Happy Pride! It’s the month where every brand wants to sell you rainbow-coloured merch, even if they aren’t donating any portion of the profits to charities who support queer or trans people (and are actually owned by people who give money to organisations who actively campaign to reduce LGBTQ+ rights(opens in a new tab)). It’s the month when we’re reminded over and over that love is love.
In terms of LGBTQ+ rights, the phrase “love is love” comes from campaigns for marriage equality. The importance of being able to marry the person you love cannot be understated. There are still 64 countries where homosexuality is criminalised(opens in a new tab), and activists are still fighting for governments to acknowledge queer relationships in many others. Yet in a year where more than 500 bills have been introduced in the U.S. that aim to restrict queer and trans rights(opens in a new tab), the phrase is a cop out.
“Love is love” allows straight, cis people to ignore the uncomfortable truth that queer rights didn’t begin or end with same-sex marriage. (Many argue that “marriage equality” hasn’t even been achieved, as both queer and straight disabled people cannot get married without the risk of losing some or all of their benefits(opens in a new tab).)
Making queerness more palatable to cishet folks
The strategy of “love is love” was to ask straight, cis people to see queer people’s humanity because we are the same as them. Chris*, who is a bisexual cis man, thinks that there is always a need for marketing campaigns that make uncomfortable or challenging concepts more palatable for wider society: “I think that all political campaigns benefit from catchy slogans that manage to cut through with a wide audience. ‘Love is love’ clearly did that, and was a useful hook on which to build conversations about all kinds of queer relationships.”
Yet some queer people feel that it was only through making ourselves palatable that straight, cis people could see us as human. Charlie, who is gay and trans, said “love is love” has led to “marginalised queer voices being silenced in favour of more ‘palatable’ opinions and arguments.” He feels the widespread use of the phrase perpetuates the idea that homophobia and discrimination don’t exist now we have same-sex marriage, and ignores the other struggles queer and trans people face.
What does the word ‘queer’ even mean?
Amy, who is a sapphic femme, thinks the term has served its purpose in the fight for same-sex marriage, but that “it leans too hard on the just-like-you respectability angle that tells the cishets that we all just want monogamous marriages and a white picket fence, 2.4 kids and a dog.”
Some LGBTQ+ folks do want those things, of course, but not all of us want our life to look like that. Florence, who is bisexual, feels that “love is love” is deliberately desexualised, making queerness family-friendly in a way it shouldn’t have to be (especially when queer women can’t make out with each other in a public space without a man asking if he can join in).
Furthermore, many queer and trans people don’t feel that their love is the same as straight cis people’s love. Hannah, who is homoromantic and asexual, likes the intended message that “it shouldn’t matter what orientation we are, and that we are all equally valuable.” Yet as much as they want to like “love is love,” they’re frustrated by how it really only seems to include gay and bisexual people who are in romantic and/or sexual same-sex relationships.
“My queer identity is important to me as a person, [including] when I am single,” said Hannah “I would want to think about ‘love is love’ as a phrase that also includes friendship being as important as romantic love, but this is never how the phrase is used.”
Hannah echoes some people’s frustrations at how the term ignores gender diversity or a-spec (on the asexual/aromantic spectrum) identities, such as intersex people or heterosexual trans folks. It feels similar to the process of obtaining a UK Gender Recognition Certificate and changing the gender-marker on your birth certificate: Straight cis people will respect our queerness and our transness, as long as it looks like how they think it should look. As long as they’re the ones who get to decide on the criteria.
Straight cis people will respect our queerness and our transness, as long as it looks like how they think it should look.
Amy points out just how many things the phrase glosses over, as well. “Most pertinently, ‘love is love’ doesn’t address the hugely disproportionate rates of intimate partner violence affecting bi+ women. It doesn’t get trans people accessible healthcare. It doesn’t stop queer kids being tortured in conversion therapy. It doesn’t really help liberate any of us.”
Liberation or assimilation? It’s a question the LGBTQ+ community has been asking for years. If straight, cis people will only accept us if we tone ourselves down, do we want that acceptance?
The pink-washing of corporate pride
Many queer and trans people don’t want companies or politicians tweeting that “love is love” or other carefully crafted statements this month — they feel like empty platitudes when the UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak thinks that outing children(opens in a new tab) to their parents is a good safeguarding decision. Florence doesn’t care what a company tweets during Pride, she cares more about whether it includes gender-affirming healthcare on its health insurance plans and what its parental leave looks like.
Still, it’s scary to see corporations like Target make changes to their Pride collection(opens in a new tab) after targeted attacks organised by right-wing bigots. While queer people might make fun of pinkwashed social media campaigns, they at least show the progress we’ve made towards queer people being accepted.
The Pride merch brands release in June feels utterly disconnected from the first Pride march. (This was to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising(opens in a new tab), where queer and trans people fought back during a police raid where cops checked whether people wore at least three pieces of clothing that were “appropriate” for their gender, as per New York’s laws at the time.) But for the queer or trans kid in a middle-of-nowhere town who doesn’t feel safe to be themselves, a fast fashion t-shirt with a rainbow flag on it might offer their only opportunity to connect with the queer community.
“We must always seek to queer queerness. In this case, that means levelling up from ‘love is love’ to slogans that recognise the complexity and intersectionality of queer struggles.”
Companies beginning to walk that rainbow-coloured support back is terrifying — but also telling of how limited that support was in the first place. “Love is love,” it seems, doesn’t extend to a trans person’s love for themselves. Kara, who is an aro/ace trans woman, doesn’t personally find the phrase obnoxious, but she thinks it might be time to move beyond it. “We must always seek to queer queerness. In this case, that means levelling up from ‘love is love’ to slogans that recognise the complexity and intersectionality of queer struggles.”
Maybe we do need a snappy slogan to continue to push forward the fight for queer and trans rights, but I don’t know how to put it more succinctly than “trans rights are human rights.” Isn’t it funny how no big companies are selling merch with that on it?
*Chris and others chose to go by their first name only for privacy reasons.