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Monday, April 23, 2012

Before 1868 Gay People Didn't Exist -- Nor Did Straight People; Hanne Blank Explains

Posted on Mon, Apr 23, 2012 at 11:00 AM

Hanne Blank
  • Hanne Blank

Be careful what you assume, and be careful what you consider "normal." So sings the perpetual chorus here in über-diverse San Francisco. As it should be. But there's a big assumption a lot of us probably have overlooked. It involves the heterosexual. It's not that "Some people aren't hetero," but rather, "Hetero hasn't been considered the norm -- or even a thing at all -- for very long." Author, historian, and lecturer Hanne Blank breaks it down in her book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. Blank shows how equating hetero with normal affects our laws, cultural institutions, scientific study, artistic expression, and ideas of love and romance. Underlying it all are assumptions about others -- and ourselves -- that most of us have never thought to even acknowledge.

She appears Tuesday (April 24) at Good Vibrations on Valencia. We spoke with her recently about her book.

What made you want to write Straight?

I seem to end up writing books I want to read but can't find. Holes in the shelves, you might say. And while there were some people who'd written about the history of heterosexuality when I was looking for a book on the subject -- Jonathan Ned Katz's 1995 The Invention of Heterosexuality in particular -- there was no one-stop-shopping backgrounder, which was more or less what I'd hoped to find to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge when I originally wanted it. So I wrote it.

There were a bunch of reasons I wanted the information in the first place, most notably trying to sort out how my own sexuality might get labeled. At the time, I was in a long-term relationship with someone who is genetically intersex [meaning he has an XXY chromosome pattern, so he's biologically neither male (XY) nor female (XX)], which rather throws a wrench into a system of sexual orientation that's predicated on there being two -- and only two -- distinct, opposed, and fixed sexes. Basically, I wanted to know why the sexual orientation system we use works the way it does, and what relevance that might have for my own life.

The book says hetero vs. homo is a relatively new thing. Tell us about that.

The terms "heterosexual" and "homosexual" were invented in 1868, as part of the writing that went on around some attempts to reform a German sodomy law. I like to say that if you identify as heterosexual, you can thank a gay-rights activist. It's true enough: It was one of the reformers, Karl Maria Kertbeny, who coined both terms in a letter, in an attempt to create less charged, less moralistic language in which to describe what human beings do sexually. So, in a very real concrete way, it's not possible to talk about heterosexuality existing before that time, simply because no one had that term, and no one could use it to think with.


How did the idea of this duality find its way into popular culture and the assumption that "It was always this way?" And what are some of the results of that?

The terms filtered out into the mainstream vocabulary via psychiatry, specifically a lineage that runs from Kraft-Ebbing to Freud. It was never a scientific term, and only sketchily defined or even described. It was mostly used as a catch-all for "all the sex stuff we don't have to talk about so much in psychiatry because it's not a social problem." It's during that period where the term begins to start having some of the meanings it now has -- all those connotations of normalcy and being respectable and a good upright citizen and embodying socially proper gender roles.

That process continued, and solidified, as the word escaped out of the psychiatric literature into everyday vocabulary in the early 20th century. It was a socially useful thing, to have a sort of buzzword that could hint at all kinds of qualities and attributes that were considered "normal" and that were socially normative, without having to actually explain those qualities or define those attributes - and very convenient, of course, because those norms and expectations could change without having to change the word. As indeed they have, and still are.

This had the upshot of making it seem like "heterosexual" was something that had always been with us. Using it as a catch-all term to encompass a huge amount of diverse behavior and experience that was all loosely "normal" and normative gave it - and still gives it - a sense of continuity and timelessness. One of the points of my book is to demonstrate just how much, and how sweeping, the kinds of change in behaviors and expectations the term has actually been able to assimilate over time.

What are some behaviors that were commonplace before this "us vs. them" way of thinking?

One of the ones I write about at some length in the book was bed-sharing. Same-sex pairs of people often shared beds, either casually, as when travelers would share one of the limited numbers of beds available in an inn, or out of friendship. Historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, in a famous article about Victorian women's friendship culture, wrote about women who would, when their BFFs came to visit as houseguests, would boot their husbands out of the marital bed in order to share a bed with their women friends. This was not all that uncommon, and not looked at askance. Men did it with men friends, as well. Certainly some bed-sharing probably did include some kind of erotic activity, but it's pretty clear that in general, it did not. It's hard to imagine this going on today and not resulting, at the very least, in massive sexual orientation discussions, isn't it?

There's long been talk of finding a "gay gene." Is there a "straight gene?" Does science know anything about nature or nurture determining a person's sexuality?

Actually, no, it really doesn't. Ironically, the search for evidence of "gay" bodies or genes or brains has taken place without a crucial piece of what ought to be prerequisite science being done. No one has ever proven that there is such a thing as a physically distinctive "straight" body or gene or brain. The research into the physical embodiment of sexual orientation has taken place in an environment that simply assumes that the default human being is, necessarily, heterosexual, and thus the "normal" human body must be a heterosexual body. This has actually not been proven, which makes the science of looking for exceptions to an unproven rule really tremendously shaky and, if you ask me, fundamentally unscientific, because the control hasn't adequately been characterized.

What do hope your book will accomplish?

I'm a troublemaker at heart. I want people to question all kinds of notions about this thing that they so often assume is monolithic. I want to get people to question the idea that "heterosexual" is inevitable, that it is a known quantity, that it's even a discrete and well-defined thing (because it's not). I want people to have to think a little harder about these labels they assume "everyone understands," and to realize that no, in fact, we don't understand them all that well, and we certainly aren't all operating with an identical understanding.

I like the idea of exponentially multiplying the ways we have of understanding and thinking about our interactions with our fellow human beings, not reducing them to the smallest possible number. Human beings are fascinating and incredibly varied; human categories tend to be few and dull and not very descriptive. I think expanding and exploding those categories is a really useful project. I think we can do better by ourselves (and our sex lives) than to lump ourselves, as Kinsey put it, "into sheep and goats."

Hanne Blank discusses Straight at 7 p.m. Tuesday (April 24) at Good Vibrations, 603 Valencia (at 17th St.), S.F. Admission is free.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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