Lambda Lore

The history of gay

In June of 1989 I made a pilgrimage to New York City to place a rose on the steps of the Stonewall Inn. It was the 20th anniversary of an event which was the catalyst for a paradigm shift in what it meant to be homosexual. Once there, I discovered that the nondescript brick building across the street from Sheridan Square was now a clothing boutique catering to a Doc Martin crowd of young Manhattanites. The famous Stonewall marquee had long been removed and Christopher Street was still several years from being renamed Stonewall Place.

However, for the anniversary, a group called The Radical Faeries had rented out the basement of the boutique for a celebration of “10,000 years, More or Less, of Queer History in Ten Minutes.” The Faeries proceeded to take adventurous souls through a cavernous maze depicting a timeline of gay events. There were depictions of queer cavemen drawing on cave walls while humping each other, and queer Greeks walking around in skimpy togas, wearing elaborate Corinthian pillar cap stones as head dresses. From there, we witnessed the “burning times,” when queer men were used as faggots by Christians to burn the witches.

Happily, the next time warp was to 1969, where scantily dressed go-go boys did the shimmy in our dark, queer bars. All of a sudden, mock police, wearing pig masks, arrived to arrest us, but we were all given yellow foam bricks which we gleefully tossed back at the “pigs” while chanting “gay power!”

As we left the guided tour of queer history, we passed by a shrine consisting of lipstick and fingernail polish, back-lit with multicolored candles placed on the coffin of Judy Garland. As we exited, faerie dust sprinkled down upon us as we sang “Some Where Over the Rainbow.” It was intense!

Prior to late 19th century, there was no legal words for same-sex activity beyond buggery, sodomy and crime against nature.

Society made it difficult for single people to have privacy. It was rare, and in some cases illegal, for single men and women to live alone. In agrarian societies single people were housed in homes of married relatives or caretakers.

Within enlightened but staid urban communities, such as Boston, single working women could live together without benefit of marriage to a man. These arrangements were called Boston Marriages. But were they lesbian relationships?

While same-sex activity was difficult, same-sex affection was more freely expressed in the pre-industrialized Western World. Men commonly slept together with arms embraced, kissed and publicly held each other. Women kissed and pecked at each other without raising an eyebrow. Public bath houses and boarding establishments were also conducive to a certain forced intimacy.

In 1869, Hungarian Karl Maria Kertbeny published an anonymous pamphlet calling for the repeal of sodomy laws in Germany. A second pamphlet on the same subject followed, in which he argued that the penal code violated the “rights of man.” He purported the classic liberal argument that consensual sex acts in private should not be subject to criminal law. Kertbeny also championed that same-sex attraction was “inborn and unchangeable,” which eventually became the “medical model” in the emerging psychology movement of Austria.

That same year, the first known person to declare that his “same-sex attraction” was his identity and not just a behavior was Karl Heinrich Ulrich, a German contemporary of Kertbeny. The men corresponded extensively; however, before Kertbeny’s death, he tried to destroy all documents which suggested that he was a homosexual and slipped back into the closet. Not so with Ulrich.

In 1867, while speaking to a conference of jurists in Munich, Ulrich declared he was a Uranian and became the first-known person in modern times to describe himself as a what we know to be a gay man.

The term Uranian was first introduced by Ulrich in 1863 in a pamphlet in which he attempted to explain, in scientific terms, the nature of same-sex love to the legal communities. Ulrich estimated that one in 500 Germans was a Uranian. He derived the term Uranian to describe a gay man from passages taken from Plato’s Symposium, in which the ancient Greek philosopher stated that the Goddess Urania was the deity who watched over the “heavenly emotion” of same-sex love.

Ulrich’s hypothesis of the origins of homosexuality is antiquated by today’s views. He felt that only a female psyche or soul could be attracted to a male body, therefore, Uranian males constituted a “third sex” of female souls in male bodies.

In 1869 Ulrich championed the rights of Uranians in a document titled “Bylaws for the Uranian Union,” in which he proposed to “bring Uranians out of their previous isolation and unite them into a compact mass, bound together by solidarity.” The bylaws went on to suggest that the union should “champion the inborn rights of Uranians before the law” and defined a further goal “to create a Uranian literature.”

There is no evidence that the Uranian Union was ever formed but other articles and pamphlets followed. Unfortunately for Ulrich, he was 100 years before his time. Few other scholars of the period were even discussing the subject of same-sex attraction, much less trying to do so from a perspective free of prejudice.

Ulrich was violently opposed by the legal and medical establishments of his time. Ultimately he was even forced to leave Germany and settled in Italy where he spent his last years and died in 1895.

In the contest of etymology, closeted Kertbeny’s terminology won out over openly gay Ulrich’s Uranian, which has not endured. Although, in 1916, when the New York Times first used a word to refer to same-sex activity, Uranian was chosen. Eventually, it was the medical community which determined the ascendance of homosexuality over Uranian. The term homosexual was adopted to describe a pathological behavior while Uranian with its positive affirmation was rejected.

In 1993 when I gathered several community members together to create a gay men’s community paper, The Pillar, as editor I chose Uranian Publishers as the name of our business. I’m not sure anyone got it. Not the paper, the joke.

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