Homosexuals on the Prowl?

This PSA (public service announcement) was produced in the 1950s, in cooperation with both the local police and school district. Notice that it’s directed toward young men, specifically boys. Female homosexuality is invisible here.

How do we still use the “threat” of male homosexuality – what C.J. Pascoe calls “the specter of the faggot” – as a form of social control to “police” masculinity? How do the stereotypes of male homosexuality in the PSA reflect the assumptions revealed in the list of “flipped” questions handed out in class?

In what ways does this differ from the ways we police femininity and/or female homosexuality, discussed in Rich’s article “Compulsory Heterosexuality”?

Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality”: Constructing Heteronormativity

In her groundbreaking article for the feminist journal Signs in 1980, feminist poet and scholar Adrienne Rich argued that we need to see and understand heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood as political institutions and not simply as a “natural” life path that women are “innately oriented” to desire – that is, we are not born desiring these things, but rather learn to desire them. Judith Lorber would say that we learn that certain desires are connected to “doing gender,” or performing femininity or masculinity. In other words, we need to understand how the dominant social order has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

So not just gender and sex, but also human sexuality is reinforced through socialization and the ways we are taught to “police” each other’s behaviors and desires.

In American culture, heteronormativity is the dominant narrative – that is, heterosexuality is considered “normal” and images of heterosexual life dominate our advertising and popular culture. Just look at the cover of every “rom-com” ever produced:

rom coms

Since the 1990s, popular culture has embraced some images of homosexuality, but because even people who are gay live in a patriarchal society, for decades, pop culture was still largely dominated by images and stories of gay men. Shows like “Will & Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and more recently “RuPaul’s Drag Race” all feature gay men.

Of course, we might also consider the ways in which these particular stereotypes of gay men have so frequently served and supported heteronormativity. For example, the cast of “Queer Eye” allows for straight men to engage in fashion and appearance without their own heterosexual masculinity being called into question. Or the images of gay men we so often see in fashion or in drag culture seem to instruct women to better perform femininity, sometimes by highlighting its extremes.

queer eye

But where, we might ask, are all the lesbian women? Though they’re becoming slightly more common, gay female celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres still tend to be exceptions. (Check out “Leaps and Strides: The History of Gay Characters on TV.”)

While shows like Orange is the New Black were revolutionary in their focus on women and women’s relationships (heterosexual, homosexual, and intimacies in between), some feminists have mixed feelings about the show, including Roxane Gay (author of Bad Feminist, recently hired by Purdue), questioning whether the characters succeed in challenging certain stereotypes of both lesbian relationships as well as women of color. For starters, the whole idea that prison fosters homosexual behavior.



Ok, so calling an independent woman today a lesbian for being too “pushy” or sure of herself doesn’t have quite the same impact it did in 1970 when women involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement frequently had this insult hurled at them. (This is a perfect example of binary thinking: if a woman will not perform femininity, she must by default want to be the opposite, i.e., masculine. There’s no continuum on which one might identify oneself here – there is only a pair of opposites.)

So how have our attitudes toward women perceived as lesbian changed?

Let’s consider for a moment the whole barsexual trend. A “barsexual” is slang for a woman who kisses or otherwise engages in sexual behavior with female friends (often at bars) in order to attract the attention of the men they are actually romantically or sexually interested in.

Watch this clip from the Tyra Banks’ Show, where a woman in the audience who is lesbian confronts two heterosexual female guests on the show who engage in barsexual behavior:


  • How does such behavior help or hurt women – particularly young women like those on the show – interested in supporting solidarity with their sisters (lesbian or otherwise)?

Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich: Recognizing Difference

audre lorde 1

AUDRE LORDE: “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” (from Sister Outsider, 1984) Lorde is a crucial figure in second-wave feminism. The title of her book Sister Outsider was a criticism of the feminist movement’s definition of “sisterhood” (and a dialogue with Robin Morgan’s landmark book Sisterhood is Powerful. In this essay, she exposes the tendency of white feminists to “ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone.”

  1. According to Lorde, why are Black lesbians (or “women-identified” Black women) interpreted as a particular threat to Black nationhood?
  2. Lorde reminds us that “white women face the pitfall of being seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. This possibility does not exist in the same way for women of Color…for white women there is a wider range of pretended choices and rewards for identifying with patriarchal power and its tools.” What does Lorde mean by “pretended choices”?
  3. How might Black men also be vulnerable to a similar pitfall? Consider the following quote from Hurston in your answer.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character’s grandmother gives Janie the following speech about relationships between Black women and Black men:

“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de n_____ man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De n______ woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fur it tuh be different wid you”(Hurston, 14).

A photograph of (from left to right) Audre Lorde, Meridel LeSueur, and Adrienne Rich at a writer's workshop in 1980.

A photograph of (from left to right) Audre Lorde, Meridel LeSueur, and Adrienne Rich at a writer’s workshop in 1980.

ADRIENNE RICH: “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980) Rich’s essay argues that we need to see and understand heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood as political institutions and not simply as a life path that women are “innately oriented” to.

Like Lorde, Rich is also concerned with the ways that we may participate in our own oppression. Think back to Lorde’s “pretended choices – ” Rich quotes Kathleen Barry, who explains that identifying with patriarchy means “internalizing the values of the colonizer and actively participating in carrying out the colonization of one’s self and one’s sex” (Rich 646).

  1. What stereotypes of lesbians does Rich identify in her article? Can you think of examples of any other inaccurate or harmful images of lesbians in our contemporary culture?
  2. What does Rich mean by “compulsory heterosexuality”?
  3. How are unmarried women, “spinsters” and widows also harmed by the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality?
  4. Rich names and defines 8 characteristics of male power in a patriarchy. What are some of the methods used to maintain these powers?
  5. How does the myth of the “all-conquering male sex drive” harm women? How is it a product of the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality?

Consider this recent example of “compulsory heterosexuality” from the President’s second inauguration:


Now think back to this section of Judith Lorber’s article, “Night to His Day”:

“At a rock and roll dance at West Point in 1976…the schools administrators ‘were reportedly perturbed by the sight of mirror-image couples dancing in short hair and dress gray trousers,’ and a rule was established that women cadets could dance at these events only if they wore skirts (Barkalow and Raab, 1990, 53)…This feminization  is part of a deliberate policy of making them clearly distinguishable from men Marines.”

Question: Can you think of other examples of “compulsory heterosexuality”?