Hallmark’s Problem With Gay Love

6 minute read

I stand at the racks in the local CVS inspecting the merchandise and pondering life’s little issues: Should we be mice this time? Or little bunnies? Gosh, the bunnies are awful cute – but, dang, the one on the left is wearing mascara and lipstick, isn’t it? Mice then? Or does that one have a bow in its hair?

This is how gays browse for Valentine’s Day, birthday, wedding, or anniversary greetings. We walk into Walgreens or Target, ignore just about any card that shows pictures of actual humans or that declare love to a “husband” or “wife,” because inevitably the language, and probably the imagery too, will be positively hetero. Instead, we find cards with mutually enamored, anthropomorphic animals and ascertain they aren’t drawn to imply gender. Or, alternatively, we go schlocky because a crude cliché about one’s age or a knowing joke about the banality of a long-term relationship really knows no sexual orientation.

With the acknowledgment that the gays of Sochi and Uganda would kill for such mundane dilemmas, I’m still baffled. If this is an ultimate first-world problem, it is because the marketplace in first-world countries is supposed to resolve these inconveniences and awkward moments by providing products to satisfy a growing niche. Back in 1992 when I sought out my first Valentine’s card for another man, I expected nothing more. More than two decades later, though, it’s surprising – and surprisingly bad business – that so little has changed.

The key player here, of course, is Hallmark. There are other card makers, but Hallmark dominates the $8 billion-a-year industry with more than 5 billion cards sold in the U.S. annually, and a presence in drug stores and other retailers that goes far beyond its own 38,000 stores. Back in 2008, when only Massachusetts and California had legal same-sex marriage, Hallmark made a big deal about rolling out what they considered to be gay wedding cards. Even though the cards were carefully unspecific — artwork showed intertwined flowers and overlapping hearts and the nondescript message “Two hearts. One promise,”– they enjoyed praise for their foresight.

That the company is basically doing roughly the same thing six years and 15 additional marriage-equality states later is strange. This is an age, after all, when all-American icons Chevy and Coca-Cola include same-sex families in their diversity montages during the most mainstream of TV events, the Super Bowl and Olympics.

“This year, Hallmark offers two cards in our in-store Valentine’s Day selection that are specifically created for same-sex relationships — titled ‘Love: Man to Man’ and ‘Love: Woman to Woman’ — and they are labeled that way in the display,” the company’s publicist, Kristi Ersting, wrote to me last week. “There are other relevant Valentine’s Day cards that would be appropriate for same-sex relationships as well as other romantic relationships. They would be found in the display under titles like ‘Love for Him / Her,’ ‘Man / Woman I Love’ and ‘For My Partner.’”

Wow. Two cards, one for each same-gender pair. Neither of which, it should be noted, the clerks at any of the Hallmark stores in and around Ann Arbor, Mich., seemed aware of or could locate. And then, of course, some other cards that can, as they say, go both ways.

Ersting did the company no favors by pointing me to Hallmark.com’s LGBT page, which was, like the rest of Hallmark’s efforts in this regard, as coded and unclear as possible. The top three cards there were ones you can customize – Hallmark’s way of saying, ‘Ah, do it yourself, give us your money and leave us alone’ — but the examples and the images provided were all of and for opposite-sex couples. For some reason, two of the mere 14 options were cards that invited you to write your name on the unsightly business end of an elephant’s behind.

Meanwhile, there were at least 10 different versions of birthday cards for 90-year-olds at one brick-and-mortar Hallmark in Ann Arbor. Which is more common for most people: that they’ll need a wedding or anniversary card for a same-sex couple or for a 90-year-old’s birthday? And, anyhow, what are the odds you’d ever need more than one at a time? Or, on the off chance you know a gang of 90-year-olds all hitting the milestone at once, how likely is it that they’ll be at each other’s houses snarking, “Oh, you got that one from Emily, too, huh?”

A few other occasions for which Hallmark feels there’s a bigger market than the gays include a priest’s anniversary, a thank-you note from a pet or for a day-care provider, and congratulations on potty training, the loss of teeth, a new cat, or a gold award from the Girl Scouts. I did spot a Valentine’s card under the banner “Daughter & ‘Son’” – but it’s unclear whether this is a passive-aggressive way of questioning an in-law’s validity in the family or acknowledging his gender transition.

Gay people have won so many victories in such a short period of time that many figure it’s all over but the mopping-up. But the mopping-up includes small things like this that illustrate inclusion and respect as well as acceptance.

These are the things that make it real. It’s when you check into a hotel with your boyfriend and the clerk doesn’t automatically assume you want two beds. It’s when the bakery doesn’t force you to sue for your right to perch two brides upon the buttercream.

And, indeed, it’s when you trudge out on a snowy afternoon early in February to the store – any store – and find what you’re looking for. Yes, the Internet makes it easier, and if you’re fortunate enough to have a nearby LGBT bookstore, they can certainly use the business.

But we’ll know we’ve made it, too, when we can roll down to the Piggly Wiggly to find an encouraging card for that nephew who just came out or for that couple whose teenager is asking for gender reassignment surgery.

Or, in our case, something with a pair of adoring and adorable boy bunnies pledging their Valentine’s affections. If straight people buy it without noticing, all the better. They can always draw a skirt on one of them if they really must.

Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico, who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. The views expressed are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter @stevefriess.

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