Where did the word homosexual come from?

If we ask, ‘What is homosexuality?’ it seems a straightforward question to answer in a modern context. We think of homosexuality as a clear-cut concept of sexual preference, an identity based on a biological predisposition.

The word or term homosexuality, however, was not invented until the nineteenth century and later added to with the term heterosexuality. The term bisexuality was coined much later in the twentieth century, and later still came terms such as transgender, pangender, and asexual. LBGTQ+acronyms have been added as variances in sexual behaviour and preferences have become more widely acknowledged.

There are no words in Latin that precisely translate to ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’, because in Roman times these concepts did not exist.

It was Karl Ulrichs, (1825–95), a German law student and journalist who worked for the civil service, who first thought to describe what we now call homosexuality. It was in 1862 that an acquaintance of his was arrested for public indecency. Ulrichs, who was also sexually attracted to men, was spurred on to try to solve the ‘riddle’ of sexual attraction between men.

In November of that year, he began work on ‘The Race of Uranian Hermaphrodites, The Man-Loving Half-Men’. In 1864 he published Researches on the Riddle of Male-Male Love under the pseudonym Numa Numantius. By 1879 he had published twelve more pieces on the subject.

Ulrichs’ ‘scientific’ inspiration was based on the burgeoning research being carried out into embryology. For instance, it had been discovered that sex organs are indistinguishable in the early stages of human foetal development.

Ulrich’s analysis was that desire was just as natural and not fully formed at this early stage. He believed that a part of the female sex could be retained in the male, creating a kind of cognitive hermaphrodite – a man with a feminine sex drive within the male body. He came up with the phrase ‘a feminine soul’ to describe this.

A substantive source for Ulrichs’ theory was not in science at all, but Plato’s Symposium, in which Pausanius describes love for males as the offspring of Aphrodite Urania, the heavenly daughter of Uranus, and love for females as the offspring of Pandeumia, the daughter of the Gods Zeus and Dione. He had found a way to describe what he thought was happening and came up with the following:

Urning for homosexual male

Dioning for heterosexual male

Urningin for lesbian

Dioningin for heterosexual female

As Ulrichs became more widely acquainted with other homosexuals, he realized there were many variations and he continued to reflect this in his classification system. But it was too complex, and his terminology gradually disappeared. However, the term Uranian love, was still used in English academia well into the twentieth century.

Ulrichs’ theory that Uranian love was natural and congenital was later changed in accordance with the then criminal and medical understanding that emphasized perversion, sickness, and deficiency. Ulrichs summed this up: ‘My scientific opponents are mostly doctors of the insane. They have observed Urnings in lunatic asylums and have apparently never seen mentally healthy Urnings. The published views of the doctors for the insane are now accepted by others.’ Unfortunately, Ulrichs’ term half-man fell easily into the view that men who had sexual relations with other men were not true men but defective.

The word homosexual was coined by the German-Hungarian Károly Mária Kertbeny. It is a compound word from the Greek homo, ‘same’, and Mediaeval Latin sexualis, ‘sexual’. It first appeared in a letter written by Kertbeny to Ulrichs in May 1868, and then in two pamphlets published in Leipzig 1869, for the reform of the Prussian Penal Code, which criminalised sexual relations between men. It appeared again in 1880 in a text written by Kertbeny in a popular science book. Also at this time, the word heterosexual first appeared in a paper written by Kertbeny and under the pseudonym ‘Dr M’. He used ‘Dr M’ in the belief that people would take more notice if he was a doctor or scientist, rather than a writer and journalist.

Little is known about his life, but it seems he died of syphilis. He claimed his own sexuality to be Normalsexualer, but as he spent many years campaigning, either anonymously or using pseudonyms, there are suspicions surrounding his own homosexual tendencies.

His mantra was that homosexuality was natural and a matter of privacy that should be beyond the interference of the law. Thus, his intention was that the terms homosexual and homosexuality should be used in a context of neutrality and be non-judicial. These definitions were devised precisely in order to serve the needs of a network of gay-identified German men, who for years had been advocating the reform of laws against them and the education of society regarding their sexual behaviour.

Homosexualität, ‘homosexuality’, became a standard by which to refer to ‘same-sex love’, ‘scientifically’ replacing such highly charged language as pederast, sodomite or bugger. However, it’s take up was not universal or immediate and it didn’t appear in literature until 1891, in John Addington-Symonds’ A Problem in Modern Ethics where he used the phrase ‘homosexual instincts.’

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