Homosexuality, Defined

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Homosexuality, Defined

The prefix homo-comes from a Greek root meaning both "same" and "man." Combined with the word sexuality, homosexuality refers to love, desire, and/or sexual acts between people of the same sex. Although the term may refer to a single-sex institution such as a boys' school or a convent, generally the word homosexual is used to describe male same-sex relationships. Female homosexuals are called lesbians. The adjective homosexual describes same-sex sexual and affectional acts and behaviors. The word used as a noun has become an identity category that is defined in relation to the sexual preference by which individuals are categorized and/or categorize themselves in Western culture. Synonyms for the term include gay, queer, faggot, and dyke.


The modern concept of homosexuality comes from the late nineteenth century, when medical and legal understandings of a healthy society led to the classification of desires and sexual practices. This does not mean that behaviors people understand as homosexual in the early twenty-first century have not existed since ancient times but that the category itself is a specifically modern invention. Contemporary understandings of homosexuality are entwined with concepts of heterosexuality; the two terms depend on each other for their sense.

The term homosexual was coined in 1869, appearing in a German pamphlet attributed to the Austrian novelist and sex reformer Karl-Maria Kertbeny. In 1886 the German sexologist Richard Krafft-Ebing classified homosexuality as a "paraesthesia" or a "deviance" consisting of sexual desire for the wrong object. Because he believed that the purpose of sexual desire is human reproduction, he considered any sexual desire or behavior that led away from that aim to be an aberration. After studying many homosexuals, Krafft-Ebing, like his successor the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, concluded that homosexuality is neither a mental disease nor a perversion but a normal variation of human behavior.

Both Krafft-Ebing and Freud believed that humans are basically bisexual. Freud, along with another sexologist, Havelock Ellis, believed that homosexuals are "inverts," or people whose spirit has a sex different from that of their bodies. An invert would be someone with a female spirit in a male body or a male spirit in a female body. Later in his career, however, Freud began to understand homosexual desires as part of the normal range of human activities rather than as a matter of inversion, although he also thought that homosexuality was often the cause of unhappiness.

In the 1940s, studies by Alfred Kinsey showed that most people have a fluid range of sexual desires that includes homosexual feelings. Kinsey devised a scale of sexual desire and orientation (the Kinsey Scale) that was moored on one side by exclusively heterosexual feelings and on the other by exclusively homosexual feelings. His interviews and research showed that most individuals located themselves somewhere between the two poles, meaning that most people had a variety of sexual and affectional feelings.

Other members of the medical profession saw homosexuality as a form of degeneracy and as a disease. Beginning in the late nineteenth century in both the United Kingdom and the United States, prohibitions against homosexual acts were incorporated into criminal codes, and homosexuality was listed as a psychological disease in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders (DSM) for most of the twentieth century. It was removed from the DSM in 1973, but continues to be the target of religious reformers and others.


Homosexual rights have become a social justice issue. Many states discriminate against homosexuals, continuing to criminalize consensual homosexual behavior, making it difficult for homosexuals to adopt or retain custody of children, and prohibiting marriage between people of the same sex.

see also Gay; Homosexuality, Contemporary: I. Overview; Homosexuality, Male, History of; Lesbian, Contemporary: I. Overview; Lesbianism; Queer; Same-Sex Love and Sex, Terminology.


Foucault, Michel. 1988. The History of Sexuality. Vol. I, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.

Greenberg, David F. 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Halperin, David M. 1990. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. 1992. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.: A Documentary History. New York: Meridian.

                                                Judith Roof