1941 was a difficult year for the world. It started badly and only got worse. War had already ravaged Europe, and soon the US and Canada would finally be drawn into the conflict by the Japanese destruction of Pearl Harbor. In the same year, the group that would become the Viet Cong was formed, perhaps worse, and Dick Cheney was born. A lot of new words appeared 1941: one of those was ‘straight’.
Ok ok, so ‘straight’ has been around for hundreds of years. But only in 1941 did it take on any kind of sexual connotation. 1941 was the year that invented straightness.
For context, let’s take a look at the history of some of the more important labels we’ve invented relating to sexuality. Mild trigger warning: strong language ahead.
1869 – ‘Homosexual’ first appears in print, in a German pamphlet arguing against an anti-sodomy law.
1914 – ‘Faggot’ appears, followed in 1921 by ‘fag’. It’s not clear that it was originally an insult, and may well have come from the gay subculture itself. (It definitely doesn’t come from the logs used to burn people at the stake, by the way.)
1920 – ‘Gay’ starts turning up in text. The indications are, though, that this word was being used by the gay underworld as early as 1868. Early records of this word are ambiguous: it’s hard to know whether it refers to sexuality or the earlier sense of happiness.
1922 – ‘Queer’, in reference to homosexuality, is first found in print. It’s probably from a 15th Century Scottish dialect word meaning ‘off-centre’.
1925 – ‘Lesbian’ is first recorded. Although this word has a long history, deriving from the semi-mythical history of the Greek island of Lesbos, it was this year that it was first used in print to refer to a gay woman.
1931 – ‘Dyke’ is first used to refer to gay women. The source of this word is unknown, but a list of American slang words from 1896 lists ‘vulva’ as the definition.
1933 – ‘Heterosexual’ first appears in Webster’s dictionary with the definition, ‘normal sexuality’.
1941 – ‘Straight’, referring to ‘heterosexual’, is first found in print, most likely from the criminal sense ‘to go straight’ which existed much earlier. (Homosexuality was a crime in most European countries until uncomfortably recently.)
2006 – ‘Cisgender/Cissexual’ is used in an article to differentiate between transgender and non-trans people (though ‘cisgender’ first appeared alone in a 1998 essay).
You don’t have to look hard to see a pattern here: for a century before 1941, our language was increasingly rich with terms and phrases for ‘alternative’ sexualities. There are probably hundreds more never committed to print and lost to time. But not one, until ‘heterosexual’ in 1933, that refers to the concept of ‘straightness’ – however you define that.
Think about that. Doesn’t that seem strange to you? There are millions of people in the developed world who are older than the word that describes their sexuality.
Straightness is a social construct, invented to fill a gap created by the recognition that there are various different sexual alignments. Straightness is a reaction to the understanding of unstraightness. So, linguistically at least, heterosexuality was the last to the party.
The concept of straightness is a fabrication created under pressure from the growing awareness and acceptance of more diverse sexual dispositions.
Of course, since 1941 many other epithets intended to differentiate or reconcile our varying sexual identities have come and gone. But really, there have been no words to expand the language of heterosexuality until very recently, when cissexual appeared. All of the rich language of sexuality is the sole domain of the unstraight.