Adrienne Rich’s work meant so much to so many of us. Although I really enjoyed some of her poetry, for me her Compulsory Heterosexuality piece grabbed me from the first read and kept my attention for years. In 1995 I published my first article, “Queer Intersectionality and the Failure of Lesbian and Gay ‘Victories.’” It fused queer theory into Rich’s lesbian continuum to articulate what the “queer continuum” meant. It included everyone from the queerest to the J. Edgar Hoovers of the world. Into this analysis, I brought in Crenshaw’s intersectionality framework. Intersectionality’s core utility as a theory is descriptive, while Rich’s continuum has real political heft. The vast range of queer people, most of whom wouldn’t consider self identifying as such, opens up a world of potential resistance to compulsory heterosexuality. For me, thinking of Rich’s idea in the early 1990s, when I was in ACT UP and Queer Nation, proved transformative. Rich’s theory helped me overcome the bitterness of an isolated radicalism to move toward acceptance and celebration of every form of resistance.
I’m not alone in this experience. I feel Rich’s theory has a capaciousness that has inspired so many within feminism. Feminism after Rich is much more productive. It doesn’t just analyze how patriarchy controls us but imagines a world in which we can upend it. When we think of the feminisms that have followed, so much seems to build on Rich. Third wave feminism’s legitimacy depends on Rich’s broad notion of resistance (yes, you can resist compulsory heterosexuality in fishnets). Even more recent work, such as Martha Fineman’s great work on vulnerability, seems to draw on Rich’s open-eyed and open-ended vision of how to realize a world of greater equality.
Let’s take the moment of Rich’s passing as an opportunity to honor her – any others who have been touched and pushed by Rich’s work?