Do We Need a History of Heterosexual Hysteria?

IMAGE 1[1]

By Umberto Grassi, CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Sydney

In the last few months the federally funded Safe Schools education program has come under increasing attack. Dedicated to creating safe and inclusive learning environments for same sex attracted, intersex, and gender diverse students, school staff and families, The Safe School Coalition ‘builds on the successful Safe Schools Coalition Victoria model, founded by FYA[1] and Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria at La Trobe University and funded by the Victorian Government since 2010’.[2]

Recently, Christian Associations and conservative backbenchers, such as Liberal MPs Cory Bernardi and Eric Abetz, denounced the Safe Schools agenda as being more concerned with LGBTQI propaganda than with bullying and harassment against gay, lesbian and gender diverse students. Without going into details, the Safe Schools program was accused of promoting practices of social engineering to the detriment of the majority of the students’ health and well-being. These criticisms resulted in an investigation into the program, requested by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.[3]

I have read carefully the majority of the material available on the Safe Schools webpage. Even if I don’t agree with some of the methodological choices underpinning the sociological inquiries developed within the program, I found the overall material informative, accessible, extremely sensitive and well balanced. Gender-questioning youth are encouraged to take time to reflect on themselves and their identity,[4] to strengthen their social relationships and connections to others, to look for help from peers and adults,[5] to avoid potentially dangerous experiences such as clubbing alone or using alcohol and drugs.[6] There is no propaganda encouraging easy surgical intervention or ‘risky’ sexual conduct; only clever tips for adolescents on how to deal with these issues in a responsible way and without harming themselves.

However, it seems that any kind of sexuality that doesn’t fit within the normative heterosexual ideal is to be regarded as suspect. Despite agreeing that bullying must be treated severely, Liberal MP Eric Abetz recently claimed during an interview on ABC TV show The Drum (23 February 2016) that only a minority of bullying and harassment incidents occur as a result of gender or sexuality issues, thus criticising the idea that LGBTQI people deserve special protections. Though, we know that a large number of Australian LGBTQI people suffer discrimination and verbal and physical violence – ranging from beating to corrective rape – during childhood and adolescence.[7] Looking from the perspective of the majority, or from the point of view of a minority, might significantly change our understanding of the reality.

Can we really fight against bullying without promoting knowledge? Is it really so endangering for young people to question their own sexual and gender identity? Why is it that the complexity of sexuality and gender identification so often provokes a panic that resembles hysteria? Finally, in what ways can a historical perspective make a contribution to the public debate on this controversial subject?

Diebold Schilling, Chronik der Burgunderkriege, Schweizer Bilderchronik, Band 3, 1483. Zürich, Zentralbibliothek.

Heterosexuality and gender binarism have historically been reinforced by legal prohibitions against every kind of behaviour that transgresses heteronormative injunctions. This has been true in the Western Christian world at least since late Antiquity, when the moral precepts of Christianity were absorbed into Roman Law.[8] The legal devices of that time were strengthened in the late medieval period,[9] and laws against sodomy, cross-dressing and non-reproductive sexual intercourse were consistently included in most early modern European criminal codes, as well as in legal practice.[10] Even after the secularisation of political institutions, penal law continued to prosecute sexual transgressions until incredibly recently.[11] Additionally, from the nineteenth century onwards, medical sciences subsumed the Christian idea of sexual sin and started to repress male and female homosexuality, transgenderism and cross-dressing through internment in psychiatric hospitals.[12]

Even though the process of de-criminalisation has almost been completed in the so-called Western World, equality is far from being achieved. The level of social pressure, harassment, stigmatisation and discrimination in the workplace, at home, in schools and in sport environments is still dangerously high.[13] Yet, a consistent portion of the heterosexual and ‘properly-gender-identified’ population still perceive themselves to be under attack, and feel insecure when homosexual and gender diverse minorities seek social inclusion or equality.

Why? What I want to argue here is that there is an unconscious fear that if the social pressures that force the reproduction of heterosexuality and gender norms are removed, heterosexuality itself, as well as gender distinctions between male and female, will completely disappear, to be replaced by an unruly and terrifying chaos of gender confusion and sexual promiscuity. How can an order which is supposed to be ‘natural’ be so fragile? Are these kinds of reactions different to those that other majorities have experienced when specific minorities living in conditions of legal or social oppression started to claim their rights?

Maybe there is something in this case that is more perturbing. When fighting against homophobia and transphobia one has to question at first their own self-perception as sexualised and gendered beings. From a historical perspective, sexual and gender ‘transgressions’ have always played a crucial role in reinforcing the boundaries between normality and abnormality, acceptability and abjection. Non-reproductive sex, as well as gender non-conformity, has always spurred irrational fears and conflicting emotions: guilt, disgust, repulsion, attraction, anger, hate. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, wasted semen has always raised anxieties related to the death and extinction of the human race.[14] Similarly, gender transgressions have always been regarded as an assault to the hierarchical order of past societies.

This dangerous combination of negative feelings has often coalesced, causing the recurring scapegoating of single individuals, or entire groups, that have been perceived has dangerous to the social order. Christians were regarded as infanticidal devotees of sexual perversions.[15] So were Jews and witches in Christian Europe, at least since the Middle Ages.[16] Muslims were depicted as lascivious beings and lustful sodomites,[17] and anti-Islamic stereotypes provided a model for labelling native Americans[18] when the aggressive Iberian Empires started to explore and conquer the world after the Reconquista.[19] Sexual and gender transgressions have always been an attribute of the ‘Other’.

Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Pillory, Charing Cross’, printed in The Microcosm of London; or, London in Miniature, Volume II (London: Methuen and Company, 1904), Plate 62. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

I think that something similar is still at work. The construction of heterosexual identity requires an ‘other’ in opposition to which a sense of the ‘self’ can be shaped. It requires an ‘other’ onto which the negative feelings and sense of discomfort produced by ‘unspeakable’ emotions and desires can be projected, exteriorised, solidified, and only then insulted, humiliated, derided, harassed, beaten up and sometimes killed or pushed into suicide.

Obviously, someone who is clearly recognisable as an ‘outsider’ is necessary in this process. Above all, he or she has to be recognised at first as being outside of ‘me’. Isn’t this price a little too high to be paid just to preserve the comforting sense of being-in-the-right-place, as perceived by the heterosexual-identified majority? Is it really heterosexuality that is under attack, or only its compulsory reproduction?

Honestly, I don’t think, as many conservative critics do, that adolescents who are aware of the existence of multiple variants in the development of gender and sexual identities will automatically cease to be attracted to the opposite sex/gender, or will immediately decide to resort to surgical interventions in order to change their bodies. Rather, I am convinced that future generations, if they are allowed to develop a critical consciousness about sexuality, will simply become stronger and more aware of their choices. Furthermore, I am convinced that also the quality of the relationships between men and women could substantially be improved if people are allowed to explore their own internal ambiguities. If the unthinkable can become one day thinkable without shame, the choice for partners of the opposite sex would be a freer opportunity, and what it means to be a woman or a man would not only become less constrictive and stereotyped, but less prone to reproducing violence and hierarchies of power.

This doesn’t mean that there are no risks. Society is changing constantly, and it is easy to feel confused and overwhelmed by the multiplicity of factors that often make people feel inadequate, or that they lack the necessary skills to interpret reality. A strong emotional attachment to something that is perceived as reassuring, ‘natural’, and ‘familiar’ is understandable. However, I think that other changes imposed on our societies are responsible for the increasing sense of alienation that the youngest generations are experiencing today. Why is there not as much popular questioning of the sense of uncertainty produced by the changes in the job market? Or by the reduction of the welfare state and social security? Or by the constant celebration of the values of competition and self-promotion to the detriment of solidarity and cooperation? Or by the ongoing reduction of social spaces and the opportunities to socialise? Or by the constant difficulties experienced by people living in rural areas to access basic social services?

In these conditions, the irrational fears raised by a program that questions ‘traditional’ gender roles can be exploited for all sorts of political interests. This manipulative strategy has many advantages. It mobilises deeply rooted and irrational emotions; it doesn’t address the real causes of social problems; and it doesn’t touch established economic or political interests. However, it does this at the expense of a minority of young people who experience violence and persecution because of their sexual and gender identities. But, once again, this seems to be a price worth paying for allaying the anxieties of a frightened majority.

Umberto Grassi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sydney node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Grassi is currently part of EMoDiR (Early Modern religious Dissents and Radicalism), an international research network focused on the study of religious dissent across Europe. The group brings together a variety of research projects on the cultural and social history of religious dissent in early modernity ( He is also a member of the research centre of Gender and Sexuality Studies Politesse (Politics and Theories of Sexuality), based at the University of Verona, which is today a pioneering experience in Italy (


[1] Foundation for Young Australians.

[2] Joel Radcliffe, Roz Ward, Micah Scott and Sally Richardson, Safe Schools Do Better: Supporting Sexual Diversity, Intersex and Gender Diversity in Schools, 2013,

[3] Stephanie Anderson, ‘Safe Schools: Malcolm Turnbull Requests Investigation into Program Helping LGBTI Students’, ABC Radio Australia, 23 February 2016, This week, newspapers have announced significant changes to the Safe Schools program. Firstly, only secondary schools will be allowed to join the Coalition. Some of the ‘gender diversity role-playing activities will also be removed’, while certain materials ‘will be restricted to one-on-one discussion between students and key qualified staff’. Finally, parents should receive more detailed information and, Senator Birmingham said: ‘should have the right to withdraw their child from classes dealing with such matters’. ‘Government Reveals Changes to Controversial Safe Schools Program’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 March 18 2016.

[4] ‘Be careful not to make big decisions about your life until you’re ready. There are no rules about who you can be […] It take times to know who you are’: Aren Z. Aizura, Jenny Walsh, Ash Pike, Roz Ward and Jak, GQ (July 2011), p. 10.

[5] OMG I’m Queer, ed. Micah Scott (Safe Schools Coalition, 2015), p. 11,

[6] OMG I’m Queer, p. 29.

[7] See Lynn Hillier, Tiffany Jones, Marisa Monagle, Naomi Overton, Luke Grahan, Jennifer Blackman and Anne Mitchell, Writing Themselves in 3: The Third National Study on the Sexual Health and Wellbeing of Same Sex Attracted and Gender Questioning Young People (Melbourne: La Trobe University, 2010),; Elizabeth Smith, Tiffany Jones, Roz Ward, Jennifer Dixon, Anne Mitchell and Lynne Hillier, From Blues to Rainbow: The Mental Health and Well-Being of Gender Diverse and Transgender Young People in Australia (Melbourne: La Trobe University and University of New England, 2014),

[8] James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

[9] Michael Goodich, The Unmentionable Vice: Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1978).

[10] Helmut Puff, ‘Early Modern Europe, 1400–1700’, in Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich (New York: Universe, 2006).

[11] Lucas Paoli Itaborahy, Jingshu Zhu, ILGA. State Sponsored Homophobia. A World Survey of Laws: Criminalization, Protection and Recognition of Same-Sex Love, VIII edn (May 2013),

[12] Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1998), p. 43. La Volonté de Savoir first published in 1976.

[13] See note 7.

[14] Eva Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World, trans. Cormac O Cuilleanain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

[15] See, for instance, Marcus Minucius Felix, The Octavius of Marcus Minucius Felix, ed. and trans. G. W. Clarke (New York: Newman Press, 1974).

[16] See Goodich, The Unmentionable Vice.

[17] Federico Garza Carvajal, Butterflies Will Burn: Prosecuting Sodomites in Early Modern Spain and Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003).

[18] Barabara Fuchs, Mimesis and Empire: The New World, Islam and European Identities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[19] Garza Carvajal, Butterflies Will Burn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s