National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, Part 73: Why They Started Calling Us ‘Homosexuals’

The term, “homosexual,” was first coined in 1869, in Germany. Attentive readers have recognized that some time back, I switched from using the term, “homosexual,” and went with “gay.” That was intentional, using the former term at first to make it clear, in today’s parlance, who I was talking about, and then to lay the basis for a sharp critique of it.

Soft-spoken but intense debates raged among radical Enlightenment figures in 1750-1850 in Europe and the young American republic about ameliorating harsh penalties for sodomy – Thomas Jefferson was considered progressive calling for an end to the death penalty at one point, and all laws against it were abolished for a time following the Napoleonic wars in France.

There was no doubt that same-sex affection and bonding played major roles in the revolutions in the U.S. and France, and continued to inflame political passions elsewhere in Europe.

The core of the revolutionary spirit against political and social tyrannies was a rejection of the paradigm of male domination over women, children, slaves and culture and the associated militaristic zeal for expanding and controlling territory and resources.

Commensurate with this revolutionary zeal, and in the context of a new surge in the value of science and knowledge, rejecting authoritarian church-related mythologies, radical Enlightenment currents orbiting around the collective “Histoire Philosophique” (1770) project led by Denis Diderot (1713-1784), A. G. Raynal (1713-1796) and others in Paris (Jonathan I. Israel, “Democratic Enlightenment,” 2011), began embracing ideas of radical feminism and the validity of same-sex erotic attraction.

That was spurred by historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) and his extensive published catalogs of images of often homo-erotic ancient Greco-Roman art in his “Reflections Concerning the Imitation of the Greeks” (1755) and “History of Ancient Art” (1763).

Winkelmann’s enormous influence in the Enlightenment was of keen interest to the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who was likely also gay (Alice A. Kuzniar, ed., “Outing Goethe and His Age” 1996).

Goethe’s embrace of erotic same-sex relations was mirrored in the work of the poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), who elevated same-sex passion to the level of Promethean revolution in “Don Carlos” (1787).

Along with the same-sex erotic passions of such founders and preservers of the American republic as Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, this evidence points to the fact that egalitarian, pro-feminist, anti-slavery same-sex erotic passion was an indispensable cornerstone of the Enlightenment’s overthrow of tyrannies and struggles for constitutional republics.

This is depicted in David Deitcher’s lovely “Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918” (2001) and the poetry of gay Walt Whitman (1819-1892), writing in his “Leaves of Grass” (written from 1847 to 1891) that “The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.”

In the context of all this, in 1851 a paragraph was added to the Prussian Penal Code, the infamous Paragraph 143, prescribing five years of hard labor for persons convicted of same-sex “unnatural fornication.”

It was a key inflection point in the push-back by the forces of counter-revolution that began recognizing the correlation between revolution and same-sex passion.
Suddenly the counter-revolutionary mandate became to define what was “normal:” that is, male-dominating patterns and institutions reinforcing the subjugation of women, families and properties, and states deriving from that construct.

Such a blueprint of male dominion required alienating, through social labels and laws, those who failed or refused to “buy in” to that paradigm. Thus, by 1869, the socio-political terms of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were established to counter-revolutionary ends.

“Heterosexual” became the code word defining behavior encompassing all that was wrapped up in the male-dominion paradigm. “Homosexual,” and all its variants described by Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) in his “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1886), became the code for all deviations from that model paradigm.

These labels arose for different purposes than explained by conventional wisdom, such as in Charles Upchurch’s “Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform” (2009) or Hanne Blank’s “Straight, the Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality” (2012). Those explanations fail to grasp the new, late 19th century “science of sexology” in this socio-political context.

Resistance to the counter-revolutionary effort at socio-linguistically restricting same sex erotic passions and their revolutionary corollaries came from those advocating alternative, universalizing terms such as “urnings,” or the Platonic term, “Uranians” (Oscar Wilde’s preferred option), instead.

Karl Heinrich Urlichs (1825-1895) wrote a series of five booklets using a pseudonym in 1864 entitled “Researches into the Riddle of Love Between Men” (1864), advancing these alternative labels and providing a constructive, rational theory for the existence of the impulse for erotic love between persons of the same sex.

England’s Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) extended this view into the 20th century, talking of “homogenic love” to pull gay identity out of a simply sexual context, although positive theories of same-sex love were not advanced after that, until now.

To be continued.