In the twentieth century, creatures called heterosexuals emerged from the dark
shadows of the nineteenth-century medical world to become common types
acknowledged in the bright light of the modern day.
Jonathan Ned Katz is a writer and historian. He is the editor of Gay American History (1976), the Gay/Lesbian Almanac (1994), and The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995).
Heterosexuality began this century defensively, as the publicly unsanctioned
private practice of the respectable middle class, and as the publicly put-clown
pleasure-affirming practice of urban working-class youths, southern blacks, and
Greenwich Village bohemians. But by the end of the 1920s, heterosexuality had
triumphed as dominant, sanctified culture.' In the first quarter of the
twentieth century the heterosexual came out, a public, self-affirming debut the
homosexual would duplicate near the century's end.
The discourse on heterosexuality had a protracted coming out, not completed
in American popular culture until the 1920s. Only slowly was heterosexuality
established as a stable sign of normal sex. The association of heterosexuality
with perversion continued as well into the twentieth century. . . .
In the first years of the twentieth century heterosexual and
homosexual were still obscure medical terms, not yet standard English.
In the first 1901 edition of the "H" volume of the comprehensive Oxford
English Dictionary, heterosexual and homosexual had not yet made
Neither had heterosexuality yet attained the status of normal. In 1901,
Dorland's Medical Dictionary, published in Philadelphia, continued to
define "Heterosexuality" as "Abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite
sex."" Dorland's heterosexuality, a new "appetite," was clearly identified with
an "opposite sex" hunger. But that craving was still aberrant. Dorland's
calling heterosexuality "abnormal or perverted" is, according to the Oxford
English Dictionary's first Supplement (1933), a "misapplied"
definition. But contrary to the OED, Dorland's is a perfectly legitimate
understanding of heterosexuality according to a procreative norm.
The twentieth century witnessed the decreasing legitimacy of that procreative
imperative, and the increasing public acceptance of a new hetero pleasure
principle. Gradually, heterosexuality came to refer to a normal other-sex
sensuality free of any essential tie to procreation. But only in the mid- 1960s
would heteroeroticism be distinguished completely from reproduction, and
male-female pleasure sex justified for itself. ...
Between 1877 and 1920 Americans were embarked on The Search for
Order, documented in historian Robert H. Wiebe's book of that
title. Though Wiebe doesn't mention it, this hunt for regularity gave rise in
the arena of sex to the new standard model heterosexuality. This paralleled
early-twentieth-century moves to standardize railroad track widths, time zones,
business and manufacturing procedures (discussed by Wiebe), as well as to test
and regularize intelligence and femininity and masculinity....
In 1923, "heterosexuality" made its debut in Merriam Webster's authoritative
New International Dictionary.
"Homosexuality" had, surprisingly, made its debut fourteen years earlier,
in 1909, defined as a medical term meaning "morbid sexual passion for one of
the same sex." The advertising of a diseased homosexuality preceded the
publicizing of a sick heterosexuality. For in 1923
Webster's defined "heterosexuality" as
a "Med." term meaning "morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex." Only
in 1934 does "heterosexuality" first appear in
Webster's hefty Second Edition
Unabridged defined in what is still the dominant modern mode.
There, heterosexuality is finally a "manifestation of sexual passion for one of
the opposite sex; normal sexuality." Heterosexuality had finally attained the
status of norm.
In the same 1934 Webster's"homosexuality" had changed as well. It's simply
"eroticism for one of the
same sex." Both terms' medical origins are no longer cited. Heterosexuality and
homosexuality had settled into standard American.
In 1924, in The New York Times, heterosexuality first
became a love that dared to speak its name. On September 7 of that year the
word "hetero-sexual" made its first known appearance in The New York
Times Book Review significantly, in a comment on Sigmund Freud.
There, in a long, turgid review of Freud's Group Psychology and
the Analysis of the Ego one Mary Keyt Isham
spoke of "repressed hetero-sexuality" and "hetero-sexual love". . . .
By December 1940, when the risque musical "Pal Joey" opened on
Broadway, a tune titled "Zip" satirized the striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee,
by way of a character who, unzipping, sang of her dislike for a deep-voiced
woman or high-pitched man and proclaimed her heterosexuality. That lyric
registered the emergence in popular culture of a heterosexual identity.
By 1941, the glossary of a book about "sex variants" said that "straight" is
being employed by homosexuals
as meaning not homosexual. To go straight is to cease homosexual practices
and to indulge--usually to reindulge--in heterosexuality.
The "not homosexual," a new creature, defined by what he or she isn't, had
emerged among the cast of erotic characters on the twentieth-century stage.
Here, "straight" is a condition toward which one may venture or not, depending
on one's "practices" (feeling is not the issue). Now, the sex variants are
doing the defining--categorizing is a game that two preferences can play.
The "cult of domesticity" following World War II--the re-association of women
with the home, motherhood, and child care, men with fatherhood and wage-work
outside the home--was an era in which the predominance of the hetero norm went
almost unchallenged. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, conservative
mental-health professionals reasserted the old link between heterosexuality and
procreation. In opposition, sex-liberals strove to expand the heterosexual
ideal to include within the boundaries of the normal a wider-than-ever range of
gender ideals and nonprocreative, premarital, and extramarital behavior. But
that sex-liberal reform actually helped to secure the dominance of the
heterosexual idea, as we shall see when we get to Kinsey. . . .
This sex scientist [Kinsey] popularized the idea of a "continuum" of activity
and feeling between hetero and homo poles:
Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated
pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum.
His recasting of the hetero/homo polarity did suggest that there are degrees of
heterosexual and homosexual behavior and emotion. But that famous continuum
also emphatically reaffirmed the idea of a sexuality divided between the hetero
Kinsey's "heterosexual-homosexual rating scale," from zero to six,
sounded precise, quantitative, and scientific, fixing the het/homo binary in
the public mind with new certainty. His science-dressed, influential
sex-liberalism thus upheld the hetero/homo division, giving it new life and
Kinsey also explicitly contested the idea of an absolute either/or antithesis
between hetero and homo persons. Stressing the variations between
exclusive heterosexual and exclusive homosexual behavior and feeling, he denied
that human beings "represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and
homosexual." The world's population, he ordered, "is not to be divided into
sheep and goats." (That revealing Biblical metaphor positions heterosexuals as
sheep, coupled with conformity, and homosexuals as goats, linked with
The hetero/homo division of persons is not nature's doing, Kinsey
stresses, but society's. As sex-liberal reformer, he challenged the social and
historical division of people into heterosexuals and homosexuals
because he saw this person-labeling used to
denigrate homosexuals. Motivated by a reformist impulse, he rejected the social
reality and profound subjective force of a historically constructed tradition
which, since the early twentieth century in the U.S., had cut the sexual
population in two--and helped to establish the social and personal reality of a
heterosexual and homosexual identity. . . .
Between the 1890s and the 1960s the terms heterosexual and homosexual
moved into American popular culture, constructing in time a sexual solid
citizen and a perverted unstable alien, a sensual insider and a lascivious
outlaw, a hetero center and a homo margin, a hetero majority and a homo
minority. The new, strict boundaries made the new gendered, erotic world less
polymorphous. The term heterosexual manufactured a new
sex-differentiated ideal of the erotically correct, a norm that worked to
affirm the superiority of men over women and heterosexuals over homosexuals.
Feminists questioned those gender and pleasure hierarchies.
Excerpted with permission from The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz (New
York: Dutton Books, 1995), pp. 83-112. Footnotes omitted.|