5 old-timey words for queer people that you should know

5 old-timey words for queer people that you should know
Radclyffe Hall, who wrote "The Well of Loneliness," liked the word "invert." Photo: Wikipedia

People have come up with some interesting terms to describe queer people over the last few centuries.

While I could fill up a lake with slang terms for queer people, I find the non-slang terms more interesting because it means that someone was taking us seriously. Sometimes, from a strange point of view.

Here are five words for queer people that have fallen out of favor over the years:

1. Tribade

Tribade (or “tribad”) is an old word for lesbian women. It comes from the Greek “tribas,” which also referred to women who have sex with women. Which in turn came from an older Greek word that meant “to rub.”

I’m sure you can guess why a word for “lesbian” comes from the verb “to rub.” Even in Greek, words for queer people made a lot of sense. Sometimes.

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 ;

According to literature professor Rictor Norton, the term was the most common word for lesbians in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the Victorian Era, the word was considered antiquated.

2. Uranian and Urning

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was one of the first gay rights activists in the modern Western world, writing pamphlets about gay love in the mid-1800’s. He was working before the earliest recorded use of the word “homosexual.” So obviously, he had to come up with something better than “sodomite.”

Ulrichs coined the term “Urning” to describe a gay man, He said it meant “a female psyche in a male body.” The term either got translated into “Uranian” in English, or the term “Uranian” was developed by British intellectuals independently of Ulrichs.

But both Urning and Uranian are references to Pausanias in Plato’s Symposium, where he distinguishes between two types of love. The love men have for women, and the love men have for younger men. Pausanias associated the latter the form of love with the story of how Aphrodite was created when Cronus castrated his father Uranus. Cronus then threw Uranus’s testicles into the sea.

So a “Uranian Aphrodite” was 100% male. Made from pure testicle, unlike most people or gods, who were born from women. Just like gay male love. No women involved.

The word was used mostly by gay men familiar with classical Greek literature. Later, the word 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.

3. Psychosexual hermaphrodite

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. According to Krafft-Ebing, that made them “psychosexual hermaphrodites.”

This amazingly cumbersome and offensive-on-multiple-fronts term was later used by Albert Moll. Moll took a less moral tone than Krafft-Ebing and posited that male embryos were bisexual at first and then, as they developed brains, became heterosexual. That is, unless there was a “disturbance.”

Other psychiatrists used the term to refer to bisexuals. Sigmund Freud would also later use it to refer to gay men.

As a sidenote, the 1891 translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis is the first known use of the word “homosexual” in English. Krafft-Ebing also coined the term “analingus” in that book.

4. Invert

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. Still, 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 my guess is that she used the term “invert” instead of “homosexual” because she thought it would be helpful. 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.

5. Homophile

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.

The French organization Arcadie, formed in 1954, is a good example of this. Historian Michael Sibalis said that the group’s goal was to make outrageous homosexuals into dignified homophiles.

It argued that public hostility to homosexuals resulted largely from their outrageous and promiscuous behaviour; homophiles would win the good opinion of the public and the authorities by showing themselves to be discreet, dignified, virtuous and respectable.

Indeed, the organization officially described one of its activities as “educate adult homophiles, who, too weak and lacking knowledge, could not on their own live with dignity.”

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.

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.”

Well, that’s at least true of Arcadie. Some historians even still refer to LGBTQ+ activism between World War II and Stonewall as the Homophile Movement. Weird, huh?

What are some other words for queer people that folks don’t use anymore (and aren’t abhorrent?) Let us know in the comments section below.

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