Thirteen Ways of Looking at Compulsory Heterosexuality
The summer after seventh grade I went on a trip to Alaska with my parents, a two week tour group with several other families. On the first night I texted my best friend Noa to update her about the few boys my age on the trip. It was the very first thing I wanted to tell her and also what I knew she wanted to know about most. We weren't terribly interested in talking about any of the animals I had seen or the breathtaking views. I always noticed that these conversations became redundant, and if I’m being honest, straight up exhausting, as if they were a required topic for interacting with my friends in order to fit in. Because I felt inclined to tell Noa what she wanted to hear, I chose the most conventionally attractive boy around my age to practically obsess over. His name was Tucker, and I became friends with his older sisters Anna and Sarah Ellen.
Compulsory heterosexuality– or comphet– is the theory that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced upon people by a patriarchal and heteronormative society. The term was popularized by Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay titled "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."
One day about halfway through the trip, our tour decided to split up for lunch. My parents and I went with the two tour guides to a vegan restaurant. At said restaurant, I sat in the booth facing outward toward the rest of the restaurant. We took our time eating and a few people came and went. Then, a girl and her parents walked in. She looked a couple years older than me and she was tall, with long French braids cascading down her back. She wore a baggy black sweatshirt and Adidas tracksuit pants and her septum was pierced with a horseshoe ring. I’m pretty sure I stopped eating and just stared at her until we left. When we got back on the tour bus I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I remember wishing I was a boy so I could have an “airport crush” on her (for lack of a better expression). The more I thought about her the more I realized I felt attracted to her, but in a “yes, we’re both girls” kind of way. This sent a pang of fear through me and I was absolutely beside myself. I could barely eat dinner, and when I got back to the hotel room that night, I cried myself to sleep. For the next few weeks I spent the daytime being busy, but at night the girl from the restaurant was on my mind as I lay awake in bed. Slowly the new realizations about myself morphed into not just the girl but simply to girls in general. This terrified me and I’m pretty sure I shocked all related feelings out of my system because one night I seemingly forgot all about the Alaska encounter.
In the fourth section of Love in a Dark Time by Colm Tóibín, Sex, Lies, and the Black
Diaries, Tóibín begins by introducing the diaries of Roger Casement, a homosexual Irish diplomat. The very first thing mentioned about these entries is that when he was charged with treason and found guilty, they were used to “prevent a reprieve,” that is, to seal the deal for his imminent hanging. Following his death, many questions arose about the “Black” Diaries: “Were they forged? Were they real? How could an Irish patriot be homosexual?” We now have answers to these questions, but for the purpose of exploring comphet, they are futile. Though the contents of the diaries damaged his legacy, as well as South African history, great insight can be gained from the response to them. Though the last question is given the least attention from scholars, it stood out to me most. Questioning this part of Casement’s identity based on his apparently contradictory country of origin is a model example of playing into stereotypes, which are harmful and dangerous. Not only do they cause people to question themselves, but they make way for people to hide when the stereotypes that others place on them do not match their inner selves. It's no wonder why Casement turned to his private diaries to express his deepest secrets.
When you type the word “transgender” into Google, its part of speech is classified as an adjective. “Gay” and “bisexual,” come up first as adjectives and then, secondly, as nouns. But the word “lesbian” is first classified as a noun, and then after that an adjective. Ever since I discovered this, it has rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, I understand that it has to do with linguistics and nuances of the English language, but in the world we live in it’s hard not to notice the importance placed on different parts of speech in relation to certain words. In preschool, children learn that a noun is a person, place, or thing. But if a noun can be more than a “thing,” why do I always feel like I’m viewed by society as an object? It’s of course because misogynistic beliefs are deeply rooted in our society and have caused the objectification of women since the beginning of time. And more specifically, the objectification of sapphics.
In The Lesbian Masterdoc by Anjeli Luz, one section relating to this explains that in many ways the identities of women are “defined by our relationships with men.” In the English language it’s offensive to say “he is a gay,” but not “she is a lesbian,” and it’s also okay to say “she is lesbian.” However, you hear the former more often. You wouldn’t say “he is a bisexual,” would you? No one wants to feel like a “thing.” Especially growing up in a society that tells children that queer people do exist but you can’t possibly be one of them. Ending up realizing you may be something that feels so foreign is an inherently terrifying experience.
About six months after Alaska, one of my best friends took me down to the Audubon pond in our neighborhood to tell me that she had a girlfriend. Up until that point I, as well as everyone else she knew, was under the impression that she was straight. Seeing my friend not being afraid to be different from the majority of girls our age that I personally knew was a pivotal moment for me. I started thinking about the girl from Alaska again and what that meant for me, but this time I wasn’t scared.
It was at this moment I realized that I was not going to die.
Something I did when I was younger is I would cling to stereotypes because I could conform myself to align with them and I took a sense of comfort in that. It was a form of playing mind games with myself and the world around me. I was always told when I was younger that I was a highly observant child, and I believe this somehow plays a part in my willingness to hide behind stereotypes. In the movie But I’m a Cheerleader, the main character, Megan, who is at conversion therapy says, “I get good grades, I go to church, I’m a cheerleader! I’m not like all of you.” Not only is she pushing back against her family and friend’s accusations of her homosexuality, she is also reinforcing what she believes to be the characteristics of a straight girl. By proving that she fits the stereotype, she is affirming her “straightness” not only to the people around her but also to herself.
In the Introduction to Love in a Dark Time, Tóibín tells an anecdote about how he was asked to write a pamphlet about his own homosexuality. His response was that it was something he would not do, in fact, it was a matter that he couldn’t write about. Yes, he had written about the queerness of others, but not himself. He recalled feeling “uneasy, timid, and melancholy” about his sexuality. It’s notable that there was no discomfort in placing the characteristic of homosexuality on his fictional characters, but when presented with the opportunity to associate himself with the narrative, it became uneasy for him. The way he overcame this fear was by reading books by or about gay writers, and seeing himself become part of that group of people and genre of writing. That sense of community pushed him to break from the social norms and express himself to the fullest.
For so long I had a feeling in the back of my mind that I was going to die young because I could not imagine a happy “traditional” life married to a man. Being a student was about as far as I could imagine into the future. I of course had aspirations of what I wanted to do, but I imagined myself preparing for a future job in college but not actually living that life. I imagined some kind of freak accident would happen. Maybe I’d get hit by a bus like in Mean Girls, surely right after my college graduation, except I wouldn’t survive and people would look around and think, What terrible timing. Coincidence that she just graduated college. She won’t even get to have a real life, and I’d just be laying there on the pavement like I told you so. I didn’t even think about how I’d be mourned. This thought was so ever-present in my mind that I didn’t even waste my time thinking about that anymore.
Another reason I thought would die young was because there was virtually no representation in the media of happy queer adults. Recently, I watched the 2004 romantic-comedy drama film called Saving Face in which one of the main characters, Vivian Shing, is a lesbian ballerina who gets her happy love story ending. It was emotional for me to see someone on TV with two major parts of their identity that match mine. Watching her was like what I imagine it must be like to watch a Disney princess and see yourself in them. When I was little so many people associated Snow White with me because of my last name, and I always wondered why I never really felt like I could relate to her. Turns out Snow White’s happy ending just wasn’t the one I wanted. In kindergarten, I wrote a poem in which I related myself to Cinderella, but not because of any of her characteristics post turning into a princess and finding her prince. I related myself to the Cinderella who spent her days cooking and cleaning for her stepmother and stepsisters because I spilled an entire jar of fish food flakes and it took forever to clean up. I never got to see my happy ending when I was little, so how could anyone expect me to have any idea of what would happen between now and then?
Comphet itself is nothing new; however, the term was coined relatively recently, less than fifty years ago. This makes it important to talk about, because ignorance can quickly turn to hatred if left unattended to. I asked Kathy Steffens from PFLAG Norwalk to tell me about the lens she views comphet from to see how it differs from my younger point of view. I was interested in knowing how she has seen comphet present itself in those who visit her organization’s center as well as more generally in the world, and she commented that although “most of the people who come to our PFLAG chapter are parents, mostly aged 40 and up, some into their 70s come with a desire to love and understand our kids. There is a disruption in what we assumed their lives would be like– i.e., mainstream heterosexual lives.”
Personally, I believe that assumption has much to do with how young lives are shaped based on the desire to conform to the assumptions that people who we seek validation from, in this case, parents, place on us. She then added that “it is easier for us [parents] than for the general public to adapt to our kids' reality because we come with love.”
Just the way Steffens used the word “mainstream” to describe being heterosexual proves that even individuals of older generations who are supportive and open-minded are still more deeply rooted in a heteronormative society than those who are growing up with less of that influence.
How did Steffens think society could change in order for less people to be influenced by comphet? She paused in reflection. “I think,” she said, “that legislation to protect LGBTQ+ people's rights is a beginning, as is discussion and inclusion of all sorts of people in the media. It's difficult because so many people have a closed mind– but if we can start to find small cracks in the armor of where we all agree, it's a beginning. Over time, I believe many attitudes will change, because I've seen it happening in my lifetime. Unfortunately, these things never happen in the time frame we would like!”
I asked about the age range Steffens has seen internalized homophobia affect people most, and she replied by explaining that “it's been surprising to me that it's not so much the age range that determines the bias, but it seems to be deeply tied in with very conservative beliefs– particularly religious beliefs and cultural norms.”
Sappho, born in approximately 620 BC, was a Greek poet on the island of Lesbos whose prolific work now only remains in the form of a mere 650 lines. Her words can offer great insight into the way queer women have contemplated the idea of being married to a man against their wishes since the Archaic Period at the very least, and surely before that. In her famous poem “One Girl,” she writes two three-line stanzas, the first describing the way she views women before marriage, and the second how she perceives their change in demeanor after marriage.
“Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, —
Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now.”
In these lines, Sappho expresses her appreciation for the existence of a woman who is just out of reach of a man who may wish to marry her, and going along with the metaphor she presents, this apple of a woman will still be able to grow. She reminds us of the approaching end of this apple’s time on its tree by making clear that the apple was not forgotten, only out of reach– for now.
“Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.”
In her second stanza, Sappho makes it clear as day that she pities the married woman, ever so encumbered from a life of autonomy and stifled by her husband, represented by the “feet of the shepherds.” Though Sappho’s poems are written in coded language, one must wonder if her destroyed poems were slightly more overt, and for that reason causing Pope Gregory VII to order that all of her works be burnt. Whether they were or not, in the time Sappho was alive, her poems were a brave expression of self.
My Friends Tigger and Pooh was an animated show I watched when I was a few years old, and I became obsessed with the main character in the show named Darby who was essentially the “girl version” of Christopher Robin. I had a trading card of her that I carried around with me for months and then cried when I lost it in the radiator of my parent’s bedroom. She was very tomboyish and at that time I was going through one of my “tomboy phases,” so I related to her. Maybe I couldn’t relate to the Disney princesses that all my friends were drawn to, but at least I wasn’t left with nothing. Still, Darby was the same age as I, whereas the princesses were in their teens, the ages of people to look up to, not just relate to. This ties in with my ability to not imagine my future because of the lack of representation of happy and successful queer adults in the media. And considering this, Darby wasn’t fully established or confirmed as queer. Yes, she was queer coded, whether intentionally or not, but it would be many more years before young, queer animated characters came to mainstream TV.
Elery was a girl who I went to preschool with, and she had red hair just like Darby. All through my childhood, we would always end up in the same places. I became obsessed with her similarities to Darby and my parents would joke that I had a “girl crush” on her. When they’d mention it I’d either be unfazed or internally become very angry and frustrated but never show those emotions. I’m confident that this reaction had to do with sometimes subconsciously knowing my parents were tapping into some undiscovered part of myself while also sometimes feeling the effects of internalized homophobia.
As I contemplated my Thirteen Ways over the past couple months, I put an emphasis on highlighting the voices of people other than myself because there are so many stories besides my own that all have different experiences with comphet. I experienced feeling like I didn’t have the means nor the wisdom to speak in a way in which others could relate, but then came to realize that if one person feels any connection at all to my writing, I’d consider it a success. It’s okay not to be an expert in something, and I’m definitely not– I don’t want it to seem like I’ve “conquered” compulsory heterosexuality. I haven’t. But perhaps that makes my insights all the more interesting, and I can at least draw from my journey up until now. I suppose just the fact that I likely won't show this essay to my parents demonstrates this. Maybe this will be unfair to say because they try so hard to understand me, but they ask too many questions and I’m still not completely comfortable talking to them about my queerness.
Although I still experience internalized homophobia at times, this essay has helped me become closer to putting those thoughts away for good. And for that, I am thankful.
About the Author: Simone Snow is an eleventh grade writer from Connecticut who is particularly fond of writing poetry. She has been published in the American High School Poets - Spring 2023 Anthology as well as local magazines for her human interest articles. Aside from writing, Simone enjoys reading and visiting art museums.