Sunday 21 July 2019

'There's nothing to love about Valentine’s Day if you’re gay' - Caomhan Keane

Ahead of the annual celebration of love and romance, Caomhan Keane explains why he has always felt left out by a holiday that excludes the LGBTQ community

Caomhán Keane. Photo: Tony Gavin
Caomhán Keane. Photo: Tony Gavin
'We may have come a long way since Marriage Equality, but Valentine’s Day still seems as straight as ever'. Photo: Tony Gavin

Caomhán Keane

Birds do it. Bees do it. But when I was growing up, LGBTs certainly did not do it. Fall in love, lust or anything else that is celebrated by the annual cavalcade of cheap chocolate and cheaper sentiment that gets thrown about on February 14.

That, at least, was according to the advertisers who spiked our consciousness, urging us to give in to our consumerist urges and blow our dough on petrol-shop flowers, scintillating scanties and ‘dirty’ weekends in Bundoran, where nights of tantric passion would surely be the obvious conclusion to an evening spent gorging on rich French grub our Irish stomachs couldn’t handle.

I’m 35 now. But growing up in the 90s, in the annual run-up to the Feast of St Valentine, there was a total lack of representation of gay romance in the papers or on the radio. On TV, the zany plots of the decade’s popular soaps and sitcoms featured few storylines where men or women of my homosexual ilk were romantically inclined.

The ones that did treated it as a joke or something not worth showing: think Friends, where a lesbian wedding doubled as an exorcism, or Ellen, where the main character’s coming out ended her narrative altogether.

There were no mainstream chart hits to sing along to about the love that dare not speak its name. No drag queen urging me to “Sissy that walk” (as if I had any control over my gait). And there were definitely no sex columnists around to tell me “It gets better”.

So it’s fair to say that a day that drew special attention to my romantic proclivities (or lack thereof) was about as welcome as the scrawl on a toilet wall that pronounced me a faggot

long before I, myself, had ascended to that throne.

My dislike of Valentine’s Day started early. At school, we were forced to make loathsome heart-shaped cards to exchange with classmates of the opposite sex, combining two of my least favourite activities — arts & crafts and public displays of affection.

As February rolled around each year, I would be overcome with anxiety that I wouldn’t get any cards, a horror only surpassed when I discovered that the solitary one I did get was written by my mother.

The fact that Valentines were sent from Adam to Eve, not Adam to Yves, was drilled into me. Adults who’d ignite like a moral inferno over the cheeky flash of a pop star’s knickers saw no problem asking a pre-teen me if the girl I was playing with was my ‘girlfriend’, if we were going to get ‘married’ or telling me I was going to break all the girls’ hearts when I got older, as if this was something to encourage.

This first brush with that crazy little thing called love was all about acquisition. It was vital that you receive multiple cards, from multiple admirers. Getting just the one card meant you had a face, or personality, that only a mother could love.

And even when I was too young to understand that I wasn’t straight, it felt like I was being pressurised to keep my affections to myself. Cards were exchanged anonymously. After all, what says “I love you” more than revealing your desire, but not your identity, as you rooted through your crush’s belongings to leave them their surprise?

Everything about my upbringing assumed that I was straight. But worse: I was only beginning to understand the way in which the gay community had traditionally been demonised. I became a teenager just after the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in this country, in 1993. And so my first subconscious exposure to the idea of gay love was hearing it described during the heated debates of the era as an ‘abnormality’, ‘revolting’ and ‘a perversion’.

My Catholic education taught me that the desires that felt  natural to me were wrong, and should be punished.Meanwhile, I’d hear stories back from the teenage discos that I wasn’t allowed attend that seemed to me desperate and degrading. I wanted no part of any of it.

So the idea of a whole day devoted to sex and love made me feel like the hunt’s quarry, as I darted from any conversation that was lurching towards girls, sex or the intersection of both.

If loving men was wrong, I didn’t want to be right. But I also didn’t want anyone to realise that I was gay. So my romantic life was catnip for the pubescent matchmakers who wanted to solve my sexual equation.

This pursuit intensified at home, where my parents were doing their best to ignore the fact that I had many posters of Andrei Kanchelskis on my wall, yet no interest in watching him actually play football.

While they generally avoided asking too many questions about my love life, Valentine’s Day sprayed the notion of ‘love’ into the air like sarin gas.

And so they felt obliged to cough, splutter and gasp through conversations where they’d ask if there was anyone ‘special’ in my life. Then they’d back off for another year.

Consequently, I could never envisage the love that was celebrated each Friday to a love that I might one day want for myself. Of course, Cupid would eventually cure my salty heart, but 10 years into my current relationship and my feelings about St Valentine’s Day have not changed. They’re as bitter as ever.

Of the hundreds of items I saw on display this past week in card shops in Dublin’s city centre, none seemed designed exclusively for the gay consumer.

Oh sure, I could choose from the ones featuring cute bears or other animals. But  even then, most had a touch of lipstick on the lips, different colours on the paws, a blink-and-you’d-miss-it suggestion that even the animals were straight.

Mind you, it’s not just gay love that’s left out of this celebration; the only cards I spotted on shelves with people who were overweight were the comedy cards. And none featured people of colour. 

While I can pick a card up in an artisan boutique or order online, why shouldn’t I be able to simply pop to my local shop and pick up something suitable?

Most cardmakers seems to be suggesting this holiday — and their products — are not for you unless you’re straight, white, thin and basic.

I’ve always felt that if you need a special day to celebrate your relationship, there’s probably not that much romance going on the other 364 days of the year.

But even though I’m a Valentine’s Day sceptic, I can’t help but get a familiar pang in my heart when the annual display of love hearts is festooned across shop windows.

The memories of growing up and feeling out of place are still too painful. We may have come a long way since Marriage Equality, but Valentine’s Day still seems as straight as ever.

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