Today is Valentines Day and you pretend that you don’t care about it (even though, at some level, you do). Today you will find yourself increasingly bitter. You will hate the couple engaged in intense titanic meets glacier PDA in front of you (a little more than yesterday, that is). You feel like you are oppressed, like you have been denied something. Today you will think of all of your ex lovers and you will remember the tenderness of their skin, the allure of their promises, and you will hate them a little bit more. This, this essay for you.
I think I understand what you are feeling.
These days I find myself looking for love on dance floors at gay clubs. I find myself looking at that old gay guy, the one leaning up against the bar eyeing the shit out of me. I find myself hating him because I am afraid that one day I will grow up and be like him – that being queer (and of color) is a death sentence because I am doomed to be forever alone – some creepy trick in a bar.
It is in these spaces that I find myself thinking about loneliness the most. I become aware of the fact that I am ‘single,’ and that some of my friends aren’t ‘single’ and that therefore I am ‘alone’ — an identity that I didn’t consent to, an identity that makes me feel insignificant. I will text my friends emotional things (even though I’m not drunk), I will write pathetic poems about love and fantasize of the day when I meet him (errr, or her, or ze…)
Today is Valentines Day again but this time I am a different person. I am a college student writing a blog in a library instead of doing my homework. I’m supposed to be writing a paper about Marx and instead I’m thinking about love (and realizing that they’re actually more connected than I thought).
In this post I hope to provide a critique of ‘love’ (or at least how our society understands it). I will show you how ‘Single’ is actually a site of radical queer resistance and I will deconstruct the methods of power that make us feel what we do today. This is not my attempt to justify myself (okay maybe it is). This is really an attempt to make you (and me) reconsider the systems of power that have come to enforce this dreadful day on us. This is an attempt to show you that you are capable of being loved (in fact, that you already are).
What does Single Mean Anyways?
I’ve always thought it’s fascinating what Facebook believes is important about our character: our gender (only two options!), our religious/political views, our sexuality (can I choose none of the above plz?), and our relationship status.
Facebook is merely a symptom of a larger ideology.
Dictionary.com defines ‘Single’ as only one; not one of several. Okay, doesn’t that mean we’re all Single (last time I checked most of us aren’t physically connected, all do respect to our conjoined twin siblings out there)!? Our other options on Facebook are: “In a relationship,” “Married, “etc. It appears that we are ‘Single’ because we have some sort of lack – because we are simply not one of these other categories.
But does that still mean we’re not in a relationship? Last time I checked I’m in a relationship with many people. I am my mother’s child. I am my friend’s friend. I am my teacher’s student. Last time I checked I’m in a relationship with many objects. I adore my clothing (and take a particular fondness for bowties!). I’m in a relationship with space, with the environment, with the floor, with all things around me.
Yet, for some reason FB – and our culture more broadly – wants me to be in a very particular type of relationship. And because I’m not intelligibly in such a relationship, I am ‘Single.’
Not only am I single, but I am ‘alone.’ When I catch up with friends who haven’t seen me in a while they ask eagerly, “So, how’s your love life?” The assumption underlining their curiosity is that my ‘love life’ is the ultimate litmus test for my happiness, for my social well being. I perform accordingly. I am still Single – it SUCKS!!! In this moment I become aware that I am ‘Single’ and I remember that I am supposed to want somebody (one body) in my life and began to mourn the fact that I don’t.
This, to me, is a particularly queer condition. A very particular type of monogamous relationality is enforced on our bodies. The social actors around us police our relations ferociously. “Are you dating him?” “Do you love him?” “Did y’all (okay maybe I’m the only one that says y’all) sleep together last night?” they ask. Those bodies that are not in this system of relationality (presented to us in media typically through two ‘monogamous,’ able-bodied, white, heterosexual, attractive bodies) are made to feel insignificant. In the same way that I used to want to be white, to be straight, to be rich, goddamnit I want to be in a relationship.
It is my contention that the imperative to be in ‘a relationship’ is a mechanism of power. This imperative ignores the relations that we are all a part of. Thank you, Facebook, but I am in a relationship.
I am learning how to be grateful for my mom after benefiting from years of her gendered labor and unyielding compassion. I am learning how to respect my father and feel comfortable being compared to him. I am learning how to love my culture, even though I am afraid that it has no space for me. I am learning how to be a better friend, how to actually be there for others instead of just saying it.
Thank you Facebook, but I am in a relationship. I’m in a relationship with myself and each day we are fighting and each day I am trying to convince her/him/ze/it that her/him/ze/it is beautiful and capable of loving.
This narrow comprehension of relationality is perhaps a product of the Western world. When my grandfather died, my uncles and aunts began to house my grandmother (without hesitation). Now she lives in an apartment complex with all of her brothers and sisters in laws. She is not ‘single,’ she is not ‘alone,’ she remains connected. She is part of a culture, of a tradition, of a family where this type of individualism (a prerequisite for the Western understanding of ‘Single’) makes no sense. I, too, feel connected to my South Asian culture and people in deeply profound ways. I remember this when I’m the only brown body at an Indian restaurant in the trendy immigrant part of London and I get called bhaiya (brother). I remember this when I hear Hindustani music and begin to tear up because it reminds me of dinners with my mom when things were more simple, when I felt like I had a people, like I had a home.
Yet, the fact that I – as a person of color — continue to valorize a particular type of relationship is profoundly sad to me. How much we have lost! How narrow-minded we have come to understand our bodies, our capacity for love and desire. Why am I expected to be unhappy (why do I feel unhappy) because I don’t have this type of relationship?
The valorization of this particular mode of relating is not just the fault of social and cultural discourse — we also have agency and perform our trauma every day. I perform it when I insist to my friends that I “don’t see ___ like that, that we are just friends.” We create these boundaries, these silos, these distinctions. We divide our love in ‘appropriate’ quantities for ‘appropriate’ relations. We divide our capacity for love into different ‘types’ – friendship love versus REAL love. We perform the trauma of Singlehood. We listen to melancholy song lyrics and post passive aggressive LOVE ME Facebook statuses
Wake up! You and I are receiving love in every fiber of our being right now. It is a tragedy that we cannot see it. That we cannot explore it with everyone we relate to every day, because we are all fixated on such a narrow understanding of a ‘happy’ ‘successful’ relationship that we ignore, deny and legitimize the wonderful, complex, and protean relations we are already a part of.
What purpose does the dominant definition of relationships serve? Let’s unpack this by thinking about what we first think of when we think of ‘love.’ When we think of love we think of Valentines Day, of marriage, of happy couples smiling, of families.
In particular, I think of my white peers in high school who looked so happy being dropped off by their trendy moms who loved their totally hot dads. My understanding of ‘love’ is deeply imbedded within a milieu of social oppressions – oppressions that construct particularly racialized, gendered, sexualized, class-based bodies as desireable, as ‘normal.’ I am shocked that I’ve waited until now to problematize love, considering that as an activist and scholar I’ve been so committed to dismantling other systems of normalization.
Normal love oppresses us because it polices our capacity for desire and pleasure. Because we are grown up in a world that re-enforces the idea that ‘true love’ can only be found through one (hegemonic) relationship structure, we deny the love we experience from all the other relations we are a part of. Thus, we are denied the capacity for increased pleasure.
Imagine if we were to open ourselves up to multiple ways of desiring, of being, of relating? Imagine if we could experience emotional orgasms just by having a good lecturer, by just having a good conversation with a friend? We’d be happy all the time! Heartbreak wouldn’t be nearly so traumatizing.
Why would the systems that oppress us want to love in this particular way? I believe that normal/hegemonic love glues us to the very social infrastructure that oppresses queer desiring bodies in our society.
Pleasure is antithetical to notions of productivity and reproduction. Homosexuality was historically demonized/stigmatized because it involved sex for pleasure rather than reproduction. In fact the term ‘heterosexual’ was first used as a pejorative term to denote people who had sex for pleasure (god forbid!) The State had an invested interest in restricting pleasure and producing a very particular family unit in order to maintain the status quo – to produce similar looking bodies with similar ideas and a commitment to production. This largely bastardized and overly-simplistic queer history of relationality allows us to deduce that our understanding of (monogamous) love is implicated within this heternormative structure of the family. If people loved beyond the boundaries of this hegemonic relationship, then the very core unit of social, biological, and economic production would be distorted and power relations would drastically shift.
To put it more crudely, perhaps we feel upset that we are Single because we are not somehow productive. Think about it this way. Why do I hate the lonely gay man in the bar? I hate him because, to me (thanks to my socialization), he represents a failed life. Our understanding of ‘futurity’ is predicated on hegemonic relationality. Because this man is not part of this relationality (ostensibly) because this man is exploring alternative sites of pleasure and relationality (alcohol, clubs) than what I ‘expect’ for someone whose body looks like he does, I am upset! This rhetoric of failure is deeply implicated within this anxiety. Instead of focusing on how this man might be maximizing pleasure in his later years, I am concerned with why he hasn’t found someone significant. I am nervous that I won’t find someone significant.
Single Identity Activism!
What is more queer than being Single? Mainstream culture associates being happy, being healthy, being compotent, being productive with being in a hegemonic relationship – anything else is stigmatized, demonized, Othered. What would it mean for us to reclaim this abject subject position? What would it mean for us to say, “Fuck you I am HAPPY being ‘Single’ (in the way that you narrowly define it) because I realize that I am connected to everything in the world!!!
This is a Single’s manifesto.
Think about all the times your friends would define their future on marriage. When they said, “when I get married I’ll….” Fuck that! What about, when I achieve personal social and political liberation I will… What about! When I learn to love myself I will… What about when I finally decolonize from growing up in a small town texas I willl.. Our very notion of happiness, futurity, and progress is colonized by the imperative of the hegemonic relationship structure.
So what are we going to do about it? The personal is political! Let’s began to deconstruct how we let certain people hurt us more than others, why we spend more time with the people we’re sleeping with than the people who actually make us feel the most happy. This is not to suggest that if you’re in a relationship you should immediately break up and be Single (because this would just be endorsing the understanding of ‘Single’ we’ve been given by a heteronormative society). Rather, I’m encouraging us to develop Single Consciousness (a fancy way of conceptualizing self-confidence). Let’s learn to love ourselves and give loves to all others, not just particular bodies or relations. Let’s stop performing the ‘abject’ Single and let’s develop the relations we are already so privileged to be in. Remember that our understanding of love is so narrow and so hegemonic that it denies the existence of alternative ways of knowing, of being, and feeling. If you find yourself falling in (hegemonic) love, make sure that you do not let it seduce you away from all your other connections. Do not lose your ‘self’ in this relationship. Do not define your life’s worth on this relationship. Contextualize it! Think about it within the broader systems of pleasure and relations that you’re implicated in.
Next, we need to think about Single activism in the realm of formal politics and the law. We have to better articulate a queer Single critique of gay rights advocacy which suggests that the only way to love queer bodies is if they’re in a socially sanctioned single relationship. Why is marriage the only way to get 1,137 federal benefits? Why must we be in a relationship to get these benefits? Don’t we deserve them as individuals?
We must provide an intervention to single shaming. Think critically when you watch your chick flicks, call your friends out when they’re moping about ‘being single.’ Do not police their relations – let them find happiness on their own terms. We can only change our culture by re-imagining it.