Why Does "Straight" Mean Heterosexual?
When did we start defining sexual orientation and how did that result in "straight" becoming a synonym for "heterosexual"? Today Danielle follows the winding history of the word through medical terms, lavender linguistics, and community slang.
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. Wait…what?
This doesn’t quite add up. So today let’s get to the bottom of the long and winding
road of how “straight” came to be synonymous with sexuality.
Okay, so before we can get into how a word like “straight” came to mean “heterosexual,”
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 as “gay.” 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 for “heterosexuality” came 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,” and “heterogenit.” Those
last two meant “masturbation” and “bestiality,” respectively.
If that makes “heterosexual” sound more like a diagnosis than an identity, well, that’s
because it kind of was. In the 1880 book “The Discovery of the Soul”
the word “heterosexual” in 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 an “abnormal 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 as “heterosexuality” was 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 justified “yikes.” 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
with “straight,” which we’ll finally get to now. Sorry, I guess the path to the
word “straight” is pretty loopy.
The first documented appearance of the word “straight” as 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 word “straight” actually
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-closeting” themselves.
Someone was “going straight” if 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 phrase “straight and narrow,”
which is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as behaving in a way that is “honest 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 says “Enter you in at the strait gate: for wide
is the gate, and broad is the way that leads to destruction… Because 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 to “walk the
strait and narrow,” which later got changed to the homophone “straight 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 often “othered” in 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 of “tea” from 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
But the term “straight” wasn’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 for “virtuous.” 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 himself “straight” in 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 at “straight edge” culture 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 song “Straight Edge,”
the lyrics of which bragged about having better things to do than drugs.
People who used “straight edge” to 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: “straight” as a slang word has a strong relationship
to ideas of morality.
The use of “straight” to mean “not gay” has 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 word “straight” was
broad enough to cast a person as distinct from all kinds of marginalized groups and
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 like “gay” or “straight” or “heterosexuality” is 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 as “cisgender,” a word that means “not transgender” or
“a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.”
We have words like “non-binary” for people who don’t identify as a man or a woman,
and “Latinx” for 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 that “straight” won’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.