Homosexual is a term for homoerotic-romantic acts and same-sex/gender attraction between individuals, and as an identity marker for an individual with same-sex orientation. Recognition of homosexuality as legitimate acts, attraction, and identity became an issue that could be addressed in public discourse only after the term “homosexual,” a medically and ethically neutral term, had been established in the latter half of the nineteenth century. From that point on, there have been concerted religious, medical, and legal efforts to address same-sex attraction only in terms of it being sinful, unhealthy, and potentially criminal. One hundred years after “homosexual” entered public discourse, Gay Liberation began, organizing pockets of resistance into a global LGBTQ civil rights movement.
“Homosexual” is a hybrid of the Greek word for “same” (homos) and the Latin term sexualis. It was reportedly coined in 1869 by Károly Mária Kertbeny, a nineteenth century German-Hungarian writer. Kertbeny called for the decriminalization of same-sex love in two anonymous pamphlets. There was no stigma attached to “homosexual” when Kertbeny used the word.
Research and dialogues regarding homosexuality during the late eighteenth and early to mid-nineteenth centuries gave a range of positions on homosexuality, from same-sex desire as sinful, criminal, and a manifestation of mental illness, to same-sex desire as an ethically neutral variation of human sexuality. Even though he was supportive of rights for homosexuals, Austrian-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing wrote of homosexuality as a degenerative illness in Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). However, Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis were more accepting in their views. In 1901, Ellis maintained that homosexuality was innate and thus could not be immoral. He went on to advocate for homosexuals by writing that homosexuality was not a disease, and that many homosexuals were functional members of society.
In many countries around the globe, homosexuals have faced social, political, religious, legal, and medical intolerance. A turning point for homosexual rights was the Stonewall Riots in 1969, when people fought back against police who were raiding Stonewall Inn, a Gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City. Resistance prompted a series of unplanned protests and organized demonstrations. This event is considered the beginning of the worldwide Gay rights movement.
Contemporary use of “Homosexual” as Homophobic, as Neutral
Neutrality surrounding the term “homosexual” has been undermined in recent years by organizations that refuse to use the term Gay due to its perceived affirmation of what homophobic people label the “homosexual lifestyle.” This is especially true in Christian homophobic discourse among those who view homosexuality as a spiritually debilitating condition that can be cured by the power of prayer. Within this discourse, “homosexual” is code for sodomite (a reference to Sodom, a city destroyed by God after townsmen tried to rape two male angels).
Although “homosexual” was originally meant to be a values-neutral scientific term for medicine and psychology, homophobic Christians have replaced neutrality with dogma, stating that homosexuality is a choice and therefore cannot be grounded in an individual’s genetic makeup. Even those homophobes who might grant that a homosexual person may have no say in orientation, they still insist that homosexuality is a spiritually dangerous defect that must never be allowed homoerotic-romantic expression.
Homophobic Christians also speak of the homosexual agenda, a plot to destroy family values by militant “gays” (written within quotation marks to question the legitimacy of Gay identity). The LGBTQ community is portrayed as a terrorist organization that threatens innocent Christians who stand up for their principles. Instead of recognizing such Christians as homophobic, Evangelical pastors in the first decade of the twenty-first century label Gay activists as “Christophobic,” stating that to disagree with anti-Gay Christian rhetoric is to hate Christ and, by extension, all true Christians.
There is often lack of distinction between same-sex desire (homosexuality) on one hand and the community of those people who feel same-sex desire, manifest a range of gender expressions, and support those who are like them on the other. Some scholars are returning to the use of “homosexual” as an ethically neutral term describing same-sex desire, and using “Gay” to signify the LGBTQ community.
Homosexuality and Decriminalization
Although many societies around the world are reluctant to openly accept Gay identities and the LGBTQ spectra (not counting pre-Stonewall local Gay-related variations), they may be accepting of homosexuals. A first step in becoming more tolerant is legalization (or decriminalization) of homosexuality, that is, acceptance that homosexual people do not automatically deserve punishment for their orientation.
There are cities across the world that do not permit Pride festivals due to their association with Gay expressive folklife, but will allow International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) because of the focus on preventing violence against homosexual people. Created in Quebec in 2003, IDAHO is celebrated on or around May 17, the date when the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the category of mental disorders. The official name has been changed to “International Day Against Homphobia and Transphobia.” Many places that observe Pride also observe IDAHO.
Bawer, Bruce. A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society. New York: Poseidon, 1993.
Greenberg, David F. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1988.
Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. Psychopathia Sexualis, with Especial Reference to the Antipathic Sexual Instinct; A Medico-Forensic Study. Translated by F.J. Rebman. New York: Medical Art Agency, 1922.