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Reflections on "Compulsory Heterosexuality"
Over the twenty-three years since it was written, I probably became more critical of my essay than any other possible reader. I stopped giving permission for its inclusion in anthologies and college readers because I felt it flawed, outdated, and in certain important ways no longer representative of my thinking and the thinking I respected. It also seemed to me that the ensuing years produced more grounded scholarship, more refined critical thinking, and, simply, more witnesses than were available to me in 1979-1980 when I was writing it. "Compulsory Heterosexuality" was an effort of the 1970s explosion of lesbian and feminist consciousness in the United States, revolutionary in its activism and spirit, still groping for historical, intellectual, and analytic tools.
It was also part of the writing catalyzed by newly emerging feminist publishing venues: newspapers, magazines, presses, pamphlets, some cranked out on workplace mimeograph machines, some financed by individual women's personal or collective assets, some funded by academic institutions. Of the latter, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, was the most institutional, first established as a publication of the University of Chicago, then transferred regularly to different universities under different editors. 1
I undertook "Compulsory Heterosexuality" at Signs' invitation to contribute to an issue on sexuality, from any perspective I chose. I thought I was writing an exploratory piece, an essay in the literal sense of "attempt": a turning the picture—the presumption of female heterosexuality—around to view it from different angles, a hazarding of unasked questions. That it should be read as a manifesto or doctrine never occurred to me. When it began to be reprinted as a pamphlet by small lesbian-feminist presses here and abroad, I was agreeably surprised. When I began to hear that it was being claimed by some separatist lesbians as an argument against heterosexual intercourse altogether, I began to feel acutely and disturbingly the distance between speculative intellectual searching and the need for absolutes in the politics of lesbian feminism.
Along with the elation—intellectual but also emotional—of that time went, as I recall, a defensiveness, an impulse to label and condemn rather than seek engagement and possible synthesis of views and positions. There had never been a monolithic, unitary women's movement. Yet the specter of "splits" often led to blank non-engagement or public accusations of [End Page 9] "divisiveness." (Through it all, of course, groups of women—the Combahee River Collective being one notable example—were working seriously and conscientiously to build alliances and define a viable, coherent multi-issue politics.) In framing a "lesbian continuum" I was trying—somewhat clumsily—to address the disconnect between heterosexually-identified and lesbian feminists.
There are moments of insight—the feminist identifying of institutional patriarchy was one of them—that can seem to draw confirmation from every direction, iron filings pulled to a magnet. Such moments can be electrifying—and dangerous. To perceive human relationships in a different pattern, to imagine new social possibility, is an extraordinary sensation. But precisely at that point the self-critical function needs to come into play, where, as contributors to the issue on my essay have pointed out, history, context, supporting sources, need to be scrutinized.
What I believe has had lasting usefulness is the critique of the presumption that heterosexuality is "beyond question." That new generations of young women have met with that critique for the first time in my essay only indicates how deeply the presumption still prevails.
The essays by Judy Wu and Mattie Richardson draw on Asian and African American studies and analysis developed over the past quarter-century. The existence of such studies is owed to scholars and activists in the queer and academic communities, and in the ongoing antiracism struggle. Racialism is still the great bulging theme pushing at all political and social movements—and underlying most discourse—in this country. If my essay has lent any momentum to the work of such younger feminists of color as Wu and Richardson, I am...