Thursday, November 29, 2012

Queer Definitions, Gay Labels, and Homosexual Context

Homosexual content.
I have been researching a lot about gay history as well as reading historical fiction and biographies. I found myself making a list of gay words that were new to me. Some of them I wasn’t sure of their meaning or of their historical context. Just about all of them were terms to describe men who have sex with men (MSM). In fact, “MSM” is itself a new term that is used as a medical and social research designation.  It was created in the 1990s by epidemiologists in order to study the spread of disease among men who have sex with men, regardless of identity.

While the words “gay” and “queer” are old, their explicit meaning of men who have sex with men is a fairly recent understanding by the general public. The term “homosexual” in fact can be pinpointed to a date. According to (, “Heterosexual” was actually coined in a letter at the same time as the word “homosexual” [in 1869] by an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Károly Mária Kertbeny. He created these words as part of his response to a piece of Prussian legislation that made same-sex erotic behavior illegal, even in cases where the identical act performed by a man and a woman would be considered legal. And he was one of a couple of people who did a lot of writing, campaigning, and pamphleteering to try to change legal opinion on that matter. He coined the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” in a really very clever bid to try to equalize same-sex and different-sex. His intent was to suggest that there are these two categories in which human beings could be sexual, that they were not part of a hierarchy, and that they were just two different flavors of the same thing.

Gay” has been around quite a bit longer and leading a quiet double life. For most of the last 400 years, many people believe "gay" simply meant lighthearted or cheerful until homosexuals redefined it. The truth is, the word has had a long secondary connotation of sexual licentiousness. As early as 1637 the Oxford English Dictionary gives one meaning as "addicted to social pleasures and dissipations. Often euphemistically: Of loose and immoral life" — whence, presumably, the term "gay blade." In the 1800s the term was used to refer to female prostitutes, and to "gay it" meant "to copulate." By 1935 the word "geycat" meant a homosexual boy. By 1955 "gay" had acquired its present meaning.

Queer” entered the English language back in the 16th century and generally meant strange, unusual, or out of alignment. The term started to gain a connotation of sexual deviance by the late 19th century.  For most of the 20th century, "queer" was frequently used as a derogatory term for effeminate, gay males. The LGBT community began to reclaim the term in the 1990s. One of the first usages was the ACT-UP spinoff, Queer Nation.

The following is not a definitive list of terms, and I don’t claim that the definitions are all correct or perfect. The majority of the words on my list come from books I have read as well as from various online content and an occasional film or play I’ve seen. Most of the definitions and histories I mention come from Wikipedia. Nevertheless, it is a very fascinating group of words and history.

Old terms mostly from ancient and archaic literature:

Catamite: A catamite was a boy who was the intimate companion of a young man in ancient Rome, usually in a pederastic friendship. The word derives from the proper noun Catamitus, the Latinized form of Ganymede, the beautiful Trojan youth abducted by Zeus to be his companion and cupbearer. The word appears widely but not necessarily frequently in the Latin literature of antiquity, from Plautus to Ausonius. It is sometimes a synonym for puer delicatus, "delicate boy".

Ganymede: In Greek mythology, Ganymede is a divine hero whose homeland was Troy. Homer describes Ganymede as the most beautiful of mortals. In the best-known myth, Zeus assumes the form of an eagle and abducts Ganymede in order to serve as cupbearer in Olympus. Some interpretations of the myth treat it as an allegory of the human soul aspiring to immortality. It also served as a model for the Greek social custom of paiderastía, the socially acceptable, erotic relationship between a man and a youth. The Latin form of the name was Catamitus, from which the English word "catamite" derives.

Mollys, mollies: In 18th century England, a "molly" referred to an effeminate, usually homosexual male. A molly house in 18th-century English was a tavern or private room where homosexual and cross-dressing men could congregate and meet possible sexual partners. Molly houses were one precursor to some types of gay bars. The most famous molly house was Mother Clap's, open for two years from 1724-1726 in the Holborn area of London.
Patrons of Molly houses who dressed in women's clothing were called "Mollies". They would take on a female persona, have a female name, and affect feminine mannerisms and speech. Marriage ceremonies between a Mollie and his male lover were enacted to symbolize their partnership and commitment, and the role-play at times incorporated a ritualized giving birth.

Pederast, Pederasty: Today, pederasty refers to male attraction towards adolescent boys 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. It should not be confused with “pedophilia,” a psychiatric disorder in which there is a sexual preference for prepubescent children.

PlatonistPlato praised the benefits of same-sex relationships in his early writings but in his late works he proposed its prohibition. In the Symposium (182B-D), Plato equates acceptance of homosexuality with democracy, and its suppression with despotism, saying that homosexuality "is shameful to barbarians because of their despotic governments, just as philosophy and athletics are, since it is apparently not in best interests of such rulers to have great ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or physical unions, all of which love is particularly apt to produce".

Sodomite, Sodomist, 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. The term is derived from the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. There is no word in biblical Greek or Hebrew for “sodomy.” Nor is there an equivalent word for “homosexual.” A Sodomite was simply an inhabitant of Sodom, just as a Moabite was an inhabitant of Moab. The modern association with homosexuality can be found in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus in CE 96.

Scientific Terms from the late 19th century and early 20th century. 

This was the period that psychology emerged as a separate scientific discipline. Prior to this time it was regarded as a branch of philosophy. Doctors, scientists and researchers were creating new vocabulary to describe the human condition. This was the same period that the terms homosexual and heterosexual were coined.

Magnus Hirschfeld
Androphile, Ephebophile, Gerontrophile: German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld divided homosexual men into four groups: “pedophiles,” who are most attracted to prepubescent youth; “ephebophiles,” who are most attracted to youths from puberty up to the early twenties; “androphiles,” who are most attracted to persons between the early twenties and fifty; and “gerontophiles,” who are most attracted to older men, up to senile old age. According to Karen Franklin, Hirschfeld considered ephebophilia "common and nonpathological, with ephebophiles and androphiles each making up about 45% of the homosexual population."

Contrasexual: Carl Jung, the founder analytical psychology, defined “contraxexual” as the portion of a person's psyche that has characteristics of the opposite gender.

Edward Carpenter
Homogenic, Intermediate Sex: Edward Carpenter, English philosopher, anthologist, and early gay activist, suggested these terms around the turn of the 20th century.

Homophile: German astrologist, author and psychoanalyst Karl-Günther Heimsoth coined the term “homophile” in his 1924 doctoral dissertation "Hetero- und Homophilie." Homophile was an attempt to avoid the clinical implications of sexual pathology found with the word homosexual, emphasizing love (-phile) instead. The term was in common use in the 1950s and 1960s by homosexual organizations and publications; the groups of this period are now known collectively as the homophile movement. The term homophile began to disappear with the emergence of the Gay Liberation movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s although some of the homophile groups still survive.

Havelock Ellis
Sexual Inversion, Invert, Intersexual: “Sexual Inversion” (1897) by British physician and psychologist Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds was the first English medical textbook on homosexuality. The work challenged theories that homosexuality was abnormal, as well as stereotypes, and insisted on the ubiquity of homosexuality and its association with intellectual and artistic achievement.
 Sexual inversion was believed to be an inborn reversal of gender traits: male inverts were, to a greater or lesser degree, inclined to traditionally female pursuits and dress and vice versa. The sexologist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing described female sexual inversion as "the masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom." Initially confined to medical texts, the concept of sexual inversion was given wide currency by Radclyffe Hall's 1928 lesbian novel “The Well of Loneliness,” which was written in part to popularize the sexologists' views. Published with a foreword by Havelock Ellis, it consistently used the term "invert" to refer to its protagonist, who bore a strong resemblance to one of Krafft-Ebing's case studies.
The term “intersexuality” was used around 1900 as a synonym for "inversion." Later it was adopted by the medical community and applied to human beings whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female.

Edward Prime-Stevenson
Similisexual: In 1908 Edward Prime-Stevenson published the first American defense of homosexuality under the pseudonym Xavier Mayne. It was called “The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life.” Similisexual is the full-Latin analogous of homosexual.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Uranian, urning: Uranian is believed to be an English adaptation of the German word Urning, which was first published by activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1864–65 in Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännlichen Liebe ("Research into the Riddle of Man-Male Love"). It referred to a person of a third sex — originally, someone with "a female psyche in a male body" who is sexually attracted to men. The term "Uranian" was quickly adopted by English-language advocates of homosexual emancipation in the Victorian era, such as Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds, who used it to describe a comradely love that would bring about true democracy, uniting the "estranged ranks of society" and breaking down class and gender barriers.
Bonus trivia: In 1867, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs became the first self-proclaimed 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.

Effeminate or Coded Terms

These words do not necessarily indicate that the man is gay or homosexual. They do bring into question his masculinity, machismo, and virility. A similar modern term today would be “metrosexual.” In most cultures, effeminacy was traditionally considered, if not a vice, at least a weakness, indicative of other negative character traits and more recently often involving a negative insinuation of homosexual tendencies or sexual passivity, even though the individual possibly could be heterosexual or bisexual.

Oscar Wilde
Aesthetic: An aesthetic is one who subscribes to the philosophy of dealing with the nature of art, beauty, and taste, with the creation and appreciation of beauty. German and British thinkers emphasized beauty as the key component of art and of the aesthetic experience and saw art as necessarily aiming at absolute beauty. For Oscar Wilde, the contemplation of beauty for beauty's sake was not only the foundation for much of his literary career; but he was quoted as saying, "Aestheticism is a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is the science of the beautiful through which men seek the correlation of the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life."

Dandy, dandyism: A dandy (also known as a beau or gallant) is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of Self. Historically, especially in late 18th- and early 19th-century Britain, a dandy who was self-made often strove to imitate an aristocratic lifestyle despite coming from a middle-class background. In 18th century slang, a "dandy" was differentiated from a "fop" in that the dandy's dress was more refined and sober than the fop's. At the end of the 19th century, American dandies were called dudes.

Dude: From the 1870s to the 1960s, dude primarily meant a person who dressed in an extremely fashion-forward manner (a dandy) or a citified person who was visiting a rural location but stuck out (a city slicker). In the early 1960s, dude became prominent in surfer culture as a synonym of "guy" or "fella."

Fop: Fop became a pejorative term for a foolish man overly concerned with his appearance and clothes in 17th century England. Some of the very many similar alternative terms are "coxcomb", “fribble”, "popinjay" (meaning "parrot"), “fashion-monger”, and "ninny." "Macaroni" was another term of the 18th century more specifically concerned with fashion. The fop was a stock character in English literature and especially comic drama, as well as satirical prints.  A modern-day fop may also be a reference to a foolish person who is overly concerned about his clothing and incapable of engaging in intellectual conversations, activities, or thoughts.

Libertine: A libertine is one devoid of most moral restraints that are seen as unnecessary or undesirable, especially one who ignores or even spurns accepted morals and forms of behavior sanctified by the larger society. Libertines place value on physical pleasures, meaning those experienced through the senses. As a philosophy, libertinism gained newfound adherents in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, particularly in France and Great Britain. Notable among these were John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, and the Marquis de Sade.

Anthropological Terms

The following are just a few of the terms I’ve come across in literature, plays and movies.

Berdache, Two-Spirit: Before the late twentieth century, the term “berdache” was widely used by anthropologists as a generic term to indicate "two-spirit" individuals. However, this term has become considered increasingly outdated and considered offensive. (Based on the French “bardache” implying a male prostitute or catamite, the word originates in Arabic meaning "captive, captured.") “Two-Spirit,” gained widespread popularity in 1990 during the third annual, intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg. “Two-Spirit” is a term chosen to distinctly express Native/First Nations gender identity and gender variance in addition to replacing the otherwise imposed terms of “berdache” and “gay.”

Hijras: In South Asia, “hijras” or “chhakka” in Kannada, “khusra” in Punjabi, and “kojja” in Telugu are physiological males who have feminine gender identity, wear women's clothing and display other feminine, gender roles. “Hijras” have a long-recorded history in the Indian subcontinent from antiquity, as suggested by the Kama Sutra period, onwards. The word “kothi” (or “koti”) is common across India, similar to the “Kathoey” of Thailand, although “kothis” are often distinguished from “hijras.” “Kothis” are regarded as feminine men or boys who take a feminine role in sex with men but do not live in the kind of intentional communities that “hijras” usually live in. Additionally, not all ‘kothis” have undergone initiation rites or the body modification steps to become a “hijra.”

Kathoey: “Kathoey” is a Thai term that refers to a transgender person or an effeminate gay male in Thailand. While a significant number of Thais perceive “kathoeys” as belonging to a third gender, including many “’kathoeys” themselves, others see them as either a kind of man or a kind of woman. The word “kathoey” is thought to be of Khmer origin. It is most often rendered as “ladyboy” in English conversation with Thais, and this latter expression has become popular across Southeast Asia. They are generally accepted by society. Thailand has never had legal prohibitions against homosexuality or homosexual behavior.

Shudo, Nanshoku: The Japanese term “nanshoku” (男色, which can also be read as “danshoku”) is the Japanese reading of the same characters in Chinese, which literally mean "male colors." The character (color) still has the meaning of sexual pleasure in China and Japan. This term was widely used to refer to some kind of male–male sex in a pre-modern era of Japan. The term “shudō” (衆道) (abbreviated from “wakashudō,” the "way of adolescent boys") is also used, especially in older works. Homosexuality in Japan, variously known as “shudo” or “nanshoku” has been documented for over one thousand years and was an integral part of Buddhist monastic life and the samurai tradition. This same-sex love culture gave rise to strong traditions of painting and literature documenting and celebrating such relationships.

Biblical terms:

This is just a brief review of a couple of terms used in the Bible and Torah. There are whole books, long essays, and lots a scholarly research written on the subject. Nevertheless, here are just a few interesting facts.
According to ReligiousTolerance.Org
“There is no term that means homosexual orientation in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Bible.  The authors of the Bible did not understand sexual orientation and thus did not write about it. Thus, when you see one of these words in an English translation of the Bible, it is important to dig deeper and find what the original Hebrew or Greek text really means.”

Rev. Clay Witt founding pastor of HRMCC writes the following: 
"The first use of the term "homosexuals" in an English Bible did not come until 1946, with the publication of the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament.
Sodom did not become an unambiguous symbol of same-sex sexual relations until the second century C.E. It then applied to the exploitation of a youth or young man by an older male. Although there are some English translations that use the word "sodomite," no Hebrew or Greek word formed on the name “Sodom” ever appears in the biblical manuscripts on which those versions are based. In every instance in the King James Version where the term “sodomite” is used, the reference is to male prostitutes associated with places of worship." "It is important to notice that our Old Testament texts attack the male prostitutes not because they engage in sexual relationships with other males; they, like the female prostitutes, are attacked because they serve alien gods."

Two of the key words in the Bible that modern day translators use for homosexual are “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai”.
- “Malakoi” has been used to describe effeminate or passive, homosexual males.  Other translators believe that a better usage of the word is for soft clothing, substandard ethics, or weak morals, depending on context and that it has nothing to do with homosexuality.
- “Arsenokoitai” has challenged scholars for centuries and has been variously rendered as “abusers of themselves with mankind,” “sodomites,” or “men who practice homosexuality.”  Later Christian literature used the word to mean variously “prostitution,” “incest” or “rape” without any single, clear meaning. Many suggest that the more likely definition is that it is what temple or shrine prostitution and male prostitutes were called.

That is a lot of verbiage for men who love men and like to have sex with them.


Frank said...

Excellent resource. Thanks for posting.

the immigayrant said...

Wow~! I love this article. It is so encyclopedia-worthy!

Ellen Dyke said...

This is very informative. It's interesting how far back the fight for LGBT civil rights goes, especially creating the word "homosexual."
If you're interested in more information, I would love for you to check out my blog,

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...