Another LGBT History Lesson: The Beginnings

Thursday, May 17, is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) and this year Care2 is bringing you personal stories from around the world on the fight to eliminate anti-LGBT prejudice and discrimination. For our complete coverage, please click here.

Homosexuality was invented May 6, 1868.

That’s the word’s first recorded usage by Karl-Maria Kertbeny (or Károly Mária Kertbeny), an Austrian-born Hungarian journalist, memoirist and human rights campaigner. It is in a letter he wrote to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first recorded gay rights campaigner.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Karl-Maria Kertbeny

Prior to the 1860s, terms such as bugger, sodomite or pederast or abominable vice had been used to describe acts prescribed in Western laws.

It was Ulrichs who first described, in 1862, people, not acts. He used the terms urning as a “male-bodied person with a female psyche,” who is sexually attracted to men and not women. An Urningin was a “female-bodied person with a male psyche,” and Urningthum came to mean homosexuality itself.

Later, early English language gay advocates used terms derived from Ulrichs such as sexual inversion and inverts. Kertbeny and Ulrichs were the first to try to decriminalize gay people, with Kertbeny using the idea that it was a ‘medical’ problem which should not be criminalized in an 1869 pamphlet.

In it, Kertbeny wrote:

Legislation is not concerned whether this inclination is innate or not, legislation is only interested in the personal and social dangers associated with it … Therefore we would not win anything by proving innateness beyond a shadow of doubt. Instead we should convince our opponents — with precisely the same legal notions used by them — that they do not have anything at all to do with this inclination, be it innate or intentional, since the state does not have the right to intervene in anything that occurs between two consenting persons older than fourteen, which does not affect the public sphere, nor the rights of a third party.

A decade later, Gustav Jäger used Kertbeny’s ‘homosexualität‘ in his book “Discovery of the Soul.” That book also included Kertbeny’s other useful word, ‘heterosexualität‘. Then the German sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing borrowed those terms for his influential 1886 book “Psychopathia Sexualis.” Sigmund Freud then picked up the terms and that was that.

Kertbeny’s Budapest grave was rediscovered and properly memorialized in 2002. Hungary now has fascists denouncing gays in Parliament and Budapest banning gay pride marches.

On August 29, 1867, Ulrichs became the first recorded openly homosexual person to speak out publicly in defense of homosexuality when he pleaded at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich for a resolution urging the repeal of anti-homosexual laws.

He wrote:

Until my dying day I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face to face in battle against the spectre which for time immemorial has been injecting poison into me and into men of my nature. Many have been driven to suicide because all their happiness in life was tainted. Indeed, I am proud that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.

Magnus Hirschfeld

Mostly known now for the images of his library being burned by the Nazis on May 6, 1933, Hirschfeld was the most prominent in a movement for LGBT rights in Germany which went back to the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1896, he published “Sappho and Socrates,” discussing homosexual love (under the pseudonym Th. Ramien). In 1897, he co-founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, a gay rights group.

His activism won the support of Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein, among others, as well as many of the newly minted left, social democrats, but was unable to get anti-gay laws overturned before the Nazis took over.

He co-wrote and acted in the 1919 film “Anders als die Andern” (“Different From the Others”), where Conrad Veidt played one of the first homosexual characters ever written for cinema.

Also in 1919, he founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin, the source of the books the Nazis burned, and which Christopher Isherwood writes about in the book which is the source of the film “Cabaret.”

In 1921, Hirschfeld organized the First Congress for Sexual Reform, which led to the formation of the World League for Sexual Reform.

Hirschfeld escaped the Nazis as he was outside Germany when they came to power. He is buried in Nice, France. Last year, the German government funded the Magnus Hirschfeld National Foundation (Bundesstiftung Magnus Hirschfeld).

Radclyffe Hall

Hall was a lesbian who described herself as a “congenital invert.”

Her novel “The Well of Loneliness,” published in 1927, presents lesbianism as natural and makes a plea for greater tolerance. It was so controversial that three publishers turned it down. When it was finally published in England, it appeared in a plain, discreet black cover. It wasn’t particularly racy; the only sexual description consisted of the phrase, “and that night, they were not divided.”

It was the subject of an obscenity trial in the UK — in which E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and James Melville came to Hall’s defense — which resulted in all copies of the novel being ordered destroyed. The judge found that reading the novel would “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.”

But this backfired and a British Home Office memo from the time observed: “It is notorious that the prosecution of the Well Of Loneliness resulted in infinitely greater publicity about lesbianism than if there had been no prosecution.”

The United States allowed its publication only after a long court battle, but before that decision, more than 100,000 copies had been sold, even though it cost about twice the cost of an average hardback novel.

Henry Gerber

Inspired by Magnus Hirshfeld, Gerber, a German immigrant, founded the Society for Human Rights (SHR) in Chicago in 1924, America’s first known homosexual organization, and Friendship and Freedom, the first known American homosexual publication.

The group’s charter was:

[T]o promote and protect the interests of people who by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness which is guaranteed them by the Declaration of Independence and to combat the public prejudices against them by dissemination of factors according to modern science among intellectuals of mature age. The Society stands only for law and order; it is in harmony with any and all general laws insofar as they protect the rights of others, and does in no manner recommend any acts in violation of present laws nor advocate any manner inimical to the public welfare.

The group included five others, including an African American clergyman, John T. Graves, among its directors.

Both the group and the publication were short lived, due to it being denounced by Chicago’s police. Gerber spent his life savings defending himself and lost his post office job.

There is a direct connection between the SHR and the founding of the Mattachine Society in 1950 by the communist Harry Hay, the first enduring gay rights organization in the United States.


Related stories:

An LGBT History Lesson: People Who Changed History

‘Like Lincoln and Emancipation’: Obama’s Gay Marriage Evolution

Why Is May 17 International Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia?


Jennifer P.
Jennifer P5 years ago

Thanks for the history heads up! More people to research!

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago


RobynRobyn Brice
Robyn Vorsa5 years ago

Great article, thanks/

Franklin Gullo
Franklin Gullo5 years ago

Good reading...informative....thanks.

Rin S.
Rin S5 years ago

Wow, really interesting! Thanks

Jackie D.
Jackie D5 years ago

Illuminating article. Thanks.

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal5 years ago

appreciate the lesson..

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago


Paul canning
Paul canning5 years ago


you're welcome. all of these people have been unfortunately marginalised in the memory. Gerber especially!

Gene Bivins
Gene Bivins5 years ago

Thanks, Paul!