Valentine’s Day, or National Day of Heteronormative Remembrance

I’ve always hated Valentine’s Day.

Actual x-ray image of my heart.

I don’t (only) say that because I’m recently single and break-ups have left me bitter. For me, Valentine’s Day has always felt like a nauseating reminder that heterosexuality is still the norm. Although things may be slowly changing, from the time you’re born you’re assumed, if not expected, to be straight. And if you’re not straight, it’s easy to see how heterosexuality isn’t just one type of romantic relationship among others; it’s an entire social system that comes prepackaged with a set of benefits and rewards that is, as Adrienne Rich reminds uscompulsory. 

Deviation from this norm comes at a price: exclusion from certain jobs; risk of rejection from family and friends; discrimination under the guise of religious liberty; the very real and present threat of physical violence in public spaces.

But there are also many inconspicuous–and, perhaps, more harmful–forms that marginalization can take. Some of these have been well documented: anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and higher rates of suicide, for starters. Others are harder to describe, impossible to measure, invisible yet nevertheless pervasive–what is sometimes called, at the risk of sounding buzz-wordy, “microaggressions.”

I can’t think of an emotion that conveys what I’m getting at: this nagging sense of not belonging anywhere, of always feeling out of place, uninvited, unincluded, unwanted, undesired and undesirable. Sometimes it comes as an echo of a sibling who casually uses the phrase “That’s so gay,” or who gets squeamish from lesbian characters on Orange is the New Black, or who asks you to play it straight around their in-laws, or who worries about what to tell your nephew when meeting your boyfriend for the first time, as if the truth is–as if you are–too embarrassing to be acknowledged.

Or maybe it comes in the form of a hostile glare from an intimidating stranger on the street, imprinted in your memory, staring back at you in the mirror as you try to decide if your outfit is too flamboyant to wear in public.

Carrying around the unbearable weight of bigotry is exhausting. Despite your best efforts to stand proud, after a while you feel like giving up. All the rampant homophobia faced in your daily life becomes internalized; you feel nothing but shame.

The first time I went out on a date for Valentine’s Day I was 21 years old and living in the semi-progressive college town of Lexington, Kentucky. I had been dating my boyfriend at the time for a little over a year. He was older than me and, I now realize, probably the sweetest and most thoughtful person I’ve ever dated long-term.

(For complicated reasons involving a troubled childhood, a severe lack of self-confidence, and a generally horrible taste in men, I’ve spent the intervening years running away from all the nice guys, tumbling instead into the open arms of the toxic/insecure/abusive types. Whenever I meet someone new who is emotionally unhealthy and deficient, my inner masochist perks up: What’s that you say? You’re going to hurt me and this will end horribly? Sign me up!)

For our date night, my boyfriend chose one of those chain Italian restaurants–Carrabba’s, maybe?–surrounded by miles of parking lot in a shopping mall. (What compelled such a decision remains mysterious to me.)

There was some sort of couple’s special advertised on the menu, the kind designed to distract you from the fact that you’re still wildly overpaying for a subpar entrée and a dessert you don’t really want. From the moment we entered the restaurant, I immediately regretted our decision. We were, of course, the ONLY gays in a room full of straight couples.

Walking past the rows of heteros, it felt as though the eyes of the entire restaurant were watching us trail behind the hostess like two dogs with tails tucked between our hind legs. Smirks and whispers followed us to a dimly lit table in the corner, and I became hyper-aware of my surroundings, unable to return my boyfriend’s gaze, tensing into a tight ball of panic.

“Wine?” our waiter asked. Before he could even begin listing off specials, I blurted out, “We’ll take your biggest carafe!”

I don’t remember much else from that first Valentine’s date. My memories are thick with the fog of cheap Cabernet and my vision tunneled with the myopia of self-consciousness. What I do recall is a sensation similar to breathing deeply into a paper bag, or what I imagine it feels like from inside an astronaut suit. I also remember being red-faced and lashing out angrily at my boyfriend in the parking lot afterward, and then feeling guilty for acting like such an ungrateful dick.

Sometimes I wish I suffered from false memory syndrome, a condition in which the things we imagine can be layered over the actual event, creating a memory trace in our brain that, although completely illusory, nevertheless seems real.

I wish I could force my mind to dis-remember some things, to ignore the discomfort of being queer in a straight world. I’ve also often wished I could forget about the men from my past whom I’ve loved recklessly, or at least will myself to remember a different version of events. If only Lacuna Inc.–the ethically questionable memory-erasing firm in the 2004 Charlie Kaufman film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–were a real thing.

I want to remember a Valentine’s Day that isn’t wrapped up in my own issues of shame and regret. But memory, like love, is unreliable. When all is said and done, all we’re left with is a fractured image, a dubious version of the past, reflecting more of how we felt at the time than what actually happened. And aren’t memories, whether happy or sad, always more beautiful than reality anyway?

Incidentally, Eternal Sunshine also begins on a Valentine’s Day in which Joel (Jim Carrey) decides on a whim to skip work and take the Long Island Railroad out to the last stop in Montauk. In voice-over narration, he laments: “Valentine’s Day is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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