Valentine’s Day always brings me back to the halls of my high school, which, on February 14th each year, teemed with roses by the dozen, glittery cards taped to lockers, oversized teddy bears, and prolonged goodbyes between couples before every class. As a shy high school student, I was more interested in the characters in the novels I read than pursuing my peers, but the holiday always brought an intense anxiety. Even when I told myself I didn’t want a cache of hot pink roses from the Kroger down the street, and even when I convinced myself that the holiday was a celebration of consumerism, I still felt like I was missing out in some way.
When I look back, I’m able to realize that my sense of loneliness didn’t come from any true sense of isolation, but rather the fact that I only recognized one type of relationship being celebrated, a kind I didn’t fully believe in, romances that relied on public gestures as proof. The essays I curated for this reading list are intended to be inclusive of all kinds of love. These writers explore what the landscape of relationships might look like in the age of robots, how one community of queer and trans women healed after Hurricane Harvey, and what pigeons might teach us about our own capacity for love, just for starters.
1. The Love Story That Upended the Texas Prison System (Ethan Watters, October 11, 2018, Texas Monthly)
Fred Cruz, imprisoned for 15 years for a robbery in Texas in the 1960s, was known for his calm manner, his study of law, and his practice of Buddhism. When Frances Jalet, a lawyer who moved to Texas because she was told it was a place where she could best fight for civil rights, met Cruz, the two hit it off. Jalet and Cruz, through years visitation and discussions of law in their letters to one another, fought for prisoners’ rights in Texas.
‘I know how deeply you love your son,’ Jalet wrote to Cruz’s mother that spring. ‘I have grown to love him also.’ Just what kind of love she was professing was unclear, perhaps even to her.
2. Love in the Time of Robots (Alex Mar, October 17, 2017, Wired)
What are the differences between humans and androids, and can the differences be “solved” through research? Can a relationship with an android stave off loneliness? What are the ethical considerations of trying to create an android so close to a human that the differences are difficult to perceive?
Alex Mar, in this riveting piece, addresses these questions, and also writes about the motives of Hiroshi Ishiguro, a man in Japan who regularly produces androids.
3. They Found Love, Then They Found Gender (Francesca Mari, October 21, 2015, Medium)
‘Gender identity typically develops between the ages of two and four, and sexuality emerges between ages eight and 10. ‘But if you’re not allowed to explore gender and sexuality and yours happens to be different than what’s culturally expected,’ Dr. Colt Keo-Meier, a trans man clinical psychologist practicing in Houston told me, ‘yours will be delayed, which is why you see people transitioning at 30, at 55.’ In Texas, he said, this is particularly true, thanks to the state’s stifling religious, cultural, and conservative forces.”
Settled into married life with her husband, with two children between them, Jeannot Jonte realized over time that she needed more. She asked her husband to open their marriage, and subsequently met Ashley Boucher at Sue Ellen’s, a famous lesbian bar in Dallas. The two connected. Their romance led to Jeannot divorcing her husband and allowed space for Jeannot — now Johnny — to explore gender identity in a safe space for the first time in their life.
4. After Divorce and Postpartum Depression, Work (and Bees) Brought Me Back to Life (Christine H. Lee, January 8, 2019, Catapult)
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s husband was allergic to bees but, after he left, Lee ordered her own nucleus and began tending to them. In this poignant essay — one that’s part of a series called Backyard Politics — Lee uses bees as a metaphor for the ways in which she learned to build the kind of life she wanted after postpartum depression and the dissolution of her marriage.
“It is no wonder that I am so in love with my bees. They live by structure and routine, but they are also resilient. They fight for their lives.”
5. India’s Golden Chance (Meera Subramanian, January 6, 2014, Virginia Quarterly Review)
Meera Subramanian visits Bihar, India to “find out what it means to be a girl turning into a woman in today’s India.” She is met with startling statistics.
“For every 100,000 mothers who give birth, 261 die—more than ten times the US figure. Though it is an illegal act, nearly 70 percent of Bihari girls are married before their eighteenth birthday, and well over half of newlyweds have their first child by nineteen. The average woman in Bihar bears 3.7 children over the course of her lifetime. Of those, nearly 5 percent die within the first year.”
Subramanian writes about the efforts of a woman named Pinki Kumari, who’s involved with a program called Pathfinder International, which seeks to educate people about reproductive health. The training also seeks to empower women to make choices that might lead to a brighter future, such as resisting arranged marriage, birth control options, achieving economic stability on their own, continuing education, and speaking out against pervasive issues such as sexual violence.
6. How Queer and Trans Women Are Healing Each Other After Hurricane Harvey (Yvonne S. Marquez, October 25, 2017, Autostraddle)
After Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, many LGBT and undocumented Houstonians struggled to heal, and were left without access to resources to do so. In this longform piece, one that is a testament to the power of love that exists within community, Yvonne S. Marquez shares the efforts of people like poet Tiffany Scales, who is part of the T.R.U.T.H. Project, a project that organizes uplifting and educational performance art events for LGBTQ communities and their allies; Ana Andrea Molina, founder of Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (OLTT), who used her resources and connections to open a nonprofit where undocumented queer and trans people receive support; and Jessica Alvarenga, a queer Salvadoran photographer who hopes to “capture a truer narrative of her community to counter anti-immigrant narratives spewed by conservative politicians who depict all Central American immigrants as members of the dangerous MS-13 gang.”
7. Politics as a Defense Against Heartbreak (Minda Honey, February 2018, Longreads)
A decade away from her last long-term relationship, Minda Honey arrives to a party celebrating her 33rd birthday without a date. After a friend gives her a tarot reading and suggests Honey will find a man, Honey reflects on the way she has evolved throughout various encounters with men, and discusses the way she now uses “politics as a barometer for the caliber of person” she dates.
“But I wish there were space in our culture for single women who are unhappy with their status to say so without being pitied, and without the pressure to break out into the Independent Woman song and dance. I can have a happy, fulfilling life and still long for romantic love. Two things can simultaneously be true.”
8. What Pigeons Teach Us About Love (Brandon Keim, February 11, 2016, Nautilus)
After observing a pair of pigeons for a spring — birds he names Harold and Maude — Brandon Keim ruminates on what we know about how animals conceive of love, and how their interactions as couples reflect on how we as humans engage in relationships.
“Part of the reluctance to talk of bird love, I suspect, is rooted in our misgivings about our own love’s biological underpinnings: Is it just chemicals? A set of hormonal and cognitive patterns shaped by evolution to reward behaviors that result in optimal mating strategies? Perhaps love is not what defines us as human but is something we happen to share with other species, including the humble pigeon.”
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.