Building the Master’s House: How the Construction of Heterosexuality Happened

As down with queer theory as we all like to be in 2012, the idea of “constructed” identities is still a tricky one to handle sometimes. Since we most often talk about marginalized or minority identities being constructed ones, it can sometimes feel like you’re being told your identity — and therefore your struggles — aren’t real. But it’s important to remember that that’s not quite the case; the majority population is just as much a product of queer theory as anyone, even if they don’t necessarily care to know it. Hanne Blank, who has written a “provocative new history of heterosexuality” called Straight, reminds us in an interview with Salon that while straightness may be statistically “normal” in our time, it’s not historically “natural” — because a straight identity didn’t even exist until relatively recently in human history.

oh hi judith

People who oppose equal rights for queers tend to equate the “history of heterosexuality” with “history” — straightness is the only thing there ever has been in the whole course of human events, until Stonewall when a bunch of gays had to ruin everything. But Blank explains that in point of fact, straightness has existed for exactly as long as homosexuality — because, like many dominant cultural identities (like whiteness, for instance), it was defined at the exact same time, in opposition to it. Blank writes than an Austro-Hungarian journalist first used both the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” when writing about a law that would make same-sex relationships illegal, and his words were in fact meant to “suggest that there are these two categories in which human beings could be sexual, that they were not part of a hierarchy, that they were just two different flavors of the same thing.” According to Blank, it wasn’t until the Victorian era and its attending obsession with sexual purity and normativity that being “heterosexual” became a social necessity.

And the end result of the bizarro chain of events leading from Prussian legislative pushes to pamphlets on the dangers of homosexuality with some stops in Freudianism along the way is that we now have two words that are understood less as a way of explaining things “not part of a hierarchy” and more of an indelible fact defining your identity and relationships. Or as Blank puts it, “When you start operating on the principle that you indeed can divide people into sheep and goats, then there’s also the idea that you must divide people into sheep and goats and there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed without reclassifying.” What if the words we use to describe and define ourselves are chosen just because they’re there? If our language hadn’t evolved to imply a binary of sexual orientation, is it possible that we would think of ourselves without having to refer to two different categories for a point of reference? Or without categories at all?

Of course, when your identity informs much of your life and who you are, it’s not necessarily comforting to dismiss it as a quirk of history. But then again, Blank’s research doesn’t mean you have to, as Thomas Rogers brings up when interviewing her for Salon:

I’m quite attached to my identity as a gay man — and, to be honest, I would feel a little troubled having my category taken away from me.

See, that’s the thing, no one is going to take that away from you.  No one can take that away from you. The only thing they can take away from you is the illusion that this is not something that is constructed.  And that’s very, very different.  Just because something is constructed as a social category, doesn’t mean that it’s not enormously meaningful.  It doesn’t mean that we haven’t built a whole damn civilization on it. Doesn’t mean that we don’t live our daily lives on it, doesn’t mean that we don’t use it all the time every time we’re walking down the street.  This is real.  It’s stuff that has physical manifestations in the real world. But that does not mean that it is organic.

Or innate.

Or inevitable.

Acknowledging that our identities, even physical ones, are at least partially based in constructions doesn’t negate their authenticity or the realities of living with them — for instance, racial differences aren’t genetically based, but that doesn’t mean that racism is somehow less of a real problem. And when we call out the identity markers of the dominant culture as constructed as well, not just those of marginalized people, it puts us on a more equal footing. (The straight questionnaire comes to mind as an example of questioning the assumption that straightness is innate while queerness is an assumed, artificial or developed identity.) Blank argues that the construction of straightness also calls into question research on the biological basis of sexual orientation; the quest to identify a “gay chromosome” or hormonal level implies the existence of an identifiable control of a biologically straight person, which, if heterosexuality is an invented cultural construct, doesn’t necessarily exist.

All of this research that is purporting to look for physiological material differences between gay bodies and straight bodies: What are they comparing it to?  Their assumption that they know magically what a heterosexual body is?  When no one has actually established what that is.  That’s bad science.

As mentioned in the introduction to her book, Blank’s partner is intersex, which illustrates part of her point; now that we’re more and more able to see beyond a requisite gender binary, the corresponding gay/straight binary also seems more often to be clumsily constructed and, sometimes, inadequate. But Rogers also makes the point that tangible progress towards legal rights for queer people have been aided by our “categories;” and on an individual level, many of our identities are hard-won and precious, and we wouldn’t trade them for anything. And in terms of real life, there’s no reason to; our own lives and experiences are more real than anything else ever will be. But it’s useful to remember that when someone is trying to tell you that who they are is real and who you are isn’t, they’re wrong, and there’s no two ways about that.
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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books as well as news and politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel currently lives in Michigan. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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29 Comments

  1. Pingback: Autostraddle — Building the Master’s House: How the Construction of Heterosexuality Happened « The Third Word :):-

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    “…the corresponding gay/straight binary also seems more often to be clumsily constructed and, sometimes, inadequate.”

    It’s always inadequate, because there are always these pesky bisexuals hanging around, getting in the way. (Though apparently we are often invisible.)

    Great article on how these things are constructed. It’s just not very useful to deconstruct the het/homo binary without actually helping, or indeed even mentioning, anyone who’s hurt by it. E.g. bisexuals.

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    Pansexuals and genderqueers also have to deal with it, Transgender people as well I’m sure. There are a whole lot of people out there who just identify as queer just to skip all the categories. (Myself included)I do know people though who love that they have a name for their sexuality and that’s great too.

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    thanks for this. I particularly loved this from the original interview:

    ‘Well, you know, minority politics has been a lot easier to sell than to just say, “Being human ought to get you human dignity,” full stop. If you can pin down the difference, if you can make the difference the salient issue, it somehow makes it easier for people to stomach the fact that they can’t go out and just beat people over the head. I don’t know why that is. I find it intensely frustrating.’

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      I was going to comment on that quote too!

      I’ve been trying to figure out how I felt about since the ‘I AM NOT A COSTUME’ article and subsequent comment thread (I know, I have a ridiculous amount of feelings) and that quote summed it up perfectly.

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      I suspect we need the distinctions because people tend to see things very much from our own perspective. It can be hard for us to understand that other people do not experience the world the way that we do – that our personal experience is not universal, and that there are other points of view to take into consideration.

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    I kind’ve wish they didn’t exist, as I’m pretty confused about whatever I am, too. They way I see it, if I’m in love with you, I’m in love with you, and it shouldn’t matter what sex I’m attracted to since I’m looking at this lovely lady I’ve got beside me, not the rest of humanity parading by.

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    I don’t think searching for morphological differences in queer people’s brain structures really takes away from anyone’s identity. Shit’s interesting! The current neurobiological research lends to the perspective that there are these parts of the brain that are morphologically different with corresponding sexual and gender identities. The thing about science is that it doesn’t say anything about the legitimacy of a social construct at all. Some people might derive legitimacy from the findings of scientific research, but we are still left with this knowledge that people who like to fuck a certain kind of person generally (not always, but generally) have a somewhat smaller part of their brain that someone who likes to fuck another kind of person. Same with gender identity.

    So. Who cares? Everyone is a human being and we all deserve to be treated with compassion and respect, right?

    Dr. Robert Sapolsky said it best:

    Who here thinks that everything is biologically determined and that culture has absolutely nothing to do with the way human beings behave? (one or two people raise their hands)

    Who here thinks that human behavior is the product of culture and society in its entirety and that biology has absolutely nothing to do with human behavior? (one or two people raise their hands)

    OK now, how many people believe that there is an incredible, intricate and beautiful observable interaction and interplay between culture and biology in human behavior? (the rest raise their hand)

    Ok then, you’ll all be just fine.

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    i’m in nerdy heaven right now.

    p.s. i don’t know if i’ve ever mentioned this before, but if i have it’s worth talking about again. in one of my sociology of sexuality classes in college, i had a teacher who would talk about how gay and straight weren’t things until the late 19th century in western society. she would point out how people acknowledged all kings of sexual variation but they labelled them differently. anyway, the point here is that “man who had sex with other men” was not a sexual type, just a sexual act, while “hair fetish” [aka someone who has sexual feelings about people's hair] was an actual sexuality. weird how things change, right?

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    this was very well-written and accessible. i especially love the point about the problematic unspoken assumption within “gay gene” scientific research that there is somehow a heterosexual control group, as though we have a very clear understanding of what a “straight body” is so that we are able to use it as a measure against a so-called “gay body.”

    Also, just on a personal level, I once did a presentation in high school (where no one was out, where gayness was not discussed, but where the idea that I might be gay was always in the back of my head) analyzing the scientific and historical evidence surrounding the question of homosexuality being innate. My friend basically branded me a homophobe when I told her there was, in fact, no gay gene. Super fucking frustrating, esp. when I just wanted to scream, “I’m not a fucking homophobe! I’m gay! That’s why I’m so interested in this topic!”

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      My understanding of the ‘gay brain’ research is that the researchers had a bunch of brains, some from straight people and some from gay people, and that they compared the physical structures of those brains and found significant variation overall between the two groups. I’m not a scientist, but that sounds to me like a reasonable comparison.

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    This is one of the first things I realized when I started studying anthropology and I am grateful to be reminded. One of my professors put it very nicely that humans have the ability to “create the categories of our own experience.” Our identity can sure be traced on some level to something biological or innate but that something is a capacity, it is an ability and not the specific identity or category.
    These construction are definitely not meaningless. That is what (social) anthropology is all about. We are deeply interested in the constructions precisely because they are so meaningful and so powerful. Construction does not mean superficial or fake. Constructions reach deep into your body and your mind and a history and a people and a cosmos. But constructions do mean that the real norm is change and we have a power over that.

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      Thanks for putting it so succinctly. I remember a discussion in the comments section of an article here about the constructed-ness of gender and how trans-people’s experiences fit into that. Constructed gender seems to be a very flawed idea when you look at it from that angle until you realise that constructed does not just encompass recently established and superficial but also long-established and foundational.

      As applied to gender, I would say that GENDER is a social construct in the long established and foundational sense, and that relates to sex specific biological characteristics (and some psychological) but also to long established social practices (GENDER ROLES). Most people grow up to find that their socially assigned gender matches their biologically assigned sex and on a psychological and very real level everything is hunky dory (although they might be politically against or frustrated by strict gender roles). But some people take that further and find that their socially assigned gender roles is incapable of expressing who they are (on some deep psychological and very real level) and that is cool too except that society finds breaking the gender binary to be a massive mindfuck and life is not easy for those people. And then some people find that their biologically assigned sex and socially constructed gender are at such a mismatch to their deep psychological and very real understanding of who they are that they are not comfortable until other people they interact with can acknowledge their real self and until they can look at their body in the mirror and see themselves as they are inside. And maybe part of their need to change how people perceive them and what they see when they look in the mirror is related to society’s hang ups about gender but that it’s complicated and a very real foundational structure of society, so it’s no small thing.

      This is a conversation I’d really like to have, because the idea of gender as a construct is a cornerstone of my feminism and I want to have an idea of gender which is capable of including the experiences of non-cis-gendered people because I think they must have really interesting encounters with gender, and therefore see it from completely different angles to me; and also because feminism must and should become inclusive in order to introduce and perpetuate lasting and healthy ideas of gender.

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    Nice article.

    Small thought – I know it’s not the point of the article, which I really liked, but it wasn’t just a “bunch of butch gays” at Stonewall. I get that there isn’t really a short way to say “transgender people, sex workers” and everyone else who was there, but the trans and sex workin’ element is often erased, and it shouldn’t be. Also there’s this myth I keep hearing that trans people and sex workers are johnny-come-lately for our rights, and where were we before, and, well, we were there from the very beginning. And you probably know that already, but I guess what I’m saying is that “gay” isn’t short hand for all the rest of us, because if it were, well, support for “gay rights” in Congress would also mean support for transgender rights, sex workers rights, etc, and it clearly does not.

    Perhaps – a buncha queers?

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    Such a brilliant article. It’s so tempting now that we’re bulldozing through the postmodern era to dismiss all labels, negate everything. It’s true that binary relations are necessarily problematic, but the answer is not to get rid of them entirely, I think. Because the categories that we really want to glean from ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ arise as either a mediation between, outside of, or a conflation of the two. It is necessary to recognise the flaws of the binary, but it’s then necessary to work with it, in my opinion. I think this is always the case, even in terms of aesthetics. Dada was my favourite C20th movement, but it failed quickly, because despite the temptation of grasping onto a nihilistic stance, the danger is too great when we relate ideology to the void. Far better to relate our definitions to something we know to be wrong- because at least we know it. The effect of reclaiming can be more powerful than the effect of creating. Nothingness should not be rejected as an option, but anarchy should not be treated lightly with regards to our own identities.

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