History Boys
3 min

Not so straightforward

A queer look at the beginnings of heterosexuality

It may surprise many of our staunchly straight friends, but “heterosexuals” didn’t actually exist until the mid-19th century. Credit: Sissydude

I was talking to a straight guy about queer sex the other day. I mentioned that I’ve had (sexual) relationships with trans men — guys who were assigned “female” at birth but started identifying and physically presenting as men at some point in their lives. My consternated conversational partner furrowed his brow, anxious about sounding insensitive: “So you have sex with . . .” I anticipated his thought: “The guy’s vagina. Sometimes, yes.” He puzzled this over for a minute; I could see the cogs turning. “So doesn’t that kind of make you straight?” he asked.

Well does it? What is heterosexuality? We’re always questioning what homosexuality is — nature versus nurture, a biological inevitability or a social problem, something that’s existed forever or something completely made up — but we rarely stop to ask ourselves, What makes a heterosexual? Where did they come from? It may surprise many of our staunchly straight friends, but heterosexuals didn’t actually exist until the mid-19th century. Of course, different-sex sex and relations have existed for as long as the forerunners of homo sapiens have had the proper tools, so to speak. But our species managed to do without the label for millennia, and the “heterosexual” is a fairly recent development. Despite this fact, society has rejected a complex, diverse history of weird and wonderful sexuality and accepted heterosexuality as the default, or normal, sexual identity. So let’s take a moment to consider heterosexual identity as they consider ours: as a bizarre sexual phenomenon and social construction. Let’s take a moment to queer heterosexuality.

Given the ramifications, it’s ironic that the word “heterosexual” — made up of “hetero,” from a Greek word that came to mean “different” scientifically, and the Latin word for sexual distinction — was invented in a letter between two pioneering gay-rights advocates. Up until that point, the vernacular for sexual deviants was “pederasts” or “sodomites” — it’s worth mentioning here that for much of the term’s existence, sodomy referred to non-procreative heterosexual sex as much as the homosexual variety. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German legal expert often seen as the great-grandfather of the gay rights movement, proffered the term “urning” for homosexual men, inspired by ideas of love from Plato’s Symposium. His strategy for advocating against legal punishment of his urnings was that “we make up a third sex . . . We are women in spirit.” The argument was that this naturally occurring “female psyche” made punishing men who experience same-sex desire pointless and cruel.

It was on May 6, 1868, in a letter to Ulrichs, that Karl-Maria Kertbeny, a vagabond German writer-turned-soldier-turned-self-taught-science-enthusiast, invented the now widely used terms — along with a couple that didn’t catch on. Likely inspired by the botanical term “bisexual,” for hermaphroditic plants, he created a series of sexual categorizations: “Monosexual; homosexual; heterosexual; und heterogenit,” which are essentially masturbators, people who experience same-sex desire, ditto different-sex desire, and different variations of non-procreative sex, respectively.

These weren’t concrete, strictly compartmentalized categorizations for Kertbeny. Heterosexuals were just as likely to engage in non-procreative or homosexual activity as the queers. “Additionally,” he wrote, “normally sexed individuals are no less likely to engage in self-defilement [masturbation] if there is insufficient opportunity to satisfy one’s sex drive. And they are equally likely to assault male but especially female minors who have not reached maturity; to indulge in incest; to engage in bestiality and the misuse of animals; and even to behave depravedly with corpses if their moral self-control does not control their lust.” Heteros were, to Kertbeny, enormous sexual deviants!

It may seem like Kertbeny had an axe to grind about heterosexuality to the point that many, including himself, wondered about this. “How did I, a normally sexed individual, ever stumble onto the existence of homosexualism and its slaves, who, up to that point, I had no idea were present in human society?” The official story was that after a homosexual co-worker had been blackmailed over his sexuality, and consequently killed himself, Kertbeny had taken an interest in sexual emancipation against Germany’s punishing sex laws. The reality of his so-called normally sexed self was a little more complicated than his emphatic claims to heterosexuality. This and other lingual developments, I fear, will have to wait for my next installment on the not-so-straightforward history of heterosexuality.