Repeated annoying ads on television for Teeter Hang Ups, with insistent messages like this one:

Inversion has changed my life and I believe it will change yours.

Well, inversion (in one sense) has certainly changed my life.

The ads are for inversion tables, devices for hanging upside down, more or less, as here:


Then there’s a sexual sense (now dated) of inversion.

The lexical background, from NOAD2, starts with the transitive verb invért ‘put upside down or in the opposite position, order, or arrangement’: invert the mousse onto a serving plate. With the noun inversion derived from it. That’s the sense in inversion table.

Then comes the related sexual vocabulary:

ínvert noun 2 Psychology, dated   a person showing sexual inversion; a homosexual.

inversion noun 4 (also sexual inversion) Psychology, dated   the adoption of behavior typical of the opposite sex; homosexuality.

On the relevant history, from Wikipedia:

Sexual inversion is a term used by sexologists, primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century, to refer to homosexuality. [Havelock Ellis: “sexual instinct turned by inborn constitutional abnormality toward persons of the same sex”] Sexual inversion was believed to be an inborn reversal of gender traits: male inverts were, to a greater or lesser degree, inclined to traditionally female pursuits and dress and vice versa. The sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing described female sexual inversion as “the masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom”. In its emphasis on gender role reversal, the theory of sexual inversion resembles transgender, which did not yet exist as a separate concept at the time.

Initially confined to medical texts, the concept of sexual inversion was given wide currency by Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, which was written in part to popularize the sexologists’ views. Published with a foreword by the sexologist Havelock Ellis, it consistently used the term “invert” to refer to its protagonist, who bore a strong resemblance to one of Krafft-Ebing’s case studies.

Though psychologists no longer think (or talk) this way, the idea of homosexuality as sexual inversion continues as a powerful folk belief, with bull dykes and nelly queens as its poster people. Quick oveview here:

From Wikipedia:

[Dyke] originated as a derogatory label for a masculine woman [a bull dyke], and this usage is still predominant. However, there have been attempts by some lesbian groups to use it as a neutral synonym for lesbian.

And, dramatically and contemptuously, from Urban Dictionary on nelly queen:

An ultra-stereotypically gay man. Which is to say: a swishing and mincing, limp wristed, lisping, effeminate queer.

A dose of reality: for the most part, bull dykes and nelly queens don’t at all see themselves as transgender, as “really” belonging to the opposite sex; instead, they see themselves as a particular kind of person of their own sex, and most are comfortable (or even defiant) in these identities. Here’s a proud dyke-on-bike:


And in this Vimeo video by Jim Zunt, we see a Temperamentals “Nelly Queen” celebration (temperamental is an early-20th century slang term for ‘homosexual’). This seems to be a moment from the 2009 stage play The Temperamentals by Jon Marans.

You can find quite a few websites in praise of bull dykes and nelly queens (defending them from attacks as gender traitors and celebrating them as gender heroes).

I find some charm in the dated noun invert, but I prefer the noun queer for daily use and faggot for my defiant moments.

One Response to “Inversion”

  1. nelson Says:

    you may be amused to know that for those whose perversion is tax law, “inversion” means the series of transactions whereby the tax home of a corporation is shifted overseas, one consequence of which is (surprise!) a reduced US and overall tax bill.

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