Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual”

Karl Maria Kertbeny, working against antisodomy law in Germany, coined the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” first in a letter to a friend and then in pamphlets arguing for repeal of the law. The clinical-sounding term “homosexual,” which also has a negative connotation, has evolved over the years and has, for the most part, been replaced by the more affirming terms “lesbian,” “gay,”“bisexual,” and, for some, “queer.”

Summary of Event

Karl Maria Kertbeny was born in Vienna in 1824 as Karl Maria Benkert. His family later moved to Budapest, Hungary. Kertbeny began a vocation as a bookseller but later decided to become a writer. He changed his name from the German “Benkert” to the Hungarian “Kertbeny” in 1847, the name used for his writings. [kw]Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual” (May 6, 1868)
[kw]”Homosexual” and “Heterosexual,” Kertbeny Coins the Terms (May 6, 1868)[Homosexual]
[kw]”Heterosexual,” Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and (May 6, 1868)[Heterosexual]
Homosexual, as a term
Heterosexual, as a term
Germany and early gay rights movement
Sodomy laws;Germany
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;May 6, 1868: Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual”[0050]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 6, 1868: Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual”[0050]
[c]Publications;May 6, 1868: Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual”[0050]
Kertbeny, Karl Maria
Krafft-Ebing, Richard von

Karl Maria Kertbeny, c. 1850.

A pivotal event in Kertbeny’s life was the suicide of a friend who had been blackmailed because of his “abnormal tastes.” His friend’s death inspired him to take up issues of injustice against homosexual men. After traveling widely between 1846 and 1868, he settled in Berlin. In 1869, he published anonymously a pamphlet titled “Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code of 14 April, 1851 and Its Reaffirmation as Paragraph 152 in the Proposed Penal Code for the North German Confederation.” A second anonymous pamphlet on the same topic followed quickly in the same year.

Paragraph 143 Paragraph 143, Prussian antisodomy law was the Prussian antisodomy Sodomy laws;Prussia law, which made sexual contact between members of the same gender punishable with one to four years in prison. After William I, William I (German kaiser) king of Prussia, was made emperor of Germany on January 18, 1871, the German kingdoms were united into the federal state that is now known as Germany. In April of the same year, the new German Empire created a constitution and penal code that was based on the Prussian model and included Paragraph 143. The only thing that changed about Paragraph 143 was its name: Paragraph 143 came to be called Paragraph 175, Paragraph 175, German criminal code the same law used by the Nazis some sixty years later to justify rounding up and incarcerating homosexuals in concentration camps. While in the camps, they were forced to wear pink triangles Pink triangle, Nazi Germany on their clothing to indicate they were homosexual, much as the Jews had to wear the Star of David to identify them as Jewish. In reference to the penal code, homosexual prisoners were referred to as the 175ers.

Richard and Marie Luise von Krafft-Ebing.

In his pamphlets, Kertbeny advocated the repeal of the sodomy law, arguing that the state had no right to intervene in the private life of any citizen. He claimed that Paragraph 143 violated “the rights of man” as formulated in documents of the French Revolution. He proposed the alternate model based on the liberal French criminal code of 1791, which decriminalized homosexual acts. He felt that men had the right to do what they wanted with their bodies as long as no one was hurt in the process. He also claimed that all sexual propensities were inborn and that if men who had sex with other men acted out of natural tendencies, they could not be moral failures. He believed that his friend’s death by suicide came about because of Paragraph 143. In effect, Paragraph 143 made it easy for blackmailers to extort money from homosexuals. In addition, many men who had sex with other men were imprisoned. If the sodomy laws were removed, incarceration and blackmail would end. He demanded freedom from penal sanctions for homosexual men in Prussia and the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation. Paragraph 143, now 175, however, remained on the German law books until 1969.

Kertbeny first used the term “homosexuality,” or, more precisely, Homosexualisten Homosexualisten, definition of in German, in a private letter dated May 6, 1868, to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a pioneering German sexologist, and again in the two pamphlets in 1869. He used it in place of Ulrichs’s term, urning, Urning, definition of and variations thereof, from the name Urania, the Greek goddess of love, to describe homosexual men. He derived Homosexualisten from the Greek homos (the same) and the Latin root sexualis (sex or sexual). Homosexualisten was not used again until 1880, in a text written by Kertbeny that was published in a popular-science book by Gustav Jäger called Discovery of the Soul. Discovery of the Soul (Jäger) Also in the same volume, the term Heterosexualitat Heterosexualitat, definition of (heterosexuality) first appeared. The use of the term increased after its inclusion in the 1880 book, and near the end of the nineteenth century, both terms moved from German to other European languages.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing, one of the most significant medical writers on sex and sexuality of the last part of the nineteenth century, also adopted and popularized the term “homosexuality.” He used the word in the second edition of his Psychopathia sexualis, a study on “deviant” sexual practices published in 1887. The word was used by Albert Moll in his work, Contrary Sexual Feeling, Contrary Sexual Feeling (Moll) published in 1891. Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld also adopted and popularized this term. In 1900, an excised chapter on homosexuality by Kertbeny appeared in Hirschfeld’s journal, Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (yearbook of intermediate sexual stages), which began publishing in 1899.

Kertbeny intended the term “homosexuality” to be used as a neutral, nonprejudicial word within legal arguments centered on the concept of equal rights and the protection of minorities. It gradually replaced other terms for same-sex/same-gender desire, such as “sodomite” or “degenerate” and with words that associated homosexuality with sin, depravity, vice, pathology, and crime.

Kertbeny spent so many years campaigning against the German law code that penalized sex between men, that many believed that he, too, was homosexual, but he denied this. He returned to Budapest in 1875 and died in 1882. His writings are available only in German, although excerpts are frequently translated.


The term Homosexualisten (homosexual) was not the only word created to reflect positively on same-gender desire, but it opened the door to the development of other positive and descriptive words. For example, “homophile” Homophile, definition of[homophile] and “homophilia” came to be used in a positive way. Coming from the Greek, these terms mean “loving the same.” Homophilia is the emotional component of same-gender love that also de-emphasizes the sexual or clinical aspect suggested by the word “homosexuality,” but the term still covers both sexual and nonsexual relationships.

The term “homophile” was adopted by the post-World War II political movements that developed in Europe and the United States to increase understanding of gays and lesbians and to combat their social and legal persecution. Historical accounts sometimes call the years between 1950 and 1969 the “homophile period.” Yet, despite these other terms, the term “homosexual” prevailed until the Stonewall Rebellion in New York in 1969. This term would come to be dismissed because of its link with negative stereotypes and because of its use as a pathological diagnosis. When opportunities increased for collective organizing and socializing, there occurred a phenomenon of self-identification as gay and lesbian instead of homosexual.

Though its origins are unknown, the term “gay” was in widespread use by the late 1960’s. Although “homophile” was not a negative term, gays and lesbians did not want to use the term because it did not fit the times. They chose “gay” instead. They refused the term “homosexual” that identified them with sin or sickness and began to identify with a social status (gay). Although the term “homosexual” reigned for more than a century, the term “gay” began to overtake it, and by the 1980’s it was a standard term used in the gay and lesbian community. Eventually, the media began to replace “homosexual” with “gay” in news reports. Many women, however, rejected “gay” during the women’s movement in the 1970’s and began to use the term “lesbian.” “Gay” most often implies “gay men,” to the exclusion of lesbians, much like the terms “man” or “mankind” brings to mind a man or men, to the exclusion of women. Lesbians wanted a name that represented their distinct and separate experiences as lesbians and as women. “Bisexual,” though not a term chosen by the community it represents, seems to be an acceptable term to contemporary bisexual men and women.

The medical establishment also imposed clinical terms on transgender persons, such as “transvestite,” Transvestite, as a term “transsexual,” Transsexual, as a term and “sexual dysphoria” or “gender dysphoria,” Gender dysphoria;as a term[term] which implied a pathological state. The use of a more neutral term, “transgender,” began in the 1990’s (coming into widespread use around 1994).

The terms “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “transgender” are currently the standard terms in use, but words and their meanings rise and fall in popularity and vary in different social and political situations. “Queer” Queer, as a term has been an unpopular and derogatory term historically but has been rising in popularity since the 1980’s. Furthermore, a self-named “queer” movement emerged in the 1980’s, but the movement gave “queer” a new meaning: One could be sexually dissident but not necessarily (or exclusively) gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Some GLBT and heterosexual persons whose sexuality does not fit into the cultural standard of monogamous heterosexual marriage have adopted the queer label.

“Queer” is meant to be an inclusive term, but there is no groundswell for using it in lesbian and gay communities, largely because many lesbians and gays who grew up when the term was used as a term of deprecation and degradation dismiss it as hostile and hurtful. The growing acceptance of this term among some lesbians and gays represents a likely generational shift, as the younger GLBT generation did not necessarily experience the problems associated with the term “queer” and, thus, tend to be the ones who accept the term.

In academic circles, “queer” often is associated with queer theory. Although queer theory is a product of universities, it is allied with the broader queer movement in GLBT communities. It has goals that differ from those of early gay-liberation leaders. The gay-liberation movement of the 1970’s fought to create a place for sexual minorities. This represented the politics of convention, which holds that once heterosexuals recognize that gay and lesbian persons are “just like them,” they will grant them civil liberties and civil rights. Queer politics, however, defines itself largely by difference and by its stance against normalization and the heterosexual and gay and lesbian mainstream. The aim of queer politics is to destabilize cultural ideas of normality and sexuality and to reclaim terms such as “heterosexual” and “homosexual.” Queer theory aims to undermine the status quo.

Although Kertbeny coined the term “homosexual” as part of his interest in human rights and used a modern argument for these rights (inborn, natural), the term became a “medical” one and was used in a negative way. Between the late nineteenth century and the 1970’s, the medical terminology represented homosexuals as pathological, degenerate, or ill, but Kertbeny is respected for rejecting this medical/pathological model. He was a forerunner of the modern GLBT movement. On June 29, 2002, the Ambad Budapest Gay Fellowship erected a tombstone in the Fiumei Street National Graveyard to commemorate Kertbeny’s achievements. Homosexual, as a term
Heterosexual, as a term
Germany and early gay rights movement
Sodomy laws;Germany

Further Reading

  • Anderson, J. “Beyond Identity: Queer Values and Community.” Journal of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity 4 (1999): 293-326.
  • Denny, Dallas. “Transgender in the United States: A Brief Discussion.” Siecus Report 28 (1999): 8-13.
  • Herdt, G. H., and A. Boxer. “Introduction: Culture, History, and Life Course of Gay Men.” In Gay Culture in America: Essays from the Field, edited by G. Herdt. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
  • Herzer, M. “Kertbeny and the Nameless Love.” Journal of Homosexuality 12 (1985): 1-26.
  • Jeffreys, Sheila. “The Queer Disappearance of Lesbians: Sexuality in the Academy.” Women’s Studies International Forum 17 (1994): 459-472.
  • Katz, Jonathan Ned. The Invention of Heterosexuality. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
  • Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall, eds. Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

1869: Westphal Advocates Medical Treatment for Sexual Inversion

1885: United Kingdom Criminalizes “Gross Indecency”

January 12, 1939: Thompson v. Aldredge Dismisses Sodomy Charges Against Lesbians

September 4, 1957: The Wolfenden Report Calls for Decriminalizing Private Consensual Sex

1961: Illinois Legalizes Consensual Homosexual Sex

January 22, 1973: Roe v. Wade Legalizes Abortion and Extends Privacy Rights

August, 1973: American Bar Association Calls for Repeal of Laws Against Consensual Sex

October 18, 1973: Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law

November 17, 1975: U.S. Supreme Court Rules in “Crimes Against Nature” Case

1986: Bowers v. Hardwick Upholds State Sodomy Laws

January 1, 1988: Canada Decriminalizes Sex Practices Between Consenting Adults

1992-2006: Indians Struggle to Abolish Sodomy Law

June 26, 2003: U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas Sodomy Law