Compulsory Heterosexuality: An African De-Colonial Perspective

As I scrolled through the modern-day newsletter, otherwise known as the bird-app (or Twitter), I came across a link to a Google Doc titled ‘Am I A Lesbian Masterdoc”. This document, which has been widely shared amongst queer youth, highlights the concept of compulsory heterosexuality or ‘comphet’. It particularly leans into the ways women and gender non-conforming (GNC) folk are subject to the pressure to be heterosexual by a patriarchal society. The truly illuminating part about this document is the idea that heterosexuality is a political institution, constantly enforced on us regardless of our orientation, and always lingering in the backdrop of our lives. 

The notion of comphet was popularized by poet and essayist Adrienne Rich in her essay “Compulsory heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980) which fleshes out the idea by naming the forces that make heterosexuality a social obligation. The subtle and not-so-subtle social cues we consistently receive usher us towards heterosexuality, despite our discomfort with it.  The comphet document is an attempt to deconstruct this, taking the reader on a journey using statements that are relatable and commonplace, yet powerfully display the effect comphet has on all of us. In the case of women in particular, comphet is enforced by patriarchy through material and social privilege, and by the conditioning young girls receive as children. 

Comphet has become a buzzword in the LGBTQ+ community, especially amongst lesbians. What does this mean for queer African youth? 

African and African diaspora communities tend to carry the reputation of being extremely patriarchal. The depiction of an African woman as a strong figure is always juxtaposed by a lustful colonial imagining of her as subservient to men. Along with the undoubtable belief in a strict gender binary, comphet has had profound effects on my experience as a Sudanese queer person. When I think about what it means to be truly out, I am filled with fear, questions and insecurity. Not about whether I will be accepted, but about my very livelihood.  

Today I often wonder, if women and GNC people’s lives are so defined by their relationship to men and heterosexuality if women are denied their humanity when they diverge from their gender roles, then what happens to them when they love other women? 

My non-binary and queer awakenings were very much educational moments. These ongoing processes of understanding the feelings I always carried growing up also involved a drive to understand my communities, and some of the unhealthy dynamics dwelling within them. 

Heterosexuality and patriarchy were, as I grew to find out, more of a western import than queerness was. To be made “other”, along with all your practices that subvert from western patriarchy and heterosexuality, is, historically, the experience of colonized people.

October began with a series of African nations celebrating Independence Days, we were reminded of the many ways our ancestors fought to free themselves from a colonial grip. But African queer youth grapple with feelings of simultaneous pride and shame. Proud of our heritage, and ashamed because we cannot be our full selves within it. To try to alleviate this dissonance, it would help to know that comphet is an archaic system. It was first and foremost a colonial tool that set forth the first discriminatory laws against LGBTQ+ people on the African continent. 

In fact, pre-colonial Africa had no anti-LGBTQ+ laws, nor did it have a record of persecuting any LGBTQ+ people based on their sexuality or gender identity. The correlation between genitalia and gender was also not a given, and gender was not thought of in the binary way that was defined by the European coloniser. In many cases, what we see as gender non-conforming or ‘queer’ was venerated. Ancient Egyptians often portrayed their deities in an androgynous fashion, for example Mut, the Goddess of Motherhood is often displayed as a woman with an erect penis. The Dagaaba in modern-day Ghana did not assign gender based on anatomy but energy. The male Zande warriors of Sudan often married men. And women-women marriages were institutionalized in almost 40 precolonial African societies.

The legacy lives on in our languages. I hear the gender-neutral indigenous language of my Northern Sudanese tribe spoken by my father, in the very home where I am not out as non-binary or queer. Queer history and ancestry is not just Stonewall, but also pre-colonial Benin, Sudan, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and more. Queerness is something I could derive from my own heritage. Not only because it is prevalent in my history, but because queerness, or ‘othering’ is the experience of African people at large. In this way, I celebrate our freedom fights and centralize our traditions as the norm, and not the other. I know that queerness has always been a norm for my people. As the buzzword ‘comphet’ evolves in LGBTQ+ communities, Black youth will experience these epiphanies differently. Our history, being a history of compulsory-everything, not only heterosexuality, means we must recognize how adjacent our fight for freedom is to the fight for queer liberation. 

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