Homosexual: A recent history of conception, social movements, and laws

This article was written in celebration of LGBT History Month (October)

It is difficult to trace the presence of same-sex desires throughout history, because the concept of a 'homosexual' (or 'heterosexual') as we understand it today is a relatively recent phenomena. It can be tempting to label individuals and groups from history as being LGBT, but what kinds of behaviors count, what label is used, who would get a label, and what connotations the labels carry have varied greatly over time and place.The term 'homosexuality' was coined in 1869 by the Swiss doctor Karoly Maria Benkert, and was not a common term in popular culture until almost a century later.

From the dark ages into the 20th century, the vast majority of European countries had laws banning 'sodomy'. The term probably comes from the city of Sodom, one of the cities destroyed by fire and brimstone in the book of Genesis. Until 1871, English"sodomy laws" covered any sexual act that did not have a reproductive aim. The concept is that all of these acts are 'unnatural' (against God), andthe actions were labeled as sinful and punishable by humankind. 'Safe-sex', masturbation, oral-sex, and anal sex were all under the umbrella of sodomy and were punishable by death (even if the people were married). After 1781, the laws were written more specifically to involve men only. The cultural beliefs that women are naturally sexually passive and homosexuality is a sin continue to this day.


The concept of a homosexual as a stable identity category and a civil rights movement began in Europe. In 1864 and 1879, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (originally under the pen name NumaNumantis), a German Lawyer, wrote numerous books and articles. His theories revolved around individuals possessing the physical traits of one sex but the soul of another. This was specific to masculine women and feminine men. When he began to publicly defend individuals under his own name, he possibly became the first person to "come out" in history. He is often credited as being one of the firstLGBT activists, if not the founder of the LGBT movement. His works were highly influential over the later writers and how we think about LGBT issues and individuals today.

Ulrichs' ideas have two important drawbacks: they reinforce gender norms and set the stage for understanding certain actions and desires as stable identity categories. Gender norms are a complex web of societal expectations placed on how a person of a given sex should act. They have to be taught, and they include things such as careers, clothing, emotional expression, and even how to walk, talk, sit, and check for dirt underneath ones fingernails. Ulrichs' ideas reinforces the notion that men and women should (and should not) act in certain ways.

Gender norms have a longer and more consistent history than homosexuality. Consider the case of KatherinaHetzeldorfer in Germany during 1477. She was accused of sexual acts with other women, dressing in men's clothing, and sexual advances towards other women, some of whom were married. She was sentenced to death for the 'unnatural' crime of 'acting like a man' (being sexually aggressive and wearing "men's" clothing). Until the beginning to mid-20th century, what we would call "lesbians" would be largely ignored.

Additionally, Ulrich helped create the idea of one's sexuality as a stable identity trait. Prior to the mid-1800's there was not a strong concept of a 'gay person', only that certain actions were not sexually reproductive and thus sinful. It was a practice, a behavior, an action; now it began to speak more about a person's soul than their actions. Before a person who engaged in some same-sex love was a person who temporarily did that thing, but after this point the person becomes defined by it. While this has been helpful at creating sympathy rather than hostility and unifying people for causes, it also labels people (regardless of whether they want the label), reinforces problematic assumptions, invades privacy, and instills an 'us and them' idea.

From the 1860's on, sexuality has had many debates on nature or nurture, the moral and emotional implications, and how should society react to it. Richard von Krafft-Ebing publishedPsychopathiaSexualis in 1886.The text cataloged non-productive sexual practices and details the traits associated with the participants, to be used as a guide for doctors and lawyers in court cases. Here we begin to see the concept that homosexuality is not a sin or crime, but a disease. Sins and crimesencourage people to want to punish, but diseases encourages people to find a cure. In 1887 Havlock Ellis, an English physician and psychologist, wrote the first medical textbook on homosexuality written in English. He argued that a disposition for 'sexual inversion' (the term at the time same-sex desire, which would be thought of today as the soul of one sex trapped in the body of the other sex) was abnormal but not unnatural or a disease. Magnus Hirschfeld, a medical doctor, advocated for scientific study and advocated for a concept of infinite sexual variables (instead of a small list of categories), to reform both the culture and the laws. He founded the first Scientific-Humanitarianism Committee (the first homosexual rights organization), the Institute for Sexology, and World League of Sexual Reform. Krafft-Ebing and Hirschfield were also instrumental in abolishing the German law which criminalized same-sex sex acts.


In the early 1900's women were progressively gaining the right to vote and access to education. Additionally, the works psychoanalytic works of Sigmund Freud and Chris Watersbegan to capture public opinion in the English speaking world. For them homosexuality was not innate, but a case of stunted development, an emotional roadblock of sorts. People disagreed about whether homosexuality could or even should be cured.Edmond Glover, found of the Institute for Scientific Treatment of Delinquency, stated that intervention was mostly unsuccessful and that most of the emotional problems were caused by marginalization and persecution from society. The first homosexual demonstration occurred in 1922 in Berlin. During the Holocaust, 50,000 men were charged with crimesfor homosexual actions and many were taken to concentration camps, some of the aforementioned institutions were destroyed, and the few available books were burned.

The United States adopted similar sodomy laws to England's. They were present in all 50 states, but exactly what actions were outlawed and the legal consequences varied. Some states allowed married couples to perform the actions, some typically sentenced the person death, and some banned a wider array of actions. In 1779 Thomas Jefferson tried to pass a law which banned rape, polygamy, and sodomy with castration for men and cutting a half inch in diameter hole in the woman's nose. The law was never passed; however, it should be noted that the alternative punishment was typically death. Pennsylvania because the first to appeal the death penalty in 1786. Except for North and South Carolina, all other existent states soon followed suit.

The rural and religious nature of this period in American history forced same-sex desire to be kept private, for fear of persecution. It is argued that there were subtle references to male same-sex desire (women were still not considered to be sexually driven) within popular literature, though there were not dramatic changes until the early 1900's.

The first half of the 20th century marked several changes. In 1908, Mark Stevenson, under the penname Xavier Mayne, published The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life, which is generally considered to be the first written American defense of homosexuality. The first openly gay American, Claude Hartland, published an account of his sexual history. New York became famous and infamous for their gay subcultures. In fact,the 1920's saw a large shift towards openness and acceptance of what we would call LGBT individuals within America. There were songs, novels, and newspapers, and openly gay/lesbian celebrities;however, many of the books and movies of the era would portray the homosexual character as depressed or unstable, and, almost invariably,the main character would die or turn to heterosexuality. This public quasi-acceptance was quickly squelched by the return of Victorian values and Conservatism in the 1930's. Theycreated laws labeling same-sex desire as a mental illness by the American Psychological Association, and conducted undercover police operations and raids, thereby banishing LGBT individuals back to the closet. Mental health treatments includedtalk therapy, castration, lobotomies, and electric shock therapy.

During and directly after WWII there were several shifts. The army screened for gay men (verbally and physically) for the first time, though few were actually rejected. Soldiers reportedly performed actions overseas (i.e. dancing with one another, sleeping in the same bed) that would have been have been criminal in the US. Many of the 250,000 women who enlisted are thought to be lesbians, or at least sexually experimental during that time. The shift of women into the American workforce is often linked to the eventual women's, black, and LGBT civil rights movements.

During the post-war era,America saw some important shifts. The first openly American gay/lesbian bars opened. San Francisco became a gay hub. The Kinsey Reports were published, which proposed a 7 level (8 for asexuality) of sexuality for men and women, thus sexuality was viewed as a continuum. The findings were that the majority of people interviewed had some kind of homosexual experience at some point in their lives, making strictly heterosexual individuals the minority. It is also during this period that the word "homosexual" became popular.

The Homophile (homo=same &phile=love) Movement began in the 1950's.The main organizations were the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Brilitis, and, in general, they tried to gradually erode prejudices, advocate for legal change, and provide education to LGBT and strait people alike. They largely took an "assimilationist" approach, by highlighting similarities and diminishing differencesboth within and between groups. They favored non-confrontational tactics and an evolutionary style change.The sodomy laws began to be overturned in 1961 with Illinois and Connecticut in 1969.

The Stonewall Riots in 1969, marked a new era in the quest for LGBT rights. The Stonewall Inn was known for catering to the more marginalized members of the gay community of Greenwich Village in New York City. On the morning of June 28th, the police executed a routine raid. The existent tensions between NYPD and the gay community erupted in violence. For the next several days, residents of Greenwich Village organized into protests advocating there should be places where LGBT individuals could be open without fear of being arrested. That was only the beginning, and the newspaper coverage began to ignite a change nationwide. Several groups were soon formed, the first Gay Pride Parade was heldonthe one year anniversary, and LGBT people across the country become more vocal, organized, and visible. Stonewall is often credited as the start of the current LGBT movement in the US.

The 1970's and 80's had numerous symbolic, social, and legal changes. In 1973, the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. In 1974, Kathy Kozachenko became the first openly gay person to successfully run for office. In 1978, the Gay Pride Flag was flown for the first time in San Francisco. In 1980, the Democratic National Convention became the first American political party to endorse gay rights and David McReynolds was the first openly gay person to run for President of the United States. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to ban discrimination against LGBT individuals. Gerry Studds "came out" on the floor of the House, becoming the first openly LGBT member of congress. He was reelected the following year. Not long after, the AIDS epidemic began to emerge and was initially given little attention. It has been speculated that this was because AIDS was perceived as being primarily a problem in the LGBT community and/or was seen as a punishment fromm God. In 1987, ACTUP protested the government's actions and 17 people were arrested.

The 90's saw a growth in tolerance. The World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of diseases in May of 1990, which is why International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobiais on May 17th. Many countries decriminalized sodomy and legalized either gay marriage or an equivalent of domestic partnerships. In 1994 the American Medical Association denouncedits claim that there was a cure for same-sex desire and October became LGBT History Month. In 1998, Mathew Shepherd was beaten and left for dead, eventually dying 6 days later. There was national news coverage of the event and both pro and anti-gay protests by the hospital and at his funeral. This sparked national interest in the prevention of LGBT hate crimes, but there would not be federal gender identity and sexuality hate-crime protection until 2010. In 1999, California was the first state to pass domestic partner laws.

21st Century

In the year 2000, Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions. In 2003, the Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, decriminalizing sodomy nationwide in Lawrence vs. Texas. This forced the 13 states with sodomy laws still on the books to remove them.In 2004, Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, New Jersey legalized domestic partnerships, and 13 other states amended their constitutions to state that marriage was between a man and a woman. In 2005, several states added or expanded domestic partnership laws and rights. Maine extended anti-discrimination laws to gender identity and sexual orientation. In 2006, several states passed similar anti-discrimination laws, the US failed to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and Kyle Hawkins became the first openly LGBT NCAA coach. In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center changed the official label of several groups from "anti-gay" to hate group. In 2011, 11 states and DC had either same-sex marriages or domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. In 2012, LGBT, allies, asexuals, and intersex individuals still face discrimination and occasionally violence. LGBT interests continue to be under-represented, and gay-marriage is a topic of heated debate.

Brian Richards October 17, 2012

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