LGBTQ history: Paragraph 175 and the invention of “homosexuality”

Rachel Saunders
4 min readJan 31, 2023

This is the first in an ongoing series analysing LGBTQ history and the moments that shaped queer lives. In 1871 Prussia unified Germany and created the Second Reich. As part of this, the Prussian Criminal Code was adopted as the criminal legal code for the new nation, within which Paragraph 175 (P175) outlawed sex between men (women were exempt). This single paragraph had the effect of both outlawing sex but also stimulating sexology, the queer language we recognise in the 2020s, and shaping a whole cultural identity for anyone not heterosexual.

Prior to 1871 there was little structural common terms for men who loved, were attracted to, or had sex with men in European languages. While each language had its own colloquial phrases, there was not agreed upon scientific terms with which society, the law, and scientists could find common ground. Karl Maria Kertbeny coined the term homosexual in 1869, and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs helped both popularise the term and publicise the need for men who love men to be considered a normative part of society. Pre-unification the Germanies had a hodge podge of homosexual laws, with some states banning it while others removed it as an offence. By using the Prussian legal code, the unified state re-criminalised gay men, and the newly emerging linguistics took on the task of both repealing P175 and normalising gay love in Germany.

This emergence of language in Germany is important for queer history, as it provides a fulcrum point upon which the queer rights movement began in Europe on a scientific and legal footing. The semantic language we use in the 2020s encompassed men who love men, men who believed they were women, bisexual men, pederasts, transvestites, and other non-normative same sex and non-cis identities. It was in the opposition to the law that our modern conceptions of queerness emerged through the writings of Kerbeny, Ulrichs, Johann Ludwig Casper, Claude-François Michéa, and Richard von Krafft-Ebing in the 1850s to 1880s. Later sexologists such as Magnus Hirchfeld would develop their work in attempting to overturn the law, but it was the need to overcome it in the first place that brought about the birth of the scientific nomenclature.

It is important to situate this within queer history, for if we want to breakdown the semantic understanding of sexuality and gender, I think it is vital that we have a clear grasp of why we use the terms we do. Homosexual, and its contemporary urning, were used to both legitimise men who loved and had sex with other men, though it was also used as a way of othering these men, showing them as separate from heterosexuals. Up until the 1850s men who had sex with other men were deemed deviant, predators, over mastabators, with too high a sex drive for women to satisfy. By coining homosexual, German thinkers such as Ulrich wanted to show that being homosexual was a natural part of the human experience.

This classification matters because it is the first time since the enlightenment that scientific methods were brought to same sex attraction. It opened the door to the pathologizing and medicalisation of both sexuality and gender, laying the foundation for much of the current psychology and medico-legal frameworks queer and trans folk live with today the world over. The semantic history is important because it helps us understand the oppositional nature of the conversation happening at the time, namely that for queer folk to become legitimate in the eyes of the law then there needed to be evidence of normative behaviour. The law drove the research, which in turn drove many laws to come. In trying to overcome P175, sexologists were not merely seeking scientific answers, they were trying to square an irrational law with “rational” ideas.

A radical notion of queerness could look to the pre-1850 world and seek to reclaim the fullness of attraction, sex, and relationships before there was a need to coin homosexual. The normative state is not black and white, there is no chasm between straight, bisexual, and homosexual. Even with Kinsey et al’s work in the 1940s and 50s, the language is still rooted in the desire to legalise desire, rather than acknowledging this fullness. In inventing homosexual, Kerbeny and Ulrichs crafted an elegant simplicity for the complexity of attraction and sex, allowing the conversation to evolve, but also stripping away the messiness that inhabits us all.

Queer history is never clear cut, and it took over 120 years from Kerbeny and Ulrichs becore P175 was finally repealed by West Germany. Before that, being queer in Deutschland was a recipe for arrest, blackmail, and after 1933 a practical death sentence. Homosexual allowed police to keep records, the Nazis to force pink triangles, and a counter-scientific literature to develop in opposition to the sexologists. It also allowed a hardening of ideas around love and gender over the next hundred years, to the point that to dissect what we actually mean by homosexual, queer, trans, and other queer language is wrapped up in politics, religion as much as it is science.

If we want to enact legal change we cannot simply rely on the current understanding of our history, I would argue we need to dig deeper into why these words and ideas arose in the first place. We need to challenge the legal and normative use of these terms, and use history as a tool for greater emancipation.

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