“Chick equals nigger equals queer.  Think it over.”

                                                                                Unattributed quote


In his 1980s series of books on human (mostly male) sexuality, the French philosopher and theorist, Michel Foucault, dated the emergence of “homosexuality” as the year 1870 with the publication of an 1869 Karl Friedrich Otto Westphal article called, Contrary Sexual Sensations.  While one could argue (and some have) with Foucault about his aggressive claim-staking date, it is certainly true that before the late nineteenth century “homosexuality” as a named “condition” did not exist. But during the nineteenth century, a century obsessed with social classification, this aspect of human behavior had to be “named.”

The point that Foucault made in his three volume History of  Human Sexuality (incomplete at his death in 1984) is that although there have always been men who loved men and women who loved women, same sex love was either tolerated according to cultural norms or condemned as having violated cultural norms, the way that stealing was against the law. There is some correlation between urban societies, such as Athens and Rome, where homosexuality was allowed, and tribal or agricultural societies, where homosexuality was forbidden. As shall be discussed, there is also a correspondence between economic systems and sexual systems.

To borrow Westphal’s term, homosexuality was considered “contrary” to expectations that opposite genders were “naturally” attracted to one another. The assumption of “naturalness” generated its opposite, “unnatural” or against nature, a negative term. In 1864, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs introduced the term “The Third Sex,” in order to describe those who desired the same sex, called “Unarians,” after Urnanian, the mythological Greek goddess of homosexuals.  Lesbians were “urninds” and homosexual men were “urnings.” The term “homosexuality” supplanted “urnaian,” and when “homosexuality” was “discovered” in 1870, it applied only to males.

The term “homosexuality” was coined in 1869 by Swiss doctor, Karoly Maria Benkertand popularized by English sex theorist, Havelock Ellis in the 1890s.  Benkert argued that homosexuality was natural and innate and unchangeable and that the right to practice homosexuality should be as inalienable as a kind of personal freedom.   Although Benkert was making an argument for human liberation, his insistence that homosexuality was a human trait rather than a simple crime, led to a medical model for what was called “inversion” of “normal” sexual desires.

Anxious to claim higher social status and eager to shape public policy, doctors made being homosexual into a human pathology, a mental disease.  The homosexual, as Foucault put it, became a “species.”  The “modern” conception of “homosexuality” is one in which the homosexual (male) was considered a social, cultural, and psychological deviant in a medical sense.  By the beginning of the “homosexual” was identified, categorized, and classified and set apart from the rest of society. Because the Victorians assumed that sex coincided with penetration, sodomy was outlawed, but women were not included in “homosexuality” and lesbianism was not determined to be illegal.

History of Homosexuality

As David F. Greenberg’s book, The Construction of Homosexuality, pointed out, homosexuality needs to be understood as an historical effect of certain social and cultural conditions that encouraged a homosexual sub-culture to be created and recognized.  Homosexuality seems to be an urban phenomenon, because, unlike rural societies where labor was needed, cities had large populations and plentiful workers. Michel Foucault and others have discussed ancient homosexual groups in ancient Athens where homosexuality was considered not only natural but necessary for the efficient functioning of democracy.

In order to form a strong social contract or a democracy, men needed to have strong bonds of affection and regard. A strong military without homosexuality was unthinkable, for whom would men fight if not for the ones they loved?  We find echoes of Greek attitudes towards homosexuality in politics and the military, both homosocial cultures, today.  Men band together and make close alliances politically to make the government run they way they think best and the military sets up small, closely-knit squads and uses the “buddy system” to train men to fight—not so much for their country, an abstract concept—but for their friends, a band of brothers. The ancient Athenians fielded the famous and feared  “Band of Lovers,” a  cohort of homosexual partners who would fight to the death to protect each other.

Non-urban societies had no use for homosexuality, because of the need for procreation to make the society productive, and it is from these nomadic desert cultures that the modern Judeo-Christian condemnation of homosexuality arose. Men loving men and men reluctant to mate with women was a social and economic problem that was “solved” through religious taboos and social pressure. Homosexuality was labeled a “sin” or a transgression against religious edicts and, in many societies, homosexuals faced the death penalty.

As Francis Mark Mondimore remarked in his book, A Natural History of Homosexuality, the ancient Greeks and Romans had no word for “homosexuality,” because the culture had no concept of an exclusive sexual allegiance that was “natural.” The idea of “nature” or “natural” would later be conflated with “God’s will,” in that “God” made opposite sexes and therefore God “intended” for the opposites to attract and mate. The Greco-Roman gods were sexually omnivorous, while the Judeo-Christian-Muslim monotheistic God was asexual, except when impelled by matters of necessity. Christianity was hostile to sexuality, to women and considered homosexual acts to be a sin. However, there was no concept of “homosexuality,” only  of a (sinful) misjudgment that could be put right by a confession and penance.

In a post-Christian society, sex was a necessary evil With the coming of the Enlightenment and a secular society, punishments over religious beliefs were ended and replaced by penalties for crimes against society.  The ending of the death penalty for homosexuality coincided with the cultural shift towards science and towards a capitalist economy, and these changes would play a role in (re)defining “homosexual.” Due to population increases and the need to control the public, the masses had to be disciplined, as Michel Foucault described in Discipline and Punish. To discipline, one must be able to transform a mass into categories, that could be classified and designated. It is under these circumstances of “discipline” and “punish” that “homosexuality” became a defined and constructed entity.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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