From infancy, girls are bombarded with fairytale stories of the princess marrying the prince and living happily ever after. As well as learning their letters and numbers, girls also spend their early childhood years absorbing a lesson that is tacit yet no less a fundamental part of their education: your future happiness is pinned upon finding, falling in love with, and marrying the right man. So much of the omnipresent media geared towards girls as small children, teenagers, and young adults equates happiness with heterosexuality.
Hollywood sends a saccharine sweet message to women and girls, echoing that old Beatles song: all you need is love. But, rather conveniently, most celebrated love films end at the beginning of the relationship. The big screen goes dark before we see the heroine doing substantially more than her fair share of household chores, or restricted by childcare responsibilities (again, disproportionately likely to fall to the woman). The prevalence of male violence within heterosexual relationships is rarely mentioned. The inequalities brought about by gender, the ugliness of sexual politics, and the deep unhappiness both can cause in women do not fit into the carefully crafted narrative of heterosexual love being the answer to every problem.
If happiness for women is rooted in building lives around men, lesbians are by definition excluded from it.
Even popular works young adult fiction celebrated for having heroines unhindered by adherence to the feminine gender role – Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games trilogy, Tris Prior of the Divergent series, Alina Starkov of the Grisha trilogy – all circle back to that tired old trope: happiness, for a girl, is love – specifically, romantic love shared with a guy. If happiness for women is rooted in building lives around men, lesbians are by definition excluded from it.
Alternative stories haven’t always been easy to find and, even when lesbian lives are depicted, that representation can be flawed. To begin with, lesbian media was scarce. What love between women existed on the printed page, as a general rule, ended in at least one of three possible outcomes: sadness, insanity, and death. It was only with Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart that the tide began to turn – miraculously the 1986 film adaptation kept the happy ending too.
But, as the litany of dead lesbian characters reminds us, we still have a long way to go. Even when lesbians aren’t killed off on screen, there remains an implication that our lives exist outside the bounds of lasting happiness.
Sara Ahmed, a lesbian of color and self-proclaimed feminist killjoy, writes with great insight in Living a Feminist Life, exploring how happiness is connected to the hopes and expectations we’re subject to in heteropatriarchy:
“To want happiness is to want to avoid a certain kind of future for the child. Avoidance too can be directive. Wanting happiness can mean wanting the child to be in line to avoid the costs of not being in line. You want a boy to be a boy because not being a boy might be difficult for a boy. Boying here is about inclusion, friendship, participation, approval. Boying here is about the cost of not being included. To want happiness for a child can be to want to straighten the child out…Not to want your children to be unhappy can mean in translation: not to want them to deviate from the well-trodden paths. No wonder then that in some parental responses to a child coming out, this unhappiness is expressed not so much as being unhappy about the child being queer, but as being unhappy about the child being unhappy. Queer fiction is full of such speech acts in which the parents express their fear that the queer child is destined to have an unhappy life.”
When I first came out to my grandmother, she said that she didn’t mind me being a lesbian. But she was worried being lesbian would get in the way of my happiness. And after my heart stopped pounding, after my hands stopped shaking, after the blood stopped roaring through my ears, after relief replaced adrenaline, I couldn’t help but think: “Joke’s on you, Nana, because I was depressed as fuck to begin with!”
According to research from University College London, lesbian women, gay men, and bisexuals are twice as likely as heterosexual adults to suffer from anxiety or depression.
Clearly, there is a problem – and while heterosexism is certainly not the sole caused of mental illness, it does have the power to damage mental health. Studies undertaken by the Mental Health Foundation suggest that experiences of discrimination, isolation and homophobia all contribute to the higher risk of mental illness in LGB people.
Some see it as a chicken and egg question. Are we more likely to be depressed because our lives are outside the picket fence parameters of what we are told happiness should be? Or do people conflate being LGB with unhappiness because we experience higher rates of mental illness than our straight counterparts? I personally think that it’s a bit of both – especially since lesbians and gays have been pathologized for at least the last two hundred years, with medical professionals trying to correct our ‘deviance’ from the path of heterosexuality with conversion therapy in order to return us to the ‘happy’, ‘healthy’ fold.
Heteropatriarchy is, of course, invested in keeping women from discovering routes to joy that do not include or center men. Stories romanticizing heterosexual love are designed to limit women’s horizons. There is a lot to be said for rejecting social convention, and the belief that prioritizing family life with a man is the most important thing. And if we’re brave enough to look beyond the social messaging, living a lesbian life gives us routes to happiness that don’t rely on men or depend upon romantic love.
I’ve found, as a lesbian and as a feminist, the greatest and most sustainable sources to happiness have all been woman-centric. Whether it’s an informal gathering of dykes, volunteering at the Women’s Library, or attending a weekly crochet group, there is something incredibly nourishing about spending time surrounded by women. Even and especially in periods of poor mental health, community and friendship with women keep me going.
As a kid, I was one of those girls who proudly proclaimed “I’m not like other girls.” Then I grew up a bit. I took off the blinkers and realized that not only did I want to be with other girls, but being like them included a whole spectrum of wonderful possibilities. Looking back, it seems almost unthinkable that I once believed the best part of my life to be virtually worthless – but that’s the message we’re force-fed by the media, by society, and by everything in between. In teaching girls that connections with one another are superficial and secondary to anything they’ll go on to share with a man, heteropatriarchy robs us of some of the richest experiences life has to offer. Or tries to – somehow, women always find a way to one another.