*source: Box Turtle Bulletin (writing by Jim Burroway)
One hundred and forty years ago today, on May 6, 1868, the word homosexuality was invented.
Before then, there were very few value-neutral words to describe people who experienced romantic or sexual attractions toward others of the same sex.
Pejoratives such as “bugger,” “molly,” “sodomite,” or “pederast” were common, words loaded with condemnation and shame. But as the budding science of sexology began to grow, and as same-sex loving defenders began to speak out about what same-sex love was all about, their first problem was with how to name it. “Abominable vice” wouldn’t do. A new word was desperately needed to describe their lives and feelings.
The love that dared not speak its name couldn’t. It didn’t have one.
The first to try to name this love was the German gay-rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. In the 1860’s, he described the urning as a “male-bodied person with a female psyche,” who is sexually attracted to men and not women. An Urningin was a “female-bodied person with a male psyche,” and Urningthum came to mean homosexuality itself. Ulrichs devised an entire system of classification based on different combinations of attractions and gender roles. Some of these words gained usage in English, although the less foreign-sounding sexual inversion and inverts to describe homosexuality and homosexuals respectively fell more naturally to English ears. But in a few short years, those words would become obsolete, replaced by the creation of an aspiring Hungarian writer.
Karl-Maria Kertbeny (or Károly Mária Kertbeny) was an Austrian-born Hungarian journalist, memoirist and human rights campaigner. Kertbeny reportedly became interested in homosexuality when a close friend committed suicide after being blackmailed by an extortionist. Kertbeny later said that this, combined with his “instinctive drive to take issue with every injustice” — as a Hungarian, he knew what it was to be a minority in Vienna — drove him to advocate for civil rights for gay people.
Kertbeny’s own sexuality remains unclear however: He described himself as “normally sexed,” but his diaries reportedly document his appreciation for the male form. When he moved to Berlin in 1868 at the age of 44, he was still unmarried. It was at around this time that Kertbeny coined the word Homosexualität — “of the same sex” — from the Greek prefix homo- (same) and the Latin root sexualis (sex). His first known usage of this word is documented in a letter he wrote to Ulrichs on May 6, 1868.
Homosexualität made its first known public appearance the following year, when Kertbeny anonymously published the pamphlet Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code and Its Maintenance as Paragraph 152 of the Draft of a Penal Code for the North German Confederation. This pamphlet advocated for the repeal of Prussia’s sodomy laws, saying that private consensual sex acts shouldn’t be subject to criminal penalties.
Homosexualität gained usage as other German advocates began putting forth the idea that homosexuality was inborn, a “medical problem” which placed homosexuality as a form of pathology or illness. Today of course we recoil at the abuses which arose from this “homosexuality as pathology” mindset, but in the nineteenth century this “medical model” represented a significant improvement in attitudes to homosexuality. Before Ulrichs and Kertbeny, homosexuality was viewed as a mere wickedness or moral degeneracy to be severely punished — often by pillory or death.
But Kertbeny appeared to understand the dangers behind the “medical model.” He not only saw that the “innate” argument was potentially dangerous, but that it was also irrelevant. In that vein, his advocacy for gay civil liberties was remarkably modern:
To prove innateness … is a dangerous double edged weapon. Let this riddle of nature be very interesting from the anthropological point of view. Legislation is not concerned whether this inclination is innate or not, legislation is only interested in the personal and social dangers associated with it … Therefore we would not win anything by proving innateness beyond a shadow of doubt. Instead we should convince our opponents — with precisely the same legal notions used by them — that they do not have anything at all to do with this inclination, be it innate or intentional, since the state does not have the right to intervene in anything that occurs between two consenting persons older than fourteen, which does not affect the public sphere, nor the rights of a third party.”
Kertbeny had another thoroughly modern idea about homosexuality, and this one is probably the most salient for understanding homosexualität’s triumph over urning and invert. The word homosexual doesn’t refer to any assumptions about gender roles or attributes. An urning, remember, was a “male-bodied person with a female psyche.” This of course bore a direct reference to effeminacy, a presumed hallmark of all gay men. And urningin, a “female-bodied person with a male psyche,” referred to lesbians’ perceived innate masculinity. (The English term invert carried with it similar assumptions of “inverse” gender characteristics.) But in writing about homosexuality, Kertbeny pointedly noted that homosexual men were not necessarily effeminate, citing several heroic historical figures as examples.
In 1880, Gustav Jäger used Kertbeny’s homosexualität in his book Discovery of the Soul. That book also included Kertbeny’s other useful word heterosexualität. Then the German sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing borrowed those terms for his highly influential 1886 Psychopathia Sexualis. Homosexuality appears to have entered the English language at about 1895, which is when Charles Gilbert Chaddock translated Psychopathia Sexualis into English. And when Sigmund Freud used it in his books and lectures, he propelled its use among psychologists and psychoanalysts as well as in popular culture.
But admiration for the new word wasn’t universal. English sexologist Havelock Ellis, whose 1897 work Sexual Inversion became one of the first widely published English texts to deal with homosexuality, hated its bastardization of Greek and Latin. “‘Homosexual’ is a barbarously hybrid word,” Ellis wrote in a footnote. “It is, however, convenient, and now widely used. ‘Homogenic’ has been suggested as a substitute.”
Homogenic never caught on, and Ellis ended up using the word homosexual himself more often in his text than the terminology found in his volume’s title. By the 1930’s the homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual had almost completely erased the Urning and the invert for describing an individual’s sexual orientation.
Kertbeny however didn’t live to see his Homosexualität in widespread use. He died of a stroke in Budapest in 1882 at the age of 58, still unmarried. He was buried in Budapest’s Kerepesi Cemetery. In 2002, members of Budapest’s gay community placed a new tombstone over his rediscovered grave, where it is now customary to lay a wreath during Hungarian gay festivals.