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The Lesbian Legacy: Deconstructing Compulsory Heterosexuality

Happy pride month!

In honor of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s good form to appreciate what the community teaches us about authenticity and the deconstruction of norms.

As an introduction to gay liberation politics, compulsory heterosexuality is the product of institutional and cultural systems that assume heterosexuality as the norm and reinforce its power and privilege with legal, economic and cultural structures.

The term originates from a 1980 essay by Adrienne Rich, entitled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence.” In its original context, this term is used in reference to the lesbian experience as they do not experience genuine attraction to men. Those who are genuinely attracted to men are completely valid!

Rich wrote of the heteropatriarchy denying that women could have a relationship beyond a mother-daughter dynamic, further discrediting female friendship and sexual/romantic attraction, in order to maintain a submissive working class. How else were women supposed to have babies? Under compulsory heterosexuality, a woman’s non-male relationship is considered pointless and absurd. 

News flash: sex can be recreational! 

Queer sex exactly places value in pleasure over ejaculation. While countless replicated studies find that lesbians have less sex, it doesn’t account for a dip in quality or time spent. Rich wrote about how previous lesbian relationships were kept hidden to prevent others from becoming aware of this “lifestyle” without men.

It reminds me of the iconic movie, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997). Romy sighs, “I swear I wish I were a lesbian” then Michele nonchalantly replies with, “You wanna try to have sex sometime?”

Romy and Michele\'s High School Reunion dance club scene
Touchstone Pictures / Giphy

Lesbian relationships aren’t “advertised” as one way to pressure people into defaulting to heterosexuality. The idea of intentionally choosing your sexuality is definitely problematic, and so is being boxed into one. Compulsory heterosexuality describes the forced attraction of heterosexuality, namely on women in order to reinforce reliance and heteropatriarchy.

Some common signs of compulsory heterosexuality:

  • Only/mostly being attracted to unattainable, disinterested or fictional guys you never or rarely interact with
  • Thinking you’re commitment-phobic because no relationship, no matter how great the guy, feels quite right
  • Liking the idea of being with a man but once it becomes a realistic possibility, it makes you anxious
  • Choosing to be attracted to a guy at all or flipping your attraction on like a switch
  • Having sex, not out of desire for the physical pleasure or emotional closeness in heterosexual relatioships, but because you like feeling wanted

More signs can be found in the Am I a Lesbian? document

These effects are not unnoticed. Compared to gays and bisexuals, lesbian people are often the last to “come out.”  On average, gay men reveal their sexual orientation at age 18 to friends and family. Generally, bisexuals come out at 20 and lesbians come out at age 21 (Martos et al., 2015). While there are a myriad of factors, I immediately connected this to the time it may take to reconcile with the possibility of female socialized attraction to men. 

satirical tweet about coming out late
@rachel_kaly on Twitter

Because of the constant centering of men in relationships under the patriarchy, Rich defines the “lesbian existence” as a rejection of a male’s automatic right of access to women, like he would have to his wife. The lesbian existence defies and attacks compulsory heterosexuality. She also introduces the term “lesbian continuum” as the potential for all female comradery. Being a lesbian is as natural as it is political.

While Rich’s essay has intersectional limitations, it fostered more queer discussion. Michael Warner popularized the term, “heteronormativity,” describing the normalization of heterosexuality and the gender binary as the default, so that anything outside of this norm is devious or queer.

This cultural imperialism of heteronormativity dominates all types of media. Consider the way lesbian porn is integrated with heterosexual porn on any porn site’s front page. Both types appeal to the cis-het male viewer. If you want gay (guy-on-guy) porn, that is sorted separately. The male gaze treats lesbian and gay sex differently. Lesbians do not receive the same merit of gay men. While the deviance from the homepage signals that being gay is weird, lesbians are also fed information that communicates that their attraction is a performance. Actors can and will fake it. It’s watered down because it’s consumable. To connect back to the concept of compulsory heterosexuality, genuine female love is sold as a performance.

The “male gaze,” a term coined by Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” habitually objectifies women for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. It can be translated into our reality and internalized, prompting women to surveil their bodies to maximize male attention which can fester insecurities.

We must remember that we don’t exist to please another person — which is easier said than done. In capitalist society, it is difficult to detach our worth from our production value.

I ask you to reflect on compulsory heterosexuality, even if you are not a lesbian, so you can ask yourself if you are truly being your authentic self or if you are performing. The main oppression of queer folks is heteropatriarchy, which serves to naturalize other oppressive social hierarchies (The Anti-Violence Project). Following queer theory would be to practice deconstruction, question everything you thought you knew and challenge the systems in place.

Any liberation struggle that does not challenge heteronormativity cannot substantially challenge colonialism or white supremacy

Andrea Smith, Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing

Here are some graphics to help contextualize allyship and liberation:

queer allyship canva slide
Photo by Canva / Design by Dorilyn Toledo

Actions for Queer Liberation
Photo by Canva / Design by Dorilyn Toledo

Extra Resources:

Podcast on Compulsory Heterosexuality

Queer Theory Readings

The Trevor Project

Scholarships for LBGTQ+ Students

National Resources – UCI compiled 

Thank you for reading. Take care!

You are what you love. In my case, it's riot grrrl music, healing reads, and bell hooks quotes. I am a national HC writer and a chapter editor at UC Irvine, where I study political science and social ecology.
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