USyd Love Letters loves me not

All love letters are equal but some are more equal than others

Artwork by Shrawani Bhattarai

With over 15,300 followers, USyd Love Letters Revived (USyd LLR) is a source of entertainment for many students, a place where the innermost desires of classmates are externalised and a site for the odd shout out, and joke letter to a friend. As a place which enables people to anonymously submit letters without fear of judgement, it is unsurprising, then, that the page provides a relatively stable dataset of the types of people USyd students love and how they describe or sell themselves as potential suitors.

Despite anonymous spaces being technically judgement-free spaces, they can be monopolised or hijacked by exclusive, but not necessarily discriminatory, discourses which deter the participation of certain people like myself, highlighting preconceived expectations and influencing our sense of belonging.

The first post of USyd LLR is a pinned admin post dating back to 24 October 2018. Despite the good intentions of the author, it unwittingly reinforces heteronormative stereotypes by explicitly giving advice to guys who like girls (“for the guys…with the girl/s”) and vice versa (“for the girls…if there is a guy”), in turn, entrenching an expectation that readers are straight and monogamous, while also assuming gender roles to a degree.

Though it remains arguable that there are more straight people at USyd, it is possible to give advice which is inclusive to everyone. Doing this is far from difficult. In fact, the admin does manage to do this by not assuming the gender of people’s partners in their further advice in the comments section.

Going down the page, other posts reveal varying expectations underlying stereotypes manifested in the requirements and characteristics people demand in a potential suitor. While some desired characteristics are arguably petty, like the degrees people study, ethnic and cultural preferences subtly influence the letters on the page and the big debate remains whether it is acceptable to have a monoracial or monocultural preference.

While there are definitely open love letters, you often find letters which require someone to be of a particular racial or cultural background. Out of a randomly selected set of 30 letters, 13 were open and 17 had an obvious ethnic preference. However, while it may be easy to accuse those with such requirements as racist, and there are undoubtedly some who are, familial and cultural expectations permeate such requirements.

Indeed, some letters often jokingly mention these underlying influences. A recent letter laments the difficulties of finding the “perfect person,” within constraints defined by parents who would much rather have you “marry in the same race/religion.” Another letter mentions after making a ethnic preference, “We’re all kidding ourselves if we think there’s not a point where we’re going to ditch our parents’ requirements.”

Akin to these racial and cultural preferences, the manner in which people describe themselves online can also highlight preconceived expectations. Racial and cultural identity is a tricky area to navigate in online spaces. While personal identity is meant to be something we own and something we should be proud of, that does not mean they are immune to preconceived expectations.

For example, religious identity can involve moral beliefs on how people should behave. In that sense, a queer and affirming person of faith can be harmed (and very much excluded) when someone else is ‘proud’ of their religious identity and assume all others of that identity should act in a certain way. This extends to cultures where monocultural relationships are ingrained.

In these cultures, individuals are subtly geared towards an expectation, a performance consistent with those around them, such that they ought to like a specific type of person and a failure to do so results in the risk of social isolation. Cultural expectations ultimately explain the preferences of some letters in USyd LLR.

On a daily basis, I experience the wrath of both racial/cultural and heteronormative expectations. As a gay man who is typically masculine-presenting, I often feel an expectation that I am supposed to be straight or that I am straight-acting. Because I choose not to conform to the stereotypically gay image, I am expected to conform to typically masculine gender roles. As someone who lives in Australia and comes from a Chinese cultural background, I feel like I am being judged as inauthentic or simply white-washed because I don’t conform to stereotypical Asian ideals, and values such as being ‘hardworking,’ socially conservative and family-orientated.

These expectations, in turn, weaken my sense of belonging. More often than not, I wonder if someone will ever love me.

Yet, while USyd LLR and other university love letter platforms are generally light-hearted sources of entertainment, we can all aspire to be more inclusive when we talk about love. Though I am not suggesting that USyd LLR is an exclusionary platform, it remains paramount that we don’t make assumptions of people because of their racial or cultural background, nor that people are straight unless said otherwise. For example, writing public love letters addressed to ‘the boys’, ‘the girls’, or your love interest expecting they’re straight may be unremarkable to you, but it can negatively affect queer people’s sense of belonging. For most of us, the public sphere is an exclusionary space, and online love letters platforms which confer the protection of anonymity, are some of the few spaces we have routine access to.

Equally, the onus is on us to take care to understand our attraction without assuming anything on the basis of someone’s background. I don’t expect that we will be perfect, but we can all do our part in making our online spaces more inclusive.