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Uranian refers to those who belong to an intermediate or "third sex," a gender somewhere between male and female. Uranism means homosexuality. Coined by the German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1862, these terms referred to nearly all of those groups considered gay or queer in the early twenty-first century: male homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons. The root of the word refers to Aphrodite Urania, a Greek goddess who, in Plato's Symposium, is argued to inspire a more heavenly love in which men are attracted to one another. Ulrichs thought that gayness was natural and that homosexuality was therefore neither pathological nor criminal. His ideas formed the basis for Magnus Hirschfeld's later attempts to establish that homosexuality is an innate predisposition. The term was also borrowed by a contemporaneous school of poets writing about idealized homosexual love.

Ulrichs was likely the first modern-day defender of homosexuality. Forced out of the German civil service for his open homosexuality, he began to write and publicly argue for the social acceptance of homosexuals in German culture. Ulrichs came out to his family in a letter, and in the early 1860s, he published several volumes under the pseudonym Numa Numantius, including Vindex (Vindicator) and Vindicta (Rod of freedom), that treated homosexuality openly and positively. His books were banned, first in Saxony, where a temporary lifting of the ban was seen by Ulrichs as the first gay victory, then in all of Prussia. Ulrichs got into increasing difficulties as the Prussian government took over; he was imprisoned several times and finally left Prussia altogether.

Hirschfeld, a German Jewish homosexual medical doctor, took up Ulrichs's idea of the Uranian third sex, trying, through his writings and research, to depathologize homosexuality, which was then considered a mental disease, and to make it an acceptable part of mainstream society. Hirschfeld was most interested in respectability. To that end, then, he wanted to show to the public at large how homosexual citizens were very much like everyone else—moral, patriotic, and industrious. Describing homosexual culture in Berlin, Hirschfeld's Berlins drittes Geschlecht (1904; Berlin's third sex), written for the general public, tries to show that homosexuals, like everyone else, enjoy triumphs, weather sorrows, and have committed relationships. Hirschfeld also published case studies of transvestites. Contemporary theorists Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud both read and generally agreed with Hirschfeld's ideas, though others thought that Hirschfeld's psychologizing of homosexuals was only a first step in a larger liberation as fully normal.

The name "Uranian" was also adopted by a group of late-Victorian British and American poets, including John Barford, Edwin Bradford, John Nicholson, William Alexander Percy, and Charles Sayle, whose work celebrated the love of men for boys. Platonic and restrained, the love celebrated by this poetry was less erotic than idealized.

The term Uranian came to stand for the ideas both of homosexuals as differently gendered than others and of the condition of homosexuality as congenital. Later gay rights activists sometimes saw these characterizations as irrelevant or even demeaning. The term fell out of use with the coming of more aggressive forms of gay activism after the Stonewall riots of 1969.


d'Arch Smith, Timothy. 1970. Love in Earnest: Some Notes on the Lives and Writings of English "Uranian" Poets from 1889 to 1930. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jones, James W. 1990. "We of the Third Sex": Literary Representations of Homosexuality in Wilhelmine Germany. New York: Peter Lang.

Wolff, Charlotte. 1986. Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology. London: Quartet.

                                                   Judith Roof

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