The German Invention of Sexuality
Robert Deam Tobin.
Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex.
University of Pennsylvania Press.
326 pages. $69.95
Reviewed by John Lauritsen
Background in a nutshell: The dark ages for gay men began in the 4th
century AD, when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman
Empire. A taboo carried forward from the Holiness Code of
Leviticus imposed the death penalty for sex between males. Male
love went underground, although guys never ceased to love and have sex
with each other. For centuries, male lovers suffered dishonor,
imprisonment, torture, and death. With the Renaissance, the
rebirth of classical antiquity, homoerotic themes began to appear in
literature. Then the philosophers of the 18th century
Enlightenment brought a secular approach to matters of morality, and
extended free enquiry to the “nameless sin”.
The first known written arguments for abolishing sodomy statutes (the
generic term for laws that criminalize sex between males) were made in
the late 18th century by the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, who argued —
brilliantly and comprehensively — that all-male sexual acts were not
harmful and should not be punished. However, these writings were
not published until nearly two centuries later.
In 1818 Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote an essay, “A Discourse on the
Manners of the Antient [sic] Greeks relative to the subject of Love”,
to accompany his translation of Plato's Symposium, which would have
been the first in English to present the genders correctly.
Unfortunately, Shelley's widow, Mary, suppressed and bowdlerized both
the translation and the essay, which were not published as written for
well over a century.
Later in the 19th century the first open polemics would be published,
and in 1897 the first activist organization would be founded.
This brings us to the recently published Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex,
by Robert Deam Tobin, Professor of German at Clark University.
This is by no means the first book to cover the early homosexual
emancipation movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Indeed, I believe that honor falls to David Thorstad and me for our
book, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935), which was
published in 1974.
But Tobin has a new approach. He describes his book as ultimately
“about a history of ideas — ideas that would one day have a concrete
force in people's lives, although they may have been obscure at the
time of their emergence.” In his Preface Tobin describes two
of the scientific research on sexual orientation continues to work on
the assumption that homosexuals constitute a discrete minority, with
biologically identifiable characteristics that often have something to
do with gender inversion; this research typically claims to be part of
a liberal political agenda. At the same time, a counter-discourse
persists, according to which most people are bisexual and capable of
strong erotic and emotional bonds with members of their own sex, even
if they typically favor heterosexual liaisons.
Tobin indicates up front that Peripheral Desires will focus “almost
entirely on men.” Although his book covers a lot of ground,
historical and political, I'll concentrate on his primary thesis, that
sexual categories formulated in the 19th century have carried forward
into the present.
First, a word about terminology: in order to avoid anachronism, Tobin
uses the nomenclature employed by the authors he studied — “urning”,
“invert”, “homosexual”, or whatever. That's fine, if occasionally
awkward, but I myself will also use the word “gay” as sometimes the
best and even least anachronistic term. (Rictor Norton's Myth of the Modern Homosexual
has demonstrated that by the time of Byron and Shelley, “gay” was
already used underground in its present sense.) Accepting the
premise that homoeroticism is an inborn propensity of virtually all
human males (more below), I use the following definitions: A gay man
has recognized and accepted his desire and capacity to love another
man. A straight man has denied these, consciously or
unconsciously, or is unable to act on them. Neither definition
makes reference to women. Straight is an entirely negative term;
it does not mean heterosexual, but simply not gay.
Ulrichs, Kertbeny, and Westphal
In the year 1869 three writers addressed in German the topic of
same-sex relations: the Latinist, lawyer, and independent scholar, Karl
Heinrich Ulrichs; the German-Hungarian journalist, Károly Mária
Kertbeny; and the physician, Karl Friedrich Otto Westphal.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, regarded as the grandfather of gay liberation,
began in 1864 to issue a series of “social and juridical studies on the
riddle of love between males.” He coined the term “Urning”
(“Uranian” in English) to represent what he believed was a rare variety
of human male, a lusus naturae (sport of nature), an anomaly
characterized by the formulation, “anima muliebris corpore virili inclusa”
(a female soul trapped in a male body). Urning is based on a
speech in Plato's Symposium, in which Pausanias postulates that there
are two gods of love: Uranian (Heavenly) Eros, who governs principled
male love, and Pandemian (Vulgar) Eros, who governs heterosexual or
purely licentious relations. (Plato's Uranian Eros does include
sex, but is concerned with higher things as well.) For Ulrichs, a
Uranian might look male enough, but psychologically he was female.
The German-Hungarian writer, Károly Mária Kertbeny, wrote two pamphlets
in 1869, published anonymously, which demanded that sexual acts between
males be freed from criminal sanctions. He was the first to use
the word “homosexuality” (“Homosexualität”
in German) for both male and female same-sex intercourse.
Although etymologically and conceptually unsound, homosexuality was
soon appropriated by medical writers, who used it to denote an abnormal
condition of being attracted to one's own sex, or not attracted to the
opposite sex, or both.
The German physician, Karl Friedrich Otto Westphal, coined the expression, “die contraire Sexualempfinding”
(contrary sexual feeling) to apply to a lesbian and a male transvestite
under his observation. The part-French, part-German term was
awkward; in time it modified to sexual inversion, and the
possessors of this feeling became known as inverts. Westphal
considered the condition to be an incurable neurological or
psychological disease. In Tobin's words: “Whereas Ulrichs and
Kertbeny present a relatively positive picture of the urning and the
homosexual, Westphal's invert is quite clearly sick.... He believes
this love [of urnings] is pathological to its core.”
Tobin shows that, despite differences, all three — Ulrichs, Kertbeny,
and Westphal — regarded the “fixed sexual attraction to men” as an
inborn, unchangeable condition found only in a small minority of
males. “All three see men who love men and women who love women
as belonging to the same overarching category.” Both Ulrichs and
Westphal, though not Kertbeny, “emphasize gender inversion as the
explanation for sexual attraction between members of the same
sex.” By the end of the 19th century, the terms originated by
these men — uranian, homosexual, and invert — became near synonyms,
used interchangeably in medical and polemical literature.
But to backtrack three decades. Tobin's first chapter is devoted
to a Swiss, Heinrich Hössli (pictured above), who published the first major polemic for
the emancipation of male love. In two volumes, written in German, it was entitled Eros: The Male Love of the Greeks, Its Relationship to History, Education, Literature, and Legislation of All Times).
Making his case with a wealth of classical literature, as well as
Persian, Arabic, and Turkish poetry, Hössli argued that male love was
not a phantasy, a monstrosity, or a rare exception, but rather a
universal human desire. Tobin's chapter on Hössli provides much
valuable information on a neglected figure in the history of our
Hössli vehemently compared the medieval persecution of alleged witches
to the persecution of males who loved each other. It's hard to
tell how much influence Hössli's work had, and such influence would
have been largely underground — which opens up a possibility I've
pondered for some time: the possibility that for ages, centuries even,
there has existed an underground of gay scholars, ranging from medieval
and Renaissance writers through Marlowe, Bentham, Shelley, Hössli,
Ulrichs, John Addington Symonds, Richard Burton, and Edward
Carpenter. This is merely a hypothesis, but the alternative
hypothesis — that each of these men, entirely on his own, unearthed the
relevant historical and literary information — seems unlikely.
Tobin sums up Hössli's work:
reorganized the intellectual givens of his time to put forth one of the
first comprehensive visions of an identity based on same-sex sexual
love that was inborn, natural, unchanging, essential, universal,
ahistorical, and in need of some sort of social protection.
Ulrichs was inspired by a passage in Hössli, which quoted an article in
a Munich newspaper that discussed the kabbalistic belief in the
transmigration of souls, according to which a female soul might end up
in a male body. In his entry, “Incarceration Motif” in the Encyclopedia
of Homosexuality, “Warren Johansson” (Joseph Wallfield) discusses the
history of this motif thoroughly. Briefly, the kabbalistic belief
is that gendered souls, between reincarnations, are floating around,
waiting to enter into bodies. Once in a while a female soul mistakenly
ends up in a male body, resulting in a male invert, who is attracted
only to other males. Hössli himself rejected this notion, arguing
that some lovers of other males had quite masculine souls. But
Ulrichs embraced the notion, from which he developed his key
formulation, anima muliebris corpore virili inclusa
(“a female soul trapped in a male body”). In his Encyclopedia
article Johansson states: “In their adhesion to this self-concept
(‘female soul trapped in a male body’) many pre- and postoperative
transsexuals unknowingly echo a theme that has an age-old, although
recondite history.” That is to say, the core transsexual credo of
today is based on superstition from the middle ages.
Hirschfeld and Friedlaender
Next on the scene was Magnus Hirschfeld, who in 1897 co-founded the
world's first activist homosexual rights organization, the
Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäre Komitee).
Although Tobin discusses him only briefly, Hirschfeld was for over
three decades the leading figure in the international movements for
sexual reform and homosexual rights. Hirschfeld carried the ideas
of Ulrichs even further, maintaining that the bodies as well as the
psyches of homosexuals were sexually intermediate. Hirschfeld
called homosexuals “sexual intergrades” (“sexuelle Zwischenstufen”) or the “third sex”, and lumped them together with transvestites and “pseudo-hermaphrodites” (“Scheinzwitter”,
people with deformed genitalia). We may admire Hirschfeld for his
courage and energy, but the ideas with which he saddled the new
movement were appalling.
Opposition to the gender-inversion model was not long in coming, from
men whom Tobin calls “masculinists”. The masculinists greatly
admired Ancient Greece, from whose art and literature they defended and
celebrated male love. Tobin treats the two opposing camps — the
inversionists and the masculinists — evenhandedly, which is his
privilege and perhaps best for the purposes of his book. My own
sympathies lie with the so-called masculinists, and I write accordingly.
The leading masculinist was Adolf Brand, who published Der Eigene,
the oldest journal devoted to male love, some of whose issues were
beautifully produced. A married man himself, Brand espoused
bisexuality and followed the libertarian anarchist principles of Max
Stirner, author of Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844, published in English as The Ego and His Own). In 1903 Brand founded the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen,
which can be translated in many ways, from Community of the Special to
Community of Self-Owners. I now choose to translate it as
Community of One's Own or perhaps even Community of Self-Possessed
Men. (There were no women in the group.)
Others in the opposition group included Hans Blüher, John Henry Mackay,
Edwin Bab, Elisàr von Kupffer, and Benedict Friedlaender. One of
the first rebuttals to the inversionists came in a 1900 anthology by
the artist, Elisàr von Kupffer, entitled Lieblingminne und Freundesliebe in der Weltlitteratur.
The title translates roughly as “The Chivalrous Love of Young Men and
the Love of Friends in World Literature”. In a prefatory essay Kupffer
ridicules the notion of “a third sex, whose soul and body are supposed
to be incompatible with each other” and comments that the geniuses and
heroes of ancient Greece could “hardly be recognized in their Uranian
petticoats.” He writes:
this point it is morally obligatory to let a ray of sunshine from the
reality of our historical development fall on all this blather about
sickness, on all this muck of lies and filth. (tr. JL)
Kupffer considered the freeing of male love to be part of the
“emancipation of man for the revival of a manly culture.” He
discussed the word “masculine”,
which for him was not just the rougher qualities, but also an
appreciation of male beauty and “preserving self-determination,
personal freedom, and the common good.” (translations by Hubert
Hirschfeld's most formidable opponent was Benedict Friedlaender, mentor of the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen,
a scientist, married man, and father of two sons. In 1907
Friedlaender led a split from the Scientific-Humanitarian
Committee. In a position paper addressed to the friends and
supporters of the Scientific-humanitarian Committee, he ridiculed the
Ulrichs-Hirschfeld notion of the third sex and of “a poor womanly soul
languishing away in a man's body.” Friedlaender insisted that a truly
scientific approach must take into account the facts of history and
anthropology. In two sentences he annihilated the Hirschfeld position:
glance at the cultures before and outside of Christendom suffices to
show the complete untenability of the “intermediate types” theory.
Especially in ancient Greece, most of the military leaders, artists and
thinkers would have had to be “psychic hermaphrodites”. (tr. JL)
Friedlaender felt that members of the medical profession were overly
prominent in the homosexual rights movement, giving the impression that
the movement was concerned with some kind of disease or sickness.
He considered physiological friendship to be an instinct present in all
men — the basis of sociality — something of great value to society and
to the individual. He believed that the great majority of men —
especially married men — could and ought to experience male love.
In one passage, Friedlaender argued that one can put someone down by
labelling him with words like atheist or Urning, which implies that he is an exception or peculiarity. He turns the tables on straight men by coining the word “Kümmerling” or “moral Kümmerling” (in German a Kümmerling is a stunted growth, like the suckers that grow up at the base of tree trunks):
By “Kümmerling” or “moral Kümmerling” I mean those men whose capacity for Lieblingminne
[love of young men] has been artificially crippled through moral
pressure in the same way as the feet of Chinese women have been
crippled through the mechanical pressure of instruments of bodily
constraint. (tr. JL)
In this analysis, it is straight men who are queer. It is queer to be a Kümmerling.
Throughout his writings Friedlaender insists that loving men is a fully
masculine characteristic. Although he was a scientist himself,
Friedlaender did not hesitate to use the word love, and he argued that
one cannot make sharp distinctions among sex, love, and friendship —
they are different expressions of one and the same thing.
Friedlaender's first book (1904) was Renaissance
der Eros Uranios: Die physiologische Freundschaft, ein normaler
Grundtrieb des Menschen und eine Frage der männlichen Gesellungsfreiheit (Rensaissance
of Physiological Friendship: A normal and fundamental human drive and a
question of freedom of association for males); this was reprinted in 1975 by Arno Press. His second book, posthumously published in 1909 was Die Liebe Platons im Lichte der modernen Biologie (Platonic Love in Light of Modern Biology); I have made this into a pdf book on my website. Both books should be translated into English.
If Friedlaender was appalled by Hirschfeld's ideas, Hirschfeld was
horrified by Friedlaender's, and he wrote that Friedlaender's
bisexuality and Kümmerling
theories were furnishing “water for the mill of the enemy”. However,
Hirschfeld did eventually respond to criticism, and by 1910, his
“sexual intergrades” and “third sex” theories had pretty well fallen by
I don't care for the word masculinists, and think that these men could
just as well be called realists when they combat the unrealistic
notions of Ulrichs, Westphal, and Hirschfeld. The masculinists
favored the scientific approach inasmuch as they backed up their
arguments with evidence. Friedlaender, a scientist himself, began
a section in his position paper by writing: “Now, what exactly is the
science of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee?” — and then proceeded
to demolish Hirschfeld's Zwischenstufen
theories. Throughout the writings of Friedlaender and other
masculinists are attacks on superstition, priests, and clerics.
I think Tobin slights the role of religion in the condemnation of sex
between males. In the very first Yearbook of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (1899) “Numa
Praetorius” (Eugen Wilhelm) contributed a 50-page history of laws that
punish homosexual acts. He begins thus:
In Asia only the Jews seem to have had a penal provision against same-sex intercourse, and indeed they punished it with death.
the third book of Moses God says to Moses, “You must not lie with boys
as with women, for that is an abomination” and “Then whosoever commits
such an abomination, their souls will be rooted out from their people”;
further in the following chapter It is commanded “If someone
sleeps with a boy, as with a woman, he has committed an abomination,
and both of them shall be put to death, their blood is upon
them.” (tr. JL)
And Wilhelm proceeds to quote the relevant passages from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Considering this the best such history ever done, I have made it into a pdf book and put it on my website.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a fold-out triptych published
in the fifth Yearbook (volume I, 1903) amusingly illustrates the Urning/Zwischenstufen/third
sex theory. The overall title is: “Ratio Between the Hips and the
Shoulders”. The man on the left, leaning on a pedestal, holding a
fig leaf over his cock, is labelled “manly type”: he has narrow hips
and wide shoulders. The creature in the middle, masked, his membrum virile
tucked between his flabby thighs, is labelled “uranian type”: his hips
and shoulders are of about equal width. The woman on the right (a
painting) is labelled “womanly type”: her hips are much wider than her
shoulders. Well now, if anyone in this triptych is gay, it is the
butch number on the left. I can imagine what he would be like in
bed; he'd eat a big breakfast in the morning and say “thank you” as he
left. Who knows what the interests of the uranian type would be?
A New Look Back — and Forward
Besides the opposition between inversionists and masculinists, Peripheral Desires covers a lot of ground: colonialism, national politics and identity in the 19th century, and the emancipation of women.
One chapter discusses a novel by Arnold Zweig, based on a real case
involving the murder of a man living in Palestine before Israel was
founded. He was both a pederast and an ultra-orthodox Jew.
At first it was “assumed he was the victim of an Arab family whose
honor had been outraged by [his] predilection for young Arab
males.” It turned out that his real murderers were Zionists who
were opposed to his politics.
In a fascinating chapter — “Thomas Mann's Erotic Irony: The Dialectics
of Sexuality in Venice” — Tobin analyzes Mann's novella, Death in Venice.
Mann, who was sexually conflicted, subjects the ideas of the novella's
protagonist, von Aschenbach, to hostile scrutiny through the voice of
the narrator. Greek love, as fancied by von Aschenbach, leads in
real life to death and decay, thus refuting the ideas of the
masculinists. Far from being a gay classic, as is often assumed,
the novel is insidiously hostile to male love.
Although Tobin focussed on men in German-speaking countries, he might
also have discussed the writings of English men: John Addington
Symonds, Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, and Sir Richard
Burton. The 1873 book by Symonds, A Problem in Greek Ethics, remains in many ways the best treatment of male love in Ancient Greece. Symonds's A Problem in Modern Ethics
(1891) uses the words “homosexual” and “inversion”, and provides cogent
refutations of pseudo-scientific medical writers. Writings by
Carpenter and Burton were best sellers. Hirschfeld and other
Germans were well aware of the English writers and cited them in their
Tobin is not sympathetic to those who “relied on the ancient Greek
tradition, projecting same-sex desire on to the Hellenic world.”
Peripheral Desires is filled with snide comments on Ancient Greece and
its admirers. Speaking as a gay Hellenist myself, I unashamedly
consider Ancient Greece the spiritual homeland for gay men; I believe
in the Greek Miracle: that the finest aspects of Western Civilization
developed in Athens. It is not necessary to project male love
onto the Hellenic world. Male love was abundantly there,
enthusiastically celebrated in art and literature, as shown in books by
Thomas K. Hubbard, William A. Percy, Beert C. Verstraete, and James
Tobin neglects to mention Paul Brandt, who wrote under the pseudonym,
Hans Licht. A formidable classical scholar, Licht wrote for the
Yearbook and contributed a superb article, “Homosexuality in Classical
Antiquity”, to Magnus Hirschfeld's The Homosexuality of Men and Women (Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes,
1914, 2nd edition 1919). This suggests that by 1914 Hirschfeld
was not hostile to the Grecophile arguments of the masculinists.
Licht's magnum opus, Sittengeschichte Griechenlands, was published in three volumes, 1925-1928; the somewhat abridged English translation, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, was published in 1932.
Curiously, Tobin also does not mention Kurt Hiller, who was a leading
activist in the early homosexual rights movement and a leading advocate
for minority rights. Hiller's speech, “Appeal to the Second
International Congress for Sexual Reform on Behalf of an Oppressed
Human Variety” (Copenhagen 1928), reflects the minoritizing views of
the inversionists, but also the masculinist view that homosexual men
could be robustly healthy and virile.
After ranging far afield for much of the book, Tobin brings his primary
theme home in the last chapter, “Conclusion: American Legacies of the
German Discovery of Sex”, to show that the notions of the inversionists
are still with us, and indeed prevail in many areas. Referring to
decisions by the Supreme Court and the policies of other branches of
the U.S. government:
to this view, sexual orientation is innate and universal, a biological
constant. The government puts its full weight behind a growing
consensus that sexual orientation is analogous to gender and
homosexuals form a discrete minority comparable to racial and ethnic
minorities — a set of beliefs first articulated by thinkers like
Hössli, Ulrichs, and Kertbeny.
add that the gender-inversion notions of Ulrichs et al. have led into
the metastasizing alphabetisms of the present (LGBTQ...) and the morass
of Queer Theory.
Tobin refers to seriously flawed research by Simon Levay and Nicholas
Wade, which purportedly shows that homosexuals are physically as well
as psychologically in-between male and female heterosexuals:
research on same-sex desire continues to conflate transsexuality with
same-sex desire, assuming that male desire for men is essentially the
product of a feminine (or at least nonmasculine) brain in a male body.
Tobin is almost too kind to Levay, whose sloppy work I have critiqued online: The Gay Brain and Other Such Nonsense.
that emerged in nineteenth-century German-speaking central Europe still
structure discussions today. On the one hand, [the inversionists]
a modern, minoritizing, biologically based, liberal model of sexual
orientation stands as a category comparable to gender and race.
On the other hand, [the masculinists] a model of a widespread, fluid,
classically oriented, majoritizing, culturally based, aesthetically
focussed desire for members of one's own sex persists.
based” is the only thing I dissent from here. While the
masculinists saw that cultural factors determined the acceptance or
condemnation of male love, they also saw that the capacity for such
love is inborn in human males — and in virtually all males, not just a
small minority. In modern terms, homoeroticism is a phylogenetic
characteristic of the human male. Except for a few unfortunate Kümmerlings, all males are at least potentially gay.
Jeremy. “Offenses Against One's Self: Paederasty.” Written
ca. 1785 but not published until 1978.
Sir Richard. “Pederasty” in Section D of “Terminal Essay” in
Arabian Nights, vol. 10. London 1886. Online here.
Davidson, James A. The Greeks and Greek Love. London 2007.
Wayne R., “Warren Johansson” (Joseph Wallfield), and William A.
Percy. Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. New York & London
Benedict. Die Liebe Platons im Lichte der modernen
Biologie. Berlin 1905. Online here.
Kurt. “Appeal to the Second International Congress for Sexual
Reform on Behalf of an Oppressed Human Variety.” Online
Magnus. The Homosexuality of Men and Women. Translated from
the German by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash. Amherst, New York
2000. (Originally published in German in 1914; second edition
Hubbard, Thomas K. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. California 2003.
Kennedy, Hubert. Reviews of Seven Gay Classics. California 2003. Online here.
Lauritsen, John. “The Gay Brain and Other Such Nonsense”. Online here.
John and David Thorstad. The Early Homosexual Rights Movement
(1864-1935). New York 1974; Revised second edition Ojai,
Hans.” (Paul Brandt). Sittengeschichte Griechenlands.
Dresden/Zürich 1925-28. (Abridged English translation, Sexual
Life in Ancient Greece. London 1932.)
Norton, Rictor. The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: The Search for Cultural Unity. London 1997.
Harry and Hubert Kennedy. Homosexuality and Male Bonding in
Pre-Nazi Germany: the youth movement, the gay movement and male bonding
before Hitler's rise: original transcripts from Der Eigene, the first
gay journal in the world. New York & London 1991.
Percy, William A. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Chicago 1996.
Numa” (Eugen Wilhelm). “Die strafrechtlichen Bestimmungen gegen
dem gleichgeschlechtlichen Verkehr historisch und kritisch
dargestellt”. Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen unter
desonderer Berücksichtigung der Homosexualität,
wissenschaftlich-humanitären Comitée. Volume I, pp. 97-158. Berlin
1899. Online here.
Percy Bysshe. “A Discourse on the Manners of the Antient [sic]
Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love.” (Written in 1818, but
not published until 1931) Included in Plato: The Banquet,
Translated by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Provincetown 2001.
Symonds, John Addington. A Problem in Greek Ethics. 1883. (Available on Rictor Norton's website.)
Beert C. Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in
The Classical Tradition of the West. Binghamton, NY 2005.
This review was published in the July-August 2016 issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review. This version is longer and slightly revised.
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