Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Compulsory Gender and Transgender Existence: Adrienne Rich's Queer Possibility

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Compulsory Gender and Transgender Existence: Adrienne Rich's Queer Possibility

Article excerpt

If women are the earliest sources of emotional caring and physical nurture for both female and male children, it would seem logical, from a feminist perspective at least, to pose the following questions: whether the search for love and tenderness in both sexes does not originally lead toward women; why in fact women should ever redirect that search; why species survival, the means of impregnation, and emotional/erotic relationships should ever have become so rigidly identified with each other and why such violent strictures should be found necessary to enforce women's total emotional, erotic loyalty and subservience to men.

Adrienne Rich,

"Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence"

Adrienne Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," originally published in 1980 in Signs and reprinted in numerous publications, immediately unsettled feminist thinking. That the article eventually faded from more recent feminist and queer studies debates has been explained as a result of supposed breaks: between essentialists and poststructuralists, second-wave and next-wave feminists, feminist and queer studies (Hesford 2005, 239). Yet the current interest in Rdch's work especially this particular article - over the past five years seems to suggest a renewed appreciation from a variety of feminisms for the kind of work that Rich was doing in her canonical piece.1

We were delighted to receive an invitation to revisit "Compulsory Heterosexuality" in this WSQ issue on "trans." Although trans issues are not specifically addressed by Rich, we draw our inspiration from the theme of this issue, to read transgender issues back into the piece's theoretical core.

"Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" was devoted to denaturalizing heterosexuality. Rich's attention to the many ways heterosexuality was forced upon women began the job of teasing apart how heterosexuality might be understood as a patriarchal tool of control over women and the ways women - even feminists - reproduced it. At the time, this was a challenging idea for many feminists, and Rich knew it. She compiles irrefutable evidence of heterosexuality's coerced nature: "The female wage scale, the enforcement of middle-class women's 'leisure,' the glamorization of so-called sexual liberation, the withholding of education from women, the imagery of 'high art' and popular culture, the mystification of the 'personal' sphere" (223). But she also admits that "to acknowledge that for women, heterosexuality may not be a 'preference' at all, but something that has had to be imposed, managed, organized, propagandized, and maintained by force is an immense step to take if you consider yourself to be freely and 'innately' heterosexual" (216).

Denaturalizing something masked by power as organic, normal, the sign of mature sexuality, and the basic human social unit, was something Rich realized would unsetde many of her readers. Yet these self-identified heterosexual feminists were the very people Rich hoped to bring into solidarity with lesbian interests. The history of next-wave feminist and queer studies shows us that, for the most part, theorists heeded her call, following so much in the path of her critique that those in these and related fields today can take her then-radical claims as baseline assumptions in their work.

Leaping then, from these baseline assumptions, we can take Rich's logic into the realm of trans theory and politics.

In her denaturalizing of heterosexuality, Rich asked readers to reconsider it as a form of what she termed "male-identification." Coupling male-identification with the abandonment of "female-identified values," Rich seems at first blush to be grounding her argument in a simplistic, biologically based belief in the category "woman." Yet given her project and the conceptual logic of the piece, an idea of static, binary gender doesn't make sense. How can we resolve this seeming contradiction within her argument? …

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