Homosexuality and Heterosexuality

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The changing relationship between "homosexuality" (same-sex sexuality) and "heterosexuality" (cross-sex sexuality) lies at the heart of the oppression and liberation of LGB people.

The Medical Model

The French philosopher Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality: Volume One, An Introduction (1976), declared that before the late nineteenth century, "the sodomite" was "a temporary aberration," but from about 1870 "the homosexual was now a species (p. 43)." Before 1870, the reproductive imperative dominated discourse about sexuality. According to this discourse, it was everyone's responsibility to reproduce, and sexual activities not linked to procreation, like masturbation and same-sex sexual acts, were fleeting phases, dangerous temptations, and moral sins. Although same-sex sexual desires and behaviors may have been common, there was no concept of distinct groups of people ("species") who could be classified on the basis of their sexual orientation. This changed in the late nineteenth century.

In 1868, in a letter to the German sex reformer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Karl Maria Kertbeny, a Hungarian writer and journalist, became the first person to use the terms "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality." Although his expression "Heterosexualität," coined in 1880, was initially used in the context of arguments for homosexual reform, the terms "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" soon came to represent polar opposites, with the former referring to the abnormal and the latter referring to the normal. Together, the words "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" have defined and policed the boundaries of sexual respectability in the United States.

The homosexuality/heterosexuality conceptual framework took time to stabilize. The earliest mention of the term "heterosexuality" by an American was in "Responsibility for Sexual Perversion," an article by James G. Kiernan that was published in the Chicago Medical Recorder (1892). For Kiernan, heterosexuality was as abnormal as homosexuality because it represented an urge towards nonprocreative sex for pleasure. Kiernan also viewed heterosexuality as abnormal because he defined it as an orientation to different (meaning both male and female) sexes, the equivalent of today's notion of bisexuality. The German doctor Richard von Krafft-Ebing developed a different understanding of the two terms in the late nineteenth century. For Krafft-Ebing, homosexuality was an aberrant attraction for the same sex, a deviation from the norm of opposite sex attraction. It was experienced by "inverts," who displayed the gender style of the opposite sex. Krafft-Ebing's conception thus conflated what today would be regarded as homosexuality and transgenderism. In contrast to Kiernan, the English sex reformer Havelock Ellis stressed the positive nature of heterosexuality, and he viewed sex between a man and a woman as pleasurable in itself rather than a mere vehicle for procreation. But his divorcing of sex from procreation did not prevent him from taking a negative view of homosexuality, which he saw as an instinctual sexual orientation.

The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud perhaps did more than anyone else to create an antagonistic relationship between homosexuality and heterosexuality. For Freud, sexual desire was socialized. By attaining "heterosexuality," one reached nothing less than full human maturity, having survived a process of fantasizing about incest and patricide. The hard road to maturity might include homosexual fantasy and practice in childhood and adolescence. But for Freud there was always the sturdy upright goal of mature heterosexual relations. Homosexuality was simply the result and the sign of immaturity. According to Freud, sexual object choice was conditioned by family relations and was not innate. But, like Ellis, Freud argued that gender characteristics (masculinity and femininity) were not necessarily related to sexual object choice (homosexuality and heterosexuality). However one appeared, one could be a homosexual.

Many scholars now emphasize that scientific experts were responding to the prior development of LGBT cultures rather than creating something entirely new. Some have also argued that these new sexual categories are best understood in the context of, in dialogue with, and as products of the new racial classification systems that developed in the same period. Most agree, however, that these scientific experts and others played crucial roles in developing modern conceptions of homosexuality and heterosexuality.

The Homosexual/Heterosexual Dichotomy in the Early Twentieth Century

Inspired by Freud and Ellis, a number of early twentieth-century writers popularized heterosexuality as a norm that they self-consciously placed in opposition to homosexuality. Various writers explored changes in sexual mores in terms that were viciously homophobic. For example, in Sinclair Lewis's Dodsworth (1929), the American Sam Dodsworth is dragged by the German Kurt into a gay bar. Authors of sex and marriage manuals were often obsessed with the homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy. The psychologist Samuel Schmalhausen warned boys "not to frequent public toilets, for many perverts watch these places as a means of enticing boys … for aught I know homosexuals may be winning armies of new recruits." Clement Wood scared middle America by stating that 50 percent of twelve-year-old boys were homosexual. Joseph Collins devoted one-third of his book The Doctor Looks at Love and Life (1926) to the subject of homosexuality. Collins noted the common view that homosexuals showed effeminate traits. But he insisted that he had known homosexual men who appeared "normal." George Chauncey has shown that in mainstream American society in the 1910s and 1920s, older views that homosexuality was a disorder of gender nonconformity still held sway. According to "Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion?" (1985), as late as 1919, it was possible for "straight"sailors to engage in sexual relations with effeminate "fairy" men without losing their status as "normal" men, if they played the "masculine" role in sex. Chauncey's work suggests that popular discourse diverged from scientific discourse in this period and that the modern homosexual/heterosexual system had not fully solidified. Yet the popular sexual system was changing, as several "straight" men who had volunteered to have sex with and entrap "fairies"were questioned during an investigation at the Newport Naval Training Station.

Lesbians experienced similar changes. Chauncey argued that the shift from models of gender inversion to models of homosexuality also took place in conceptions of female same-sex sexualities, although the shift took place a little later and was not as complete. In 1978, Christina Simmons, in "Companionate Marriage and the Lesbian Threat," argued that the 1920s ideology of happy, egalitarian companionate marriage generated a female heterosexual ideal to counter "the lesbian threat" posed by the visibility of lesbianism in the 1920s (as symbolized by free-loving Greenwich Village bohemians and the mannish lesbians of popular culture). Both women and men faced the social control of the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy. Increasingly, intimate same-sex friendships, relationships, and expressions of physical affection were regarded with suspicion, and isolated experiences of same-sex desires or behaviors were seen as evidence of homosexual character. At the same time, heterosexuality was advertised, publicized, encouraged, and celebrated.

Kinsey, the Cold War, and the Sexual Continuum

In Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), the sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey revealed, in an extensive study of the sexual habits of 12,000 men, how flawed heterosexuality and homosexuality were as ways of categorizing people (as opposed to sexual acts). Kinsey claimed that 37 percent of American men had had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm in their post-adolescent lives. Ten percent of men had predominantly gay sexual experiences for at least three years in their lives. In other words, homosexuality was extremely common among American men. To capture the complexity of sexual behavior, Kinsey set up a continuum, a seven-point scale, according to which those who were exclusively heterosexual in behavior were rated "0," and those who were exclusively homosexual in behavior were rated "6."Yet very few people actually scored a "0" or a "6." Most people scored somewhere in between, having had both heterosexual and homosexual experiences. "Not all things are black nor all things white," declared Kinsey with deliberate provocation (Kinsey, p. 639). In providing this evidence, Kinsey also completed Freud's work of establishing that sexual preference was a matter of object choice, not gender identity. In 1953, Kinsey followed up his earlier study with Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which showed somewhat lower rates of female homosexuality but nevertheless shocked the U.S. public even more.

In the context of the Cold War, Kinsey was both celebrated (as a rational scientist) and vilified (as an advocate of immorality). While many supporters saw elements in Kinsey's work that could help modernize heterosexual marriage, others saw him as undermining the foundations of American family life. Increasingly in the 1940s and 1950s, conformist heterosexuality was brought into play as a weapon on the Cold War home front. Marriage counsellor Paul Popenoe observed that "Marriage is one of the fundamental institutions which has perpetuated the human race and made civilization possible (Popenoe, p. 192)." For Cold War patriots, strong American marriages confirmed to the world the superiority of U.S. capitalism over Soviet communism. Images of happy families and of heterosexual togetherness abounded in popular culture, from advertising to television shows such as Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. And Americans conformed en masse: between 1946 and 1957, the birth rate went up by 50 percent; by 1956, the median age of marriage dropped to as low as 20.1 for women and 22.5 for men; and the divorce rate stabilized. Meanwhile, Playboy magazine (first published in 1953) and other parts of the sex industry linked the high ideals of consumer capitalism with the pleasures of heterosexuality. The 1950s were the high-water mark for American heterosexuality as an idea, driving countless LGB people into heterosexual marriages and relationships.

The price of this was not only the repression of the homosexual feelings identified by Freud and Kinsey as present among supposed heterosexuals, but the putting down of homosexuals as racial aberrations, psychopathic personalities, and political threats. The sociologist David Reisman (Loosely, p. xii) and other advocates of familial togetherness warned of "the growing homogenization of the sexes" and reacted to old fears of the blurring of gender boundaries between men and women. The government hounded out and weeded out homosexual employees. A U.S. Senate report identified homosexuals as security risks and railed that gay people lacked "emotional stability" and "moral fibre" (Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government, 1950, p. 3). Just as Kinsey had opened up a potential blurring of distinctions between homosexuality and heterosexuality, the terms returned in the 1950s as polar and binary opposites to be used as instruments of social control and cultural conformity.

Gay Liberation and the Heterosexual Revolution

Ironically, the dark days of the 1950s contained the seeds of LGBT liberation in the formation of the Mattachine Society, ONE, Inc., and the Daughters of Bilitis, the first homophile movement organizations. These organizations pioneered campaigns for equal rights in the decades before the Stonewall Riots, yet while they railed against the limitations of the homosexuality/heterosexuality system, they fundamentally accepted its principles. Mattachine described homosexuals as "a social minority imprisoned within a dominant culture." The Daughters of Bilitis identified itself as a group of "organised homosexuals …for social, not antisocial, ends." Neither Mattachine nor the Daughters of Bilitis rejected the notion of categorizing people as homosexual or heterosexual; they simply wanted those categorized as such to have equal rights.

By the end of the 1960s, however, a number of writers began to more radically redefine the meanings and experiences of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich helped break down the boundaries between homosexuality and heterosexuality by seeking to liberate sexuality from procreation. The birth control pill (launched in the United States in 1960) revolutionized heterosexuality by encouraging more young people to experiment with nonreproductive sex and cohabitation before marriage. The counterculture celebrated the pleasures of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Following the Stonewall Riots of 1969, gay liberation activists sought to collapse the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy. For example, in A Gay Manifesto (1969–1970), Carl Wittman explicitly rejected the notion that homosexuality was a biological orientation, insisting that "Nature leaves undefined the object of sexual desire. The gender of that object is imposed socially" (Wittman, p.381). With Kinsey in mind, Wittman then argued that "bisexuality is good; it is the capacity to love someone of the same sex." Noting that "exclusive heterosexuality is fucked up" Wittman wrote that he looked forward to a time when everyone was free to sleep with whomever they liked: men or women.

Wittman tried to liberate the homosexual element in everyone. Similarly, the 1970 statement of the Male Homosexual Workshop at the Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention declared that "the revolution will not be complete until all men are free to express their love for one another sexually." Everyone ought to come out, the workshop argued. In Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (1971), Dennis Altman predicted "the end of the homosexual" (Altman, p. 225.) because once everyone could express themselves as they wished, sexual boundaries would disappear.

Lesbian feminism in this decade took a similar view. Outraged by Betty Friedan's categorization of lesbian feminists as a "lavender menace," groups such as Radicalesbians put forward a vision of the "woman-identified woman." Radicalesbians declared that "a lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion." In this view, lesbianism was the logical result of feminism, which could free women to explore their feelings for each other as they freed themselves from male tyranny. Lesbian scholars also developed this theme. In the Straight Mind (1975), Monique Wittig drew out the links between the homo/hetero dichotomy and the oppression of woman by man. In Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1981), Adrienne Rich powerfully examined the pressures that influenced women's choices to become heterosexual rather than lesbian. Women should free themselves to love each other, she argued.

The New Right, AIDS, and Queer Theory

Yet by the late 1970s, the homosexual/heterosexual binary had regained much of its power. Many LGB people abandoned or rejected the radicalism of gay liberation and lesbian feminism, adopted the view that they were members of a fixed sexual minority, and turned to efforts to achieve full sexual equality within the terms of the homosexual/heterosexual binary. Whether this represented genuine or strategic essentialism, it became the dominant LGB position. Increasingly, the struggle for LGB pride and integrity took the form of demanding the inclusion of sexual orientation nondiscrimination clauses in human rights legislation to ensure that the rights of LGB people were respected.

Meanwhile, a fierce anti-LGB backlash from the fundamentalist and evangelical Christian New Right sought to reaffirm and strengthen the positioning of heterosexuality as superior to homosexuality as part of a wide-ranging "pro-family" agenda. For right-wing leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant, homosexuality was a condition that could and should be cured when the LGB sinner converted to Christianity. To members of the Christian Right, the fact that AIDS began to affect large numbers of gay men in the 1980s proved that heterosexuality was intrinsically superior to homosexuality.

Yet during the 1980s, distinctions and boundaries between homosexuality and heterosexuality again began to break down. AIDS increased straight people's sympathy for LGB people and made the straight public aware, when public consciousness about AIDS in straight communities increased, that sexual boundaries were oftentimes porous and fluid. AIDS campaigns that targeted "men who have sex with men" rather than "gay men" reflected and promoted the notion that sexual desires, behaviors, and identities did not always correspond in the ways that one might expect. In this same period, LGBT and straight consumerism increasingly appeared to converge, leading Altman to include the phrase "the homosexualization of America" in the title of one of his books.

Challenges to the homosexual/heterosexual binary continued in the early 1990s with the emergence of queer activism and theory. Queer advocates proposed a coalition of all those who were marginal to or excluded from dominant systems of sex, gender, and sexuality. Bisexuals and transgender people, as well as gays and lesbians, joined organizations such as Queer Nation, helping to develop a politics based on sexual and gender multiplicity. Building on the work of scholars who had been examining the social, cultural, and historical construction of sexuality, queer theorists such as Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler rejected the simplistic division of populations into mutually exclusive homosexual and heterosexual groups and argued instead that human beings were capable of varied and complicated sexual lives that defied straightforward categorization. Meanwhile, queer historians, anthropologists, and other scholars demonstrated that most societies—past and present—have not conceptualized sexuality in terms of the homosexual/heterosexual binary. In doing so, they hoped to deconstruct today's dominant sexual system and construct new and better frameworks for the future.


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Kevin White

see alsobisexuality, bisexuals, and bisexual movements; essentialism and constructionism; gay liberation; homophobia and heterosexism; homoeroticism and homosociality; kinsey, alfredc.; language; lesbian feminism; medicine, medicalization, and the medical model; psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and sexology; radicalesbians; sex acts; sexual orientation and preference; sexual revolutions; situational homosexuality; wittman, carl.