Radclyffe Hall, who wrote “The Well of Loneliness,” liked the word “invert.”Photo: Wikipedia
Tribade (or “tribad”) is an old word for lesbian women, used in the 17th and 18th centuries.
We can trace the word’s origin back to the ancient Greek word that meant “to rub.” I’m sure you can guess why a word for “lesbian” comes from the verb “to rub.”
One of the earliest written uses of the term in English is in the 1601 poem “The Forest” by Ben Jonson.
Go, cramp dull Mars, light Venus, when he snorts,
Or, with thy tribade trine, invent new sports ;
In the mid-1800’s, one of the first modern gay rights activists, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, wrote several pamphlets to promote gay rights. Since he was writing a little before the first known use of the word “homosexual,” so he coined the term “Urning.” Several decades later, educated gay men in England were using the word “Uranian” to describe gay men (whether they got the word form Ulrichs or created it themselves is unknown).
Uranian/Urning is a reference to Plato’s Symposium, where two origin stories of Aphrodite are used as symbols for two kinds of love: the vulgar love men have for women and boys, and the heavenly love men have for younger men. The latter kind of love was associated with the story of how the titan Cronus’s testicles were thrown into the sea and were transformed into the goddess of love, because she had no mother and was entirely male in her origins.
The word was used mostly by gay men familiar with classical Greek literature and appeared in a letter written by Oscar Wilde in 1898:
To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble – more noble than other forms.
Uranian/Urning never really took outside of certain circles, and it fell out of usage by World War II.
By the late 1800’s, psychiatrists were getting pretty interested in sexual diversity. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a German psychiatrist, was particularly interested in documenting various “anomalies” in Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886.
In that book, he theorized that homosexuality was a form of gender inversion that stems from moral degeneracy. Gay men were men with women’s brains, and lesbians were women with men’s brains.
And bisexuals were people with intersex brains, making them “psychosexual hermaphrodites.”
As a sidenote, the 1891 translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis is the first known use of the word “homosexual” in English.
Because of gender-inversion theories of homosexuality, gay men and lesbians were sometimes referred to as “inverts.”
The term never got the same reach that “homosexual” did, but it does appear in Radclyffe Hall’s famous 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness.
And there sat Puddle as pale as death and as speechless, having no comfort to offer–no comfort, that is, that she dared to offer–while all her fine theories about making good for the sake of those others; being noble, courageous, patient, honourable, physically pure, enduring because it was right to endure, the terrible birthright of the invert–all Puddle’s fine theories lay strewn around her like the ruins of some false and flimsy temple, and she saw at that moment but one thing clearly–true genius in chains, in the chains of the flesh, a fine spirit subject to physical bondage.
Hall’s book was sympathetic to gay people and presented homosexuality as an in-born trait, so she probably preferred the term “invert” to “homosexual.” It makes sense – many gay and lesbian activists in that time described homosexuality as a form of inversion too, to show that it was innate and beyond their control.
After World War II, another wave of queer activism started in the context of a culture that re-imposed many Victorian taboos on sexuality. A lot of this activism focused on presenting LGBTQ people as respectable in an attempt to gain widespread acceptance.
Many European organizations activists preferred the term “homophile” to “homosexual.” The “-phile” comes from the Greek word for love, so using homophile stressed love instead of sex, like homosexual.
Several years after gaining some popularity in Europe, the word was either borrowed in the US or independently coined. It was incorporated into some organizations’ names, like the Homophile Action League in Philadelphia.
But the word “gay” gained popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s among LGBTQ people and “homosexual” remained straight people’s preferred term for us in most European languages. The Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America even says that some 1970’s LGBTQ activists believed that the word homophile showed that “1950s activists were conservative and that they felt a degree of shame about the sex lives of homosexuals.”
Some historians refer to LGBTQ activism between World War II and Stonewall as the Homophile Movement.