While the idea of the homosexual dates at least to the 19th century, I suspect that the contemporary American understanding of “homosexual” as a kind of people rather than a kind of sex act is much newer. Same-sex attraction was first widely medicalized in the 1940s and 50s, and cataloging and extirpating deviancy by rational-technical means was an important element of American post-war culture. Part of this cataloging and extirpation process was the identification of homosexuals as a deviant element in society.
I was immediately reminded of this fascinating passage from Troublesome Young Men, a good but otherwise unremarkable history of interwar Britain’s anti-appeasement parliamentarians:
Boothby (a Scottish MP – my edit) loved Germany and had visited it many times. Fluent in German, he came to see friends, talk politics and economics, and listen to opera (he was a regular at the Wagner festival at Bayreuth). He also sampled the decadent night life of Berlin, where “along the Kurfurstendamm,” in the words of Stefan Zweig, “powdered and rouged young men sauntered and in the dimly lit bars on might see men of the world of finance courting drunken sailors.” Although Boothby’s sexual relationships were primarily with women, he was known to engage in homosexual escapades. In Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, he recalled in his memoris, “homosexuality was rampant; and, as I was very good looking [then], I was chased all over the place and rather enjoyed it.”