‘Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality’
By Hanne Blank
For most of your life, people have been making decisions without you.
When you were born, for instance, they decided whether you were a boy or a girl (based on obvious visual clues). Because of that, they hung a gender-specific moniker on you, dressed you in pink or blue, cuddled you more or less and gave you certain toys accordingly.
Consequently, people presumed your sexuality before you were able to confirm or deny it. But contemporary notions of sexuality and gender identity — which seem so entrenched to us here in the early throes of the 21st century — are actually a rather recent phenomenon, as explained in the new book “Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality” by Hanne Blank.
For most of human history, people were just people, un-pigeonholed. There were no heterosexuals prior to about 150 years ago, nor were there homosexuals. Love existed, of course, as did various sexual desires and behaviors, but terms and categories describing humans themselves did not.
In 1868, a Victorian-era writer coined the word heterosexual and there we are. Those Victorians, says Blank, were a randy bunch who loved to be titillated so we shouldn’t be too surprised at their prurient interests, especially that which concerned the maintenance of “manly” virtues and the defining of “deviant” behavior of the lower class.
Those “degenerates” were the ones who needed to be weeded out.
Suddenly, what others were doing in the bedroom became a big deal. Serious names for every sexual activity, as well as judgments for them, were topics of hushed conversation and extreme care had to be taken to remain on the good side of gossip. Anything other than “normal” sexual relationships were considered immoral, though it was extremely common for same-sex couples to share a bed and nobody gave it a thought.
Freud weighed in with his ideas. Other “scientists” followed suit, and by the 1950s, “heterosexuals were everywhere,” many ushered into marriage because it was expected of them. After all, wedded bliss was the only respectable allowance for having sex, and sex was only for procreation.
And then came The Pill.
But all this history begs a modern question: because we know now that there are more than two categories of human sexuality on the spectrum, does anyone’s sexual identity really matter to anybody but that individual? Who cares anymore?
Blank says that, of course, it depends on who asks.
“Straight” is, well, it’s pretty straight, and probably not the kind of book you’d pick up on a lark, although author Hanne Blank does occasionally employ a sense of the absurd in her accounting of the history of heterosexuality and everything it wasn’t.
For casual, time-starved readers, though, that might not be enough. What Blank says runs somewhat deep and semi-philosophical, with solidly based research and biographical examples. These things are tempered by Blank’s sharp-as-an-ax wit, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that this book begs to be pondered.
Still, if you’ve ever wondered how we got to this point in our bedrooms, you really can’t miss it. If you’re heterosexual (or know one), reading “Straight” is a good decision.
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PHOTOS: Miss Glamour Girl
Maryland drag pageant held at McAvoy’s
The Miss Glamour Girl 2023 Pageant was held at McAvoy’s in Parkville, Md. on Sunday, Oct. 1. Miss Shantay was crowned the winner and qualified to compete in the Miss Gay Maryland Pageant in November.
(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)
New book explores why we categorize sports according to gender
You can lead a homophobic horse to water but you can’t make it think
‘Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates’
By Katie Barnes
c.2023, St. Martin’s Press
The jump shot happened so quickly, so perfectly.
Your favorite player was in the air in a heartbeat, basketball in hand, wrist cocked. One flick and it was all swish, three points, just like that, and your team was ahead. So are you watching men’s basketball or women’s basketball? Or, as in the new book, “Fair Play” by Katie Barnes, should it really matter?
For sports fans, this may come as a surprise: we categorize sports according to gender.
Football, baseball, wresting: male sports. Gymnastics, volleyball: women’s sports. And yet, one weekend spent cruising around television shows you that those sports are enjoyed by both men and women – but we question the sexuality of athletes who dare (gasp!) to cross invisible lines for a sport they love.
How did sports “become a flash point for a broader conversation?”
Barnes takes readers back first to 1967, when Kathrine Switzer and Bobbi Gibb both ran in the Boston Marathon. It was the first time women had audaciously done so and while both finished the race, their efforts didn’t sit well with the men who made the rules.
“Thirty-seven words” changed the country in 1972 when Title IX was signed, which guaranteed there’d be no discrimination in extracurricular events, as long as “federal financial assistance” was taken. It guaranteed availability for sports participation for millions of girls in schools and colleges. It also “enshrine[d] protections for queer and transgender youth to access school sports.”
So why the debate about competition across gender lines?
First, says Barnes, we can’t change biology, or human bodies that contain both testosterone and estrogen, or that some athletes naturally have more of one or the other – all of which factor into the debate. We shouldn’t forget that women can and do compete with men in some sports, and they sometimes win. We shouldn’t ignore the presence of transgender men in sports.
What we should do, Barnes says, is to “write a new story. One that works better.”
Here are two facts: Nobody likes change. And everybody has an opinion.
Keep those two statements in mind when you read “Fair Play.” They’ll keep you calm in this debate, as will author Katie Barnes’ lack of flame fanning.
As a sports fan, an athlete, and someone who’s binary, Barnes makes things relatively even-keel in this book, which is a breath of fresh air in what’s generally ferociously contentious. There’s a good balance of science and social commentary here, and the many, many stories that Barnes shares are entertaining and informative, as well as illustrative. Readers will come away with a good understanding of where the debate lies.
But will this book make a difference?
Maybe. Much will depend on who reads and absorbs it. Barnes offers plenty to ponder but alas, you can lead a homophobic horse to water but you can’t make it think. Still, if you’ve got skin in this particular bunch of games, find “Fair Play” and jump on it.
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An exciting revival of ‘Evita’ at Shakespeare Theatre
Out actor Caesar Samayoa on portraying iconic role of President Perón
Through Oct. 15
Shakespeare Theatre Company
610 F St., N.W.
When Eva Perón died of cancer at 33 in 1952, the people’s reaction was so intense that Argentina literally ran out of cut flowers. Mourners were forced to fly in stems from neighboring countries, explains out actor Caesar Samayoa.
For Samayoa, playing President Perón to Shireen Pimental’s First Lady Eva in director Sammi Cannold’s exciting revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” at Shakespeare Theatre Company is a dream fulfilled.
As a Guatemalan-American kid, he had a foot in two worlds. Samayoa lived and went to school in suburban Emerson, N.J. But he spent evenings working at his parents’ botanica in Spanish Harlem.
During the drives back and forth in the family station wagon, he remembers listening to “Evita” on his cassette player: “It’s the first cast album I remember really hearing and understanding. I longed to be in the show.”
As an undergrad, he transferred from Bucknell University where he studied Japanese international relations to a drama major at Ithica College. His first professional gig was in 1997 playing Juliet in Joe Calarco’s off-Broadway “Shakespeare’s R&J.” Lots of Broadway work followed including “Sister Act,” “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” and most significantly, Samayoa says, “Come From Away,” a musical telling of the true story of airline passengers stranded in Gander, Newfoundland during 9/11. He played Kevin J. (one half of a gay couple) and Ali, a Muslim chef.
He adds “Evita” has proved a powerful experience too: “We’re portraying a populist power couple that changed the trajectory of a country in a way most Americans can’t fully understand. And doing it in Washington surrounded by government and politics is extra exciting.”
WASHINGTON BLADE: How do you tap into a real-life character like Perón?
CAESAR SAMAYOA: Fortunately, Sammi [Connald] and I work similarly. With real persons and situations, I immerse myself into history, almost to a ridiculous extent.
First day in the rehearsal room, we were inundated with artifacts. Sammi has been to Argentina several times and interviewed heavily with people involved in Eva and Peron’s lives. Throughout the process we’d sit and talk about the real history that happened. We went down the rabbit hole.
Sammi’s interviews included time with Eva’s nurse who was at her bedside when she died. We watched videos of those interviews. They’ve been an integral part of our production.
BLADE: Were you surprised by anything you learned?
SAMAYOA: Usually, Eva and Perón’s relationship is portrayed as purely transactional. They wrote love letters and I had access to those. At their country home, they’d be in pajamas and walk on the beach; that part of their life was playful and informal. They were a political couple but they were deeply in love too. I latched on to that.
BLADE: And anything about the man specifically?
SAMAYOA: Perón’s charisma was brought to the forefront. In shows I’ve done, some big names have attended. Obama. Clinton. Justin Trudeau came to “Come From Away.” Within seconds, the charisma makes you give into that person. I’ve tried to use that.
BLADE: And the part?
SAMAYOA: Perón is said to be underwritten. But I love his power and the songs he sings [“The Art of the Possible,” “She is a Diamond,” etc.]. I’m fully a baritone and to find that kind of role in a modern musical is nearly impossible. And in this rock opera, I can use it to the full extent and feel great about it.
BLADE: “Evita” is a co-production with A.R.T. Has it changed since premiering in Boston?
SAMAYOA: Yes, it has. In fact, 48 hours before opening night in Washington, we made some changes and they’ve really landed. Without giving too much away, we gave it more gravity in reality of time as well as Eva’s sickness and the rapid deterioration. It’s given our second act a huge kind of engine that it didn’t have.
BLADE: You’re married to talent agent Christopher Freer and you’re very open. Was it always that way for you?
SAMAYOA: When I started acting professionally, it was a very different industry. We were encouraged to stay in the closet or it will cast only in a certain part. There was truth in that. There still is some truth in that, but I refuse to go down that road. I can’t reach what I need to reach unless I’m my most honest self. I can’t do it any other way.