Terminology of homosexuality

Two men at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear indicate their identity with the word "gay" in the context of same-sex orientation, and protest its usage in the sense of "stupid" or "uncool".

The terminology of homosexuality has been a contentious issue since the emergence of LGBT social movements in the mid-19th century. The choice of terms regarding sexual orientation may imply a certain political outlook, and different terms have been preferred at different times and in different places. In English, some terms in widespread use have been sodomite, Sapphic, Uranian, homophile, lesbian, gay, two-spirit, same-sex attracted and homosexual. Some of these words are specific to women, some to men, and some can be used of either. Gay people may also be identified under the umbrella terms queer and LGBT.

Not all of the terms that have been used to describe same-sex sexuality are synonyms for the modern term homosexuality. The word homosexual itself had different connotations for those who used it 100 years ago to what it does today; Anna Rüling, one of the first women to publicly defend gay rights, considered gay people a third gender, different from both men and women. Terms such as gynephilia and androphilia have tried to simplify the language of sexual orientation by making no claim about the individual's own gender identity.

In addition to the stigma, the terminology of homosexuality has been influenced by taboos around sex in general, producing a number of euphemisms; someone may be described as "that way", "a bit funny", "on the bus", "batting for the other team", "a friend of Dorothy", or "wearing comfortable shoes" (for women), although such euphemisms are becoming less common as homosexuality becomes more visible.

A variety of LGBT slang terms for various topics have been used historically and contemporarily within the LGBT community, with the most established languages (sometimes known as cants) being Polari in Britain, Swardspeak in the Philippines, Bahasa gay in Indonesia, and Kaliardá in Greece.

Prescribed usage

The term homosexual can be used as an adjective to describe the sexual attractions and behaviors of same-sex oriented persons. Author and gay pioneer Quentin Crisp said that the term should be "homosexualist," adding that no one says "I am a sexual." Some gay people argue that the use of homosexual as a noun is offensive, arguing that homosexual people are people first, homosexual being merely an attribute of their humanity. Even if they do not consider the term offensive, some people in same-sex relationships may object to being described as homosexual because they identify as bisexual, pansexual, or another orientation.[1]

Indeed, some style guides recommend that the terms homosexual and homosexuality be avoided altogether, lest their use cause confusion or arouse controversy. In particular the description of individuals as homosexual may be offensive, partially because of the negative clinical association of the word stemming from its use in describing same-sex attraction as a pathological state before homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders in 1973.[2] The Associated Press and New York Times style guides restrict usage of the terms.[3]

Same-sex oriented people seldom apply these terms to themselves, and public officials and agencies often avoid them. For instance, the Safe Schools Coalition of Washington's Glossary for School Employees advises that gay is the "preferred synonym for homosexual",[4] and goes on to advise avoiding the term homosexual as it is "clinical, distancing and archaic":

Sometimes appropriate in referring to behavior (although same-sex is the preferred adjective). When referring to people, as opposed to behavior, 'homosexual' is considered derogatory and the terms 'gay' and 'lesbian' are preferred. Homosexual places emphasis on sexuality and is to be avoided when describing a person. 'Gay' man or lesbian are the preferred nouns which stress cultural and social matters over sex.[4]

The New Oxford American Dictionary,[5] says that "gay" is the preferred term.

Likewise, the use of homosexuality to describe human sexual behaviors between people of the same sex may be inaccurate, although it is not perceived as being as offensive as homosexual.

People with a same-gender sexual orientation generally prefer the terms gay, lesbian and bisexual. The most common terms are gay (both men and women) and lesbian (women only). Other terms include same gender loving and same-sex-oriented.[2]

Among some sectors of homosexual sub-culture, same-gender sexual behavior is sometimes viewed as solely for physical pleasure instead of romantic. Men on the down-low (or DL) may engage in covert sexual activity with other men while pursuing sexual and romantic relationships with women.

History of homosexual terminology

Early history

Historian Michel Foucault has argued that homosexual and heterosexual identities didn't emerge until the 19th century; before that time terms described practices and not identity. Foucault cites "Westphal's famous article of 1870 on 'contrary sexual sensations'" as the "date of birth" of the categorization of the homosexual.[6]

In his Symposium, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato described (through the character of the profane comedian Aristophanes) three sexual orientations, and provided explanations for their existence using an invented creation myth.[7] Aristophanes' fable is only one of many perspectives on love in the Symposium, and should not be considered identical with Plato's own ideas. Most of the Symposium's speeches are intended to be flawed in different ways, with the wise Socrates coming in at the end to correct their errors.


Main article: Tribadism

Although this term refers to a specific sex act between women today, in the past it was commonly used to describe female-female sexual love in general, and women who had sex with women were called Tribads or Tribades. As author Rictor Norton explains:

The tribas, lesbian, from Greek tribein, to rub (i.e. rubbing the pudenda together, or clitoris upon pubic bone, etc.), appears in Greek and Latin satires from the late first century. The tribade was the most common (vulgar) lesbian in European texts for many centuries. ‘Tribade’ occurs in English texts from at least as early as 1601 to at least as late as the mid-nineteenth century before it became self-consciously old-fashioned—it was in current use for nearly three centuries.[8]

Fricatrice, a synonym for tribade that also refers to rubbing but has a Latin rather than a Greek root, appeared in English as early as 1605 (in Ben Jonson's Volpone). Its usage suggests that it was more colloquial and more pejorative than tribade. Variants include the Latinized confricatrice and English rubster.[9]


Main article: Sodomy

Though sodomy has been used to refer to a range of homosexual and heterosexual "unnatural acts", the term sodomite usually refers to a homosexual male.[10][11] The term is derived from the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Christian churches have referred to the crimen sodomitae (crime of the Sodomites) for centuries; the modern association with homosexuality can be found as early as AD 96 in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. Jerome in the early 5th century uses the forms Sodoman, in Sodomis, Sodomorum, Sodomæ, Sodomitæ.[12] The modern German word Sodomie and the Norwegian sodomi refer to bestiality. "Sodomy" in historical biblical reference may not pertain to the acts of homosexuality, but the acts of bestiality and female and male castration for the purpose of sexual slavery.


Main article: Lesbian

Lesbian writer Emma Donoghue found that the term lesbian (with its modern meaning) was in use in the English language from at least the 17th century. A 1732 book by William King, The Toast, uses "lesbian loves" and "tribadism" interchangeably : "she loved Women in the same Manner as Men love them; she was a Tribad".


Named after the Greek poet Sappho who lived on Lesbos Island and wrote love poems to women, this term has been in use since at least the 18th century, with the connotation of lesbian. In 1773, a London magazine described sex between women as "Sapphic passion". The adjective form Sapphic is no longer commonly used in the English language.


Main article: Pederasty

Today, pederasty refers to male attraction towards adolescent boys,[13] or the cultural institutions that support such relations, as in ancient Greece. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the term usually referred to male homosexuality in general. A pederast was also the active partner in anal sex, whether with a male or a female partner.

Adhesive love

Adhesive love was frequently used by Walt Whitman in his Calamus poems, a term the poet borrowed from phrenology's adhesiveness, which he associated with "comradeship", manly bonding and male same-sex attraction.


Main article: Uranian

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs invented the term Urning in Germany in the 1860s for a male-bodied person with a female psyche, who is sexually attracted to men and not women. He expanded this system to cover a range of sexual appetites and gender variance in both males and females.


Main article: Homosexuality

The word homosexual translates literally as "of the same sex", being a hybrid of the Greek prefix homo- meaning "same" (as distinguished from the Latin root homo meaning human) and the Latin root sex meaning "sex".

The first known appearance of the term homosexual in print is found in an 1869 German pamphlet 143 des Preussischen Strafgesetzbuchs und seine Aufrechterhaltung als 152 des Entwurfs eines Strafgesetzbuchs für den Norddeutschen Bund ("Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code and Its Maintenance as Paragraph 152 of the Draft of a Penal Code for the North German Confederation"). The pamphlet was written by Karl-Maria Kertbeny, but published anonymously. The pamphlet advocated the repeal of Prussia's sodomy laws.[14] Kertbeny had previously used the word in a private letter written in 1868 to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Kertbeny used Homosexualität (in English, "homosexuality") in place of Ulrichs' Urningtum; Homosexualisten ("male homosexualists") instead of Urninge, and Homosexualistinnen ("female homosexualists") instead of Urninden.

The first known use of homosexual in English is in Charles Gilbert Chaddock's 1892 translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, a study on sexual practices.[15] The term was popularized by the 1906 Harden-Eulenburg Affair.

Although some early writers used the adjective homosexual to refer to any single-gender context (such as an all-girls school), today the term implies a sexual aspect. The term homosocial is now used to describe single-sex contexts that are not of a romantic or sexual nature.[16]

The colloquial abbreviation "homo" for "homosexual" is a coinage of the interbellum period, first recorded as a noun in 1929, and as an adjective in 1933.[17]

It is today often considered a derogatory epithet[18] and mainstream media outlets restrict its usage.[3]

Homogenic love

Used by Edward Carpenter.[19]

Other late 19th and early 20th century sexological terms


Harry Hay frequently stated that in the 1930s–1940s gay people referred to themselves as temperamental.[26]


Main article: Homophile

Popular in the 1950s and 1960s (and still in occasional use today, particularly in writing by Anglican clergy),[27] the term homophile was an attempt to avoid the clinical implications of sexual pathology found with the word homosexual, emphasizing love (-phile) instead.

In Norway, the term is still widely used.[28]


In contrast to homophile, this word focuses solely on the sexual acts which some churches believe to be sinful, side-stepping the associated issues of romantic or family love, community, and sexual identity. The term's use remains confined mostly to anti-gay religious groups, but it is occasionally seen in the writings of their opponents, such as DignityUSA.Template:Citation needed=February 2015

Androtrop and Gynäkotropin

From 1946 to 1966, homosexual activist Kurt Hiller published a number of poems and articles in Swiss journal Der Kreis ("The Circle"). In one of them he joined the ongoing debate on terminology by suggesting the terms Androtrop and Gynäkotropin for male and female homosexuals, respectively. Hiller coined these German terms from the Greek words tropos (turning [to]) combined with "andro-" (male) and "gynaiko-" (female), with the addition of the German feminine ending "in". Neither term was adopted, though the first briefly gained some favor.


Although the word was originally synonymous with happiness or cheerfulness, in the 20th century it gradually came to mean a romantic or sexual attraction to someone of the same gender or sex.[29][30]


  1. See bisexual erasure.
  2. 1 2 GLAAD GLAAD Media Reference Guide - Terms To Avoid
  3. 1 2 GLAAD GLAAD Media Reference Guide - AP & New York Times Style
  4. 1 2 "Glossary" (PDF). Safe Schools Coalition. Retrieved 2011-01-20.
  5. "NOAD". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2013-10-21.
  6. Foucault, 1976
  7. Classical Myth on glbtq.com
  8. Rictor Norton (July 12, 2002). "A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "The 'Sodomite' and the 'Lesbian'". infopt.demon.co.uk. Archived from the original on February 15, 2008. Retrieved July 30, 2011.
  9. Andreadis, Harriette (2001). Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics, 1550–1714. University of Chicago Press. pp. 41, 49–51. ISBN 0-226-02009-6.
  10. Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible
  11. Vincent's Word Studies
  12. Hallam 1993
  13. Based on the OED definition: "A man who has or desires sexual relations with a boy."
  14. Bullough et al. ed. (1996)
  15. David Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, Routledge, 1990, page 15
  16. Merl Storr, Latex and Lingerie (2003) p. 39-40
  17. OED, "homo, n.2 and a."
  18. Wolinsky and Sherrill (eds.), Gays and the military: Joseph Steffan versus the United States, Princeton University Press, 1993, ISBN 978-0-691-01944-4, p. 49-55.
  19. In Homogenic Love: and its Place in a Free Society, 1894.
  20. Used by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in "Psychopathia Sexualis, with Special Reference to the Antipathic Sexual Instinct: A Medico-Forensic Study", 1886.
  21. Used by Krafft-Ebing and also Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds in "Sexual Inversion", 1897. Popularised by Radclyffe Hall's use of it in her novel The Well of Loneliness.
  22. Used by Krafft-Ebing and later Ellis to mean bisexuality, as opposed to complete inversion (exclusive homosexuality). Freud uses the term in "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905) to refer to male homosexuality.
  23. Used by Edward Carpenter in "The Intermediate Sex", 1908
  24. Used by Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson [writing as Xavier Mayne] in "The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life", 1908.
  25. Used around 1900 as a synonym for "inversion"; the term now has a different meaning—see intersexuality.
  26. "Harry Hay Interview - The Progressive". progressive.org.
  27. Issues in Human Sexuality: A Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England, December 1991 (London: Church House Publishing, 1991). "Annotated Notes on Issues in Human Sexuality". Archived from the original on 3 February 2009.
  28. "Homofili", from Norsk (nynorsk) Wikipedia, entry retrieved 2012-06-19. Original text: "I den grad «homophile» hadde fått noko gjennomslag i engelsk og amerikansk, overtok «homosexual», «gay» og «lesbian» denne plassen frå slutten av 1960-talet. «Homofili» blei første gong nytta på norsk i ein brosjyre av den norske avdelinga av det danske «Forbundet af 1948» i 1951. Noreg er eit av dei få (det einaste?) landet der dette omgrepet framleis har stor utbreiing."
  29. Pansegrouw's Crossword Dictionary - Page 305, Louisa Pansegrouw - 1994
  30. The Gay State: The Quest for an Independent Gay Nation-State and What it Means to conservatives and the World's Religions, p 142, Garrett Graham - 2010


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