marriage equality and eventually supplanted Google's message as the most popular--"Legalize Love" now meant "Legalize Marriage."
We like to fantasize about love being a universally understood concept, but, historically, love has had many uses. Marriage scholars routinely note that love has only been attached to marriage in the last 200 years or so. Up until the late 1700s, love was typically only reserved for God, neighbors and kin (but not one's spouse). Romantic love was also often only reserved for romantic relationships outside the marriage, hence the use of the term 'love child.' For most of the West's history, marriage was a strategic move for peace treaties, gaining social power and expanding a family's workforce (so they could survive economically). Marriage was too important politically, socially and economically to be based on such an irrational, volatile emotion as love.
But love--as maddening as it can be--does, when it works well, make our romantic relationships more fulfilling. So, what is wrong with attaching it to marriage?
In a previous commentary for the Huffington Post, I argued that the gay community's fight for marriage is being used to socialize us into wanting marriage as heterosexuals have created it: monogamous, coupled, with children, ideally upper-middle class and with traditional gender roles. (How many of us have been asked or have heard a straight person ask, "So which one's the boy and which one's the girl?"). The heterosexual standard maintains that you experience love by conforming to an exclusive, "true love" model. If you are polyamorous and have more than two persons in your relationship, you can't truly love everyone involved at the same time. If you are in an open, non-monogomous relationship, then you don't truly love your partner.
I want to extend that premise to include one overarching, heterosexual-created idea about love, chiefly the idea that if you truly love someone, you should want to marry them. Under this idea, commitment falls less on every day actions ranging from wanting to provide emotional care, financial support and sexual satisfaction. It also falls less in allowing the couple to have the freedom to determine what kind of commitment is shown and to ask the basic question: How do you want to be shown love? Under the heterosexual model, the pinnacle of commitment is walking down an aisle and standing in front of a preacher for 10-15 minutes - unless you're Catholic, then you stand for what feels like hours. Love becomes polluted with the expectation that it needs to be tied to marriage to be legitimate or to truly exist.
Now, in order to achieve marriage equality, homosexuals have embraced that narrative by stating that love is somehow less than if it's not legalized. Just as a reminder, I can get married in pretty much every state. I can go to a progressive church, put on a tux, walk down the aisle in front of family, friends and God, and have a pastor declare that, in the eyes of my community, I'm now a husband. Granted, this is a social marriage, with no legal rights, but it is a marriage nonetheless. I can also love without marriage and, certainly, without "legalizing" it. The irony of not having the right to marry was that it freed us to create our own rules--rules that arguably created more successful relationships rather than trying to live up to such a societal expectation as marriage.
Philosopher Simon May argues that love's purpose--no matter who or what it's for--should be to provide "grounding" in that it roots us mentally, spiritually and spatially. Such grounding takes love received from the outside, and then the work of rootedness takes place within. This is an act that cannot be decreed from the state or government. And yet we often fall into the fairytale trap of pretending that love's relationship to marriage and the resulting legal rootedness somehow generates a cementing force that gives us internal rootedness and emotional stability. I hate to break it to you, society, but that work can only be done between you and your loved ones.
Just as our Western brethren throughout history confined love only to God, then only to God and kin, then to romantic relationships outside marriage, we too are confining love. By so forcefully attaching love to marriage--to the institution of government-- we force love into a box. Out of all our emotions, love more than any begs for and requires freedom if we are to truly create a loving (and, yes, equal) society. Perhaps "Legalize Love" should not be so squarely attached to the institution of marriage, but rather to a broader, more general notion to love our fellow human beings enough to treat them equally, with equal rights. So, this Valentine's Day, I don't want love wrapped in marriage with a bow on top. Just give me some chocolate.