By Elaine Mei
Nobody taught us how to love during a pandemic. And because of the coronavirus, we’ve all been forced to love differently. College romance now looks like 3am facetime calls and badly-rhymed flitzes; platonic love looks like Netflix Parties and care packages sent in the mail; activist love looks like supporting Black Lives Matter and honoring the Black radical tradition of resistance. There’s no definitive rulebook on how to show people we care from six feet apart –– so we invented our own ways of loving despite the distance.
We’ve all seen the administration’s emails: for many Americans, this public health situation is “unprecedented”. For older generations of LGBTQ+ people, however, the struggle to love during a health crisis is all too familiar. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, it meant loving even at the risk of death, and loving when loving was difficult. It meant loving when those you loved were withering from a disease that the government refused to publicly acknowledge. For years, activists protested on Monday only to attend funerals on Sunday. For them, loving during a public health crisis meant more than not being able to see your partner. It also meant coping with the painful reality that your country did not recognize you as a human being worth saving.
As activist, writer, and Dartmouth professor Alexander Chee describes his experience of the 1980s, “My friends and I were people who knew AIDS could kill us all, and we were fighting against those who believed it would kill only gay people.” Being queer meant living under a shroud of invisibility, one that relegated your community to a silent death and a lack of agency in the public sphere. Trans women of color have always fought at the front lines of the LGBTQ+ rights movement –– yet their efforts are always the least visible. How do you assert visibility in a world that insists on keeping you in the dark? Where do you find your community, your source of loving?
Out of necessity, queer folks found their own answers to these questions. Because the community lacked love from other sources, LGBTQ+ people invented their own ways of loving. Black trans women created ballroom culture in the 1970s, establishing “houses” that operated as de facto families for LGBTQ+ youth of color who were deprived of home in other places. In the face of indifference from the state and the medical establishment, queer folks formed their own mutual aid networks centered on community-based care. ACT UP and Queer Nation activists demonstrated love in the streets: they staged kiss-ins at straight bars, suburban shopping malls and national monuments, affirming their desires and their selves in places where those affirmations were routinely denied.
That struggle to be visible ––to have the option of making our private desires public–– has stretched into the twenty-first century. We still need to find our own ways of loving. I still want to kiss my girlfriend at the airport without wondering what the passerbys think, or hold her hand without being given a second glance. But if I’m being truly demanding, I want more talk of queer couples who love in those ordinary intimate moments too, those moments that exist outside of public consumption. I want queer couples who fog up the same bathroom mirror and slow dance in the kitchen at 4pm, who wake up in the same bed and quibble over what restaurant to order from in the evening. I want queer couples who love in the way that Audre Lorde describes “not as a quick stolen pleasure, nor as a wild treat –– but like sunlight, day after day in the regular course of our lives.”
At the heart of it all, the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights has always been about loving people as they are and loving them in the particular ways that they want to be loved. That’s the beauty of the blank canvas: we’re given the space to love outside of the traditional heteropatriarchal model. Where no script exists, we get to write our own story. It’s the sort of love that people fear because it thrives off of breaking rules and eschewing conventions. We’re given the weighty responsibility of reimagining what love looks like, and that’s precisely why queer love matters: it potentially liberates all the people out there, queer or otherwise, who feel confined by the heteropatriarchal way of loving and crave a different model.
That isn’t to say that queer couples are exempt from putting in the work. In the absence of any clear framework for what queer love looks like, we might be tempted to grasp for something familiar –– we ask, “Who is the man?” or “Who wears the pants in the relationship?” When it comes to love, however, we can’t afford to be lazy. Our commitment to loving each other speaks volumes to all the LGBTQ+ youth who have internalized the belief that love is just not for them, for those of us who seldom see ourselves represented in happy relationships. In the absence of love from the outside world, we’ve always managed to find love in our own community. We can’t afford to treat love like a limited resource to be hoarded, or replicate those same toxic power structures in our own relationships, or neglect the value of loving other people platonically.
As I write this, I’m committing to saying “I love you” more often to the LGBTQ+ folks in my life because I’m convinced that the loving matters. Our love has been denied and neglected throughout the course of history –– if we’re not receiving that love from our bloodline or our government, then we at least deserve to be receiving it from ourselves.
To my community: I wrote this for you. This love is ours, too.