Kiernan: "Heterosexual," "Homosexual," May 1892

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Heterosexual desire as "Sexual Perversion"

The earliest-known use of the word heterosexual in the United States occurs in an article by Dr. James G. Kiernan, published in a Chicago medical journal in May 1892.[1]

Heterosexual was not equated here with normal sex, but with perversion -- a definitional tradition that lasted in middle-class culture into the 1920s.

Kiernan linked heterosexual to one of several "abnormal manifestations of the sexual appetite" -- in a list of "sexual perversions proper" -- in an article on "Sexual Perversion." Kiernan's brief note on depraved heterosexuals attributed their definition (incorrectly) to Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing of Vienna.

Kiernan's heterosexuals were associated with a mental condition, "psychical hermaphroditism." This syndrome assumed that feelings had a biological sex. Heterosexuals experienced so-called male erotic attraction to females and so-called female erotic attraction to males. That is, these heterosexuals periodically felt "inclinations to both sexes."[2]

The hetero in these heterosexuals referred not to their interest in a different sex, but to their desire for two different sexes. Feeling desire inappropriate, supposedly, for their sex, these heterosexuals were guilty of what we now think of as gender and erotic deviance.

Heterosexuals were also guilty of reproductive deviance, That is, they betrayed inclinations to "abnormal methods of gratification" -- modes of ensuring pleasure without reproducing the species. They also demonstrated "traces of the normal sexual appetite" -- a touch of the desire to reproduce.


Dr. Kiernan's article also included the earliest-known U.S, publication of the word homosexual. The "pure homosexuals" he cited were persons whose "general mental state is that of the opposite sex." These homosexuals were defined explicitly as gender benders, rebels from proper masculinity and femininity. In contrast, his heterosexuals deviated explicitly from gender, erotic, and procreative norms. In their American debut, the abnormality of heterosexuals appeared to be thrice that of homosexuals.[3]

Reproductive Standard

Though Kiernan's article employed the new terms heterosexual and homosexual, their meaning was ruled by an old, absolute reproductive ideal. His heterosexual described a mixed person and compound urge -- at once sex-differentiated, eros-oriented, and reproductive. In Kiernan's essay, heterosexuals' ambivalent procreative desire made them absolutely abnormal. This first exercise in heterosexual definition described an unquivocal pervert.


  1. Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality (NY: Dutton, March 1995), pp. 19-21, and notes 1-3 pp. 207-208. Katz cites Dr. James. G. Kiernan, "Responsibility in Sexual Perversion," Chicago Medical Recorder 3 (May 1892), 185-210; "Read before the Chicago Medical Society, March 7, 1892," but it's difficult to imagine him reading his footnote on Krafft-Ebing. Kiernan's note on 197-98 cites Krafft-Ebing's classifications in Psychopathia Sexualis, "Chaddock's translation" (no date). The U.S. publication in 1893 of C. G. Chaddock's translation of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis followed Kiernan's article (see below). So there's some confusion about the exact source of Kiernan's brief note on Krafft-Ebing's terms "hetero-sexual" and "homo-sexual." Perhaps Kiernan saw a prepublication version of Chaddock's translation. It's also possible that Kiernan had seen some earlier article by Krafft-Ebing or the English translation by F. J. Rebman of the 10th German edition of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, published in London in 1889 (Katz has not inspected that edition). Kiernan seems to have based his brief gloss on Krafft-Ebing's definition of the heterosexual and homosexual on a superficial reading of pages 222-23 of the 1893 edition of Chaddock's translation of Psychopathia Sexualis, paragraphs numbered 1-4. See R. von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, with &pecial Reference to Contrary Sexual Instinct: A Medico-Legal Study, trans. Charles Gilbert Chaddock (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis, 1893), from the 7th and revised German ed.; preface dated November 1892. The U.S. Copyright Office received and registered this edition on February 16, 1893 (Copyright Office to Katz, May 25, 1990). This book's year of publication is confused, because its copyright page and its preface are dated 1892, while its title page lists the year of publication as 1893. The National Union Catalogue of Pre-1956 Publications says this edition was first published in 1892, and the first citation of "hetero-sexual" listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (1976 Supplement, p. 85) is to this edition of Krafft-Ebing, attributed to 1892. That year is incorrect. Although it was evidently prepared by November 1892, the date of its preface, it was not officially published until 1893.
  2. Mental hermaphrodites experienced, sometimes, the "wrong" feelings for their biological sex; their erotic desire was improperly inverted. A moral judgment founded the ostensibly objective, scientific concept of psychical hermaphroditism. Kiernan's idea of "psychical hermaphroditism" is not exactly the same as the attraction we now label "bisexual," referring as we do to the sex of the subject and the two different sexes to which he or she is at-tracted. Psychical hermaphroditism referred to mental gender, while our bisexuality refers to the sex of a sex partner. Mental hermaphroditism might lead to both sexes as erotic partners, but the term laid the cause in the mental gender of the subject (like the concept of inversion). Our bisexuality does not involve any necessary link to mental gender. Katz is grateful to Lisa Duggan for this clarification.
  3. But heterosexuals' appearance of triple the abnormality of homosexuals was deceiving. For Kiernan, the gender deviance of homosexuals implied that they were also, simultaneously, rebels from a procreative norm and an erotic norm. But it's significant that Kiernan explicitly stresses homosexuals' gender rebellion, not their erotic or reproductive deviancy. George Chauncey, Jr., discusses the late-nineteenth-century stress on gender inversion in "From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualization of Female Deviance," Salmagundi 56-59 (Fall-Winter 1983), 114-46.

See also: Heterosexual History Timeline

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