Although “comphet” may sound like a gen ed class you take your first year of college, it’s actually an abbreviation for “compulsory heterosexuality,” aka the idea that heterosexuality is the expected norm, says Rob Semple (they / them), an agender artist and cohost of Inner Hoe Uprising, a queer Black feminist podcast. “Compulsory heterosexuality is the standard that is promoted socially,” they say. “It’s practiced out of habit.”
Following the resurgence of the “Am IA Lesbian” Masterdoc on TikTok, conversations about compulsory heterosexuality — or “comphet” for short — have been popping up across the web. The 31-page doc was written by Angeli Luz and originally published on Tumblr in 2018. The bulk of the master doc discusses societal pressures on women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB).
“’Compulsory’ is the opposite of ‘optional,’ ‘the document says. “Being straight is something our culture tries to force on us.”
What is compulsory heterosexuality?
According to Cheyenne M. Davis (she / they), a sex writer and founder of Unveild, a sex and kink publication for Black and Brown folx, “compulsory heterosexuality” is the notion that heterosexuality is the only valid sexuality and that everyone should be / is expected to be straight.
“It is harmful to queer, trans and / or non-cisgender folk,” they say. “It erases and demonizes these identities while simultaneously trying to force us to adopt a system where we must perform straightness and cisness.”
Cishet, short for someone who is both cisgender and heterosexual, is the assumption that everyone is straight or that all sorts of intimacy between cis men and cis women are innately romantic / sexual. This can look like your mom insinuating that you’re dating your guy friend, your new coworker asking you if you have a boyfriend, or someone asking your gay brother when he’s going to “find a wife and settle down.”
“Under this idea, anyone who isn’t heterosexual is considered deviant,” says Luna Matatas (she / her), pleasure educator and creator of Peg the Patriarchy. “It promotes stigma, reinforces grounds for discrimination, and limits the understanding of sexuality and gender as expansive and fluid.”
Although compulsory heterosexuality can be overt — like a massage parlor using the term “couples massages” as meaning a massage for a man and a woman, Sam Riddell (she / her), a queer videographer and cohost of Inner Hoe Uprising, explains that it’s often more subtle and insidious.
“Compulsory heterosexuality is the societal nudge that pushes folks into opting into heterosexual relationships regardless of whether or not they truly desire to do so,” she says.
In other words, compulsory heterosexuality can mean things like (1) only looking for straight people on Tinder because all you’re friends are doing it but also (2) picturing yourself eventually having a straight wedding because you grew up watching straight rom-coms and seeing straight brides in magazines.
The history of compulsory heterosexuality
The phrase compulsory heterosexuality came into use after feminist lesbian writer Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. In the essay, Rich discusses how harmful ideas about lesbians, like “they’re not really gay” or “they just haven’t met the right guy,” are rooted in patriarchy, ie, denying women their own sexuality and forcing them into domestic roles like wives and mothers.
She talks about how sex is usually centered around cis men and their pleasure and that conversations about sex usually don’t discuss women and AFAB people.
“Rich wrote that heterosexuality is seen as the only acceptable sexuality, and society creates systems of oppression based on this idea, through institutions in education, justice, health,” says Matatas. “This hopes to enforce heterosexuality as natural and queerness as deviant.”
As Rich describes, when heterosexuality is seen as “expected” or as the only acceptable identity, queer people feel pressure to be straight.
“It creates an obligation to go with the status quo,” Matatas says. “It might prevent someone from exploring their sexuality and gender or honoring what they know to be true about their sexual orientation.”
How lesbians and queer women are affected by comphet
In the master doc, Luz describes that while compulsory heterosexuality affects people of all genders and sexualities, it especially affects lesbians and queer women. “This is because compulsory heterosexuality easily ties in with the misogyny that causes women’s sexualities and identities to be defined by our relationships with men,” she says.
As Luz describes, the social pressures that tell you to be “chill” so boys will like you or to start planning your wedding as a child are the same pressures that make getting a boyfriend seem like an achievement. While this is something all women and AFAB people have to deal with, lesbian and queer women have to navigate misogyny and people assuming they will end up with men.
“When you’re trained from childhood to see romantic / sexual relationships with men — and only men — as major life goals, how do you separate that from what you want?” says Light.
According to Luz, compulsory heterosexuality can feel like a voice in lesbian or queer women’s heads that says they must be straight, even when they are dating women. If your family is asking you if you’re “really” gay, your boss said they didn’t “realize” you were gay, or your friends say they don’t think you’ll “end up” with women, compulsory heterosexuality may make you question your queer identity.
“Compulsory heterosexuality is what forces lesbians to struggle through learning the difference between what you’ve been taught you want (being with men) and what you do want (being with women), which is why so many lesbians have dated men at some point, ”she says.
How other LGBTQ + people are affected by comphet
Comphet affects other LGBTQ + identities as well. For instance, a gay man may deal with compulsory heterosexuality if people assume he is straight, or a bisexual woman may deal with it if someone says they’re “not really bi.”
Matatas says that comphet often functions in tangent with other systems of oppression like racism, ableism, fatphobia, and classism.
“When we create any kind of hierarchy, it inevitably supports other hierarchies in society,” she says. “Compulsory heterosexuality is rooted in white colonial masculinity, where systems of white supremacy and patriarchy support the idea that heterosexuality and the gender binary are the norm.”
As Mantatas shares, for queer and trans people, especially queer and trans people of color (QTPOC), falling outside of the prescribed societal norm can increase your risk for violence, disenfranchisement, and employment discrimination and decrease your access to health care and media representation . This means that comphet affects all queer people but especially affects queer people of other marginalized identities.
Davis continues that comphet is an extension of a white supremacist, binary system.
“As a person who is not only Black but also fat, non-binary, and queer, I am rendered invisible and socially unacceptable because of my intersections, and my identity, alone, goes against compulsory heterosexuality,” they say.
How comphet is different from heteronormativity, cisnormative, and cishet
Per Riddell, “Heteronormativity is the societal perception that heterosexual relationships are the standard and all other kinds of relationships are ‘other.’” Heteronormativity functions as the driving factor behind comphet, although it’s a little different from it.
Heteronormativity is the objective notion of assuming straightness, where comphet generally describes an individual feeling these pressures.
As Riddell shares, comphet happens because of heteronormativity, ie, queer people may never “come out” or bi-curious people may never explore their sexuality because they feel pressure to be straight, and being in a straight relationship gives you straight privileges.
“Some of these privileges include public safety and freedom from harassment, historically the ability to marry, more recently, the ability to adopt and foster children without fear of being discriminated against in certain states,” she says.
“Heteronormativity is a collection of behaviors and values based on enforcing comphet institutions,” Matatas says. “Heteronormativity assumes a gender binary and protects certain comphet institutions, like assuming that marriage is only between a cis man and a cis woman.”
Matatas continues that because straight relationships are often romanticized in movies, TV, and books, queer people may feel pressure to “behave” by heternormative standards. This pressure to live by heternormaitve standards is compet.
Cisnormative is a term similar to heteronormative but about gender. Reminder: a cis person is one who identifies with their assigned gender at birth. Cisnormativity means assuming that everyone is cis and in so stating that, being a transgender person is “deviant” or wrong.
Cishet is an abbreviation for someone who is cisgender and heterosexual. It can be used as a noun, ie, someone who is cisgender and heterosexual, or as an adjective, ie, something that depicts / is reminiscent of cisgender and heterosexual people, like a Kate Hudson movie.
Although some cishet people may perpetuate heteronormativity, there are many cishet allies who support queer and trans people. Bring cishet doesn’t mean that you are homophobic or heteronormative — it just means you’re cisgender and heterosexual.
What to do if you’re affected by comphet
If you’re a queer person and you’re dealing with internal or external comphet, it can help to engage with queer-positive media and connect with queer communities. Podcasts like Inner Hoe Uprising, Dyking Out, and Food 4 Thot. Additionally, finding LGBTQ + centers in your area or online groups like PFLAG, Trevor Space, and Empty Closets.
If you’re questioning your identity and feeling affected by comphet, the experts share it can be helpful to speak with a queer-affirming therapist or mental health expert. (You can download and use an app like TalkSpace for $ 49 a week.) Also, talking to LGBTQ + people and hearing about other’s experiences may help you navigate your own path. Listening to more queer podcasts and watching more TV shows or movies with queer characters can widen your exposure to queer people.
If you’re a cishet person who is committed to being an ally and to dismantling comphet, try to be intentional with your language. Terms like “date” or “partner” are gender inclusive and don’t assume that someone is straight. For example, you can say things like “are you bringing a date tonight?” or “are you seeing anyone” rather than “are you bringing a guy?” or “do you have a boyfriend?”
Additionally, you can do your part in your school or workplace to ensure that queer people feel comfortable talking about their lives and / or bringing their partners to any events. If someone comes out to you, be supportive and validating rather than saying “I never would have known” or “I didn’t think you were gay.”
Griffin Wynne Griffin is a queer writer and artist currently living in Philadelphia, PA.
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