In 16 years of teaching literature, I cannot think of a line that hit me harder than Celie’s declaration about Shug, the love of her life: “Just cause I love her don’t take away none of her rights.” Because this line radically changed my outlook, I work to ensure that my students benefit from its insights earlier than I did. Celie helps readers see that love is far more profound and expansive than monogamy. Neither monogamy nor marriage is love. Nevertheless, to our detriment, society teaches everyone to mistake marriage and monogamy for what is infinitely more valuable, meaningful, and life-affirming.
This essay is my attempt to share what I have learned from queer literature in a way that does not exoticize queer experiences, but instead, highlights how strange society’s most accepted values are. Mainstream culture teaches everyone to assume that when marginalized groups aren’t attacked or ignored altogether, they exist to provide lessons. As a result, when entering a queer literature class, for example, one easily thinks in terms of how these people are “different” and how I’m a good person for being willing to learn about them. Although these lessons aren’t applied equally — and mean something different for straight and queer readers — it’s my experience that queer or questioning students have been taught to hold their own identities at arm’s length, too. I call attention to these tendencies so that my students and I have a chance of avoiding them. Using close reading and critical thinking, we approach queer literature with intellectual rigor, which exposes the limits of our experience and outlook. We see that what mainstream culture has taught us about ourselves limits not only the ways we think, but also the ways we love.
Nowhere is this more true than in the text with which I began, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel The Color Purple. In this book, Celie, after enduring years of abuse from her husband, finally enjoys a loving and restorative romantic relationship with another woman, Shug. While relishing the life that this union helps give her, Celie receives painful news: Shug met a young man. Shug admits that he’ll probably break her heart, but she is pursuing the relationship anyway. Celie eventually makes her peace with the situation by concluding: “But then I think, Shug got a right to live too. She got a right to look over the world in whatever company she choose. Just cause I love her don’t take away none of her rights.”
My students and I are always reluctant to admit that we’ve been taught the opposite — that it’s quite appropriate for love to take away rights. Loving someone should mean, straight culture insists, that you will never want to be with someone else. Long before that, you prioritize a love interest over friends you’ve known for years in hopes of finding “the one” for whom you will gladly forsake all others.
These tendencies highlight the widespread belief that marriage, and by extension monogamy, is love. Neither is. So, why have we been taught that they are?
When cultural norms encourage individuals to confuse the monogamous marriage with love, despite all of marriage’s limitations, capitalism benefits. It does so because marriage is fundamentally financial; it’s an arrangement that powerfully determines economic destiny. In fact, the idea that marriage should involve love—not just good financial sense—is fairly recent. However, once love became a way to manage this powerful cog in the economic machine, creating scarcity became a cultural priority.
Love, like energy (as I’ve learned from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein), does not shrink or disappear and cannot be destroyed. It simply takes different forms, so it will never run out. There is no end to how much love one can give and receive.
And yet, for countless people, none of this feels true. None of this abundance feels available.
That’s a sad reality, but it’s also a victory for a culture invested in convincing everyone that there are very few legitimate choices. Capitalism thrives on scarcity, on keeping people scared and committed to competing. Encouraging a particular way of life, especially one with serious drawbacks, requires creating scarcity where there is none—in the realm of love.
Society insists that romantic love is more valuable and meaningful than any other kind. Why else would straight women, in particular, consent to the raw deal that is traditional marriage? (Men more reliably benefit.) Romantic love is supposedly more valuable than any other, and heterosexual romantic love the most valuable of all, so women are encouraged to invest in a relationship that has a 50% chance of failure and a 100% chance of leaving them financially vulnerable if it ends. We’ve been taught to value this relation with our hearts even when it leaves so many of us financially at risk; when it nearly guarantees that our care will be extracted into a larger economic system that does not care about us.
Queer literature has taught me how to imagine love differently. By grappling with authors such as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Janet Mock, my students and I ask: Do people miss out on feeling the love already in their lives when they are convinced they don’t have true love unless it’s romantic and monogamous? Friends are chosen family, so why are we taught that the love we give and receive from them is less important than the quest for romantic love? How are we taught to ignore what good life partners our friends are because we’re looking for “the one”?
As Adrienne Rich teaches, “Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves.” When my students and I are honest, we begin recognizing that we have put traditional marriage on a pedestal, and it occupies that space based on ideas so taken-for-granted that we don’t notice that they’re shaping our desires. Small phrases perpetuated in mainstream culture — the strange lingering, for example, of the “joke” or “wisdom” that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve — emerge in our conversations to be examined.
Such messages are effective because they seem unremarkable, but James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room helps us notice the cultural work they aggressively perform. Baldwin’s characters expose assumptions about love and marriage that feel like “natural truth,” putting countless people on the same matrimonial path because no other journey seems possible. The novel’s climax offers an unforgettable account of how dangerous accepting “natural truth” can be. David has decided to leave Giovanni to marry Helga, whom he insists he loves.
“You do not,” cried Giovanni, sitting up, “love anyone! You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will. You love your purity, you love your mirror—you are just like a little virgin, you walk around with your hands in front of you as though you had some precious metal, gold, silver, rubies, maybe diamonds down there between your legs! You will never give it to anybody, you will never let anybody touch it—man or woman. You want to be clean. You think you came here covered with soap and you think you will go out covered with soap—and you do not want to stink, not even for five minutes, in the meantime.”
Giovanni indicts David because he knows David wants a life with him but is forsaking that truth. David places more value on conforming to society’s standards of propriety so that he can see himself (“you love your mirror”) as clean. Intimacy takes many forms, but only certain forms are considered legitimate. But straight society doesn’t simply consider myriad forms of intimacy illegitimate; it casts most as evil and dirty.
If (the few) valid feelings and intimacies are so natural and right, why must they be so relentlessly reinforced? And reinforced in opposition to everything else? Being socialized in a culture that legitimizes so few lives and households makes asking these questions rare. Still, noticing what limits our conception of intimacy is only a first step.
Queer literature equips me and my students to see that love should expand human possibilities, not constrain them. A recent memoir, Meredith Talusan’s Fairest, offers powerful examples. It documents a multifaceted journey, involving Harvard and Boston, England and the Philippines, but its depiction of the relationship with Ralph is especially revealing. Talusan and Ralph are happy as a gay couple as long as Talusan presents as a man, but Ralph grows uncomfortable as Talusan’s gender expression changes. Finally, after an intense disagreement, Ralph relents and makes a promise: “I won’t ask you to take off your makeup again.” Talusan confesses to the reader, “I loved him then more than ever, more than I was capable of loving anyone, but I couldn’t be the man he needed me to be.”
This situation in Fairest drives home Celie’s point about how love doesn’t take away rights. Love makes room for Talusan’s right to express herself, the same way it makes room for Talusan to appreciate Ralph’s truth. Though Talusan’s essence never changes, “just as other people treated me like a totally different person when they perceived me as a woman, Ralph too began to think of me that way the more feminine I became, and that meant he didn’t see the person he fell in love with when he looked at me.” Even more movingly, Talusan’s love—a love that takes away none of Ralph’s rights—is palpable as she confesses, “[My femininity] must have been such an affront to his sense of identity, what he’d had to overcome to come out in the ’80s as someone from a well-known English family, only to be mistaken for straight when he was with his partner and feel as if he was back in the closet again.” Whereas straight culture attaches happiness to a single form, the enduring marriage, this memoir sees love and expansiveness in a range of relations, including those that end: Talusan and Ralph ultimately go their separate ways. This end isn’t a failure: it’s emotional honesty. And when the two meet up again years later, the reader recognizes how love can create abundance, but only if we learn to let it.
Understanding that neither marriage nor monogamy is love has changed how I move in the world: it’s helped me see how ingrained a narrow set of values are in me, and how that narrowness limited even my own expressions of joy. My partner, Craig, and I recently celebrated 23 years of coupledom. We have been together most of my adult life and married for 17 years, but I’ve only recently begun admitting publicly that there’s not much I would change about our relationship. Especially during the first decade, I manufactured complaints whenever Craig came up in conversation, whether I was talking to a stranger or a friend. Aware of the negative messages society sends to single people, especially women—and especially women of color—I never wanted to add to the sense that they were missing out.
It took reading queer literature for me to realize that this habit wasn’t born of altruism. It emerged because I believed society’s lies about single people. Subconsciously, I was convinced that they couldn’t possibly be happy. I believed our culture’s lies about the scarcity of love; I felt, in a powerfully internalized way, that the presence of my love diminished theirs.
Queer literature helped me see that I had foisted misery onto single friends that they had never actually evinced. Then, I started facing the ugliness of my unsolicited (and unfounded) sympathy. Once I recognized my ugly condescension, I began noticing how exuberantly many single people love on their friends! Besides committing to emulate that behavior in my friendships, I became more comfortable with being honest about my relationship with Craig. It is just another version of love, no more valuable than any other. Marriage doesn’t make our union better or more moral, and monogamy isn’t natural, right, or righteous. Fully aware of “the assumptions in which we are drenched,” we choose each other—every day, on purpose.
Loving by deliberate choice preserves my rights and his.
Koritha Mitchell is author of the award-winning book Living with Lynching, editor of the Broadview Edition of Frances Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy, and author of From Slave Cabins to the White House. She is also a professor of English at Ohio State University. Follow her @ProfKori.