Below is an excerpt from Tom Rasmussen's First Comes Love (2021, Bloomsbury), a new book about queer love, queer ways of togetherness and why marriage – an ancient heteronormative institution grounded in patriarchy and elitism – has any allure in the 21st century. The book is out today.
“Love Is Love” is perhaps the most inane sentiment ever uttered. “Love Wins”, a close second. These two phrases – the gay equivalent of the straight and much worse “Live, Laugh, Love“ – were, and continue to be, synonymous with a certain kind of LGBTQIA+ equality. The kind that gets chucked about at corporate dinners, plastered on HMRC’s Twitter account throughout the month of June and slapped across a tub of Itsu noodles every Pride. The problem isn’t that these phrases are offensive (don’t worry, I’m not that sensitive). The problem is that they aren’t offensive enough.
Now, one can’t write them off entirely because part of a move towards equality for those who are oppressed is making our message digestible to the most basic people imaginable (the government, bigoted heterosexuals, popular posh podcasters). And so “Love is Love” and “Love Wins” were, and are, gently useful tools; a non-threatening way of saying “give us our fucking rights you bigoted fucking fucks and then watch us laugh while you burn.” I guess #giveusourfuckingrightsyoubigotedfuckingfucksthenwatchuslaughwhileyouburn has less of a ring to it. They’re also subtly manipulative statements when applied to faggotry and fag marriage: if I say “Love Is Love” and apply to it to us gays, and our right to wed, and you then disagree, you’re automatically exposing yourself as a homophobe, as someone who doesn’t believe that Gay/Queer/Bi/Pan/Trans Love Is Actual Love. And since people are often far more concerned with not appearing bigoted, than, y’know, actually not being bigoted, these catchphrases become easy to regurgitate. Like a bird mother sicking up easily digestible food into her young’s mouth: but in this case it’s an influencer who does sponcon with Boohoo dot com, posting a floral graphic that reads “Love is Love” to their stories. These statements are clever because they co-opt people into support of the LGBTQIA+ community, without them having to get their feeds/minds/mouths dirty. And so these simple catchphrases which cut nowhere near to the heart of the fight for gay marriage, or other far more vital forms of LGBTQIA+ equality, become semi-useful tools with which to win over apolitical people into buying into the nice clean queer message.
Don’t worry, this is not the hill upon which I am going to die for this chapter. Messaging is important, optics can be helpful. But frankly I don’t really care what Urban Outfitters prints on a crop top just in time for Pride every year. What I do care about is queer love. And that is a hill upon which I will happily die.
The issue with these phrases is that they do not work hard enough to detail the miracle of queer love. The superiority of queer love. I wish I could tell you in words how it felt to receive news of my two queer friends getting married next month, knowing that for innumerable people before us such a public display would have been both impossible and, at certain times in history, or in certain places around the world presently, punishable by death or imprisonment. I wish I could tell you in words what queer love really feels like, when you have grown up knowing that every single person around you thinks that the queer love that you desire or experience is not love. Is not normal. But if I were to try to tell you in words, I would end up writing something as flimsy as “Love is Love”. Why? Because our love has had/will always have boundaries to break. Dominant love, white heterosexual middle-class thin able-bodied love rarely, if ever, did. Gay love is miraculous. Queer love is miraculous. Trans love, dyke love, lesbian love, asexual love, bisexual love, aromantic love, cross-orientation love. It’s miraculous. It’s more than love.
And it doesn’t just win. It overcomes. It pushes back against years of violence, histories of oppression, presents of murder and misunderstanding and powerful men in positions they don’t deserve constantly reminding us just how fragile our rights are. In Poland, as I write, the prime minister is leading his electoral campaign with a promise to ban gay marriage; in the UK conversion therapy is up for debate and the Gender Recognition Act looks like it won’t receive the reform it so desperately needs despite overwhelming public support; in the USA, 2020 was the most deadly year on record for black trans women, while Trump revealed new threats to our rights daily and gave briefings on how to “spot” a trans woman. It doesn’t bear naming the number of countries who criminalise homosexuality since the British imported their homophobic colonial-era laws to other people’s homelands. Us queers live within an intricate, long constructed nexus of local, national and international violence, and have done for centuries, and yet our Love Still Wins; our Love Has Always Been Love.
It was love in the molly houses of the 1700s where gays would meet behind whitewashed windows. Love won in the Gateways club in Chelsea in the 1940s and 50s, a place for clandestine lesbian meet-ups. It thrived in quieter spaces, like in the 365 letters exchanged between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, or the likely thousands of other queer love letters written by people who weren’t famous composers or their singing muses. It blossomed into secret languages like Polari, Gayle, green carnations or the hanky code. It hid secretly, yet in plain sight, in the countless marriages between women in the 1500s, where one woman would commit so readily to her wife that she would dress, from thereon, in man’s clothing and trick a priest into endorsing a religiously recognised marriage. And it continues to find light in places where it’s criminalised.
First Comes Love: On Marriage and Other Ways of Being Together by Tom Rasmussen is out now, via Bloomsbury.