150 years ago, the word ‘homosexual’ was coined in a secret correspondence

A childhood tragedy inspired this queer activist’s campaign

Karl Maria Kertbeny invented the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” (Wikimedia Commons/GVGK Tang)
“We should convince our opponents that exactly according to their legal notions they do not have anything to do with this inclination, let it be innate or voluntary, because the state does not have the right to intervene in what is happening between two consenting people . . .” *

On May 6, 1868, the itinerant, Austrian-born writer Karl Maria Kertbeny wrote to fellow queer activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. His letter contained the earliest recorded use of the terms homosexual and heterosexual. Kertbeny and Ulrichs had much in common but, in this same correspondence, they disagreed over strategies for queer emancipation.

While Ulrichs sought validation through scientific frameworks, Kertbeny did not care whether homosexuality or any sexual orientation was innate. Kertbeny viewed queer activism as a simple matter of extending privacy rights. But his disinterest in biological determinism proved to be the grand irony that defined his life’s work. By the twentieth century, homosexuality had been appropriated by anti-queer physicians and pro-queer sexologists alike.

Kertbeny in 1856. (Wikimedia Commons)

When he was a child, Kertbeny’s close friend was blackmailed for being queer and subsequently committed suicide. This tragedy drove him “to take issue with every injustice.”

Kertbeny publicly identified as a “normally sexed individual.” But was he really the first “ally” to the proto-queer community? In his diaries, he often admired “beautiful boys,” preoccupied by interactions and visitations. He self-censored, crossing and blotting out some words — most often in descriptions with homoerotic implications.

“I had a look at that beautiful boy … very much in love with the lad … Great fear that my neighbor, a lieutenant, noticed … It is a very dangerous situation, because you can hear everything from one room to the other.”*

In February of 1867, Kertbeny wrote of Ulrichs (whom he referred to by his pseudonym Numa Numantis).

“Awful news! Numa was caught ... What will come of it?! Great fear! … Horrible nightmares. I have burnt all the dangerous letters …”*

By April 1867…

“This mad man brings on me the most horrible danger. All the papers are found.”*

In 1868, Kertbeny publicized his new terminology via two anonymous pamphlets denouncing anti-sodomy legislation. In an open letter to the Royal Prussian Minister of Justice, he argued that such laws led to blackmail, extortion, and suicide. At the time, the prison sentence was ten years for queer men found guilty of “immoral” sexual activity.

Kertbeny viewed sexual normality as something determined by the majority. As such, heterosexuality was “normal” only so long as it manifested in a greater number of people. Ironically, however, Kertbeny honed in on the heterosexual majority’s “unfettered capacity for degeneracy.” Heterosexual promiscuity and libido — which he believed were much greater in heterosexuals than homosexuals — was what made them more likely to engage in pedophilia, necrophilia, and sadomasochism.

Kertbeny impugned the heterosexual disposition on the basis of sexual propriety — what could be deemed respectable and, indeed, normative. By implying that heterosexuals themselves were corrupt and depraved, he campaigned for queer liberation with rhetoric that subverts today’s conceptions of queerness.

Kertbeny’s famous letter. (Wikimedia Commons)

The consequences of Kertbeny’s homosexual and heterosexual terminology were as ground-breaking as they were unforeseen. He forged a sexual identity for the express purpose of organizing people to campaign against an issue that affected them collectively. He pioneered and politicized queer community building by recognizing a shared struggle and building a platform from it.

Queer activism has always engaged a history of sexual meaning-making — political agendas that help determine shifts in the language used to describe sexuality. Exploring how and why identifiers have been and continue to be originated — and subsequently imbued with meaning — helps us understand and hone modern queer activisms. Please join me in affirming the work of our ancestors and in celebrating 150 years of Kertbeny’s legacy.

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