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Unlearning Compulsory Heterosexuality

When I was fourteen, amid secondary school and a rather embarrassing emo phase I’d rather forget, I came out as bisexual. Labels are confusing and often contrived, but I felt like I had to put myself in some sort of societal box to feel a sense of inner peace and to answer all those internal questions - to put a stop to the online ‘Am I Gay?’ quizzes. 

But I’d never liked a boy. At least, not really. I don’t think my Year Two boyfriend counts here. Last summer, while digging around online once more, I learned what comp-het was. 

Compulsory heterosexuality is a phrase most commonly used by lesbians to describe the experience of attempting to like the opposite gender, sometimes unconsciously, to conform to the heterosexual standards that society loves so dearly. Let’s face it, all the princesses in our fairytale books found Prince Charming, and Barbie always had Ken. Lesbian feminist and activist Adrienne Rich coined the term ‘comp-het’ in her 1980 essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence", in which she explored the relationship between the patriarchy and queer women’s sexuality. I realised early on that this wasn’t just an LGBTQ+ identity issue, but also a feminist issue. Rich believed that the social environment perpetuates the notion that all women should be attracted to men to some degree. This idealogy is harmful enough to girls, let alone those who are already questioning their sexuality. I know we don’t live in the 1950s anymore, and that women aren’t expected just to be housewives who cook and clean. I don’t want to set the feminist movement back sixty-odd years by digging up those age-old patriarchal-imposed norms, but the truth is that they still hang around. One of these norms is heterosexuality. 

Surely, we’ve all agreed by now that women aren’t defined by the very existence of their male counterparts? 

I’m immensely proud of the progress that’s been made for LGBTQ+ acceptance, but for some women who are attracted to women, there’s that damaging lingering feeling of ‘what if?’. What if I dated a man just to see if I could potentially, just for the sake of an easier life? I wouldn’t get stares in the street holding hands with a guy. What if liking a male celebrity singer means I’m a fraud when it comes to being gay? This is, undoubtedly, a trickle-down effect of the patriarchy. It’s in TV shows I watch, magazines I read, and people I speak to who suggest I’m going through a phase. Spoiler: it’s rarely ever just a phase.

I knew I was experiencing comp-het when I saw that many women describe liking men as ‘performative’ because that’s precisely how it feels. Being bisexual and able to love all genders is a beautiful thing and I know it comes with its own stigma, but it felt like using this label was a last-ditch effort to appear somewhat straight. To conform. To fit into the default setting as much as possible. And I tried, trust me. I dated boys, and I kissed a few, but I was always left with this empty feeling. A common comp-het occurrence is mistaking platonic affection in men for something romantic instead; we’ve been conditioned to confuse being fond of a man as meaning you’re attracted to him in some way, or that naturally men and women can’t just be friends. I’m here to reassure you that this belief is false and when you really like someone, the difference will be night and day. 

So I learned I don’t like labels, and that I dislike the fact that society is still constantly preaching to girls that they’ll find Mr Right even more. I’m slightly more sure of myself than I was at fourteen, I’m just now unlearning compulsory heterosexuality. You might be wondering, why label everything, why is there a term for everything these days? It’s so that queer people don’t feel alienated or alone anymore and can easier explore their identity. Which, really, is something we are all trying to do as it is. 


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