The Homosexual is 140 – And Showing His Age

Karl Maria Kertbeny

The father of the metrosexual Mark Simpson on the birth of the  homo- and hetero- sexual era

(Out, September 2009)

As you may have noticed, the out-and-proud modern gay, born amidst protest, shouting and flying bottles outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969, is now forty years old. But you may be less aware that this year is also the 140th birthday of a much more discreet and distinguished (if pathologized and sometimes pitiful) figure that Stonewall is often seen as making obsolete:

The homosexual.

The offspring of Austrian-born Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny, the homosexual was delivered to the world in a couple of pamphlets he published anonymously in 1869 arguing against the Prussian anti sodomy law Paragraph 143 – the first appearance in print of the word.

Kertbeny argued that attraction to the same sex was inborn and unchangeable and that besides, the law violated the rights of man: men should be free to do with their bodies as they pleased, so long as others were not harmed. Kertbeny maintained strenuously that he himself was ‘sexually normal’ (and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise, save perhaps his strenuousness).

Kertbeny’s ‘homosexual’, itself a disapproved conjugation of Greek and Latin, was part of a larger classificatory system of human sexual behaviour he conceived which included quaint terms such as ‘monosexuals’ (masturbators), and ‘pygists’ (aficionados of anal sex), most of which have not survived. However, another of his quaint categories has persisted and ultimately proved even more popular than the ‘homosexual’: the vast majority of people in the US today would happily and perhaps rather too hastily describe themselves as ‘heterosexual’ – despite the fact that the ‘father’ of heterosexuality, as Jonathan Ned Katz has pointed out in ‘The Invention of Heterosexuality’ (1995), seemed to conceive of heterosexuals as more sex-obsessed than homosexuals and more open to ‘unfettered degeneracy’.

Words like most offspring have a life of their own of course, and in this case one that worked against the coiner’s intentions. Despite Kertbeny’s libertarian if not actually homo-chauvinist sentiments, we might never have heard of the ‘homosexual’ (or indeed the ‘heterosexual’) if the word had not been adopted by Richard von Krafft-Ebing a few years later as a diagnosis for mental illness, setting the medical tone for much of the coming Twentieth Century with its aversion therapies, sex-lie detectors and psychiatric water-boarding.

Kertbeny’s double-edged legacy isn’t just the coining of the word ‘homosexual’, but helping to invent ‘sexuality’ itself: the very modern idea that there are different species of people constituted by their sexual preference alone – ‘heterosexuals’ and ‘homosexuals’ (and ‘bisexuals’ as an exception-to-prove-the-rule afterthought). Kertbeny invented the homosexual because he considered the other available terms, ‘pederast’, ‘sodomite’ and ‘invert’ too judgemental. He also saw no link between homosexuality and effeminacy – which he didn’t mind being judgemental about: he detested it.

As the brilliant sexual historian David Halperin puts it in his book ‘How To Do the History of Male Homosexuality’ (2002), pre-homosexual discourses referred to only one of the sexual partners: the “active” partner in the case of sodomy; the effeminate male or masculine female in the case of inversion. ‘The hallmark of “homosexuality”…’ he writes, ‘is the refusal to distinguish between same-sex sexual partners or to rank them by treating one of them as more (or less) homosexual than the other.’

The concept of the ‘homosexual’, medicalized or not, ultimately made possible the rise of the out-and-proud gay man, regardless of his own ‘role’ in bed or gender style, and also a gay community of equals. But it also tended to make all sex between men, however fleeting, however drunken, however positioned, ‘homo’ – along with all the participants, regardless of their sexual preference.

With the paradoxical result that there’s probably now rather less erotic contact – or in fact any physical contact at all – between males than there was when the homosexual was born, 140 years ago. The homosexual, in effect, monopolised same-sex erotics and intimacy.

Which is, frankly, a bit greedy.

This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

16 thoughts on “The Homosexual is 140 – And Showing His Age

  1. One of the interesting and comically pretentious aspects of the current American gay movement toward normalization or mainstreaming as defined by twits like A. Sullivan, is that not only do they all want to get married, but they also, according to a recent assessment reported on one of the popular web sites is that they almost all report to being tops, like their straight “counterparts”.I’m not sure how this would work out statistically if it was the case, but probably not well. I’m inclined to believe that if they even knew much about real sex, except what they do with each other over computer lines, they would be lousey tops from what I gather talking to them.
    The “honest version of this is that they are tops , but are versatile when it “proves to work out better”.

    I know that it is still the case that some men still deny their sexuality by claiming that they are tops. This is usually in the Western Cowboy States and I’m sure with some hispanic men.

  2. So-called ‘pre-modern’ cultures don’t really ‘do’ sexuality. They do gender style. One of the reasons that ‘trade’ was such a widespread past-time for many working class youths in London before the last war was that the code ‘it’s never queer unless you’re the one that’s taking it’ meant that you could be entirely ‘normal’ and have sex with other men. In fact, you would only enhance your masculinity. So long as you were ‘Arthur’ not ‘Martha’. Likewise, queers and queans often saw one another as ‘women’ who weren’t interested in ‘bumping pussies’ together and pursued trade instead.

    http://www.marksimpson.com/blog/2007/06/18/trading-in-the-past/

    But as is often the case, the ‘pre-modern’ world persisted into the ‘modern’ world – my friend Lovely Charlie, the last of the sea queens, a wonderful character who runs a delightful bar in Gibraltar, told me how in the 1970s and early 80s visiting British Marines and sailors would happily brag to their mates the next day about getting ‘noshed off’ by Charlie (when the actual topography of what happened behind closed doors may have been rather different…). With the rise of Aids and the triumph of ‘sexuality’ in the 1980s this stopped.

    The bragging, that is. But not, apparently, the sex.

  3. It’s fantastic Mark, that you have given us such a clear object lesson in how sexuality gained it’s current complexion relative to the social constructivist paradigm. That which Foucault, Halperin and a few other thinkers have proposed so brilliantly, in demonstrating how social consciousness develops within the parameters of language’s own internal rules, and how it did so in giving sexual identity birth.

    Of all your provocations this is one of the more thought inducing brain twisters you’ve thrown our way.. I don’t have Halperin’s new book yet but have a proximity of where he goes if it’s at all like his earlier work, like “100 years of Homosexuality ‘ . There, even a few years ago, David Halprin (2002 ) gave only passing mention to Kertbeny’s new distinction, failing to make note as you have, of it’s immense significance to his social constructivist view in a society’s thought and perception. It is significant especially at that time in Europe since it was an age of science and qualification; as always happens in formal or informal nomenclature, nothing has any functional existence without being named, and schematized as in the relationship to” heterosexuality”(which was also amasingly new)!

    In this case, ‘homosexuality” or even heterosexuality simply had no name nor was their an equivalent concept prior to Mr Kentbeny. Their was literally no conceptual paradigm separating sexual proclivities in people. This is not I think, unlike Copernican ‘heliocentrism“ or Newtonian” gravity” which gave science and everyday thought about the world a whole new and radical shift in how we conceived things and did things , which had no prior functional existence, such as is inventing and predicting events. These two are significant as is sexual differentiation. However, there are almost similarly formative concepts like Mark’s use of the word “metrosexual “ or those 13 different descriptors for frozen water e.g. ice, frost etc . . . which the Eskimos use in in describing variations. Because of their environment they have use for that many distinctions. As Witgenstien demonstrated with ordinary language this process is how words gain meaning in our social structure and how meaning comes to be for us.

    My fear now is that American homosexuals are attempting passionately to confound heterosexuality and homosexuality in the current acrobatics of marriage ”rights.”
    For the moment I will let others get sick around that assimilationist proposal. Although I can’t help but pointing out the literal idiocy of finding identity since Kentbeny and true rights, as he proposed and this mind bending, identity corrupting exercise. Believe it or not these boobs seem intent on reversing what authenticity we’ve found since our coming to be in 1869.
    What people will do for respectability!

  4. p.s. I hope I was clear, but as far as there being a “pure pre-modern [Muslim]culture”, absent of any homosexuals, I know of no indication that they even had the language to describe the distinction, yet the ability to proscribe prohibitions. As in the case of pre-Kentbeny Western culture. people just had sex. The advent of types of (sexual)persons yet bizarre concoctions like (same sex)marriage, were not even mindful. Marriage, for the Muslims had a very direct connection with child bearing– sex was connected necessarily there, but for sure that was not its only place in life.
    You can imagine that only the most sterile of lives would arise out in the desert without some fun activities.

  5. R.T.
    I’m being a little rash and inaccurate in just calling the Muslim extremists”patriots” or reactionaries to the West ; certainly they have little or no specific concern for prop 8. I’m sure that same -sex marriage would seem as real as a six headed camel to most people. Women are happy regarding themselves as only being 1/2 of a whole person (I’ve had they cheerfully tell me that!)

    Wahhabism, the reactionary strain of Islam had origins in the mid 18th Century and terrorized even the majority of peaceful Muslims, tearing down their temples and giving a rigid aspect to the religion, had minimal specific sexual concerns. It was only when leaders of the movement had visited the West that they gave wholesale condemnation to every aspect of Western way of life.
    The same extremists would probably not engage in consuming condemned Western products etc., but others would in secrecy. My soccer friends drank and went out with Western women here; but when they went home to ,e. g. , Liberia, they would resume good behavior.

    The interesting point to be made as it relates to Kentbenys’ distinction, is that there was, to my knowledge not even a distinction for homosexuals/heterosexuals, as there was not in the West prior to Kentbeny. While there may be now, due to translation, to my knowledge , they just had words like “zamil” to designate a gender distinction much like our “sexual inversion” which was only remotely associated with female -like behavior for instance liking cats, in the West.
    Without the words there is not the reality of a distinction of types of people, even if the(now) related behavior had occurred for hundreds of years.

    Certainly the unprovoked violence directed from the West didn’t win the U.S, any friends.or adherents to our lifestyle.

  6. Mark W.

    I’m not a fan of anti-prop 8 hysteria but a lot of “politically active Moslem patriots” are just small minded bigots too. It’s a human trait. Some Muslim countries are going through a fascisto phase right now – in much the same way European and Asian countries did 80 years ago. They reminisce about a pure pre-modern culture that never existed but are quite happy to watch the latest Hollywood techno-porn blockbuster.

  7. Ha! thanks, Mathew, at least they go to great pains in search of passion! no dreary shepards they. I’d be happy with the boys, screw the melons(?) .
    By the way, what did happen to the sheep?

  8. The proverb is usually “A woman for duty / A boy for pleasure / But a melon for ecstasy.”

    Johns Fortune and Bird (now best known as the two talking heads on the Rory Bremner programme) wrote a book “A Melon for Ecstasy” in the early 1970s. The inhabitants of a small village wonder why every tree has had a hole drilled into it at the same height and angle. Turns out it’s a tree rapist. Splinters are a serious danger.

    Melons are much more accommodating

  9. Maybe “melons” is part of the peaches, tomatoes, strawberries (feminine) vs. cucumbers, asparagus, zucchini (masculine) classification system for fruits and veg.

    Or maybe “melons” are just women with big tits? (It’s OK, I’m a woman, I can say that.)

    I’m still a big fan, Mark. You always have something interesting to say about an eternally facinating subject. Keep it coming.

  10. The status of Middle Eastern varieties of sex between men seems lately to raise it’s political and racist head in the U.S with unaccountable frequency.lately Fags here are always renting their dry goods about Middle Eastern persecution of gays any of which I know is primarily a reaction to Western definitions of Gay prototypes; i.e now that we should all get married.–not to the sexual; l behavior as such. I have known for some years since playing on a North African Soccer team that their varieties of homosexuality exist in plenitude, but just in a different form,just not something which just excludes the duty of having children. I can’t recall the origins of an Arab poem which went something like(paraphrased) “for children, you have women, for delight boys, for succulence melons”.(not sure what the “melons”are about but my mind wanders)
    Needless to say the rarity of sex with women made adolescent release necessarily a male/male activity. Even then, my roommate was never able to even see his bride to be.
    I have had it said by different western gays that it was a veritable circus avoiding the chase of Arab males in places like Cairo.
    Americans are in a complete daze as to why Arabs especially politically active Moslem patriots would want to reject anything that had the stench of Western imperialism. attached to it. U. S. gays are particularly ignorantly oblivious to the understandable Moslem hatred of anything associated with the culture responsible for their destruction. That is why they say “we don’t have homosexuality” meaning that they don’t have the kind of husband /wife type partnering developed in America–it has the same abhorant qualities as McDonalds’ and “shock and Awe” politics. Without judgement of this antagonism to heterohegimony, It is first of all important to note that they see this animosity as reaction to outside influence, not something which arose internally.
    Needless to say, I think it would, at this stage of their cultural progress, be confusing haveing couples running around both in veils like pairs of lost penguins.

    A related phenomenon of which I know almost nothing is that Tuarig (desert Arabs) have to wear face veils once they hit puberty, which seems relivant..

    There is much more of interest here Mark, since the element of social context has been for a number of theorists including Halperin and Foucault point to the relivance of our comprehesion of sexuality even if we seem often not to have any, being so busy chasing the elusive prey.

  11. “The hallmark of “homosexuality”… is the refusal to distinguish between same-sex sexual partners or to rank them by treating one of them as more (or less) homosexual than the other.”

    This is interesting, and may explain why every closeted married Middle Eastern man I meet on Gaydar (including rather a lot in the last fortnight following the end of Ramadan) doesn’t define himself as “homosexual”, as he is always the top and I am always (very enthusiastically) the bottom. Despite the fact that we are two men doing the dirty together, usually in a very nice 5-star hotel suite in central London paid for by his oil company, he still distinguishes between his own sexuality and mine. He is straight and married, a devout Muslim and a pillar of the community; I am a big homo who likes gagging on his pillar. He assumes that because he’s the top, he’s less of a homo than I am.

    Naturally I won’t point this out to him, though, as it’ll spoil all the fun. What Karl-Maria Kertbeny may not have realised is that, 140 years on, there’s still something very sexy about masculinity and self-denial.

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