Karl-Maria Kertbeny or Károly Mária Kertbeny (born Karl-Maria Benkert) (1824 – 1882), Austrian-born Hungarian journalist, memoirist and human rights campaigner who coined the word homosexual, was born in Vienna, the son of a writer and a painter. The Benkert family moved to Budapest when he was a child—he was equally at home in Austria, Hungary or Germany.
As a young man, while working as a bookseller's apprentice, Benkert had a close friend who was a homosexual. This young man killed himself after being blackmailed by an extortionist. Benkert later recalled that it was this tragic episode which led him to take a close interest in the subject of homosexuality, following what he called his "instinctive drive to take issue with every injustice."
After a stint in the Hungarian army, Benkert made a living as a journalist and travel writer, and wrote at least twenty-five books on various subjects, none of them of any lasting value. In 1847, he legally changed his name from Benkert to Karl-Maria Kertbeny (or Károly Mária Kertbeny), a Hungarian name with aristocratic associations. He settled in Berlin in 1868, still unmarried at 44. He claimed in his writings to be "normally sexed," and there is no direct evidence to contradict this, despite the scepticism of subsequent writers.
Nevertheless, from this time he began to write extensively on the issue of homosexuality, motivated, he said, by an "anthropological interest" combined with a sense of justice and a concern for the "rights of man." In 1869, he anonymously published a pamphlet entitled Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code of 14 April 1851 and Its Reaffirmation as Paragraph 152 in the Proposed Penal Code for the Nordeutscher Bund. An Open and Professional Correspondence to His Excellency Dr. Leonhardt, Royal Prussian Minister of Justice. (This prohibition was retained even after 1871 in Germany as Paragraph 175.)
A second pamphlet on the same subject soon followed. In his pamphlets, Kertbeny argued that the Prussian sodomy law, Paragraph 143, violated the "rights of man." He advanced the classic libertarian argument that private consensual sexual acts should not be subject of the criminal law. Recalling his young friend, he argued strongly that the Prussian law allowed blackmailers to extort money from homosexuals and often drove them to suicide.
Kertbeny also put forward the view that homosexuality was inborn and unchangeable, an argument which would later be called the "medical model" of homosexuality. This contradicted the dominant view up until that time, that men committed "sodomy" out of mere wickedness. Homosexual men, he said, were not by nature effeminate, and he pointed out that many of the great heroes of history were homosexual. He was the first writer to put these now-familiar arguments before the public.
In the course of these writings Kertbeny coined the word "homosexual" as part of his system for the classification of sexual types, as a replacement for the pejorative term 'pederast' that was used in the German and French speaking world of his time. He called men who are attracted to women, heterosexual, he called masturbators monosexualists, and called devotees of anal intercourse, pygists.
Classical scholars have regretted Kertbeny's neologism ever since. The word homosexual combined a Greek prefix, homo, meaning "same" with a Latin noun, sexus, meaning "sex" (in the sense of gender). The rules of word-formation generally forbid combining Greek and Latin elements. Pure Greek forms would have been homoerotic and homoeroticist. The word also gives rise to confusion betwee the Greek homo and the Latin homo, meaning "man," as in homo sapiens. Many people have assumed that a homosexual is a person attracted to men, and that the word cannot therefore be applied to lesbians.
Once self-identified homosexual men such as Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, began to campaign for homosexual rights, Kertbeny faded from the scene. If he was homosexual, he was never prepared to say so. In 1880, he contributed a chapter on homosexuality to Gustav Jäger's book Discovery of the Soul, but Jäger's publisher dedcided it was too controversial and omitted it. Nevertheless, Jäger used Kertbeny's terminology elsewhere in the book.
The German sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) borrowed the terms homosexual and heterosexual from Jäger's book. Krafft-Ebing's work was so influential that these became the standard terms for differences in sexual orientation, superseding Ulrichs' word Urning.
Kertbeny did not live to see this wide acceptance of his ideas. He died in Budapest in 1882 at age 58.
He translated Hungarian poets' and writers' works into German, eg. those of Sándor Petöfi, János Arany and Mór Jókai. Among his friends were Heinrich Heine, George Sand, Alfred de Musset, Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.
Hungarian writer and literary historian Lajos Hatvany referred to him in this way:
- "This moody, fluttering, imperfect writer is one of the best and undeservedly forgotten Hungarian memoir writers".
His tomb was revealed in 2001 by sociologist Judit Takács (see the link below) who made extensive research on his life. His tomb was found in Kerepesi cemetery in Budapest, a resting place of numerous Hungarian celebrities in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The gay community erected a new tombstone over it, and since 2002 it has been a recurring event at Hungarian gay festivals to place a wreath on Kertbeny's grave.