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Kertbeny 200

The gay rights activism of Kertbeny

Kertbenyi admittedly started engaging with issues related to the criminalization of homosexuality because he had an inherent inclination to stand up against various forms of injustice. His took an interest in the subject in 1840, when a young friend of his with an “abnormal taste” who had struggled with his “irrepressible passion” since childhood committed suicide after being blackmailed. Allegedly, the friend asked Kertbeny in his suicide note to warn some of his acquaintances with similar preferences about the blackmailer. Kertbeny – perhaps with excessive emphasis – defined himself in several instances as “normalsexual”, that is, heterosexual. However, his diary entries suggest that he was not indifferent towards male beauty and had homosexual experiences as well. 

German Letter of Károly Kertbeny To Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, May 6, 1868.

The Letter Written To Ulrichs, 1868 

Between 1865 and 1868, Kertbeny regularly exchanged letters with Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. In contrast with Ulrichs’ arguments emphasizing innate behavior, Kertbeny placed more emphasis on the fact that the state should not interfere with the private lives of its citizens, including same-sex love. He did not consider men who loved men as belonging to a “third gender” but rather as having a different kind of masculinity. 

In a German letter addressed to Ulrichs on May 6, 1868, Kertbeny used for the first time the terms “heterosexual”, “homosexual” and “monosexual”, the latter referring to individuals who engage in sexual activities with themselves. His aim was to create a new vocabulary free from the moral connotations associated with contemporary terms referring to the same orientations. These words were most likely inspired by the botanical term “bisexual” (referring to dual-sex plants). Incidentally, Kertbeny derived the term “homosexual” from the Greek word “homo” (meaning "same") and the Latin word “sex” (meaning “gender”), rather than the Latin “homo” meaning “human”. In this letter, Kertbeny engaged in a debate with Ulrichs, expressing an extremely modern standpoint. 

“In particular, evidence of innate predisposition is not conducive to our goal, nor is it the least expedient way. Moreover, we are talking about a dangerous double-edged sword, no matter how fascinating the natural mystery may be anthropologically. Because legislation does not inquire about the inclination of innate predisposition, but rather about its personal or socially harmful effects along with its social implications. There are people with an innate thirst for blood or pyromaniac tendencies; there are pregnant women with various cravings, monomaniac individuals and so on. They cannot simply roam freely either, following their instincts; their condition is medically assessed, and in case they are not punished for their intentional acts, they are isolated and society is protected from their exorbitance. Therefore, we would not gain anything by proving such an innate disposition, even if it were proven to be beyond doubt. The opponents must rather be convinced that the very legal concepts  established by them do not have any influence on their instincts, be it innate or acquired. Since the state has no business meddling in the sexual practices of two consenting individuals over the age of 14, in private and without violating the rights of a third party, even if this leads to the most severe consequences for both parties, the same way that the state does not concern itself with those who, infecting each other and others as well, end up terribl suffering and dying as a result” (excerpt from the letter – Hungarian translation by Dániel Holländer)

One of Károly Kertbeny’s letter to Dr. Leonhardt, Prussian Minister of State and Justice

Yearbook of Interim Sexual Stages, 1899

Historian Manfred Herzer in 1987

Legal pamphlets, 1869 

In 1869, Kertbeny published two pamphlets anonymously: Paragraph 143 of the Prussian criminal code and its legal preservation in paragraph 152 in the draft criminal code of the North German Confederation and The social damage caused by paragraph 143 of the Prussian criminal code…. The pamphlets were dedicated to the Prussian Minister of Justice Dr. Leonhardt and presumably sent to him along with several letters. In both works, Kertbeny advocated against the criminalization of homosexuality, and the term “homosexualität” appeared in print for the first time in the second pamphlet.

The identity of the pamphlets’ author was revealed in the Yearbook of Interim Sexual Stages (Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen). In the 1980s, German historian, librarian and writer Manfred Herzer concluded through his research conducted at the National Széchényi Library that the author of the two pamphlets is indeed Kertbeny. 

Paragraph 143 Of The Prussian Criminal Code And Its Legal Reservation In Paragraph 152
In The Draft Of The North German Confederation Criminal Code (Leipzig, 1869)

Partial draft of Károly Kertbeny’s unfinished Sexualitätstudien: Die Neue Lehre von der Sexualität (The New Doctrine of Sexuality)


Kertbeny worked extensively on a book titled Sexualitätstudien comprising of his studies on sexuality, which he intended to publish with the Leipzig publisher Hermann Serbe (who also published the two pamphlets in 1869). However, the monograph was never published. According to a letter written by Serbe to Kertbeny, only the first chapter
titled “Historical introduction” was completed, and the publisher never received the rest of the manuscript. Nevertheless, several working drafts of Sexualitätstudien are preserved in the Manuscript Collection of the National Széchényi Library. 

The diaries

Kertben’s diaries, which he kept between 1864 and 1881, can also be found in the Manuscript Collection of the National Széchényi Library. These diary entries, which for the most part comprise of brief everyday events and encounters, contain motifs related to Kertbeny’s personal life and his relationships with various men; similar references to women are relatively rare. Some parts of these entries have been scribbled out by Kertbeny, but in some cases the original entry can still be deciphered. The diaries bear witness to his correspondence with the Ulrichs (usually referred to as N.N. or Numa), mention the arrests of his fellow activist, and document his relationship with Serbe, his publisher. The text frequently refers to specific men in intimate contexts: in 1964-65, “Viktor” and “Hubert” feature in several entries, followed by “János” (or “Jancsi”) in 1866; and from 1867 on, “Lajos” or “Lajko” (or simply “L.”) appears regularly.

Kertbeny’s diary, March 8, 1868

March 8, Sunday 

In Hanover. Rain, all day long. Woke up at 9. L. did not come. Visited Vilma Balázs-Bognár, who is afraid that Bronsart won’t let her sing in a Miksa Hauser concert. Was at the Rhena court at 1 o’clock.
Then that fool Gade came, who was married to a girl from the Kotzebul family. Went to the Picture Exhibition: Möbius, Liophart, Wittmitz, Ilse Oskar were there. Finally Rogge came. Went to the Börzenklub with him. Gade was there along with a beautiful American. Went home at 5 o’clock. Started writing the article. Went to the Union Cellar at 8. Home by 10 o’clock, went to bed at 11. 

Kertbeny’s diary, April 27, 1868

April 27, Monday 

In Hanover. A very nice day. Woke up at 9 o’clock. Went to the Royal Library at 10 o’clock, met Wladimir Guerier, professor from Moscow University. Went to the Rhena court at 1 o’clock. In the afternoon, went for coffee in the new house with the three Swedes. Went home. A letter from K. M. with 65 thalers. Went to Knickmeyer’s at 8 o’clock. Warnebolt was there, and so was the little Jew and the older Spinner. At 10 o’clock headed to Varrelmann’s. Drank a Volnay with Dr. Zusserg. Went home at 12 o’clock. A letter from N. N., but his fourth letter hasn’t arrived yet. 

To G.Z. about Epos. 
Advertisement for Pardubitz. 
Receipt to G.Z. 

Kertbeny’s diary, April 29, 1868

April 29, Wednesday 

In Hanover. Terrible cold in the morning, then rain. I woke up at 9 o’clock. L. Then Uhde Armin. At the Rhena court at 1 o’clock. In the afternoon, went to Büsch’s to repair the gold watch. 2 and 3/8 lat [old weight measurement] but only 15 carat gold, so it is only worth 15 thalers. Went home. At 7:30 went to Tovote the confectioner, older Spinner and his friend were there, as well as the young Jew. We had beer, I read Aristotle and Petőfi, until 10. Went home. 

I to Ellinghausen 
To Mrs. János Benkert. 

Kertbeny’s diary, July 5, 1868

July 5, Sunday 

In Hanover. Weather a bit overcast, slight rain, very cold. I woke up at 9 o’clock, received an affable letter from Serbe. L. Then Hemecart. At 1 o’clock went to Victoria, with Hemecart. Went to the New House with him. Returned. Vilmos Bansen here, I examined him, he is an urning(?). In the evening, at the Börzenklub, then at Knickmeyer’s. Spinner came to my place at 10 o’clock, he left at 11, I went to sleep at 12.

To Serbe twice. 
To Ellis. 

Diary of Kertbeny, July18, 1868

July 18, Saturday 

Only 8 thalers left

In Hanover. A very beautiful day, light rain in the evening. Woke up at 9 o’clock. Received 10 thalers from Károly Hartmann. L. Then with Rogge’s son, after enjoying my sweet wine. Went to the swimming pool, bought ten cards. Joachim was there. At 1 o’clock to Victoria. In the afternoon, to the New House, Hölty was there, who wants to but does not join. Then to Armless huthen Hermann who is travelling with the hairdresser Jakoby. I examined him naked. Then the actor Baschele arrived. Went home. To Schulze. To the Börzenklub, bad beer. Fischer Ernest there. Left with him, but then it started raining. I went to Knickmeyer’s. Spinner and others there. Went home at 10 o’clock, Vilmos didn’t come again.  

To Numa. 

Kertbeny’s diary, October 22, 1868

October 18, Thursday

Only 53 thalers left. 

In Berlin. Cool weather, sunny. I woke up at 9 o’clock. Lajko was already up a little. I suggested that he go to Hollenberg for singing lessons. Letter from Kászonyi. Went to useless Pfeiffer. At 11:30 at Happolt’s. Home in the afternoon, Broome came. At 8 o’clock, went to the smarties. An American there. Then Ahrendt, who said that Lajko has a good voice. Terrible, I was angry because Ahrendt and Lieutenant Schrader were sitting in the salon. Went home at 11 o’clock. 

To Bowring, and a portrait 
To Kászonyi