Image of two men kissingA Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


The one person most responsible for the creation of the labels to be used in the discourse about homosexuality was Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–95). He was a German law student, secretary to various civil servants and diplomats, and a journalist – he was not a medical doctor. In May 1862 his acquaintance Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, active in the Social Democracy workers’ movement, was arrested for ‘public indecency’. Ulrichs wrote a defence and sent it to Schweitzer, but it was confiscated by the authorities. Ulrichs, who had been sexually attracted to men since his early teens, decided that now was the time to solve this ‘riddle’.

In November 1862 Ulrichs told his relatives of his intention to publish a study of ‘The Race of Uranian Hermaphrodites, i.e., the Man-Loving Half-Men’. He finished most of it in 1863, and published it in 1864, as Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Researches on the Riddle of Male–Male [Man-to-Man] Love). He used the pseudonym Numa Numantius in deference to his shocked relatives, but acknowledged his identity in 1868. By 1879 he had published twelve volumes on this subject.

Ulrichs's ‘scientific’ inspiration was contemporary embryology, which had discovered that the sex organs are undifferentiated in the earliest stages of the development of the foetus. By analogy, homosexual desire was just as ‘natural’ as this containment of the opposite sex within the developing embryo. He believed that the ‘germ’ of the female sex could be retained in the fully developed male, creating a kind of psychic hermaphrodite or half-man: a feminine direction of the sex drive within a masculine sex. (This direct linking of sex organs to direction of sex drive is a common non sequitur.) After some refinements he settled on the phrase anima muliebria virili corpore inclusa – a feminine soul or mentality confined within a masculine body.

The substantive source for Ulrichs’s theory was not heterosexualist medicine, but Plato’s Symposium, in which Pausanius says that love for males is the offspring of Heavenly Love (Aphrodite Urania) who is the daughter of Uranus, while love for females is the offspring of Common Love (Aphrodite Pandeumia) who is the daughter of Zeus and Dione. Ulrichs modified the Platonic/Pausanian terms in accordance with German linguistic usage and came up with Urning for homosexual male, Dioning for heterosexual male, Urningin for lesbian and Dioningin for heterosexual female. As Ulrichs became more widely acquainted with other homosexuals, he realized there were many varieties, and he expanded his system of classification:

Urningthum, male homosexuality (or urnische Liebe, homosexual love)

Urning, male homosexual; subdivided into:

Mannlinge, very masculine except for feminine soul and sex drive towards effeminate men
Weiblinge, feminine in appearance and behaviour as well as soul and sex drive towards manly men
Variations between these extremes, such as the Zwischen-Urning who prefers adolescents

Uranodioning, male bisexual:

Conjunctive, with tender and passionate feelings for men
Disjunctive, with tender feelings for men but passionate feelings for women

Virilisierte Mannlinge, homosexual men who have learned to act like heterosexual men, through force or habit

Uraniaster or uranisierter Mann, heterosexual man who acts like a homosexual (often due to lack of women, e.g. in prisons or military environment)

All of these were matched by female counterparts for the Urningin.

Kennedy (1980) remarks that ‘the theory seems ready to collapse under the weight of its own complexities’, and the terminology of Uranismus was gradually dropped, although it lived on in England for almost half a century as ‘Uranian love’ (and the modern gay tourist agency Uranian Travel). But let us honestly acknowledge that the system of descriptive classification used today is nearly the same as Ulrichs’s, though the terminology seems less absurd:


active/masculine or
closet or latent gay
situational homosexual

The main difference is that the concept of the ‘feminine soul’ has been dropped since the 1960s, though in the 1990s it was revived in the term ‘transgender’. Many (perhaps most) folk cultures have a concept of a natural (biological) third sex in addition to male and female, and the most recent anthropological theorists are coming round once again to the possibility that there really is – physiologically and psychologically – a third sex or third gender (Herdt 1994). The motivating source or etiology of homosexuality has been debated ever since, and the ‘cause’ of homosexuality or specific categories such as effeminacy are as hotly disputed today as they were in the 1890s.

The basic emancipationist argument was (and often still is) that homosexual desire is congenital and therefore it is inhumane for the law to punish homosexual acts as if they were crimes wilfully chosen. Ulrichs was not scientifically disinterested: he was politically motivated by a fear that the Prussians would invade Hanover and impose the anti-homosexual statute of the Prussian penal code (which had no equivalent in Hanover) –– which is precisely what happened when Prussia annexed Hanover in 1866.

Ulrichs was briefly imprisoned for expressing outspoken Social Democrat views, and in 1867 the police confiscated his collection of homosexual research material. He was ridiculed in the press, and forced to leave Hanover on his release from prison. He moved to Bavaria and in August 1867 at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich gave a speech for homosexual rights which Kennedy says ‘mark[s] the beginning of the public homosexual emancipation movement in Germany’. But by 1872 Prussia’s anti-homosexual legislation was extended to all of unified Germany. In 1880 Ulrichs felt compelled to leave his country, and he settled in Italy for the remaining fifteen years of his life.

The word Homosexualität was coined by the German-Hungarian Károly Mária Kertbeny (born Karl Maria Benkert; 1824–82). It is a compound of Greek homo, same, and Medieval Latin sexualis, sexual, and was coined along the lines of the late eighteenth-century French botanical terms unisexuel and bisexuel. There are no grounds for rejecting it as a ‘bastard’ term, any more than innumerable Greek/Latin hybrids such as petroleum and automobile and television. It occurs first in a letter to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs dated 6 May 1868, and then in two pamphlets published in 1869 in Leipzig arguing for reform of Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code penalizing sexual relations between men (Paragraph 143 des Preussichen Strafgesetzbuches vom 14.4.1851 und seine Aufrechterhaltung als Paragraph 152 im Entwurf eines Strafgesetzbuches für den Norddeutschen Bund [Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code and its Maintenance as Paragraph 152 of the Draft of a Penal Code for the North German Confederation] and Das Gemeinschädliche des Paragraph 143 des Preussischen Strafgesetzbuches . . . [The Social Harm Caused by Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code]). Kertbeny’s noun for the male homosexual was Homosexualisten, and Homosexualistinnen for the female homosexual. The term ‘homosexualist’ is used even today (e.g. by Gore Vidal), as a kind of provincial survival.

These terms were not used by anyone else until 1880, when a text written by Kertbeny was published in a popular-science book (Entdeckung der Seele) by a zoologist and anthropologist at the University of Stuttgart, Gustav Jaeger. At this time the word Heterosexualität first appeared, also taken from a paper by Kertbeny, here attributed to ‘Dr M’. Thus heterosexuals were invented eleven years later than homosexuals.

This pseudonym 'Dr M' helped to promote the mistaken belief that Kertbeny was a doctor or scientist. The wholly incorrect view that he was a physician is asserted, for example, by Lauritsen and Thorstad (1974), Bullough (1976), Bronski (1984), Spencer (1995) and others too numerous to cite. Kertbeny was in fact a writer, a translator, a journalist and a polemicist. He had no qualifications or experience in any medical or scientific profession, and he did not even write in these fields except in the limited area of homosexual law reform. We know little about his life, though he seems to have died of syphilis. He claimed to be a Normalsexualer, but he spent so many years campaigning against the German law code that penalized sex between men, either anonymously or using pseudonyms, that one suspects he was secretly homosexual.

Kertbeny invented the term ‘homosexuality’ as part of an argument that it was natural, and a matter of private behaviour which should be beyond the interference of the law. He intended it to be used as a neutral, non-prejudicial term within legal arguments, which centred on the concept of equal rights and protection of minorities. ‘Homosexuality’ thus originated not as a medical term, but rather as a neutral, legal, scientific term. The 1950s ‘homophile’ and 1970s ‘gay and lesbian’ communities have wrongly rejected the term because of its medical and clinical connotations, but such connotations were not integral to the word and the word did not originate in the clinic. It was coined precisely in order to serve the emancipationist needs of a network of gay-identified German men who for a dozen years at least had been advocating the reform of laws against them and the education of society regarding their modes of behaviour.

Thus, contrary to the labelling theory paradigm, the label clearly followed rather than preceded the identity. It was not something ‘constructed’ by society in order to identify and thereby control a deviant group. On the contrary, it was for the sake of achieving public tolerance of the behaviour of an identifiable group that the label was invented, by that group themselves. The discourse about ‘homosexualität/homosexuality’ came towards the end rather than at the beginning of the development of a gay consciousness.

An examination of the history of the term ‘homosexual’ very clearly demonstrates the exact reverse of what is required by labelling and social control theory. The label ‘homosexual’, instead of being generated by society to control people, was self-generated by gay (or gay-friendly) men to empower individuals and set them on the road to freedom rather than enslavement. By retrospective analysis Ulrichs did claim to have discovered feminine traits within himself after he developed the third sex theory, which would accord with classic labelling theory: ‘not everyone arrives at a consciousness of this female element. I myself . . . became aware of it only very late, and I might never have arrived at it had I not pondered the riddle of Uranian love or become acquainted with other Urnings.’ However, even if this assertion were true, the label nevertheless arose from within Ulrichs’ struggle to solve a riddle about himself – it was not imposed from without, by society, in order to control him. (In any case we are not compelled to believe Ulrichs on this point: it sounds like a rationalization to defend the absence of self-interest in his theory and hence its scientific objectivity.)

Ulrichs promoted his theory by analogy with the emerging science of embryology, but his labels themselves are rooted in the queer philosophy in Plato’s Symposium. To some extent Ulrichs became entrapped by the purely formal or logical requirements of classification (a ‘scientific’ urge to which Germans often succumb). But his motivation and stated purpose were always queer-political: to resist the imposition of Prussian legal strictures against homosexual acts upon Hanover. In other words, the label used most often in the modern discourse on homosexuality originated from queer men, drawing upon queer culture, whose stated aim was queer liberation. So much for social control.

Ulrichs’s and Benkert’s theories were subverted by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, to whom Ulrichs had sent his publications in 1866. They inspired Krafft-Ebing’s own researches and he extracted from them some of the classifications – but not the basic premise. Ulrichs’s theory that homosexuality was natural and congenital was significantly modified in accordance with a criminal/medical model which emphasized perversion, sickness, and deficiency. A theory that began as an effort to legitimate homosexuality was expropriated by theories used to justify a long tradition of repression and legal punishment. Ulrichs summed it up: ‘My scientific opponents are mostly doctors of the insane. Thus, for example, Westphal, v. Krafft-Ebing, Stark. They have observed Urnings in lunatic asylums. They have apparently never seen mentally healthy Urnings. The published views of the doctors for the insane are accepted by the others.’ Unfortunately Ulrichs’s term ‘half-man’, though he did not use it for his final classification system, easily fell in with the view of homosexual men as being incomplete or defective.

Several writers have carefully examined the process and linguistic developments by which homosexuality came to be ‘medicalized’ in the very late nineteenth century (notably Bleys 1996), but the issue I wish to focus upon here is the date at which social control of the masses of ordinary gay people became possible. Karl Friedrich Otto Westphal (1833–90) used the term ‘Die Konträre Sexualempfindung’, ‘contrary sexual feeling’, in an article in Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten in 1869, thus defining homosexuality as a contradiction between desire and anatomy. In 1870 an American psychiatrist abstracted Westphal’s article using the phrase ‘inverted sexual feeling’, and in 1878 Arrigo Tamassia invented inversione dell’istinto sessuale in an article in an Italian medical journal. His phrase was simplified to ‘inversion’, which remained the standard medical term.

Westphal, who helped to popularize the views of Ulrichs and Kertbeny in his 1869 article, especially concentrated on the phrase drittes Geschlecht or ‘third sex’, which Ulrichs had coined in 1864 and which gained widespread popularity outside scientific circles. Magnus Hirschfeld’s book on the homosexual subculture of Berlin is titled Berlins drittes Geschlecht. But this phrase is by no means a new term of alleged social control. The Emperor Alexander Severus in the third century is supposed to have characterized eunuchs as the tertium genus hominum on the basis of Latin grammar, i.e. masculine, feminine, and neuter, and Balzac in Splendeur et misère des courtisanes (1847) calls the tante, or homosexual ‘auntie’, ‘le troisième sexe’. In any case the phrase ‘the third sex’ was not used in English before the 1950s, when it was usually aligned with ‘the twilight world’. It was never a ‘medical’ term.

Homosexualität, ‘homosexuality’, was a very useful neutral way to refer to ‘same-sex love’, which ‘scientifically’ defused such highly charged words as ‘bugger’ or ‘sodomite’ or ‘degenerate’. But it was not taken up very quickly by the scientifically minded community of physicians and anthropologists. It was confined almost entirely to a gay emancipationist discourse. The word ‘homosexual’ did not appear in English until 1891, in John Addington Symonds’ A Problem in Modern Ethics where he used the phrase ‘homosexual instincts’. No one seems to have remarked on the irony that the first English person to write the word ‘homosexual’ already was a homosexual long before he put pen to paper.

Symonds was one of the very few men familiar with the so-called scientific writings on this subject, which he sought out to support his already well-developed sense of homosexual identity. Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds tried to revive some of Ulrichs’s theory in the 1880s. Symonds frequently corresponded with Ulrichs about ‘the slave-cause of the Urnings’. He knew himself to be an Urning when he wrote A Problem in Greek Ethics in 1883, and the footnotes to his Modern Ethics demonstrate that he did not discover most of the medical literature until after 1883. The 1891 book was privately printed in an edition of ten copies. This hardly popularized the word, although pirated editions were published from about 1900.

Havelock Ellis (together with Symonds, whose name was removed from the title page after the first edition) in Sexual Inversion, 1897, popularized the idea of ‘inversion’ as an inborn non-pathological gender anomaly. Symonds privately despised the ‘authorities’ on the subject: ‘The ignorance of men like Casper-Liman, Tardieu, Carlier, Taxil, Moreau, Tarnowsky, Krafft-Ebing, Richard Burton is incalculable, and is only equalled to their presumption. They not only do not know Ancient Greece, but they do not know their own cousins and club-mates’ (letter to Havelock Ellis, 20 June 1892). Symonds strongly felt that homosexuals should be considered as a ‘minority’ group, but he gave way to Ellis’s preference for viewing homosexuality as a neurosis and congenital abnormality in the hope, proven vain, that this would gain sympathy and tolerance from the public.

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(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This critique may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "The Term 'Homosexual'," 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

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