Love won’t save us: LGBT politics and the couple form

by: , September 12, 2018

© Courtesy of Olivia Gragnon 2018

In a celebration of London Pride, the UK bank Barclays made a list of legal gains for the LGBT community. The list included items such as ‘the right to adopt’ and ‘the right to marry’. The 1967 decriminalisation of gay male sex, however, was listed as ‘the right to love’. This is reminiscent of much other discourse surrounding Pride, notability the slogan ‘love is love’. While seemingly a vapid tautology, in the context of Pride, the slogan suggests that gay love is the same as straight love. On this basis, the straight community is encouraged to accept and embrace gay couples, who are so similar to themselves. After all, who could deny someone the right to love?

The proliferation of the term ‘love’ in the LGBT community in the past years has marked a significant shift in gay politics. It is part of an effort to establish legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples, notably through marriage. As such, it is an aspect of what Lisa Duggan terms homonormativity, the political effort to portray gay life as essentially normal – almost the same as normative heterosexuality. (2002: 179) The name of love is serving as a moral justification of this project, as during the 20th century, romantic love has come to inhabit the space of a moral absolute and the supposed ultimate goal of life. Love, that fuzzy and warm feeling, is also a value that no one can deny, and thus it serves a way to introduce LGBT politics into the affective mainstream. Love has an almost universal appeal in modernity, and functions to smooth over the particularity of ‘deviant’ sexuality and sexual practices. The usage of the term love is a way to suggest that us queers have the same feelings as straights, and thus deserve the same legal and institutional protection, as well as acceptance. The hope is perhaps that by invoking love, we can make the straight community love us.

Love establishes the value of an individual. It is through love and participating in the couple form that we come to be recognised as valuable individuals. As Lauren Berlant argues, love also establishes what it means to live a good life. (2012: 87, 102) What Berlant calls a love plot is a way to narrate one’s life according to a romantic ideal, which renders that life comprehensible and happy, even if the details of the love plot brought the pain. Love, in this narrative, offers a form of secular redemption of the modern subject. Through the love plot, we become normative subjects who have recognisable attachments and desires. Love, then, is not a free-floating affect or energy but is conventionally constructed as the foundation of a certain form of life. This form is not one form among others but assumed to be the only desirable path in life. This is particularly true for women, whose feminine value is attached to romantic affective scripts. Love, while appearing as a form of dehistoricised magic, is rather a profoundly social relation that is imbricated in forms of domination and normativity. This form of normativity is often reproduced in small and trivial ways, like when your grandma asks why you haven’t got a boyfriend yet, or when your friends are all married and can’t hang out as much anymore.

The affect of love has a history. This also means that love cannot simply be detached from these forms and appropriated for different and more progressive ends. Rather, it carries with it certain presuppositions about the good life. Those presuppositions reproduce social order through the exclusion of certain other forms of life, which are constructed as less desirable or even bad, harmful or deviant. While the inclusion of homosexual relationships within the boundaries of the love plot might seem like a step in the right direction, the concept of love cannot be infinitely extended to include all forms of relationality.

The cost of being recognised within a narrow framework is that everything that does not fit neatly into that framework drifts into its shadow. LGBT politics of recognition based on the notion of love establishes gay and lesbian relationships as a variation of the normal, and thus worthy of recognition based on the similarity to the normal. Duggan traces this emphasis on gay desire as a variation to a conservative homonormative project, in which the variation is naturally occurring and thus not threatening to the stability of the normal. (2002: 190) Being gay is established as an alternative, which is inherent in the subject, a mere statistic variance which does not undermine heterosexuality as the numerically dominant form. Heterosexual love and reproduction is the benchmark of what is normal and good, to which gay life should aspire. This is apparent in much of LGB struggle for recognition through marriage and the right to adopt children. It is through the individual recognition that love gives to the participants in the couple form, that homosexual subjects as a collective come to be recognised.

It is understandable why queer people have desired such recognition. The invisibility of lesbian couples (Ahmed 2010: 111), and the construction of gay male relations as abject and loveless (Houlbrook 2005: 45) have caused people to assert the legitimacy of their relationships as real and loving. In the face of the social erasure of homosexual bonds and families, gay and lesbian political movements have often had little choice but to claim the territory of recognition, love and marriage. The forms of grief and loss that mark many queer lives lead to a desire to highlight the good, the warm and life-affirming, especially when representations of queer life tend to emphasise the misery of such existence. Both homophobic and progressive representations of queerness have often been tragedies, either to expound the notion of the inherent unhappiness of non-normative life or to highlight the injustice and social wrongs of heteronormative society. Queer unhappiness and death, which abound in mainstream representations, make the desire for representations of happiness and love in portrayals of queer life understandable. And in a way, it is a step forward that we now have texts and films that give gay and lesbian couples a happy ending. In fact, almost all queer films of recent years have been love stories. The mainstream success of films such as Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016), where lesbian love endures against all the odds, is one example. Another is the near absence of homophobia in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name (2017), in which the central characters experience a purely private infatuation, sheltered from any societal disapproval. The gay and lesbian love plots told in these films also display a desire for the recognition of other forms of love than the traditional boy-meets-girl narrative.

And yet the universalisation of this form of representation, where all of LGBT politics is subsumed under the rubric of love, is harmful for the longterm goal of the movement. Gay and lesbian politics becoming simply the issue of ‘the right to love’ excludes many people, notably trans people whose political goals cannot so easily be framed in terms of love. Cis gays and lesbians thus reclaim the centre of the LGBT movement, as normatively gendered people who ‘just happen’ to love people of the same sex.

Moreover, the call for the recognition of alternative forms of love is a call for the empathy of the dominant group. As Berlant writes, liberals have long appealed on behalf of members of subordinate groups by arguing that subordinates, too, have feelings, and therefore they are not so different. (2012: 110) In LGBT politics, this translates into the appeal that gays and lesbians, too, feel love, and therefore should be included in the dominant notion of a good life. But appealing to the sense of empathy, based on sameness, of the straight community is a risky strategy. It is conditional on continuous performance of sameness and can be undermined as soon as the dominant group decides that gay and lesbian lives are, in fact, not similar to heterosexual ones.

This dynamic is illustrated in the 2015 miniseries London Spy, in which the protagonist Danny forms a romantic relationship with a man named Alex. Their story is at first similar to heterosexual romance narratives: boy meets boy, they fall in love, they become partners. When Alex disappears and is later found dead, Danny tries to appeal to the heteronormative institutions of the police and the media by insisting on their normality as a loving couple. In his version of events, his boyfriend Alex was cruelly murdered. The love Danny felt for Alex makes him valuable as a subject, and thus he did not deserve to die. But their love is not recognised as such by a hostile establishment. Without using explicit homophobia – saying that Alex deserved to die because he was gay – the media and the police manage to write a narrative of Danny and Alex’s lives that makes Alex’s death appear to be self-inflicted. The traditional homophobic tropes of sexual excess, duplicity, drug use, and HIV are all invoked in the successful attempt to undermine Danny’s story of normative love. What is striking in London Spy is not only how homophobia persists in a time when its explicit expression has been deemed inappropriate, but how limited and frail stories of queer love are in a society where the dominant heteronormative society reserves the right to judge whether a life story can indeed be comprehended in terms of the romantic love plot, or whether other aspects of that life should be taken to be the interpretive key.

While there are clear external limits to the narrative of love in terms of homophobic interpretations, the project of subsuming LGBT politics under the banner of love also depends on a narrowing of queer sociality. Matt Houlbrook notes how love has been a part of gay respectability politics from the earliest days of the movement, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Middle-class men denounced the public and supposedly immoral sexual cultures of working-class and feminised men, instead articulating a politics around the notions of love, domesticity and privacy. (2005: 201, 206) These tensions had existed in gay liberation politics throughout the 20th century when important legal gains were made on the condition that queerness was redefined as a primarily private and personal type of relation. Being gay was constructed as belonging to the private sphere of the home as well as the private domains of the soul. By connecting queerness to domesticity through the notions of love and companionship, gay activists sought to disprove the mainstream consensus that associated homosexuality with impurity and danger. Some gay respectability advocates, positing homosexuality as an internalised and stable alternative identity to heterosexuality, came to denounce bisexuality as threatening and unstable. (Houlbrook 2005: 196)

This pattern, toward internalisation of feeling, fit a broader movement in modernity in which feeling has become increasingly privatised. Historian Lawrence Stone calls this affective individualism, a tendency in bourgeois modernity to construct the self as a private and internal structure. The self and its affective states become the signs of a genuine and unique individual, existing autonomously from the social. (1982: 151) Many projects of gay and lesbian respectability projects drew on a bourgeois notion of the self as a stable and coherent entity with authentic feelings stemming from the interiority of the subject itself. This new understanding of the self coincided with the increased valuation of love as the foundation of family relations. Marriage, no longer based on the economy or the desires of parents, should be an expression of the genuine sentiments of the spouses. (1982: 145)

This also led to an increasing affective investment in family relationships, where affection was constructed as properly belonging only within bonds of the family. By constructing the self and the family in this way, the emotional connection also came to be seen as a zero-sum game, where bonds between spouses or between the child and its mother were seen as important because they were exclusive. In the affective construction of the modern family, the love of a mother for her child was unique and irreplaceable, even if the child spent more time with a maid or a nanny. (see Macdonald 2010) Family bonds, officially recognised by the state, thus became the exclusive domain of affect. Emotional bonds outside the family were increasingly constructed as non-essential or, paradoxically, threatening the stability of the family by replacing familial love. The basis for romantic love in this construction is its exclusivity – if one loves more than one person that undermines the authenticity of that love. The normative love plot constructs true love as a singular event. Meeting and marrying ‘the love of one’s life’ retrospectively devalues earlier romantic relationships.

The use of love as a defence of queer relationships leaves intact this bourgeois model of affect and family. It also sidelines issues of gender – Houlbrook shows that gay respectability politics has long been connected to the performance of ‘proper’ masculinity. (2005: 197) By positing itself as a neutral and non-threatening alternative to heterosexuality, it does not question the hegemonic position of heterosexual coupledom. Nor does it do much to support feminist politics, which has long questioned the legitimacy of heterosexual domestic arrangements, arguing that they are a site of violence and exploitation of women. Instead, the politics of gay love tends to position such arrangements as an ideal to aspire to. As Duggan points out, homonormative political ideals confine queerness to the domestic space. (2002: 190) It negates the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ – here, the personal is understood as fundamentally non-political, and the struggle is shaped around the right, or imperative, for gays and lesbians to live a non-political life. This plays into the understandable desire for a place to rest from politics. Love emerges as a pure personal zone of intimacy, where individuals can be affirmed as they are. It institutes a zone of emotional privacy.

But of course, such a thing is not possible. Christopher Carrington, in his study of gay and lesbian domestic arrangements, found that these couples too are shaped by inequality, even when they claim to be equal. The burden of housework and care work within the domestic sphere tends to fall disproportionately on one partner, in a way that makes that partner disadvantaged economically, as well as more dependent and vulnerable. According to Carrington, marriage institutionalises and justifies this situation, as marriage tends to create more domestic work, without necessarily providing more resources. (1999: 221) Through marriage, LGBT politics is tied to property rights and inheritance, thus contributing to the reproduction of class relations. In this political project, the property becomes a way of expressing love and care, of ensuring that one’s loved ones (and no one else) have access to one’s private property. Love cannot be understood outside of these forms of social reproduction. Moreover, gay marriage makes a fundamentally unequal institution appear more progressive and inclusive, while still being based on various constitutive exclusions. Only certain forms of relation can be squeezed into the narrow legal framework of marriage.

Love and marriage as ideals reformulate the objective of gay and lesbian liberation. Rather than seeking a drastic change in currently dominant social institutions, love becomes a means of assimilation into such institutions. The central demand is that gay, lesbian and bisexual people should be able to love on the same terms as straight people. We too, this politics suggests, have the right to find a private form of redemption through the magic of the couple form. Queer people have every right to aspire to love, intimacy and domesticity. But when this private form of redemption becomes the leading political goal, we neglect a collective politics of liberation. We also risk excluding those whose political struggle cannot be constructed as a question of the right to love, notably our trans siblings. Love reconfigures homosexuality as exclusively about romantic attachments, and thus severs the continuum between liberation based on sexuality and gender identity.

It also comes at a high cost in terms of presenting the queer community as essentially ‘normal’, that is, essentially desiring a good life through the promise of redemption through love. To fit the heteronormative model of sociality, we are also asked to make invisible everything that is particular about queerness. The terms of acceptance within the straight community require that we abstain from everything that makes us different from them. Tolerance comes only through the creation of a coherent homosexual identity structured around love and the ‘human right’ to privacy. This becomes the ‘carefully demarcated space’ (Berlant 2012:17) in which queer lives can become acceptable to the mainstream.

This points to a general lack of faith in the possibility of actually transforming social institutions. As Berlant suggests, one’s private life appears as the only material in which the individual has any power. (2012: 102) And in Duggan’s words, the goal of the politics of the non-political private life is to win the fight for marriage equality, and ‘then we go home and cook dinner, forever’. (2002: 189) But what happens to those of us who wanted more than dinner? Queer politics must retain a notion of antagonism and bad feeling if it is to do anything more than offer a sentimental fantasy of tolerance to the straight community. Through invoking love, LGBT politics becomes the demand for the continuation of the world as we know it, with some marginal reforms. But instead of mimicking the heterosexual couple, queer politics should aim to smash current forms of domesticity and romance. It can be a movement that undoes boundaries between romance and friendship, as well as those between sexuality and gender. This, however, requires a truly collective form of politics, rather than one that seeks to privatise our difference.


Ahmed, Sara (2010), The Promise of Happiness, Durham: Duke University Press.

Berlant, Lauren (2012), Desire/Love, New York: Punctum Books.

Carrington, Christopher (1999), No Place like Home: Relationships and Family Life among Lesbians and Gay Men, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Duggan, Lisa (2002), ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism’, in Ruth Castronovo & Dana D. Nelson (eds),  Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, Durham: Duke University Press, pp.175-194.

Houlbrook, Matt (2006), Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957,  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macdonald, Cameron Lynne (2010), Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stone, Lawrence (1982), The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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