“Superb and iconoclastic critique of the history of heterosexuality.”—Richard Horton, New York Review of Books
“Heterosexuality,” assumed to denote a universal sexual and cultural norm, has been largely exempt from critical scrutiny. In this boldly original work, Jonathan Ned Katz challenges the common notion that the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality has been a timeless one. Building on the history of medical terminology, he reveals… See more details below
“Heterosexuality,” assumed to denote a universal sexual and cultural norm, has been largely exempt from critical scrutiny. In this boldly original work, Jonathan Ned Katz challenges the common notion that the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality has been a timeless one. Building on the history of medical terminology, he reveals that as late as 1923, the term “heterosexuality” referred to a "morbid sexual passion," and that its current usage emerged to legitimate men and women having sex for pleasure. Drawing on the works of Sigmund Freud, James Baldwin, Betty Friedan, and Michel Foucault, The Invention of Heterosexuality considers the effects of heterosexuality’s recently forged primacy on both scientific literature and popular culture.
“Lively and provocative.”—Carol Tavris, New York Times Book Review
“A valuable primer . . . misses no significant twists in sexual politics.”—Gary Indiana, Village Voice Literary Supplement
“One of the most important—if not outright subversive—works to emerge from gay and lesbian studies in years.”—Mark Thompson, The Advocate
“Superb and iconoclastic critique of the history of heterosexuality.”—Richard Horton, New York Review of Books
THE GENEALOGY OF A SEX CONCEPT
From Homosexual History to Heterosexual History
In the early 1970s numbers of homosexuals began an exuberant move out of our old secret lives. Forging a new, open way of living our lusts and loves, we passed from one historical ordering of homosexuality to another. Observing the change we'd lived, we perceived homosexuality with a double vision—the view of our closeted love lives past, the sight of our unveiled gayness present. Breaking with the old, static, psychological model of homosexuality, some of us became fascinated with exploring homosexuality's changing history—and then, slowly, without premeditation, heterosexuality's.
In that era many of us moved from the shamefully "homosexual" to the affirmatively "gay" and "lesbian," making the power of those words one focus of our political agitating.
Fifteen years earlier, with a new and dawning horror, I had first consciously applied the word homosexual to my feelings for men—the morning after I first slept with one. He was a high school friend, it was June 1956, and I was a tender, anxious eighteen. Even now, after all these years, I still recall the dread that the word homosexual evoked on that conformist fifties morn.
I also recall the later, humiliating sting of "Fag!" and the mortifying punch of "Queer!" hurled at me for looking one second too long at the wrong straight guy.
These collisions with words explain, in part, this book's exploration of the history, power, and social uses of language. First, as a victim of words, I felt their ability to wound. Here, as historian, I dissect and question them, to understand them, and subvert their force.
Following that fateful fifties morning, I spent the next fifteen years shamed and isolated, tortured by the word homosexual, and by my homosexual feelings. Deeply imbued with a rebellious spirit, however, I closely interrogated the Great Books of the antiestablishment canon. The closet encouraged reading. In the early 1960s I marched for peace in Vietnam, and applauded (from the sidelines) the black civil rights struggle and, later, the rise of the black power movement.
But in the late 1960s, hearing occasional reports of demonstrations by fledgling homosexual-rights groups, I was deeply discomforted. Homosexuals were psychological anomalies, freaks. Why didn't they shut up and keep their embarrassing problem to themselves? I heard nothing at all about the Stonewall uprising of June 1969—the closet muffled the sounds of change coming from the world outside.
In September 1970 Harper's magazine published Joseph Epstein's "Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity," and a sweet straight man with whom I shared group therapy gave me a copy. Epstein's article had a profound impact on me.
His essay may be studied now as a rich personal document of heterosexual history at a moment of new, self-conscious defensiveness. Heterosexuals were facing an unaccustomed challenge: "of late homosexuals seem to have taken to the attack against heterosexuality as a way of life." Among the new militants, it seems, was one Elliot, "the hairdresser of a lady friend of mine":
"Don't tell me about the glories and joys of married life," Elliot says. "I know something about those from the women I work on." And of course, in a sense, he is right. Heterosexuality has not been without its own special horrors. Over the past few years I have witnessed my own once marvelous marriage crumble, fall, and dissolve into divorce. I look around me and see so few good marriages: I know of so many people ... who, if they thought they could bring it off, would not return this evening to the person they are married to.
Epstein's hordes of heterosexuals, chained through endless disenchanted evenings to insignificant others, were indeed a dismal sight.
"Yet if heterosexual life has come to seem impossibly difficult," Epstein reassured his readers—and himself—"homosexual life still seems more nearly impossible." Writing within that genre that awards loathing packaged as sincerity, Epstein confessed abhorrence: "I do think homosexuality an anathema, and hence homosexuals cursed...." Homosexuals are "cursed," Epstein later repeated, "struck by an unexplained injury ... whose origin is so unclear as to be, finally, a mystery." That homosexuals are injured by essays just like this was a mystery only to its author.
Near the conclusion of this smug confessional, Epstein declares:
If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth. I would do so because I think it brings infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it; because I think there is no resolution for this pain in our lifetime, only, for the overwhelming majority of homosexuals, more pain and various degrees of exacerbating adjustment; and because wholly selfishly, I find myself completely incapable of coming to terms with it.
Reading Epstein's words in 1970 I experienced with new and stunning force the depth of antihomosexual hatred. I noted later that wishing is the single thing all of us can always do. So Epstein's conditional, "I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth," is a lie. He actually did wish homosexuality (and homosexuals) "off the face of the earth," but couldn't quite say so. Genocidal desire is embarrassing in a Jew.
The hate fueling Epstein's essay also had a revelatory effect on me. I understood: My homosexual feelings made me and others objects of "prejudice"—subject to stigma as a group, like black people, like women. Strange to say, this was a new idea.
Slowly, that dawning consciousness carried me into the world. With fear and trembling I began to explore New York City's recently founded gay liberation groups. The eloquent oratory of gay leaders rang in my ears. I saw the world with fresh eyes. I participated in public actions, and took part in intense private discussion groups. I marched with a poster that proclaimed: "HOMOSEXUALS ARE REVOLTING. YOU BET WE ARE!"
In the winter of 1971, at the age of thirty-three, I was feeling rather better about myself after years of psychotherapy with a kind, humane heterosexual who, as a boy, had observed Nazi hatred at first hand. Years before, he'd rejected my opening complaint that homosexuality was my problem. Now, I began attending the raucous weekly meetings of New York City's Gay Activists Alliance and, in just a few months, weathered a destabilizing change. I came home from those wildly exhilarating meetings exhausted and reeling from the intense, abrupt shift in understanding and emotion I was so quickly undergoing.
My experience of that historic shift was, I think, typical of many middle-class homosexuals who became adults before the Stonewall uprising of 1969. We experienced a fundamental alteration—from a sense of ourselves as individual monster-freaks to a new, shared sense of ourselves as outraged resisters. In the gay movement I affirmed my affectionate and erotic feelings for men, the particular emotions for which my society put me down—and for which, for so many years, I put myself down.
Although I then casually identified myself as "a gay man," in my mind I was affirming my feelings for men, not any gay "self." In the early seventies, though I did not use these terms, I began to embrace a politics of feeling and pleasure, not of identity.
My participation in the gay movement soon led to my first imagining such a thing as homosexual history. At a meeting of the Gay Activists Alliance's media committee we talked of ways to portray our new movement, and I resolved to research a documentary theater piece on gay and lesbian life and liberation. This would employ American historical and literary materials to evoke dramatically our changing situation, emotions, and understanding.
The research for my theater piece began "with only a presumption—that Gay American history must exist." The idea of gay history was presumption indeed—homosexuality was then so thoroughly reduced to the psychological. The agitation-propaganda theater piece, Coming Out!, was produced by the Gay Activists Alliance in June 1972, and reproduced the following June in a tiny Chelsea theater. Martin Duberman's comments on that production, on the front page of The New York Times Sunday drama section, encouraged a publisher to give me a contract for a book of documents on homosexual history, and Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. was published three years later, at the end of 1976.
That title announced a tome right for its time: The Gay heralded its liberationist viewpoint, the American brought the homos home, and the History proclaimed its recovery of an unknown past. That title appealed emotionally and intellectually to the many men and women eager to discover their obscure "roots," and avid to affirm their gay and lesbian feelings.
That book's goal, immodestly proclaimed by me in the militant manner of the day, was nothing less than "to revolutionize the traditional concept of homosexuality." Because that "concept is so profoundly ahistorical," I say, "the very existence of Gay history may be met with disbelief." In 1976, the phrase "Gay history" sounded strange indeed. Though in retrospect a surprising number of books and articles had begun to touch on changing attitudes toward homosexuals in history, the existence of "Gay American history" was still in doubt. Even this gay militant historian found the phrase daunting.
Near the end of the book's move toward publication, long after I'd piled up stacks of documents, I recall sitting on a Hudson River pier with a former boyfriend, asking him if I really dared call the book Gay American History. My concern had nothing at all to do with the flattening, difference-denying, universalizing effect of referring to four hundred years of history as "gay." The title Gay American History, I worried, too boldly affirmed the existence of a history I was not sure I had the courage to so blatantly assert.
Among the publications that made homosexual history seem possible, and less strange, were the new books and articles then appearing on women's history—usually, heterosexual women were the assumed subjects. I recall the tremendous excitement I felt when the problems encountered and insights offered by those early, daring feminist historians of heterosexual women kept paralleling and illuminating lesbian and gay history.
Already, also, a basic destabilizing of the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy was under way. In the early seventies a number of manifestos by radical gay and lesbian liberationists were envisioning a future in which the heterosexual/homosexual distinction would be repealed. In 1970, a group of "Radicalesbians" declared: "In a society in which men do not oppress women, and sexual expression is allowed to follow feelings, the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality would disappear." In 1971, in Dennis Altman's Homosexual Oppression and Liberation, that Australian professor of politics said: "The vision of liberation that I hold is precisely one that would make the homo/hetero distinction irrelevant." In that heady, hopeful, exhilarating dawn of gay and lesbian liberation, the abolition of heterosexuality, and the end of homosexuality, were in the air. We dared to imagine a radically free and different sexual future. We had yet to imagine a radically different sexual past.
Gay American History touches fleetingly on the idea that "homosexual" and "heterosexual" relations have changing historical "traits." But that's about as far as I then took heterosexual history—not far. My main goal back then was to demonstrate the existence of vast quantities of original, eye-opening, entertaining homosexual history materials, and to stimulate research and analysis of an untold story.
I do, however, suggest that it's not a good idea "to 'fit' past relations into one pole or the other of the traditional hetero-homo dichotomy." A year earlier, historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg had published a pathbreaking article on nineteenth-century American women's intense, eros-filled friendships, "The Female World of Love and Ritual." To understand those intimacies, she suggested, we need to go beyond the either/or, heterosexual/homosexual division, and embrace the idea of a "continuum" of such relations. That continuum, she imagined (following Alfred Kinsey's 1948 lead), had a "committed heterosexuality" at one pole, an "uncompromising homosexuality" at the other.
In 1976, amending Smith-Rosenberg's formulation, I suggested that "Categorizing human relations as homosexual or heterosexual should be replaced by research aimed at revealing the multiple aspects of the particular relations under study." With others, I was beginning to sense the distorting effect of employing the heterosexual/homosexual distinction in retrospective historical analysis.
As I and most others understood it then, a timeless, universal homosexuality and heterosexuality take different historical forms. At the moment I was writing, no one I knew was worrying much about the distorting effect of hypothesizing an eternal homosexual essence. Even less did we worry about an ageless heterosexuality. Today, after two decades of investigation, the idea of varying historical forms of an essential homosexuality and heterosexuality still functions as the dominant working notion, even of historically oriented researchers. In 1988, for example, under the clock-stopping hand of this essentialism, the author of a huge, scholarly history of "the social construction of homosexuality" refers to "homosexuality" in the period "Before Homosexuality," not, apparently, bothered by the contradiction. How to transcend the notion of an unchanging heterosexual (and homosexual) essence is a problem I struggle with in this book.
In 1977, with huge excitement, I eagerly read the first social history of the English gay and lesbian emancipation struggle, Jeffrey Weeks's Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. That book confirmed the direction of my own thinking, creatively stimulating and encouraging my work. I immediately wrote to Weeks, eager to contact a likeminded gay historian of the left, pleased that a small international group of gay and lesbian conspirators was quietly starting homosexual history recovery work.
Pioneering research on lesbian and gay history was also beginning to be published by a number of scholars, encouraging further work on the subject from inside and outside academia. In 1980 the prestigious University of Chicago Press published John Boswell's monumental Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in West Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. That author's flaunted footnote fetish, his command of multitudinous languages, his wealth of empirical data on a subject of great interest to many, and his book's positive, prominent reviews and large sales constituted an important legitimating event in the development of sexual history research in general, and homosexual history research in particular. The following year Lillian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present newly validated the study of lesbian history.
But a specifically heterosexual history still usually remained unmarked and unremarked. A few feminist historians, however, were just beginning to bring heterosexuality explicitly into time. One of these was Mary P. Ryan, in her Womanhood in America: From Colonial Times to the Present.
In the winter of 1977 I reviewed Ryan's book in the gay press, fascinated by this historian's "simple conceptual innovation." This was her casual reference to "heterosexual relations" and "heterosexual women," rather than the usual "sexual relations" and "women." Her specifying of heterosexuality made it stand out newly as a problem. I commented: "The existence of such a particular thing as heterosexual history, along with homosexual history, has not yet been generally recognized, its implications analyzed." Naming "heterosexual history" asserted the existence of such a thing, a necessary move toward analyzing it.
The following year, 1978, at a New York University conference on "Power and Sexuality," my opening talk focused on the empirical and theoretical problems emerging in recent work on homosexual history. That research, I said,
suggests that existence of a heterosexual history which needs to be recognized and explored, rather than simply taken for granted.
Research on the homosexual past inspires us to question the necessity of the present division of persons, activities, and feelings into heterosexual and homosexual. Even Kinsey's famous continuum of sexual activities and feelings maintains the now dominant and traditional hetero-homo division. Research into past "same"-sex relations questions the applicability of this hetero-homo model to societies which did not recognize this polarity. If we have trouble imagining a world without heterosexuals or homosexuals, a historical perspective is useful. The term "homosexual" was only invented in 1869 [the year's now been moved back to '68]. The first use of "heterosexual" listed in the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement dates to 1901. [The most recent Oxford English Dictionary Supplement takes the date back to 1892, and "heterosexual" has also been traced to 1868.] The terms heterosexual and homosexual apparently came into common use only in the first quarter of this century; before that time, if words are clues to concepts, people did not conceive of a social universe polarized into heteros and homos. If we do not wish to impose our modern vision on the past, we need, first, to ask what terms and concepts the people of a particular era used to refer to sexual and affectional relations between women and between men. We need to transcend the hetero-homo division.
Excerpted from The Invention of HeteroSexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz. Copyright © 2007 Jonathan Ned Katz. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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