Welcome to “How Queer is…,” a column where we explore the queer side of things conventionally thought of as heterosexual. This month, we take a closer look at Valentine’s Day.
The history of Valentine’s Day has a long, surprisingly open connection to the queer community. Heck, the dude it was named after was martyred (aka killed for doing what he believed in) for marrying anyone who wanted to get hitched. He just wanted people to be with those they loved, and he’s been romanticized through pop culture ever since.
In the beginning, there was a Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia. It was all about hooking people up for babies to keep the empire strong, until Emperor Claudius II figured that single men fought better wars because they didn’t have a family to worry about.
Because love, like life and Jeff Goldblum, will find a way, a third-century priest named Valentine performed secret weddings for those who simply couldn’t stay away from each other. Although there aren’t any records that survive to tell the tale of any same-gender couples who were able to unite because of him, Valentine soon became an icon for love winning over everything.
Especially after he became an official Catholic saint, celebrated every year on—when else— February 14. Today, many queer Catholics celebrate him as a symbol of marriage equality.
Legend has it that St. Valentine also invented the Valentine’s Day card because he was thrown in jail, fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and sent her a note signed, “from your Valentine.”
This detail turned the feast day of St. Valentine into a festival for lovers, with romance and exchanged cards becoming the norm by the 15th century and the Valentine’s Day industrial complex starting in earnest during the 17th. The United States got on the mass-market-produced-cards train in the 18th century, as we were becoming our own nation, and 100 years later, the Victorians showed their true feelings by elevating Valentine’s Day cards to a true art.
The same people that history incorrectly remembers as stuffy enough to cover up table legs were actually very much down with all kinds of love. Research from Simon Goldhill, a professor at the University of Cambridge, shows that the group of lovebirds who put the frilliest lace and most lyrical poems to work formalizing their feelings recognized the fluidity of sexuality.
Goldhill’s 2016 book, A Very Queer Family Indeed, uses a large British family of the 19th century as an example to show the lowkey approval society had for, say, women who fell into romantic relationships with each other. There was still a long way to go, as expressing these feelings was thought to be a good way for young women to prepare for marriage, as opposed to beautiful and fulfilling in their own right.
And men who engaged in sex with other men were seen as perfectly normal, not even really considered homosexual, as long as they both still acted like the male stereotypes of the day and didn’t engage in cross-dressing or other “improper” gender performance behaviors. Goldhill called this a “highly articulated indirectness,” a phrase that explains how Victorians were fine with a lot of things as long as they weren’t proclaimed in public.
However, they were fine with writing it all down, and if you want to see exactly how difficult it is to tell best friends from lovers, delve into the cache of letters and Valentine’s Day cards that survive from that time period. A passage from Goldhill’s book reveals the sentiment between a wife and the lady friend who had become more during a visit to Germany: “Did you possess me, or I you, my Heart’s Beloved…?”
So the Victorians perfected the gilded cards and expressions of love that became the most widely shared aspect of the holiday. But somehow, as the 20th century wore on, their de facto tolerance devolved into outright exclusion from the increasingly heteronormative establishment.
Dan McLellan, a 55-year-old gay man from Boulder, grew up immersed in the holiday but unable to truly express what he felt at the same time. He remembers his mother insisting he hand-make cards for each of his classmates, and he labored deep into the night to make sure they all looked like he wanted.
That kind of attention to detail came back to him when he discovered later in life that he was gay. After 23 years of marriage and two children with his wife, at the age of 45, McLellan finally faced the truth about himself he had been hiding for long years. His wife took it well, and they remained best friends as he tried to find a way to express his romantic sentiments to his new boyfriend. But it was surprisingly difficult.
“All I could find were cards with guys in jockstraps or unicorns and rainbows,” he said, so he started his own card company, Proudly Yours, to express the romantic side of queer love that he sees as being left out of modern Valentine’s Day celebrations.
“I think, for some reason, gay couples are seen as more sexual and less romantic,” McLellan said, which is something he wants to change. “Valentine’s Day is about romance and celebrating the love you have for someone as an entire person.”
He wants society to come to a place where they accept romance for everyone, no matter their identity, and he’s proud to do his part in helping Coloradans find the perfect way to tell their queer loves just how much they mean to each on this most romantic of all holidays.
Every year, the Denver queer community takes back February 14 as a way to have heart-themed fun on any level, either with your partner, your friends, or all by your awesome self, offering everything from queer-themed movie dates to drag shows to express love in all its forms.
Queer people gained massive victories in acceptance over the last decade alone, including the ruling on Obergefell vs. Hodges that makes same-gender marriage legal in the U.S., so reap the fruits of history to make your own Valentine’s Day as queer as you want.