I have become acutely aware of one truth in parenting: despite my best efforts and most loving intentions, something I do or say to my children will hurt them. They can have the most perfect upbringing and will still benefit from unpacking things that happened to them during their youth. It’s just part of being human, I suppose. Hooray for therapy!
Through my own parenting journey, I’ve uncovered something ugly that I may have been doing to my children and that I had done to me. You also probably had it done to you and you may be unknowingly doing the same to your own children. It’s called Compulsory Heterosexuality (or “comphet” if you’re not a regular parent, you’re a cool parent).
Don’t go treating me like I’m some anthropological genius… no. The concept of compulsory heterosexuality existed long before me and was popularized by Adrienne Rich a year before I was even born. Wikipedia defines comphet as “the idea that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced by a patriarchal and heteronormative society. In this theory, heterosexuality is seen as able to be adopted by people regardless of their personal sexual orientation, while heterosexuality is socially promoted as the natural state of both sexes, and deviation is seen as unfavorable.”
Take a deep breath. Go make yourself a cup of tea. We’ve got a lot to sift through here.
What is CompHet and Why Is It a Big Deal?
On the surface, compulsory heterosexuality may not seem like a big deal. After all, heterosexual (or heterosexual-appearing) relationships are very much the norm in society. Statistically, it’s more likely that your child will identify as an “ally” rather than a member of the LGBTQ+. However, with the fact that 21% of Gen Z people (age 18-24) in the US identified as LGBTQ+ in the US, you can see why it’s problematic to assume that every child is straight.
Because comphet isn’t just about assuming and raising a child to be heterosexual. It also creates a ranking of relationship types. It signals “this is what I prefer you to be” or “this is what’s ‘normal.’” If your child is part of the 1 in 5 that are not straight, comphet can be incredibly damaging to their self-esteem and feelings of worth and love. It puts the blame on them as being something that is less desirable, when the reality is we’re just waiting for society to catch up to the reality that not all creatures are attracted to the opposite sex.
I consider comphet to be one of the primary drivers behind my own denial, then rejection, then finally acceptance that I am a lesbian. I didn’t come out publicly until I was 40 years old, leaving behind a solid two decades of a heterosexual relationship that, by all societal standards, was darn near perfect. As a recovering perfectionist, I spent so much of my life trying to do things the “right way,” even if that meant rejecting the knowing I held within. My world was filled with heterosexual imagery from infancy in books, media, and our social circle. The first time I recall hearing the word lesbian used in a non-derogatory way, I was 24 years old.
CompHet in Our Children’s Lives
As a newly-out lesbian and a mother, I’m becoming more aware of how we slather ourselves in heterosexual messaging. The devil is in the details and there are a zillion subtle ways that we signal that gay might be okay, but hetero is bettero.
One way is through the lack of (but growing) representation of same-sex relationships in our lives. While I am proud of the companies that are finally willing to say, “Hey, families actually DO come in all types,” it still saddens me that there are always so much hubbub when it happens.
The amount of attention (both negative and positive) when an advertisement, or movie, or book features a same-sex family, or wedding, or kiss only further “others” same-sex relationships as something different. I can assure you, while there are some differences in my current same-sex relationship versus past heterosexual relationship, our love and our family unit function very much the same. We still fight about who needs to clean up their dishes and who gets to pick the movie we watch at night. For the record, we are NOT watching Encanto for the 87th time!
If people could see examples of all types of families and people represented in media, then it just becomes the norm. And contrary to unpopular belief, if your child sees two men kissing it will not “turn them gay” any more than watching hetero couples my whole life didn’t effectively “turn me straight.” Seeing representation lets people know that who they are and how they feel are normal and natural and okay.*
This blog is a reboot of an old version I wrote about compulsory heterosexuality early in my blogging career. As a wide-eyed optimist that comphet could be eroded through more Oreo commercials and Pixar characters, the recent Florida legislation so valiantly titled the “Parental Rights in Education Bill” showed me the extent that some adults are willing to go to in order to ensure that compulsory heterosexuality stays intact.
The bills states, "Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."
While the bill has passed most levels of approval, despite majority opposition from voters, it has yet to be approved by the Governor. People argue that this bill does not target the LGBTQ+, with DeSantis’s press secretary tweeting that it would be more accurately described as an “Anti-Grooming Bill.”
Hmmm, I’m curious if she sees the irony here?
By removing representation of various types of healthy sexual orientations and gender identities, aren’t we in fact steering (or “grooming” as she says) our children toward one direction that has more to do with who we hope them to be rather than who they actually are?
Although, the bill’s supporters now use the chief talking point of “It doesn’t even say gay!” anyone who paid attention to the arguments from those in favor of this bill hear stories of parents claiming their children were “traumatized” from seeing a same-sex kiss or books where one of the families had two dads. It doesn’t say gay, but let’s put on our thinking caps and identify which depictions of “sexual orientation” are not appropriate for kids?
Human Sexuality is Part of Childhood
If the depiction of same-sex couples in children’s books, movies, and discussions is not “age appropriate,” then why are opposite-sex couples not held to the same standard? Why have we never had an issue with a female teacher mentioning her husband? Why are we allowed to teach that George Washington was married to Martha Washington? Why could we hear stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Charlie Bucket had both a mom, a dad, and two sets of heterosexual relatives that all slept in one bed?
Those things never crossed our minds as being “instruction of sexual orientation.” And they never felt inappropriate for a very specific reason. It’s because they’re NOT inappropriate. But guess what? Same-sex relationships are not inappropriate either. Some adults just make it that way by hyper-sexualizing same-sex relationships or reduce the love between people to a sexual act.
This is not an issue of age-appropriateness. It’s an issue of homophobia.
Children knowing that there are many types of healthy loving relationships is not a problem. This has more to do with our own discomfort as parents in not wanting to accept the reality that (gasp!) our kids might be gay.
Why do we feel this discomfort? Why did celesbian power couple, Glennon Doyle and Abby Wambach, share on their podcast that they felt fear when their son came out as gay, even though they are out and proud themselves?
Because being gay is harder. Some adults are not kind. And those adults impart their fear of the LGBTQ+ onto their children, resulting in bullying, harassment, and violence against LGBTQ+ kids. And as long as the lack of education and normalization continues, so does this cycle of intolerance and misunderstanding.
It’s no wonder some parents do not want an LGBTQ+ child. Look at how unsafe they make the world for them.
So What if We Raise Our Children with CompHet and They’re Not Straight?
Burying one’s sexuality doesn’t always turn into some magical tale of Untamed or Chronic Case of Hetero with a happily-ever-after ending. Unfortunately, for our children this can sometimes be a matter of life or death. I implore you to spend some time thinking about these statistics from the Trevor Project:
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24 (Hedegaard, Curtin, & Warner, 2018) — and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are at significantly increased risk.
- LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers (Johns et al., 2019; Johns et al., 2020).
- The Trevor Project estimates that more than 8 million LGBTQ youth (13-24) seriously consider suicide each year in the U.S. — and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.
- The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
Conversations about human sexuality and gender are hard. For many parents, they probably aren’t comfortable either. That’s understandable. We haven’t been given the tools or language to have their conversations. This was never a part of our own education.
But I will take a talk about gender and sexual orientation any day over potentially putting my child at a greater risk of suicide or self-harm. Unfortunately, until we stop legislating against the LGBTQ+ existence or fighting representation, chances are these statistics aren’t changing any time soon.
Becoming CompHet Aware
Removing compulsory heterosexuality from your children’s upbringing doesn’t have to be hard, but it does take some work. Lucky for you, awareness of comphet is the first and biggest step. And since you’re already reading this blog, you can cross that one off your list.
Changing Our Language
Understanding comphet makes us more aware of the ways it appears in our lives. It’s in the well-meaning (but completely inappropriate) conversations from adults when they ask children if they have a “boyfriend” or a “girlfriend.” It’s telling our daughters to “find a Prince Charming” or that they’re going to be “boy crazy” as teens. It’s talking to our sons about finding a good wife and mother for their children.
One of my dear European friends was surprised by how so many people in the US feel the need to attach a gender to the discussions of love or attraction. In her children’s upbringing her conversations were instead about “future partners” or “the person you love.” No gender needed. Just love and respect when speaking about relationships.
Changing Our Materials
Another friend of mine reached out to me for books that included LGBTQ+ imagery or discussion. When she casually mentioned to her 5- and 7-year-old that some families have two moms, “their heads about exploded!” She realized then that her children had limited exposure to same-sex couples and wanted them to understand that there are many types of healthy love.
I prepared this blog for her with book options, which I continue to add to as I discover more titles. Fair warning though, there is cartoon hand-holding and characters telling each other, “I love you.” If that falls outside your realm of “age appropriate” then DEFINITELY avoid these books.
Also know that just because a book, tv show, movie, or commercial features a same-sex couple or queer character, doesn’t automatically mean that you have to have a discussion with your child about it. The point is that it's normal and doesn't have to be a thing. It’s not weird to kids unless we make it weird.
Change Traditional Roles
Step away from the idea that women need to be married to a man to be taken care of or that a man needs to marry a woman to have a good home and family life. In a world with dual-income households and single parenthood, we can (and often have to) figure out how to make it work. Teach your children about financial education, how to use an air fryer, and not to throw a red shirt in when washing white clothes, and they’ll be better served than thinking their survival and happiness in life is based on a legal tie to another.
If you’re playing the game Life with kiddos, you’ll see that there’s a mandatory Marriage stop on the board. You can take a comphet moment of automatically tossing an opposite-colored peg into their car and turn it into a teaching moment. Let them know that in real life, marriage is optional and should stem from a healthy, consensual relationship. This usually results in my daughter tossing a cat peg in her passenger seat and driving off into the sunset.
Changing Our Comfort (or Discomfort)
When I polled a group of women who came out as lesbians later in life and asked them how comphet appeared in their lives, one woman shared that she was scolded by her kindergarten teacher for playing “mommy and daddy” with her female friend. The teacher sternly told her that “girls can’t like or marry other girls.”
Sometimes our own discomfort plays into enforcing comphet beliefs. We’ve always known things to be a certain way, and so when we see children doing things differently it feels jarring or unusual. While I’d like to pretend that these types of conversations still aren’t happening with children in schools, the reality is that there are still a lot of people who are incredible uncomfortable with anything LGBTQ+ being within their realm of existence. Like the guy who just surrendered his dog to a shelter because he thought the dog was gay.
This is your own unpacking to do and by far the most difficult part of ending comphet. It means unlearning the comphet beliefs we’ve been taught or the indoctrination that being gay was somehow wrong. (As an aside, if you’re struggling with the Bible and the LGBTQ+ existence, may I recommend Colby Martin’s UnClobber as a starting place.)
Raising a whole and honest person will do more for this world than raising a fractured and shame-filled person with a facade that hides it well.
Raising Healthy Children
So now that we know that a fair percentage of kids will identify as LGBTQ+, we can make the conscious choice to recognize that and validate them? Or will we continue to teach them to reject themselves, knowing that this rejection does nothing to change who they actually are? Rejection forces them to lie about it outwardly for your comfort, while causing them internal hardship in return. (Want more examples of what happens when we force heterosexuality? Watch Pray Away on Netflix).
Also know that if your child is not attracted to the same sex, they almost certainly won’t be gay. No amount of inclusive literature, play, or language will turn your child queer if that goes against their attraction. (Unless you take them to a Pride parade. That may do it. Those events are FABULOUS!) I digress.
The only thing that eliminating comphet behavior will do is let children know that who they are, how they feel, and who they’re attracted to are valid.
Now that that’s settled, how can I inadvertently screw up my kiddos today?
*Ugh. Another dumb caveat because someone will say, “Oh, but what if they’re into pedophilia or bestiality? Do we need to normalize THAT too in media?” Can we put on the common-sense cap and agree that healthy, mutual, consensual relationships are what we’re talking about? Cool? Yeah. Thanks. Ya almost got me!