Our modern understanding of what it means to be homosexual and the earliest gay rights movement started in nineteenth-century Germany, says a historian.
According to Robert Beachy from Goucher College, modern conceptions of homosexuality began, ironically, with an anti-sodomy law.
When the German empire was unified in 1871, the Imperial Criminal Code included a law prohibiting sexual penetration of one man by another.
Questions about what types of activity should fall under the law spurred a sustained public inquiry into the nature of same-sex eroticism and sexuality in general.
"As such, [the law] created the all-important context and stimulant for the evolution of the world's most expansive science of homosexuality," wrote Beachy.
And from that science emerged key components of the modern view of homosexuality, including "the understanding of erotic same-sex attraction as a fundamental element of the individual's biological or psychological makeup," explained Beachy.
German doctors, who published early case studies of homosexuals in the 1850s, pioneered this new view of same-sex love.
German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing released the first edition of his hugely influential Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, which included multiple case studies of homosexuals that supported this new position.
Through his work, Krafft-Ebing became a vocal opponent of the German anti-sodomy law, stating that homosexuality "should not be viewed as a psychic depravity or even sickness."
A remarkably free German press enabled these ideas to spread outside the scientific literature into popular books and encyclopedias, said Beach.
"The encyclopedia entries suggested directly or implicitly that same-sex eroticism was a naturally occurring if uncommon phenomenon that affected a small percentage of the general population. The love that dared not speak its name, as Oscar Wilde put it, had many names, at least in German," he wrote.
The article, 'The German Invention of Homosexuality,' has been published in The Journal of Modern History.