In the face of what President Barack Obama called “an act of terror and an act of hate,” the LGBT community has rallied around love. #LoveIsLove — a hashtag demonstrating LGBT pride and unity — was already in use on Twitter prior to the deadly shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12. But in the hours after, the tag took on a renewed and urgent meaning: Twitter made #LoveIsLove a “Twitter emoji,” accompanied by a custom rainbow heart icon; that day, it came in second only to #Orlando, according to one report. People shared it on Tumblr and Instagram, broadening the scope of what Upworthy described as “a place for all people, LGBTQ and their straight allies alike, to come together and express love in all its forms.”
This is hardly the first time LGBT supporters have posted en masse about love. #LoveWins began trending in June of last year, just after the Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that gave same-sex couples the right to marry. (The romantic rhetoric was apropos: During the trial, marriage-equality advocates like lead plaintiff Jim Obergefell argued that the “love”shared between consensual and monogamous LGBT couples “is equal,” and validated their right to legally wed.) The discourse of “love,” moreover, speaks to the way LGBT advocates have championed coupling and monogamy on other visible platforms: The Human Rights Campaign has historically used love to frame same-sex rulings in court; the Freedom to Marry campaign uses the word “love” frequently in the historical overview on its website.
But if #LoveIsLove harkens back to LGBT victories in the past, it’s a narrow way to show support for the victims of the Pulse club shooting now. While the hashtag’s celebratory tone has laudably diminished some of the pall Orlando cast over Pride 2016, it also represents one way contemporary LGBT activists have reduced the very diversity that they seek to represent — which is particularly on display at a nightclub like Pulse. One need only look at the much more inclusive, if slightly less politically efficacious hashtag, #QueerSelfLove to see what an alternative way to rally support around a broad community might look like. What happens when the plurality of the rainbow, the ebullience of the gay club, and the diversity of the pride parade get collapsed into a single image of two men kissing?
From its origins in ancient Greece to its transformation in the Middle Ages, love has gone through many cultural iterations. For the better part of Western modern history, the concept has been increasingly tied to the institution of marriage (defined, historically speaking, as the union of man and woman), becoming the cornerstone of an institution that began as a transactional coupling. In Ancient Greece love was a strategic tactic — a future husband could make marriage (which was primarily about the movement of wealth from father to son) a bit more palatable for his future wife by romancing her; the late 18th century would ratify it as a means of producing a more mutually benefiting private partnership, one which enabled married couple to imagine they were equals in their union. Celebrated in fairy tales, and then rom-coms, this vision of romantic love has lent credence to the domestic partnership throughout the decades — even the “free love” movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s couldn’t disrupt the allure of the lovelorn couple.
Rallying around “love” in the face of “hate” doesn’t just favor plainspoken platitudes, it also doesn’t really account for what is celebrated and created in gay bars like Pulse.
For many in the LGBT community, efforts to elicit tolerance and acceptance have sought to replicate these traditional unions. This project has been particularly evident in recent movies and on television: From the chaste coupling at the heart of Philadelphia and the picture-perfect vision of domesticity portrayed in The Birdcage, to the violently torn apart lovers at the center of Brokeback Mountain and the one-night-stand-turned-romantic-encounter in Weekend, gay male love has been at the center of well-received (and mainstream-friendly) LGBT films. On television, same-sex couples have become prized representations, representing a step up from gay male characters who were single, date-less, fabulous, and yet often reduced to “gay best friend” roles like the one Rupert Everett played in My Best Friend’s Wedding,or Willie Garson’s part in Sex and the City, or Daniel Franzese’s in Mean Girls.
Narratives of romantic love have been understandably celebrated by a community that has weathered decades of being portrayed as punchlines and victims, villains and sidekicks that are defined by their swishy sensibility and mannered mannerisms. Will and Vince (Will & Grace), Kurt and Blaine (Glee), Cam and Mitch (Modern Family), Sol and Robert (Grace & Frankie) are, in essence, the on-screen avatars of #LoveWins and #LoveIsLove — they are symbols to rally around and point to as signs that mainstream America is accepting the community, thanks in part to progressive media. GLAAD credits the complex portrayals of same-sex couples on shows like Modern Family and Brothers & Sisters forgiving Americans “a chance to recognize the commonalities with their own lives.”
That is, of course, if you grant that being in a committed couple, or aspiring to be, is a commonality. Rallying around “love” in the face of “hate” — yet another humanistic concept that remains abstract, obscure, and personal — doesn’t just favor plainspoken platitudes, it also doesn’t really account for what is celebrated and created in gay bars like Pulse.
What brings people to a gay club is not solely the promise of love — it’s lust, it’s friendship, it’s drag fandom, it’s acceptance, it’s tolerance. At times, it’s even shame. To reduce the LGBT community to a romantic same-sex kiss — an image many social-media users have posted since the Orlando attack, often accompanied by #LoveIsLove or its romantic counterpart #TwoMen Kissing — is to water that community down to one of the many ways its members socialize, making it more palatable, but also, perhaps, less distinctive. This is part of these posts’ stated purpose — several #TwoMenKissing images boast “This is normal” as their chosen caption.
Highlighting the normality of the LGBT community has its place, but also limits the diverse versions of connection that queer people forge with one another in the spaces they’ve carved out for themselves. The gay club all but depends on these more precarious, but no less central, relations. This is especially the case during events like Latin Night — the Pulse shooting occurred on one such night — that offer a communal safe haven for people of color. As Richard Kim put it in The Nation, “Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression.” Whether celebrating the gay bar as a place for community-building or as a fulcrum for a pop musical revolution, the eloquent writing about LGBT nightlife this past week should encourage us to embrace the manifold ways that it houses more than romantic or platonic relationships.
The eloquent writing about LGBT nightlife this past week should encourage us to embrace the manifold ways that it houses more than romantic or platonic relationships.
The #TwoMenKissing image, of course, speaks back to a cultural landscape where the image has something of a radical sensibility, where an intimate moment shared by a same-sex couple still needles some. Once it’s awash in the discourse of love, however, the image falls in line with the fights for family-friendly equality that’s been central to gay and lesbian activism these past few decades — which, for all its great advances, has undeniably left some pockets of the population behind. #TwoMenKissing is the visual counterpart to the rhetorical sleight of hand that happens when we move from talking about same-sex attraction to talking about same-sex love: The former bristles with curious and untamed possibilities, the latter limits and narrativizes it.
The impetus to question the political valence of #LoveIsLove and its attendant heteronormative discourse is not meant to undo the palliative force that social media campaigns like it hope to inspire. Instead, it comes from wanting to better curate the queer self-fashioning that such gestures convey, examine what, exactly, it is that’s being celebrated, and, more importantly, to what end.
There’s joy and comfort to be found in seeing an entire social media feed lit up by smiling, kissing gay couples — but supporters might do better to also seek out more inclusive and expansive visions of the LGBT community that don’t begin (or end) with the committed partnership. A quick glance at the posts tagged with #QueerSelfLove offer a more unruly image of the path toward self-acceptance many LGBT people are, even in 2016, headed down. Started by actor and playwright Dylan Marron, these posts, usually self-descriptions, embrace the plurality of one’s identity and create a space where queerness is inherently multifaceted and unruly. (Marron’s initial tweet embodies this broad scope: It reads: “I am a soft-spoken brown queer man who wears his mother’s pearl earrings. And I love my queerness.”)
More straightforward, though no less exciting, is YouTube’s recent campaign #ProudToBe. The initiative is premised on the idea that “it’s important that we help accept, love, and celebrate one another” and asks followers to upload their own “proud to be” videos, focusing attention on testimonials that paint a diverse picture of the varied and ever-changing LGBT community. YouTube’s own launch video offers a wide array of queer voices attempting to articulate what it means to exist across and above labels. Boasting currently more than 100,000 “dislikes” (and plenty of vicious negative comments), the video shows us both precisely what alternative visions of digital pride celebrations can look like, and exactly why we need to champion them.