The invention of the heterosexual

The history of straightness is much shorter than you'd think. An expert explains its origins

Published January 22, 2012 7:00PM (EST)

A detail from the cover of "Straight"
A detail from the cover of "Straight"

If you met Hanne Blank and her partner on the street, you might have a lot of trouble classifying them. While Blank looks like a feminine woman, her partner is extremely androgynous, with little to no facial hair and a fine smooth complexion. Hanne's partner is neither fully male, nor fully female; he was born with an unconventional set of chromosomes, XXY, that provide him with both male genitalia and feminine characteristics. As a result, Blank's partner has been mistaken for a gay woman, a straight man, a transman -- and their relationship has been classified as gay, straight and everything in between.

Blank mentions her personal story at the beginning of her provocative new history of heterosexuality, "Straight," as a way of illustrating just how artificial our notions of "straightness" really are. In her book, Blank, a writer and historian who has written extensively about sexuality and culture, looks at the ways in which social trends and the rise of psychiatry conspired to create this new category in the late 19th and early 20th century. Along the way, she examines the changing definition of marriage, which evolved from a businesslike agreement into a romantic union centered around love, and how social Darwinist ideas shaped the divisions between gay and straight. With her eye-opening book, Blank tactfully deconstructs a facet of modern sexuality that most of us take for granted.

Salon spoke to Blank over the phone about the origins of heterosexuality, the evolution of marriage and why the rise of the "bromance" is a very good thing.

Men and woman have been having sex for as long as there have been humans. So how can we talk about there being a "history" of heterosexuality?

We can talk about there being a history of heterosexuality in the same way that we can talk about there being a history of religions. People have been praying to God for a really long time too, and yet the ways people relate to the divine have specific histories. They come from particular places, they take particular trajectories, there are particular texts, and individuals that are important in them. There are events, names, places, dates. It’s really very similar.

So where does the term "heterosexual" come from?

"Heterosexual" was actually coined in a letter at the same time as the word "homosexual," [in the mid-19thcentury], by an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Károly Mária Kertbeny. He created these words as part of his response to a piece of Prussian legislation that made same-sex erotic behavior illegal, even in cases where the identical act performed by a man and a woman would be considered legal. And he was one of a couple of people who did a lot of writing and campaigning and pamphleteering to try to change legal opinion on that matter. He coined the words "heterosexual" and "homosexual" in a really very clever bid to try to equalize same-sex and different-sex. His intent was to suggest that there are these two categories in which human beings could be sexual, that they were not part of a hierarchy, that they were just two different flavors of the same thing.

But the term took quite a while to catch on. How did it spread?

Thanks to psychiatrists in the 1880s and 1890s -- a part of the medical profession that was deeply unscientific at that time. It meant that somebody with a medical degree and all of the authority it brings could stand up and start making value judgments using specialized medical vocabulary and pass it off as authoritative, and basically unquestionable.

Psychiatry is responsible for creating the heterosexual in largely the same way that it is responsible for creating the various categories of sexual deviance that we are familiar with and recognize and define ourselves in opposition to. The period lasting from the late Victorian era to the first 20 or 30 years of the 20th century was a time of tremendous socioeconomic change, and people desperately wanted to give themselves a valid identity in this new world order. One of the ways people did that was establish themselves as sexually normative. And it wasn't the people who were running around thinking, “Oh, I’m a man and I like to sleep with other men, that makes me different,” who were creating this groundswell of change; it was the other people, the men who were running around going, “I’m not a degenerate, I don’t want to sleep with other men, I am this thing over here that is normative and acceptable and good and not pathological and right, that’s what I am. That’s what I need people to understand about me, because I need people to understand that I am a valid person and I need to be taken seriously.”

This also has to do with the popularity of social Darwinism at the time.

Social Darwinism comes into play in a big way. It became important to prove that you were part of the solution and not part of the problem in this pell-mell, hurly-burly, crazy new social order [of the late 1800s and early 20th century].

So how did this change in terminology play itself out in the real world?

I actually talked to my grandmother about this. My grandmother is 88 and she came to consciousness in a world that didn’t have heterosexuals in it, where nobody knew that word, and certainly nobody used it to refer to themselves. And she associates this change with Freud, whom she’s never read but whom she’s heard a lot about. So there was this sort of culture-wide game of telephone, if you will, in which these authoritative medicalized ideas coming from very rarefied circles trickled down into the larger culture. I think that for people of my grandmother’s generation particularly, heterosexual simply became a synecdoche for normal. And that’s certainly the way Freud talks about it, that you know, you attain heterosexuality. There’s this process of attaining normality. When you manage to develop yourself, or to become developed, in the proper way, in an appropriate way, in the way that Freud says you’re supposed to, what you end up with is a heterosexual.

In his book "Gay New York," George Chauncey writes about the flip side of this, how previous to the invention of "homosexuality," men's sexualities were much more fluid. Do you think that's the case?

Oh, absolutely. When you start operating on the principle that you indeed can divide people into sheep and goats, then there’s also the idea that you must divide people into sheep and goats and there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed without reclassifying.

As you point out in the book, for much of human history, marriage had absolutely nothing to do with sexuality or sex.

It's more that marriage didn’t have a lot to do with desire. Marriage has always had to do with sex, and the ability to have marital sex and preferably procreate has always been central to marriage. But what was not so important was whether or not you necessarily wanted to have sex with that person. It was your duty, it was paying the marriage debt, and you were gonna do it, by golly, but  this was a co-worker, this a partner in business enterprise -- not a person you chose to satisfy your own personal whims and desires with. If you happen to also like them and think that they were swell or pretty or handsome then that’s great. But that’s not what you were in it for.

And now everything has changed, because we now prioritize attraction, desire, love, romance, over the strictly economic and community-building aspects of marriage. We live in a culture now where we find it very odd when women don’t support themselves, if somebody chooses to be a stay-at-home mother. That is a huge change, and that’s a huge change just in my lifetime. I’m in my early 40s and I know that when I was a very small child those discussions were not happening in the same way. The economic and legal enfranchisement of women has gone hand-in-hand with both women’s and men’s ability to choose marriage partners based on their own desire, desires for sex, love, companionship, all of those things, and to put that first.

How do the successes of the women’s movement impact our concept of heterosexuality?

I think that referring to it as the success of the women’s movement is a little bit of a misnomer because there’ve been multiple women’s movements, and also because it’s not entirely to be credited to or blamed on organized feminism. There’s been a lot of other enfranchisement of women that’s gone on as well that has actually been not identifiably feminist, but definitely comes out of a very 18thcentury spirit of egalitarianism. But in general I think that equal rights egalitarianism has had an enormous amount to do with changing heterosexuality. Simply because once you give women and men equal or nearly equal rights to their own economic autonomy, political autonomy, social autonomy, you change the playing field, you change the dependency relationship.

Over the last decade, there's been a lot of science arguing that there are physical differences between gay people and straight people, in their brains and even the direction of their hair whirls. You're skeptical of this research. Why?

I question their validity primarily because nobody has established or in fact attempted to establish that there is a canonical straight body. And if you don’t have characterized control, you can bet your bottom dollar I am not going to believe your hypothesis. It’s really that simple.

All of this research that is purporting to look for physiological material differences between gay bodies and straight bodies: What are they comparing it to?  Their assumption that they know magically what a heterosexual body is?  When no one has actually established what that is.  That's bad science.

OK. Then do you think it's possible to establish what a heterosexual body looks like?

Well, you know, if you're going to stipulate that it's possible to establish what a non-heterosexual body is, it better damn well be possible to find out what a heterosexual body is.  And if one of those things is not possible, then, chances are, the other is not either.

I'm quite attached to my identity as a gay man -- and, to be honest, I would feel a little troubled having my category taken away from me.

See, that's the thing, no one is going to take that away from you.  No one can take that away from you. The only thing they can take away from you is the illusion that this is not something that is constructed.  And that's very, very different.  Just because something is constructed as a social category, doesn't mean that it's not enormously meaningful.  It doesn't mean that we haven't built a whole damn civilization on it. Doesn't mean that we don't live our daily lives on it, doesn't mean that we don't use it all the time every time we're walking down the street.  This is real.  It's stuff that has physical manifestations in the real world. But that does not mean that it is organic. 

Or innate. 

Or inevitable. 

But these categories have also been very practical. Gay rights wouldn't be imaginable without them.

Well, you know, minority politics has been a lot easier to sell than to just say, "Being human ought to get you human dignity," full stop. If you can pin down the difference, if you can make the difference the salient issue, it somehow makes it easier for people to stomach the fact that they can't go out and just beat people over the head.  I don't know why that is.  I find it intensely frustrating.

Do you think the success of the gay rights movement is helping broaden our ideas of sexuality?

I think that it is having an interesting effect of making the boundaries of the categories more permeable.  Simply because we now have this doxa [omnipresent acknowledgement] of gayness in our culture where we believe that gayness is a thing, we believe that it exists, we believe that we know what it looks like, we believe that we know what it acts like, and therefore, when we see it, we're actually very likely to say, "Hey, that over there, that looks really gay," regardless of whether or not that person may be, in fact, gay.

Those boundaries are becoming more porous. The term "bromance" cracks me up, but it is also promising. For the past hundred years or so, a lot of men have found it very difficult to express affection and love for other men without having it assumed that that love is necessarily sexual.  And now we're actually coming around to a place where at least some people, some of the time, are able to avail themselves of a category in which they can say, "Oh, OK, here's a way that men can be affectionate toward each other and one another and love one another and we don't have to assume that we know more about it than that."  I think that that adds something to the conversation.

Women, in particular, seem to be eschewing the traditional between binaries of gay and straight these days, at least in pop culture. The same thing doesn't seem to be true of men.

There's a reason for that. Every queer woman I know -- and I'm a queer woman -- understands intuitively that a lot of people don't consider what two women do together sexually as sex.  It's a whole lot easier to fly under the radar when what you're doing is not something that a lot of people are even going to consider as sex.

But men, for various other cultural reasons also seem to be more attached to categories. It functions partly as a sort of safety mechanism. 

I think there is a lot of safety in categories.  And there's a hell of a lot of safety in a binary. When you can just say, you know, anything that is not this is automatically that.  You know, it frees up a lot of spare time.  

I have a number of friends who are negotiating the reverse of this, in that they for a long time identified as lesbians and have now started dating transmen and now have to negotiate the awkwardness of being in what ostensibly looks like a heterosexual relationship. I've been around several friends who, when they mention their boyfriend in a queer setting, reflexively say, "Oh, but he's trans."

And I think that really points as well to the fact that these are constructed categories.  This is about your subjectivity, it's about your allegiance, it's about where your social networks are, it's about the kinds of cultural priorities that you embrace and that you endorse. This is not just what gets you hard or what gets you wet. This is not just about what kinds of sex you have, or the congenital configurations of the people you have sex with.  It's very much about what cultures you participate in.  What cultures you ally yourself with, you know, whose flag you fly.

It's interesting that transgender men and women could marry their partners long before gay people could get married, even though they are probably far more despised by conservatives in this country, simply because they fit into this heterosexual idea of marriage.

Although, that's not uniformly true and there have been cases, like Littleton v. Prange in Texas -- which still to this day breaks my heart -- where jurisdictions refused to uphold the legality of marriage or partnerships involving a trans person, because they basically take the stance that you can't change genetics and this is person was never a whatever.  And therefore the marriage is not valid.  So it does cut both ways.  I do think that the issue of gay marriage is a very interesting one to look at in the context of the history of sexuality, because what I think it testifies to is not so much the tendency that non-heterosexuality has to destabilize heterosexual culture, but the incredible depth of the investment that our culture and our government have in regulating the kinds of relationships that people have in their lives.

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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