Compulsory Heterosexuality Made Me Think I Was Straight Until I Was 21
Some people realise they’re queer straight from the womb. Others come to the realisation a little later when they first start going through puberty. For me, I didn’t realise I was anything other than straight for at least two decades.
A recent study by San Diego State University found that 1% of kids aged 9-10 identify as gay, bisexual, or transgender, while 48% of gay and bisexual college students interviewed by the US Sexuality Information and Education Council knew their sexual preferences in high school. Four years from first realising I wasn’t straight - and now confident in my queer lesbian identity - I’ve discovered that compulsory heterosexuality played a large part in me not understanding my sexuality until much later than many of my LGBTQ+ peers.
Compulsory heterosexuality, or ‘comphet’ for short, refers to how our heteronormative society conditions women to view their interactions, connections and relationships with men as romantic or sexual. In simple terms, ‘comphet’ is the idea that heterosexuality is the norm and our society has been totally set up and constructed with heterosexuality in mind.
1% of kids aged 9-10 identify as gay, bisexual, or transgender, while 48% of gay and bisexual college students knew their sexual preferences in high school.
For me, compulsory heterosexuality guided me down a specific path in life where for 21 years, I didn’t even consider anything but dating men. At best, this led me to jokingly wonder if this was really it and if I was always meant to feel half-hearted about the men I was dating. At worst, it put me into some difficult situations that significantly affected my relationship with sex in the years afterwards.
Looking back, there were a ridiculous number of signs I was queer growing up. However, because of ‘comphet’ I wrongly labelled the butterflies I got in my stomach when I was speaking to certain girls as jealousy for wanting to be like them, while through the ages of 14-17, I found many of my friendships with women to be more intense than usual and to end dramatically and emotionally - much akin to a romantic breakup.
Compulsory heterosexuality played a large part in me not understanding my sexuality until much later than many of my LGBTQ+ peers.
For many other queer women who also discovered their sexuality much later than their peers, ‘comphet’ meant normalising anything from liking a man then suddenly losing interest when they showed interest back, picking which men to be attracted to based on how attractive they were to other women, and even closing their eyes during sex and being unable to enjoy engaging in sexual acts with men.
Thanks to online platforms like TikTok that have become increasingly popular places to share and discuss the different nuances of human sexuality, ‘comphet’ has since become part of the mainstream discussion of queer sexuality. However, before TikTok, there was another way that queer women were finding out about compulsory heterosexuality; the infamous Lesbian Masterdoc.
A crucial part of internet lore for those who grew up in the so-called Tumblr era, this mystery pdf by author unknown was shared across dashboards just as much as black and white photos of Sky Ferreira and Arctic Monkeys lyrics layered on a tie-dye background. And while this 31-page double-spaced pdf looked closer to a secondary school IT project than a piece of legit academic writing, the Lesbian Masterdoc was paramount in helping many queer women discover their confused emotions towards men might actually be the effects of ‘comphet’ suppressing their true queer identity. One of these queer women was me, who first discovered the doc (and then shoved it to the back of my mind) after watching Hayley Kiyoko’s Girls Like Girls back-to-back for reasons I just couldn’t seem to fathom.
There’s no doubt that compulsory heterosexuality significantly delayed my coming out experience. Because of society’s tunnel vision that heterosexuality was the only path I could go down, I didn’t even consider another way of life until two decades had already passed. Luckily for me, my friends and family were quickly very supportive when I told them that I was now dating women as well as men. And since then, realising that I only actually wanted to date women going forwards. However, I’m aware that many of my LGBTQ+ queers aren’t as lucky to have this support network - especially if they had no idea they were actually queer until much later in life.
Compulsory heterosexuality has been so ingrained in our society that I doubt I’ll ever be able to stop actively picking apart behaviours that this social concept led me to believe were normal growing up. Anything from unconsciously dressing for men on nights out when I started clubbing at 18, to “performing” in the bedroom and being more preoccupied with putting on a show than putting my own pleasure first.
I’m happy compulsory heterosexuality has now figured its way into the mainstream discussion on queer identity. For me, it was the eye-opening answer to the question of years of confused emotions and the deep-set realisation that something wasn’t quite right. These days, my closest friends joke that they can’t see me with anyone but a woman, and they can’t believe they even thought I would once end up with a man… it’s true that ‘comphet’ is ingrained not just in the lives of queer women, but also in the universal female experience, regardless of sexual preference.
I sometimes wonder what my adolescence would have looked like if I had discovered I was queer sooner. Yet I don’t think I would have become the person I was today had I not gone through the mammoth journey of discovery that I did in my early 20s. Now, giddily happy in a secure and healthy queer relationship, I finally know exactly what love is really meant to feel like - not what society has conditioned me to think it should feel like. And while sometimes I have to catch myself and actively retrain my thoughts to step out of the ‘comphet’ mindset that I’ve been conditioned to follow since I was born, I’m proud of how far I’ve come since I first discovered the pdf that completely bent my life around.
Both cover art and in-article illustrations coutresy of Phoebe Holden
Tilly is a freelance writer who spends most of her free time trying to make sense of the world by scribbling down her thoughts and feelings on various bits of scrap paper. She loves writing about her experience navigating life as a young queer woman, in hope that her words can help another twenty-something realise that it’s okay to not yet have it all figured out.