Karl-Maria Kertbeny

250px-Karl_Maria_Kertbeny_(ca_1865)One thing that makes talking about LGBTQ+ history difficult is that most of this history happened before we had the current understanding of human sexuality and gender identity — and also before we had the words we have now to describe it. So, today, let’s talk about the writer who created the term “homosexual”: Karl-Maria Kertbeny (born Karl-Maria Benkert.)

Karl-Maria was born in Vienna on February 28, 1824, but his family moved to Budapest when he was a child. He grew up to become a journalist, memoirist, translator, and human rights campaigner.

Karl-Maria was also closeted homosexual (except, of course, that word didn’t exist yet). In his youth, he befriended a young man who was also a closeted homosexual (they were actually just friends from what I can tell). This friend would go on to be extorted and blackmailed because of his affections, and would ultimately commit suicide. This event had a massive impact on Karl-Maria, who wrote later in his life that it gave him an “instinctive drive to take issue with every injustice.”

Karl-Maria went on to join the army and — in 1847 — he changed his last name to Kertbeny. (Why, I honestly couldn’t say. Why he left his first name unchanged is also a complete mystery. Neither of these questions, however, leaves me quite as confused as his mustache. What is that and why?) By 1868, he had settled in Berlin.

Although in his public writings, Karl-Maria claimed to be “normally sexed”, his personal diary was filled with an illustrious collection of veiled homosexual encounters. In these diaries, he also describes tremendous fear following the arrest of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Ulrichs was a correspondence of Karl-Maria, but is much more notable for essentially pioneering the modern LGBT+ rights movement.

Karl-Maria began writing extensively on the topic of homosexuality — claiming it was for “anthropological interest”. (I guess “anthropological interest” was the mid-19th century version of “no homo”.) On May 8, 1868, in a private letter, Karl-Maria first coined the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual”, although the words were yet to be used in public.

In 1869, Karl-Maria published the first of two pamphlets arguing against the Prussian sodomy law (known as Paragraph 143). In these pamphlets, he argued that consensual sexual acts were private and should not be subject to criminal law and — drawing on his own experiences — argued that the law itself was what had allowed his friend to be blackmailed, which led to his friend’s suicide.

He also argued, in these pamphlets, that homosexuality was actually an inborn trait, not something men chose out of their own wickedness (which was the common belief of the time. He was, along with Ulrichs and Heinrich Hössli, one of the first people to take this point of view.) It was over the course of these writings that the word “homosexual” was first used, as part of a system of defining sexual “types” without using derogatory language like “sodomite”. He also introduced the term “heterosexualism” for the attraction between men and women, “monosexualism” for masturbators, and a few other words that are still not widely used — but even if we ignored most of the words he came up with, he did set us up to have a comprehensive, descriptive way of talking about sexuality without degrading people who don’t fit into the “norm”.

After these pamphlets, Karl-Maria’s career faded. In 1880, he did contribute a chapter to Gustav Jäger’s “Discovery of Soul”. His chapter was taken out by the publisher, but his sexual terminology was still used throughout the book. Karl-Maria died on January 23, 1882 — two years later in Budapest, before any of his ideas would really take root.

In 1886, a German sexual researcher named Richard von Krafft-Ebing borrowed the terminology from “Discovery of Soul” for his own work “Psychopathia Sexualis”. This work became so influential that it caused Karl-Maria’s terminology to become the standard, accepted words that we still use today.

In 2001, Karl-Maria Kertbeny’s gravesite was located by a sociologist. The Hungarian LGBT+ community set about having a new tombstone put in place, and since 2002 it has been a tradition at Hungarian LGBT festivals to place a wreath on his grave.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

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