From the Introduction: Sexual Disorientation
Every time I go to the doctor, I end up questioning my sexual orientation. On some of its forms, the clinic I visit includes five little boxes, a small matter of demographic bookkeeping. next to the boxes are the options “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” or “heterosexual.” You’re supposed to check one.
You might not think this would pose a difficulty. I am a fairly garden-variety female human being, after all, and I am in a long-term monogamous relationship, well into our second decade together, with someone who has male genitalia. but does this make us, or our relationship, straight? This turns out to be a good question, because there is more to my relationship—and much, much more to heterosexuality—than easily meets the eye.
There’s biology, for one thing. My partner was diagnosed male at birth because he was born with, and indeed still has, a fully functioning penis. but, as the ancient romans used to say, barba non facit philosophum—a beard does not make one a philosopher. neither does having a genital outie necessarily make one male. indeed, of the two sex chromosomes—XY—which would be found in the genes of a typical male, and XX, which is the hallmark of the genetically typical female—my partner’s DNA has all three: XXY, a pattern that is simultaneously male, female, and neither.
This particular genetic pattern, XXY, is the signature of kleinfelter syndrome, one of the most common sex-chromosome anomalies. XXY often goes undiagnosed because the people who have it often look perfectly normal from the outside. in many cases, XXY individuals do not find out about their chromosomal anomaly unless they try to have children and end up seeing a fertility doctor, who ultimately orders an image called a karyotype, essentially a photo of the person’s chromosomes made with a very powerful microscope. in a karyotype, the trisomy, or three-chromosome grouping, is instantly revealed. as genetic anomalies go, this particular trisomy is not a cause for major alarm (aside from infertility, it causes few significant problems), which is a good thing, since it is fairly common. The estimates vary, in part because diagnosis is so haphazard, but it is believed that as many as one in every two thousand people who are declared male at birth may in fact be XXY. at minimum, there are about half a million americans whose genetics are this way, most of whom will never know it.
What does an unusual sexual biology mean for sexual orientation? is it even possible for XXY people to have a sexual orientation in the way we usually think about sexual orientation? What about their lovers, partners, and spouses? “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” and “bisexual” are all dependent on the idea that there are two, and only two, biological sexes. What happens when biology refuses to fit neatly into this scheme? if I’m attracted to, and in love with, someone who is technically speaking neither male nor female, does that make me heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or something else altogether? Who gets to decide? and, more to the point, on what grounds?
Some would argue that genetics aren’t as important as anatomy and bodily functions. after all, you can’t see chromosomes with the naked eye. but here, too, I run into problems. Part of what makes a man, as we are all taught from childhood, is that he has a penis and testicles that produce sperm, which in turn are necessary to fertilize a female’s egg cells and conceive a fetus. The ability to sire a child has been considered proof of masculinity for thousands of years. This is something my partner cannot do. his external plumbing looks and acts pretty much like any genetically typical male’s, but, in the words of one of my partner’s vasectomied coworkers, “he shoots blanks.” in my partner’s case, no vasectomy was required. his testicles do not produce viable sperm. They never have and never will. This is part of the territory for most people who have XXY sex chromosomes.
So if heterosexuality is by definition, as some of our right-wing brothers and sisters like to claim, about the making of babies, then there is no possible way for my partner and me to be construed as heterosexual. but even the bible recognizes that infertility exists. The notoriously procreation-fixated Catholic Church permits marriage, and marital sex, between people known to be infertile. Curiously, whether or not reproduction is a cornerstone of heterosexuality seems to depend on whom you ask, and in what circumstances.
Not that it really matters in practice. at this point in time contraception is more the rule than the exception for sexual activity between different-sex partners throughout the first world. Many people, including members of committed male/female couples, don’t have children or plan to have them, yet somehow this doesn’t stop them from feeling quite certain that they know what their sexual orientations are. They consider sexual orientation as being rooted in a calculus of subjective attraction and biological sameness. The greek “hetero” means “other” or “different,” after all, and biological men and women do differ from one another. We make use of these biological differences every day without thinking every time we look at people and identify them as either male or female, ask whether a baby or a dog is a boy or a girl, or determine the sexes of the members of a couple we spot on the street and assign them sexual orientations in our minds.
Surely such informal, man-in-the-street diagnostics ought to apply just as well to my partner and me. Or perhaps not. as an XXY individual who has chosen not to take hormone supplements, my partner’s naturally occurring sex hormones take a middle path. his estrogen levels hang out a little lower than mine, his testosterone levels a little higher. as a result, my partner, like other XXY people who don’t take exogenous hormones, has an androgynous appearance, with little to no facial and body hair, a fine smooth complexion, and a tendency to develop small breasts and slightly rounded hips if he puts on a little weight.1 When we lived in a lgbt-heavy neighborhood in boston, my partner and I were often identified by others as lesbians. We were regularly referred to as “ladies” by shopkeepers, door-todoor Mormons, and parents trying to prevent their kids from crowding us at the zoo. lesbian couples we encountered in passing often shot us little conspiratorial smiles of recognition. (We always smiled back. still do.) but it wasn’t all pleasantries. Once while walking together we had bottles thrown at us from a car, its occupants screaming “Fuckin’ dykes!” out the windows as they sped away. assumptions of sexual orientation are never merely innocent perceptions, because these perceptions shape behavior.
Assumptions about biology and gender are complicated, fraught, and by no means clear or unambiguous. The ways people have identified my partner’s biological sex, and therefore not only the nature of our relationship to one another but also our respective sexual orientations, have run an extraordinary gamut that might be distressing if we hadn’t long ago learned to laugh at it all. My partner’s physical androgyny—the minimal facial hair, refined complexion, and elegant, long-limbed build that are common side effects of his genetic anomaly—has led some people to assume that he is a female-to-male transsexual who is early in the transition process, still more hormonally female than male. I have heard him identified as a “passing butch.” Once, at a party, I overheard a woman stating with assurance that my partner was a very feminine gay man who had “made an exception” for me. at other times I have been assumed to be the one making the exception, a “hasbian” who turned from dating women to seeing a gentle, feminine straight man. by the same token, these reactions have changed as we’ve aged and our styles of dress and grooming have changed. For the past several years, with my partner usually dressing in corporate-office menswear and sporting a dashing haircut modeled on the young Cole Porter’s, we have typically, though not always, been read as heterosexual. if the range of responses we’ve had can tell me anything about what my sexual orientation is supposed to be, it’s that other people don’t necessarily know what box I should be checking off on those clinic forms either.
My own sense of sexual identity is, incidentally, no help. I have no deep personal attachment to labeling myself in terms of sexual orientation, nor do I have the sensation of “being” heterosexual or homosexual or anything but a human being who loves and desires other human beings. I have been romantically and sexually involved with people of a variety of biological sexes and social genders over the course of my adult life. When pressed, I am most likely to declare my “sexual identity” as “taken.” This option, however much it might be the best fit, is not available to me on most forms that ask this sort of question.
I could, I suppose, resort to legal documents to sort out the question of what my orientation is, and what the orientation of my relationship with my partner might be. here at last it is uncomplicated. based on our birth certificates, my partner and I and our relationship could be defined as uncomplicatedly heterosexual. but there’s a caveat, and it’s a big one: our sexes were diagnosed at birth on the basis of a visual check of our genitals, on the assumption that external genitals are an infallible indicator of biological sex. This is the assumption behind every “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl,” not just historically but every day around the world. Thanks to the publicity given to cases like that of intersex south african athlete Caster semenya in 2009, and indeed to the ink I am spilling here, however, mainstream culture is gradually becoming aware that this assumption is not necessarily warranted. Many biologists, including brown University biologist anne Faustosterling, have eloquently testified that humans have at least five major sexes—of which typical male and typical female are merely the most numerous—and that furthermore, human chromosomes, gonads, internal sexual organs, external genitals, sex hormones, and secondary sexual characteristics can appear in many different guises.
The law, however, still acknowledges only two sexes. it does not always or necessarily acknowledge sexual orientation at all. On the occasions when it does recognize sexual orientation, it typically acknowledges only two of them as well, heterosexual and homosexual. (Once in a while bisexuality is included, but often not.) all of these sexual orientations are wholly dependent upon—and could not be conceptualized without—the general consensus that there are two and only two human biological sexes. but as we now know, and as is demonstrated so charmingly in the person of my very own beloved, this is not necessarily so. rather, the convenient sorting of human beings into two biological sexes and a correspondingly limited number of sexual orientations is an artifact of a historical system that was formed at a time when medicine, biology, and social theory were capable of far less than they are now. We are still using a very limited nineteenth-century set of ideas and terminology to talk about a decidedly more expansive twenty-first-century landscape of biology, medicine, law, social theory, and human behavior.
It has, in point of actual fact, only been possible to be a heterosexual since 1869.2 Prior to that time, men and women got married, had sex, had children, formed families, and sometimes even fell in love, but they were categorically not heterosexuals. They didn’t identify themselves as “being” something called “heterosexual.” They didn’t think of themselves as having a “straight” sexual identity, or indeed have any awareness that something called a “sexual identity” even existed. They couldn’t have. neither the terms nor the ideas that they express existed yet.
“Heterosexual” and “heterosexuality” are creations of a particular, distinct, well-documented time and place. They are words, and ideas, developed by people whose names are known to us and whose handwritten letters we can still read. Their adoption and integration into Western culture was a remarkable process that historian Jonathan ned katz, the first to chronicle it, has aptly called “the invention of heterosexuality.”
It was an invention whose time had clearly come, for it took less than a century for “heterosexual” and “heterosexuality” to leap out of the honestly rather obscure medical and legal backwaters where they were born and become part of a vast and opaque umbrella sheltering an enormous amount of social, economic, scientific, legal, political, and cultural activity. exactly how this happened is a complicated, diffuse story that takes place on many different stages at roughly the same time, over a span of time measured in decades.
We need not, however, labor under the delusion that “heterosexual” became such a culture-transforming success because it represented the long-awaited discovery of a vital and inescapable scientific truth. it wasn’t. as we shall see, the original creation of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” had nothing to do with scientists or science at all. nor did it have anything to do with biology or medicine. “heterosexual” (and “homosexual”) originated in a quasi-legal context, a term of art designed to argue a philosophical point of legislature.