A little over one-hundred years ago, the first concept of an inborn “homosexual” condition began to circulate in Germany. The originator of this novel concept was Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895). Ulrichs, the “grandfather of the world ‘gay’ rights movement,” was a lawyer, political activist, and known pedophile. In an effort to garner support to repeal Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code which criminalized sodomy, Ulrichs began to spread a theory that defined individuals that engaged in same-gender sex as members of a “third-gender.”
Ulrichs proposed that individuals that engage in same-gender sex do so because of a psycho-spiritual mix-up, in which a man’s body comes to be inhabited by a woman’s soul, and vice versa for females. In 1862, Ulrichs invented the term “Uranian” to refer to members of this “third-gender,” a term which described both males and females. Ulrichs argued that since same-gender sexuality was an inborn condition, it should not be criminalized.
Although Ulrichs was unable to abolish the sodomy law, his efforts were influential nonetheless, as evidenced by the swell of political activism and public sympathy for “Uranians” during his time. It was amidst this changing political climate that a German-Hungarian writer named Karoly Maria Kertbeny coined the term “homosexual” in an open letter to the Prussian Minister of Justice in 1869 (Lauritsen and Thorstad: 6). Prior to this, men and women that engaged in same-gender sex were known as sodomites, pederasts, or “Knabenschaender” (literally, ‘boy ravishers’) (Steakly:13) –all terms referring to the act of sodomy.
Ulrichs and Kertbeny understood that public opposition to same-gender sex sprang from the people’s understanding of sodomy as an unnatural act. In order to counter the behavioral connotations inextricably linked with terms like “sodomite” and “boy ravisher,” Ulrichs and Kertbeny set out to coin new terms that would refer to the individual rather than their behavior. They were successful. In fact, their most influential accomplishments proved to be the coining of the terms “Uranian” and “homosexual.”
During this time, German men that had sex with men began to refer to themselves as ‘Uranians;’ and a militant slogan, ‘Uranians of the world unite!’ became popular internationally. (Rutlegge:41 pg.45 Pink Swastika) Although Ulrichs’s identity-based term would fail to stick in the long term, Kertbeny’s term, “homosexual,” proved to have more lasting appeal.
Social critic Mark Steyn has described how the coining of terms by political activists has played a central role in the movement to normalize same-gender sexual activity by subtly influencing public opinion via the lexicon. Historically, Steyn explains, moral concern for sexual activity between two persons of the same gender was identified as sodomy, an act. You can either think of sodomy as acceptable or unacceptable; either way, it is an act that someone chooses. Then, Steyn explains that in late-nineteenth century, the act was re-described as a condition of certain persons, and it was termed “homosexuality.” Next, a few decades ago, “homosexuality” was upgraded again, now referring to a person’s very identity, so that we now identify people as being “gay,” or “straight,” or somewhere “in-between.” Now it describes who a person is. Steyn explains:
“Each formulation raises the stakes: One can object to and even criminalize an act; one is obligated to be sympathetic toward a condition; but once it’s a full fledged 24/7 identity, like being Hispanic or Inuit, anything less than wholehearted acceptance gets you marked down as a bigot.” (Mark Steyn, “There’s No Stopping Them Now,”
Chicago Sun-Times, July 13, 2003, p.35)
Ulrichs’s political strategy established itself as a working model in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Germany. However, oncoming political turmoil would leave his movement on hiatus. Ulrichs’s political strategy was destined to lie explicitly dormant for close to a century; yet its influence survived implicitly in the language. The “third-gender” theory had established a new concept for the masses. This concept carried with it an entirely new blueprint for society’s future.