Ralph M. Leck teaches in the University Honors Program at Indiana State University. He answered some questions about his book Vita Sexualis: Karl Ulrichs and the Origins of Sexual Science.
Q: Was Karl Ulrichs, as some claim, the first person to publicly advocate for homosexual rights?
Ralph Leck: Well, that’s a tricky question. He certainly was not the first person to publicly advocate for the civic legitimacy of homosexuality. Some ancient Theban military units were comprised of male lovers, because the bond of love, it was assumed, enhanced their martial spirit. One also finds in ancient Greek literature and philosophy arguments concerning the superiority of male homosexuality. An explanation for this homosexism is found in the Greek ideal of compound love: Eros-Agape. In Plato’s The Symposium, Eros is denigrated as mere physical love; Agape—shared cultural, philosophical, or civic interests—was the higher love. As an amatory ideal, compound love amounted to a double and simultaneous merging of mind and body. Except in the metaphysical realm (i.e. Socrates’ correlation of Agape and Diotima), however, gender relations generally barred women from experiencing this amatory ideal. Greek women were sequestered and had little access to education. Due to an inability to experience Agape, many Greek intellectuals assumed that women and heterosexuals could not experience compound love.
Clearly, Greek legitimizations (dramatic, philosophical, and martial) of homosexuality were a case of public advocacy. Yet, reflection upon the modern meaning of advocacy and activism—for racial, democratic, women’s, environmental, homosexual, worker, children’s, and intersex rights—reveals two presuppositions absent from ancient Greek advocacies of homosexuality: (1) modern activism implies struggle and (2) particular movements are a stream feeding the river of struggle for universal human rights. First, modern human rights activism is understood as taking place in a hostile environment; rights advocates struggle against inimical dominant cultures. Here one might think of French revolutionaries, feminists, or advocates of homosexual rights like Ulrichs. In contrast to modern activism, Greek advocates of homosexuality were not revolutionary or countercultural. Their advocacy required no daring or courage. Ulrichs’ advocacy on behalf of homosexual rights, conversely, was a critical attack on heterosexist hegemony, Christian theology, Victorian science, and bourgeois morality. His public demand for the rights of sexual minorities was a civic act of tremendous daring. Secondly, contemporary historians and social scientists tend to see the advocacy of rights for particular groups as part of the slow but ongoing revolutionary expansion of universal human rights. Ancient Greece was a patriarchal slave society. Unlike modern rights activists, Greek advocates of homosexuality were not part of an epoch of egalitarian revolution.
In terms of the political advocacy of homosexual rights in modern Europe, the amatory socialism of Charles Fourier’s Le Nouveau Monde amoureux (ca. 1818) certainly preceded Ulrichs’ demand for recognition of the moral legitimacy of homosexual love. Fourier was not only a pioneer of homosexual rights; he was also the greater advocate of women’s and worker’s rights. Notwithstanding these caveats, a strong case can be made for Ulrichs’ status as the first advocate of homosexual rights. As far we know, he was the first person to envision an all-homosexual organization dedicated to homosexual rights. Indeed, no nineteenth-century intellectual fought more openly or more passionately for the rights of sexual minorities. And, comparatively speaking, Fourier devoted far less attention to homosexual rights and the science of sexual heterogeneity. These were the primary scholarly and civic concerns of Ulrichs.
Q: How does the concept of “sexual modernism” helps us to differentiate Ulrichs’ sexual science from other approaches to sexual study?
Leck: In terms of chronology, it is useful to distinguish modernity from modernism. Modernity is normally associated with the decline of mercantilism and monarchy and the rise of industrial capitalism and democracy. Modernism, on the other hand, is less an economic or political designation than a countercultural sensibility. Archetypally, this sensibility was secular, anti-bourgeois, and anti-Victorian. Here one must think of the incomparable significance of Realism and Naturalist drama. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House (1879) and Enemy of the People (1882), for instance, savaged bourgeois patriarchy, Christian morals, and the ethics of capitalism. Gerhardt Hauptmann’s The Weavers (1892) and Emile Zola’s Germinal (1885) depicted the misery of workers under laisse-faire labor relations and thereby revealed the moral fraudulence and civic poison of Christian capitalism. The countercultural fervor of Naturalism continued in movements such as literary Expressionism, Constructivism, Surrealism, and Brechtian theater. Despite their different aesthetic tastes, modernists shared a philosophical sensibility: the artist of life repudiates the separation of art and politics. Indeed, in the modernist era, the aesthetic avant-garde often was indistinguishable from the political vanguard. While aesthetic modernists acknowledged no border between aesthetics and citizenship, sexual modernists like Ulrichs recognized no discord between science and social justice.
Q: Despite being “out” and engaging in activism, Ulrichs retained certain traditional conjectures about gender.
Leck: At times, Ulrichs interpreted the world through the prevailing gender binaries—male and female—of his era. For instance, he never abandoned the stereotypical contrast between male activity and female passivity. Moreover, he tended to accept the dominant contention that homosexuals’ inability to reproduce represented a defect.
Q: What did Ulrichs believe was the basis for homosexuality and sexual diversity?
Leck: Ulrichs put forth several explanations for sexual variety. First, he interpreted homosexual desires as natural. As though a Cartesian, his thought commenced with a recognition of the separation of mind and body. His mental essence or nature was female, he concluded. His biology was clearly male. Historically medical doctors of the era interpreted this ‘disjunction’ of mind and body as perversion or pathology. Ulrichs was one of the first theorists to revise this conclusion in the light of empirical science. Instead of stigmatizing individuals whose primary (physical) and secondary (mental) characteristics did not correspond, Ulrich argued that we should recognize this disjunction as a natural variety and respect individuals’ right to designate their own sexual nature. While he theorized an inner essence or nature and defended individuals’ right to express their natural proclivities, his research also recognized the capacity of acculturation to shape and channel expressions of carnal desire. Ultimately, Ulrichs lacked theoretical self-consciousness of the tension between these two etiologies. He never recognized or resolved the tension between his belief in a fixed and innate sexual identity, on the one hand, and the core assumption of theories of acculturation, the pliability of sexual identity and desire, on the other hand.
In addition to nature and acculturation, Ulrichs identified two additional explanations of sexual diversity: personal choice and embryology. With regard to the latter explanation, Ulrichs understood the unfertilized ovum as a “primitive embryological hermaphroditism.” The protean immanence of the embryo—its inchoate heterogeneity, ambiguity, polyvalence—was, he maintained, a powerful scientific explanation of sexual variability. All varieties of sexuality are articulations of humanity’s hermaphroditic origins.
Rather than treating Ulrichs’ unresolved contradictions as a deficiency, it is more useful to remember that he offered several explanations of sexual diversity: nature, culture, choice, and embryology. We need not champion one explanation at the expense of interpretive dexterity. The truth-value of these four explanations depends on one’s object of study.