Homosexual: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This article explores the definition and history of homosexuality from Ancient Greece to now. You may think you know what happened, but this article goes in much deeper detail.


Homosexuality has been around for a long time. But just because something has been around for awhile, does not mean it has always been viewed the same way. This is best explained by the etymology and definition of the word homosexuality.

Before getting into the history, we have to define what we are talking about. Homosexuality is defined as same-sex attraction; meaning the physical, emotional, and psychological attraction to persons of the same sex. Modern research and social definitions have refined homosexuality to have a further subcategory of True Homosexuality which is an exclusive attraction to the same sex.



The word 'homosexuality' is fairly modern, created in the late 19th century by a psychologist named Karoly Maria Benkert. This would make the term about 200 years old. However, in works as old as Plato's Symposium there are discussions of similar acts. The ideas and acts were not the sole propriety of literature; sexual acts between the same sex were depicted in stories and artwork as well.

Sexuality in Plato's time and era did not reflect what would become known as Natural Law, or the morality we humans have attributed to the natural world. The idea of Natural Law is used by many groups who state that their beliefs are how the natural world should work, and those who violate those beliefs are going against nature itself. During the time of Plato, Alexander the Great, and Zeno of Citium (founder of Stoicism), sexuality was defined more as a preference and matter of taste rather than as something fundamental. Kind of like how some people like vanilla and others like chocolate, there is nothing inherently different between those who favor one over the other.

With the growth of the Roman Empire there came about a slow adoption of a negative view of same-sex attraction. This negative view of same-sex acts has been attributed more with social and economic turmoil rather than as something religious or moral. The prohibitions would fall away as the Roman Empire collapsed and fragmented into various barbarian kings. It would not be until the 11th or 12th century that the homophobic literature would develop to the point of influencing those outside the Christian clergy.

With a sharp rise in homophobia came an equal increase in the intolerance of same-sex acts. It is worth noting that along with homophobia, the Jewish, the Muslim, the heretics, and those deemed as 'Others' would also be targeted. While it is unclear as to why there was such a sudden increase at this time, it is possible that the Church began to use the Natural Law discussed above. The clergy began to link ideas of sexuality to 'nature' as a standard of morality and forbade acts seen as unnatural. Unnaturalness would include extramarital sex, non-procreative sex within marriage, and masturbation. The term used for one who engaged in such acts was Sodomite. There was no term used for those who wanted to commit 'immoral acts' but did not. The focus here was on the act and not the thoughts.

Various campaigns against sodomy and the sodomite would continue, with severe punishments meted out for those who were guilty. Guilt could sometimes be extracted by the use of torture. Criminalization and punishment would continue until the 19th century when Emperor Napoleon decriminalized the act of sodomy and spread this idea through conquest. Similar movements in other places sought to remove sodomy as a capital offense and to stop the death penalty for such acts.

In the 18th and 19th century, discourse began with new secular interpretations and medical discussions. The idea at this point was sexuality had its origins in biology and that it was an innate quality within a person. The idea that one's sexuality was not something they could control would fly into the face of the medieval idea of the choice and voluntarism of the sodomite. Our timeline brings us to the definition above, so we will expand upon it.

Psychology in the 19th century was still in its infancy, and heavily intertwined with philosophy. Psychology would later grow into a medical model and adopt many of its ideas. Homosexuality was viewed not as a choice of the person, but somehow a diseased, defective, or pathological condition. This was given a great deal of credence due to the 'scientific' nature of medicine at this time. On one hand, psychiatrists and doctors campaigned for repeal or a reduction in the criminalization of the homosexual act. On the other, therapies were being developed to 'rehabilitate' the ill individual. Hanging from the other hand was the attempt at making techniques to prevent children from developing 'the homosexuality,' such as preventing childhood sexual exploration and masturbation.


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