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  • Look at this ruler. You might describe it as something with no curves and swerves, or

  • long and straight. But then again you might also use the same word "straight" to describe

  • someone's sexuality when they're attracted to someone of the opposite sex. Waitwhat?

  • This doesn't quite add up. So today let's get to the bottom of the long and winding

  • road of howstraightcame to be synonymous with sexuality.

  • Okay, so before we can get into how a word likestraightcame to meanheterosexual,”

  • we have to quickly talk about how and why people started categorizing sexuality in the

  • first place. The idea that someone could be hetero, homo, or bisexual (or any configuration

  • of LGBTQIA identities) really isn't that old at all.

  • While most historians agree that there is evidence of same-sex romantic relationships

  • in nearly every documented culture, the realities of the people who engaged in them weren't

  • really categorized asgay.” The same goes for heterosexuality, which only showed

  • up about a century ago under a definition that might be confusing to people today.

  • That definition forheterosexualitycame to us in the late 1860s, when Austrian-Hungarian

  • journalist Karl Maria Kertbeny coined it in a letter to German lawyer and author Karl

  • Heinrich Ulrichs, whom Kertbeny met on his travels and considered a contemporary. Today,

  • Ulrichs is known as an early pioneer in the gay rights movement. In the letter, the term

  • appeared with three other terms as well: “homosexuality, “monosexual,” andheterogenit.” Those

  • last two meantmasturbationandbestiality,” respectively.

  • If that makesheterosexualsound more like a diagnosis than an identity, well, that's

  • because it kind of was. In the 1880 bookThe Discovery of the Soul

  • the wordheterosexualin German debuted to a wide audience. A few years later in 1892

  • the word appeared in English in Psychopathia Sexualis. And in 1901, Dorland's Medical

  • Dictionary defined heterosexuality as anabnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite

  • sex.” When the term appeared in Merriam Webster's dictionary for the first time

  • in 1923, it touted the definition, “a morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.”

  • Wait, hold on. Does that mean heterosexuality used to be seen as deviant behavior? Were

  • straight people being oppressed for being straight? Well, no. It's just that what

  • we now know asheterosexualitywas so accepted as the norm back then that nobody

  • felt the need to go out of their way to define it, and when they did, it was to pathologize

  • all manner of sexual behavior that would have been seen as taboo.

  • In 1934, heterosexuality adopted a meaning that might look more familiar to us today,

  • although it might elicit a few justifiedyikes.” Its updated definition in Merriam Webster

  • called it a “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”

  • Keep that last part, “normal sexuality,” in mind, because it's going to come up again

  • withstraight,” which we'll finally get to now. Sorry, I guess the path to the

  • wordstraightis pretty loopy.

  • The first documented appearance of the wordstraightas a descriptor for heterosexuality

  • is in American psychiatrist G.W. Henry's 1941 book titled Sex Variants, which sought

  • to follow the experiences of 80 lesbians and gay men in New York City in the 1930s. In

  • it, there's the definition, “To go 'straight' is to cease homosexual practices and to indulge--usually

  • to re-indulge--in heterosexuality.” Because heterosexuality is oh so indulgent.

  • In case you missed the subtext here, the book is saying that the wordstraightactually

  • started out as gay slang, as an in-community way to describe someone who was, if I may

  • use a term that wasn't in popular vocabulary back then, “re-closetingthemselves.

  • Someone wasgoing straightif they dropped out of the scene or entered a heterosexual

  • relationship. As is often the case with slang, it was laced with irony and sarcasm.

  • The gay community was likely playing off the common colloquial phrasestraight and narrow,”

  • which is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as behaving in a way that ishonest and

  • moral.” This old saying has its roots in the Bible, specifically the Gospel of Matthew

  • 7:13-14, which in the King James Version saysEnter you in at the strait gate: for wide

  • is the gate, and broad is the way that leads to destructionBecause strait is the gate,

  • and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life . . .” A “strait,” s-t-r-a-i-t, like

  • the Bering Strait, is a narrow passageway. Thus, to live righteously is towalk the

  • strait and narrow,” which later got changed to the homophonestraight and narrow.”

  • This all relates back to what some scholars would call lavender linguistics, which looks

  • into how LGBTQIA people use language as a vehicle to communicate nuances in identity

  • and their lived experiences. It's based on the idea that certain communities, especially

  • marginalized ones, will utilize the dominant language in unique ways to make a home for

  • themselves in it. Looking at it that way, it's no wonder so much slang comes from

  • groups of people who are oftenotheredin mainstream culture.

  • For more examples of lavender linguistics, we can look at other slang terms that have

  • come up out of gay community. “Tea,” a word that means the truth, be it sipped or

  • spilled or what have you, originated in black drag culture. Merriam-Webster gives an example

  • of this use ofteafrom 1994, in which The Lady Chablis, a black drag performer and

  • female impersonator, defines it as, “My thing, my business, what's going on in my

  • life."

  • But the termstraightwasn't limited to gay community slang. Its strong relationship

  • to morality meant it was often dispatched as a catch-all for someone who was defined

  • by their abstinence from debauchery. And by the 1970s, the term was concretely established

  • as a synonym forvirtuous.” Just take a look at some 20th century pop

  • culture, like the Modern Lovers' song from the 70's titled “I'm Straight,” in

  • which singer Jonathan Richman compares himself to a woman's stoner boyfriends. When he

  • calls himselfstraightin the song, he's not calling himself heterosexual. He's

  • saying that he's not a drug user.

  • That's not just a one-off example either. Look atstraight edgeculture that formed

  • in the early 80s in response to the punk culture of the 1970s, the latter of which was big

  • on drug use. The term was coined by the band Minor Threat in their songStraight Edge,”

  • the lyrics of which bragged about having better things to do than drugs.

  • People who usedstraight edgeto define themselves used to, and still do, define it

  • as abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and sometimes promiscuous sex. Though it has been applied

  • in many ways, one thing is for sure: “straightas a slang word has a strong relationship

  • to ideas of morality.

  • The use ofstraightto meannot gayhas a lot to say about how people viewed homosexuality

  • back then: as an act of deviancy, alongside other socially taboo activities like gambling

  • and drug use. It's a view that sadly persists to this day, but back when the words we used

  • to describe sexual orientation were still crystallizing, the wordstraightwas

  • broad enough to cast a person as distinct from all kinds of marginalized groups and

  • misfits.

  • It's these moral implications that have caused some LGBTQ advocates to push for abolishing

  • the term altogether.

  • You know, one thing that might surprise a lot of people when they dig into the history

  • of words likegayorstraightorheterosexualityis that, relatively

  • speaking, they're really not very old. What this could tell us is that the book isn't

  • closed on any of these terms. That's true for language in general. It's a living,

  • evolving thing, as we've seen in this journey through medical terms, lavender linguistics,

  • and community slang. I mean, just look at the roaring debate over

  • whether it's OK to describe people ascisgender,” a word that meansnot transgenderor

  • “a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.”

  • We have words likenon-binaryfor people who don't identify as a man or a woman,

  • andLatinxfor people of Latin American descent who want to eschew the gendered nature

  • of Spanish. Some critics have accused LGBTQ activists of destroying language and making

  • up words, but isn't that kind of how words work? They have to come from somewhere, and

  • the context they're created in matters a lot. Plus all of them were made up by someone

  • at some point. It's why the dictionary gets updated every year.

  • So it could very well be the case thatstraightwon't be around forever as a way to describe

  • heterosexuality. Its past as a way to contrast heterosexuality against homosexuality in a

  • moral context speaks to a painful history of discrimination and bigotry. But it also

  • speaks to a colorful tradition of marginalized groups creating their own language and their

  • own slang, to creatively communicate with each other under difficult conditions.

Look at this ruler. You might describe it as something with no curves and swerves, or

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B1 US straight slang gay heterosexual sexuality strait

Why Does "Straight" Mean Heterosexual?

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