When Adrienne Rich wrote her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in 1980, I doubt she could have imagined a world where lesbians were more widely accepted and the internet brought ideas of sexual nonconformity to the forefront. I first discovered the writing of Rich at the end of my senior year of high school. I was visiting a used bookstore in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the town on the very tip of Cape Cod that is a sort of gay cultural mecca. I found among the shelves Blood, Bread, and Poetry, a book of selected prose that Rich published in 1986, and having been a semi-out lesbian for about a year, I made one of the best $7 purchases of my life. For the first couple years of owning it, I merely skimmed some of the passages, intimidated by the more complicated academic language and powerful analysis of the patriarchy, and let it be a virtue-signaling aspect of my decor. I knew that it was good to have, and that I simply wasn’t ready for the academic level.
I was totally ready for the academic level. I wasn’t ready to think that hard about my sexuality. I didn’t want to have to recognize the implications.
I finally read Blood, Bread, and Poetry, including “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence,” at the beginning of this school year when the weather was nice and adirondacks were free on the quad. I’m an English major, and I was no longer intimidated by the concept of dense theoretical literature. And it being my junior year in college, I had been out for almost four years; I was comfortable confronting implications. I was ready to face the uncomfortable and the stinging and the tinge of shame that comes from an inherently present internalized homophobia.
It’s a great essay in a great collection. In short, it talks about, well, compulsory heterosexuality and the lesbian existence, duh. But Rich explores what aspects of our society force us into liking men, what aspects of our social systems are inherently violent, what the basic assumptions of heterosexuality and heterosexual norms do to those who do not fit into them, how a patriarchy is inherently keeps gay women down. It’s a little emotional to get through. But it’s important, and a little radical, and a great analysis of our social norms around sexuality and gender. If you’re lesbian or bisexual or even just curious and want a critical lens through queer theory, I definitly recomend it.
But first, I recommend the Lesbian Masterdoc.
I’d seen it mentioned in passing on TikTok, about how it was a great guide for figuring out if you were lesbian or not, especially for those who are questioning their sexuality. I already knew I was out, so I never gave it a glance. I regret that. It covers, almost identically, the concepts of
Adrienne Rich’s work, but in a super accessible, relatable way. Instead of dealing with theories and intensely intricate societal structures, the document, available with a simple Google search or by following this link, outlines through bullet points and straightforward language the concepts of compulsory heterosexuality. Why do we feel the need to like men? It’s the way we were raised. Can I still be a lesbian if I have a crush on fictional or celebrity men? Yes, you’ve chosen men that are unattainable. The whole thing is set up like a giant FAQ section of everything you could ever think while questioning your sexuality. It even tackles the idea of having liked and had relationships with men in the past, the intersection of lesbianism and gender identity, and the validity of both trans lesbians and trans men who like women.
It’s a great way to access the more basic, yet radical, concepts of Rich without needing to stumble across a used book in a place where you’ve already sort of accepted that you’re not straight. While it may make you question your sexuality (especially if you’re bi), that’s good! Even if you’re comfortable in your sexuality and liking men, it’s important to see what systems brought you to where you are. Even if you like men, society has shaped the way you like them, inherently, in the same ways it makes all women feel the need to prioritize and feel attracted to men. How has it shaped your standards of what a good relationship looks like? How has it influenced your ideas of the future, and your relationships with men in the past? How are we all streamlined towards being in a perfect nuclear family with a golden retriever and a white picket fence? How do we all lower our own standards?
Regardless of your sexuality, reading about sexuality is interesting. It says a lot about our society, and it tells us a lot about ourselves. So go find a PDF of Adrienne Rich online, or take a look at the Lesbian Masterdoc. Even if you don’t learn something closet-door-breaking about yourself, you won’t regret it.