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Like many people, I first read Adrienne Rich's article, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in college. I cannot remember if it was assigned or if I stumbled across it during one of my many trips to the library to find something, anything on lesbians that was not a psychological tract on the dysfunctions of homosexuality. As it turned out Rich's essay was much more to me than a positive article about lesbianism, but rather a manifesto of lesbian existence that declared us pervasive and distinct. Still, I had no idea how profoundly Rich's words had influenced my consciousness until I was asked to write this essay.
1980 and 2003 are extremely different political and cultural moments. I say this obvious statement because this fact was ever so evident to me while re-reading "Compulsory Heterosexuality." As I read, I found myself listing all of the points where Rich relied on a myriad of assumptions that she could not today, including a lack of distinction between various genders and sexualities, claims of a uniform global lesbian sisterhood, the presence of ubiquitous and monolithic male oppressors, and the assertion of a universal lesbian experience. Her theory of a lesbian continuum reduces all intimacies between all people identified as women by the dominant culture as lesbian, thereby erasing bisexual and transgender experiences, not to mention a host of other identities, bodies, and histories.
Nevertheless, I still find Rich's essay to be profoundly constructive. It was through her words that I started to question how structurally embedded heterosexism is. Rich challenged the notion that heterosexism is only an act by an individual bigot and demonstrated how it is part of a deeper, pervasive structural flaw that renders relationships between women invalid and invisible in every level of scholarship, including feminist scholarship. Her assessment of heterosexuality as an institution, like class and race, offered me a way to understand the compulsory component as creating lies and distortions maintained by every profession, cultural product, reference work, curriculum, and scholarship. This revelation made me a different kind of reader and thinker. The fact that she implicates feminist scholarship in the "closing of the archives" to lesbians made me more attentive to the misrepresentations that pervaded my most favorite and affirming works. It made me think about African American history.
I read African American history as I would any other theoretical text--closely. African American history is a rich source for understanding how Black subjectivity has been theorized in the United States. The tradition of representing Black people as decent and moral historical agents has meant the erasure of the broad array of Black sexuality and gendered being in favor of a static heterosexual narrative. Far from being totally invisible, the "queer" is present in Black history as a threat to Black respectability. Black women's sexuality has been discussed as the "unspeakable thing unspoken" of Black life. (1) However, in this essay, I show that variant sexualities and genders are the things always present in Black history by virtue of their constant disavowal. I want to get way from the notion of silence and discuss instead the ways in which Black people have written histories that exalted their manhood and heralded their femininity to protect themselves from defamation, and have proven their heterosexuality, thereby establishing themselves as decent, moral, and above all, "normal human beings." (2) Sexual deviance is more than homosexuality. Many different sexual unions and behaviors come under this rubric, including male-female sexual intercourse before marriage and sex across racial lines. Any divergences from the social norms of marriage, domesticity, and the nuclear family have brought serious accusations of savagery, pathology, and deviance upon Black people.
It is my job as an emerging scholar of African American literature and history not only to recover submerged voices but also to lay bare the conditions that create and subjugate black, female, woman-loving sexualities and transgressions of gender norms. In this way, I attempt not only to call attention to an absence but also to theorize a methodology. The process of distorting the complexities of Black women's sexuality has its roots in the discourses of Black sexual deviance that have become part of the mythology of white supremacy. The pronouncements of normalcy that emerged to protect subjects from accusations of deviance continue to manifest themselves in the absences and omissions of "deviant" sexualities and genders from Black history. All this is to say that from slavery onward Black women in the United States found themselves caught in a framework in which their very physicality equated them with hyper-femininity, mutant masculinity, and deviant sexuality. The limitations imposed on previous generations of Black women have far-reaching implications into the current discourse of history are worth some extended attention.
As Hazel Carby has argued in her important work, Reconstructing Womanhood, in the nineteenth century, the dominant ideologies of womanhood were "adopted, adapted and transformed" by Black women in order that the definition of "woman" better reflected the realities of their lives. (3) They were required to describe themselves as "dignified" and "respectable," meaning completely sexually pure and purely heterosexual. The Black women's club movement is an often researched and referenced institution from the …