Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day this week; a day that’s sneered at by the bitter and twisted as a cynical marketing opportunity for retailers and restaurateurs, dismissed by the resolutely (or unhappily) single as irrelevant, but still embraced by lovers across the globe as a celebration of true love and romance. But does it – should it – have any meaning for our queer community? Tim Hunter takes a look at Saint Valentine.
Time for a history lesson first. Saint Valentine is the patron saint of courtly love and honoured on February 14, but the origins of this have been lost; in fact, no one’s really sure who the real Valentine was. He could be a 3rd century priest martyred for marrying Roman soldiers and Christians at a time when they were persecuted by the Roman Empire, well before pagan Rome became papal Rome. He used heart shapes cut out of parchment as a covert way of communicating with the illegal Christians. Or he could have been a priest in the second century who healed a judge’s or jailer’s daughter (the stories differ) from blindness. Legend has it he signed his last letter to said daughter with ‘From Your Valentine’.
It wasn’t until the 14th century though that Valentine was linked to love and romance and its February date. Good old Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem about it, and later both Shakespeare and John Donne also wrote of Valentine’s Day in a romantic context. Valentine’s Day cards and letters were all the rage in Victorian times, and by the late 20th century, it had become highly commercialised. Think red roses, chocolates, cherubs, red satin boxer shorts, tacky lingerie, sentimental soft toys, even diamonds and jewellery; you know what I’m talking about.
Valentine’s Day is of course florists’ busiest and most nightmarish day of the year; many people regard it as a ‘Hallmark Holiday’ because of the associated greeting card glut; and it’s almost impossible to get a table – or even an affordable meal – in decent restaurants for dinner. There’s a fair bit of anti-Valentine’s Day sentiment around as well, and as much as they may prefer not to, most media outlets – radio, TV, print and online – usually cover it in one way or another: from lists of romantic dinner ideas to tongue-in-cheek ‘Survival Guides’ and cheeky gift suggestions. Or even this article you’re reading right now.
It’s all very mainstream, very cloying, and very straight. But is it exclusively heterosexual? Is same-sex love barred from being celebrated on Valentine’s Day? Not at all. Well, not unless you want it to.
Because it’s not about marriage or families, there’s not been much protest, for or against the rights of two people of the same sex declaring their romantic love for each other. In fact, in recent times there have been attempts to include queers into the mix, albeit tokenistic. The 2010 film, Valentine’s Day is a collection of 12 interwoven stories set around the day and the story of a closeted football player (Eric Dane) and his lover (Bradley Cooper) is in the mix. No on-screen sex for these two hotties, unfortunately.
For 15 years, my partner and I have celebrated Valentine’s Day with a special dinner date night; sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with straight couples or other gay couples. We have never been made to feel uncomfortable by staff or other diners; in fact, we’ve been welcomed and treated equally, as we should, even when it comes down to red roses on the tables and complimentary glasses of bubbles. One year a while ago now, the tables were turned, so to speak, on a middle-aged, middle class married couple in an upmarket Hawthorn restaurant. They found themselves seated with my partner and I on one side, and another local gay couple also out on a Valentine’s date on the other, and they didn’t really know where to look. There was no judgement or hostility (it was Hawthorn, after all; they’re much too polite to cause a scene) – just a touch of bemusement, to be honest.
Of course there is the argument that by celebrating Valentine’s Day, we’re just mimicking the straights and succumbing to heteronormative whitewashing in the same way that many aspire to same-sex marriage. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still a day where my partner and I celebrate, express and commemorate our love, still, 15 years on. Because yes, we will be doing our Valentine’s Date Night again this year, not to make any political point, and the only statement we’ll be making is to each other.
Looking back at that 3rd century martyr, the one who supported the persecuted and their right to love and marry according to their heart, maybe we should adopt Saint Valentine as our champion, because if he were alive today, it’d be same-sex love he’d be supporting, but hopefully not martyred for.