What Valentine’s Day Cards Say About the State of LGBTQ Equality

Valentine's Day card section in Duane Reade.
Is this a victory for inclusivity? Valentine’s Day cards at a chain drugstore.

Allison Steinberg

I was shopping in a chain drugstore last weekend, searching for the perfect Valentine’s Day card for my wife and for Grandma, when I came across a most curious category: “Love: Man to Man.” I was shocked and excited and confused all at the same time.

It was jarring and pleasing to see same-sex love recognized in a franchise pharmacy. I recognize that LGBTQ inclusion in advertising and marketing is something that’s happening more and more these days, but the attention still feels new and foreign after a lifetime of invisibility. How many of us spent a good amount of media consumption transposing the genders in horoscopes or reading too far into moments that aren’t LGBTQ but feel like they could or should be? So many of us are accustomed to not having a place at the table, let alone an opportunity to be a part of the conversation, that it’s pure culture shock to see steps being taken to remedy that.

Yes, we have come an incredibly long way from the time when Hallmark or Duane Reade didn’t consider producing or selling same-sex Valentine’s Day cards. For that, I am grateful. “Exposure at all costs” tends to be my mantra as an advocate. I’ll take the one mediocre gay-male card over no same-sex cards at all.

But at a time when love really did win, it also felt a bit deflating to pick out a Valentine’s Day card for the woman who is now recognized as my wife in all 50 states in the country, only to find that I still have to draw a pony tail and breasts onto the silhouette of the man on its cover to make it reflect who we are.

What’s more, the category “Love: Man to Man” is a little peculiar. The cards for hetero lovers didn’t say, “Love: Man to Woman.” Just “Love,” or “Romance Humor,” or “Love: Heartwarming.” Aside from the disjointed terminology and the lack of “Love: Woman to Woman,” or any of the other categories of people in love that were missing, it felt like a heteronormative slap in the face. (I went to two more Duane Reade stores, only to find no same-sex categories there at all.) It felt like the 21st-century version of having to go into the porn section at the video store to get the one LGBTQ-themed movie title. (I was renting a documentary, I swear.)

When the Supreme Court recognized our right to marry last June, it did so under the logic that our love shouldn’t be subject to different standards than our straight counterparts’. Now it’s time to implement that equality so that it’s realized in the everyday moments in our lives. Clerks that take our tax dollars in their paychecks shouldn’t be allowed to turn away same-sex couples, nor should business owners who serve the public. And marketers who are trying to get it right will need to think through what inclusivity really means. LGBTQ people shouldn’t be excluded, nor should we be relegated to a separate section that feels more like an afterthought than a strategic plan.

Of course, one could argue that the commercialization of love in the form of mass-produced greeting cards that are heteronormative at worst and mildly inclusive at best is spilled milk not worth crying over. Why not buy from a local LGBTQ business or an artist who makes inclusive cards? Still, it’s worth asking why we shouldn’t settle for second-best and identifying how much further we have to go. Inclusive greeting cards are no compensation for the real protections we have yet to secure in employment, housing, and public accommodations, but those little cardboard booklets that mark rites of passage and holidays are worthy of some consideration.

Greeting cards are a microcosm for our culture. The selection on the drugstore shelves represents the moments we’ve more or less agreed as a society are worth remembering. To be included in a meaningful (read: not token) way means the ruling those justices handed down that fateful day really has trickled down into everyday life. It means our kids get to see their parents’ love reflected in mainstream settings. It means the young person not yet out of the closet can walk down the greeting card aisle and know for the first time that he may one day have the privilege of walking down a much more meaningful aisle.