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social sciences

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Homosexuality and heterosexuality emerged as concepts in late nineteenth-century European medical and juridical discourse. Their introduction and popularization occasioned a revolution in the way sexual behavior was understood by linking that behavior inextricably to social identity, hastening cultural changes in the organization of sexuality already underway in urban areas of Europe and North America.

Homosexuality became conceptually inseparable from heterosexuality; each term required interpretation in terms of the other, and by the mid-twentieth century the sexual world could be quite easily imagined as being comprised of two distinct polities by scientist and layperson alike. The considerable multidisciplinary social scientific enterprise deployed in the investigation of the "homosexual problem," however, repeatedly arrived at the conclusion that this binary division was not a natural or inevitable one, and that human sexual organization was much more complex than the homosexual/heterosexual model was prepared to admit.

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Such conclusions have proven problematic both for champions of homosexual rights and for those who agitate against homosexuality, in that they have both been deprived of a clear object around which to organize their efforts. Yet these findings also suggest new ways of conceiving of human sexuality and new strategies for securing rights of sexual expression as basic rights for all people.

Genesis and Development of a Concept

The word "homosexual" first appeared in German in an 1869 political pamphlet by Karl Maria Kertbeny (the pseudonym of Karl Benkert) intended to protest the inclusion of Prussian statutes (the legal antecedents of the infamous Nazi Paragraph 175) in the constitution of a unified German state.

The term, as contemporary scholars have indicated, was a clumsy neologism combining elements of both Latin and Greek, as did other nineteenth-century European medical nomenclature. Nonetheless, the word proved resilient and was quickly taken up and popularized both by other pamphleteers and by practitioners of forensic medicine who were developing the new discipline of sexology; it appeared for the first time in English in 1892.

The emergence of the term "homosexual" roughly coincided with these authorities' discovery of highly elaborated social networks of male persons in some European and North American cities. These men were typically understood to be effeminate in their appearance and demeanor, desiring and soliciting sexual contact exclusively with members of their own sex. By the close of the nineteenth century, these men had come to be known to jurists and medical practitioners as "homosexuals."

This coincidence begs the chicken-and-egg question that has preoccupied historians of homosexuality for decades: did "homosexual" people exist prior to the development of a concept of homosexual identity, or were the jurists and physicians who coined the term responsible for fashioning that identity? The answer appears to be both.

Clearly, the historical record demonstrates that the behavior patterns of men who sought sex with men in Western Europe were already changing independent of any state or medical intervention, beginning in urban Britain perhaps as early as the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Yet as these (usually middle-class) men became aware and frequently embraced the concept of a homosexual identity, typically encountered through readings of juridical and medical texts on the subject, the shift in male-male sexual interaction already underway was further compounded.

By giving such behavior patterns a name and inextricably relating those patterns to the individual human subjects engaged in them through their writings, sexologists and jurists added gravity to the apparent social changes taking place in the urban environment around them.

Perhaps paradoxically, these texts frequently provided the subjects of their analysis a platform from which to testify about their own experiences, as well as providing readers with a point of reference to understand, interpret, and even augment their own erotic inclinations and sexual careers, many going so far as to identify locales for meeting sexual prospects. The social phenomena identified by these texts were perpetuated and further elaborated through their consumption by an ostensibly "homosexual" readership.

Homosexuality was an elastic concept; its elasticity and indeterminacy were precisely what leant it such rhetorical force, for homosexuals and their advocates as well as their detractors. The original range of scientific terms denoting male-male eroticism--"contrary sexual feeling," "," "sexual inversion," as well as "homosexuality"--gradually lost their definitional specificity. By the early twentieth century, "homosexuality" might be used interchangeably with any of this competing terminology. By the mid-twentieth century, other terms had largely disappeared from both the scientific and the popular lexicon.

This terminological consolidation reflected a growing consensus about what constituted homosexuality: namely, the simultaneous incidence of same-sex eroticism and gender role non-conformity. Homosexuality increasingly began to be understood as standing in opposition to "heterosexuality," a term that had originally signified a voracious and pathological desire for sexual contact with both sexes but which over time had come to mean what was regarded as the highly normative desire for sexual contact exclusively with members of the opposite sex.

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Karl Maria Kertbeny (1824-1882) coined the term "homosexuality" in 1869.
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