The Invention of Heterosexuality, Jonathan Ned Katz

9780226426013The Invention of Heterosexuality seeks to prove that “heterosexuality” as we conceive of it today is not a fixed, absolute state, and that the fundamental binary of homo vs. hetero, upon which our current culture so heavily relies, is similarly arbitrary. “Heterosexuality, we imagine,” asserts author Jonathan Ned Katz, “is essential, unchanging: ahistorical” (13). Katz ‘s goal is to “openly name heterosexuality, and to speak explicitly and at length about it.” He wants to remove the idea of heterosexuality from “the realm of the taken-for-granted, subjecting it to the dangers of analysis–and the possibility of critique” (67).

Like any good book, Heterosexuality forces the reader to think of the world in a profoundly different way, a world that is not carved into homo and hetero. As simple as this may seem, it is truly eye-opening. Katz goes back to the 19th century and demonstrates the myriad ways that sexuality is constructed throughout history, and how it is academically careless to impose our current-day conception of “sexuality” on the past.

Katz controversially questions the activism-inspired focus on creating histories of marginalized groups, suggesting that by writing a “homosexual history,” scholars and activists reinforce “the idea of gay men and lesbians as Aberrant Others, Marginal Mutants.” This leads Katz to assert that “However eye-opening the view from the sexual margin, we also need works that question the idea of a sex margin and sex center, a queer eros and a standard brand” (178). This conclusion was jarring to me, as Katz himself was a pioneer in crafting a homosexual history, publishing Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. in 1976. Katz’s critique even of his own work intimates a level of self awareness that is rare. He doesn’t necessarily have an agenda other than a continual examination and exploration of gender and sexuality.

Katz explores the works of various “Radicalesbians,” introducing me to some works I’d like to read. This passage in particular I found fascinating. Writing of the essay “The Woman-Identified Woman,” Katz explains:

“As long as we cling to the idea of ‘being a woman,'” say the writers, women will experience a conflict with their own personhood. Being “feminine” and “being a whole person are irreconcilable,” they say. Women must work with other women to “create a new sense of self.” That new identity will abandon “woman” as its basic organizing principle. (143)

Katz’s arguments are compelling; his survey of the works of Freud and 20th century Lesbian feminist writers is highly readable. When he contests toward the end of the book that “Heterosexuality, I now think, is invented in discourse as that which is outside discourse…Heterosexuality is an invented tradition,” (182) I cannot help but agree with him.

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About Madeleine Gyory

Madeleine is a social media butterfly who tweets (and does some other things) for the Women's Media Center, a media advocacy non-profit based in NY. She loves reading, particularly stories by and about women. She graduated from Barnard College, and has spent time teaching English in Ecuador. Her favorite writers are Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
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