By Frank Miller
In her essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich introduces her audience to what she perceives as the commonly practiced travesty that is heterosexuality. She begins with a quote borrowed from Alice Rossi’s “Children and Work in the Lives of Women”: “biologically men have only one innate orientation–a sexual one that draws them to women–while women have two innate orientations, sexual toward men and reproductive toward their young” which she offsets with her argument. She explains that the dismissal of the lesbian perspective is commonplace in literature; subsequently arguing that some texts may have greatly benefited from the author’s acceptance “with lesbian existence as a reality, and as a source of knowledge and power available to women; or with the institution of heterosexuality itself as a beachhead of male dominance.”
Touching on several influential psychological texts, including Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering, she determines how closely the lesbian has been integrated and appropriately judged, deeming nearly all of the texts as insufficient. Her psychological analysis leads her to propose an essential question: “If women are the earliest sources of emotional caring and physical nurture for both female and male children, it would seem logical [to ask] whether the search for love and tenderness in both sexes does not originally lead toward women.” She confesses that she is not a believer that lesbian relies on the mother’s unconditional love unto the child; yet, explains that she has seen a significant increase in fathers tending to children. She claims that as some believe this may deplete machismo, she believes that the transition could continue “without radically altering the balance of male power in a male-identified society.” From this point she highlights Kathleen Gough’s “The Origin of the Family,” a compiled list of the unwritten rules of archaic machismo expressed upon women, rules which seem “innate” for men engaging in heterosexual practice.
However, the core of Rich’s argument lies within the coined term: “lesbian continuum” which may be defined as “a range–through each woman’s life and throughout history–of woman-identified experience.” The lesbian continuum also includes “the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support.”
Though published in 1980, it seems as if “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” had Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) in mind during the process in which it was being written. Celie is made an example of by nearly all of Gough’s points by several of the men of the novel. One heterosexual male in particular, Alphonso, the man who she believes to be her father “force[s] [his] [male sexuality] upon [her],” “den[ies] [her of her own sexuality],” “command[s] or exploit[s] [her] labor to control [her] produce,” “control[s] or rob[s] [her of her] children,” “cramp[s] [her] creativeness,” and “withhold[s] from [her the] large areas of the society’s knowledge and cultural attainments” all by keeping her prisoner in his home, perpetually raping her, and forcefully removing the children they conceive. Her submission to heterosexuality continues when she becomes an “object in male transaction” when Alphonso trades her to Mr.____. Yet, her luck changes when she encounters Shug Avery, Mr.____’s mistress who comes to live with him. As Rich proposes the two share “a rich inner life” as their bonding leads the two to begin “sleeping[ing] like sisters, me and Shug” (126). However, Celie’s relationship with Shug transcends a “desired genital sexual experience with another woman.” Shug, who is “practical[ly] and political[ly] independent on her own” appropriately gives Celie such “support” by informing her to stand up to Mr.____’s attacks, as the two end up “bond[ing] against the male tyran[t]” that is Mr.____. Being insulted in the most heterosexually driven manner possible: “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman…you nothing at all” (168), Celie fully encompasses Rich’s argument. She demonstrates the strides of practical and political support of the lesbian continuum and her liberation from heterosexuality as declares her and Shug’s departure from Mr.____’s heterosexually-dominated oppressive home: “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly…But I’m here” (169).