Uranian is a 19th-century term that referred to a person of a third sex—originally, someone with "a female psyche in a male body" who is sexually attracted to men, and later extended to cover homosexual gender variant females, and a number of other sexual types. It is believed to be an English adaptation of the German word Urning, which was first published by activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–95) in a series of five booklets (1864–65) which were collected under the title Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännlichen Liebe ("Research into the Riddle of Man-Male Love"). Ulrich developed his terminology before the first public use of the term "homosexual", which appeared in 1869 in a pamphlet published anonymously by Karl-Maria Kertbeny (1824–82). The word Uranian (Urning) was derived by Ulrichs from the Greek goddess Aphrodite Urania, who was created out of god Uranus' testicles. Therefore it stands for homosexual gender, while Aphrodite Dionea (Dioning) is representing the heterosexual gender.
The term "Uranian" was quickly adopted by English-language advocates of homosexual emancipation in the Victorian era, such as Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds, who used it to describe a comradely love that would bring about true democracy, uniting the "estranged ranks of society" and breaking down class and gender barriers. Oscar Wilde wrote to Robert Ross in an undated letter (?18 February 1898): "To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble - more noble than other forms."
The term also gained currency among a group that studied Classics and dabbled in pederastic poetry from the 1870s to the 1930s. The writings of this group are now known by the phrase "Uranian poetry". The art of Henry Scott Tuke and Wilhelm von Gloeden is also sometimes referred to as "Uranian".
The word itself alludes to Plato's Symposium, a discussion on Eros (love). In this dialog, Pausanias distinguishes between two types of love, symbolised by two different accounts of the birth of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In one, she was born of Uranus (the heavens), a birth in which "the female has no part". This Uranian Aphrodite is associated with a noble love for male youths, and is the source of Ulrichs's term urning. Another account has Aphrodite as the daughter of Zeus and Dione, and this Aphrodite is associated with a common love which "is apt to be of women as well as of youths, and is of the body rather than of the soul". After Dione, Ulrichs gave the name dioning to men who are sexually attracted to women. However, unlike Plato's account of male love, Ulrichs understood male urnings to be essentially feminine, and male dionings to be masculine in nature.
John Addington Symonds, who was one of the first to take up the term Uranian in the English language, was a student of Benjamin Jowett and was very familiar with the Symposium.
However, it has been argued that this etymology, at least for the English-speaking countries, is unrelated to Ulrichs's "coinage". In his volume Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians, Michael M. Kaylor writes:
Given that the prominent Uranians were trained Classicists, I consider ludicrous the view, widely held, that ‘Uranian’ derives from the German apologias and legal appeals written by Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–95) in the 1860s, though his coinage Urning — employed to denote ‘a female psyche in a male body’ — does indeed derive from the same Classical sources, particularly the Symposium. Further, the Uranians did not consider themselves the possessors of a ‘female psyche’; the Uranians are not known, as a group, to have read works such as Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Research on the Riddle of Male-Male Love); the Uranians were opposed to Ulrichs’s claims for androphilic, homoerotic liberation at the expense of the paederastic; and, even when a connection was drawn to such Germanic ideas and terminology, it appeared long after the term ‘Uranian’ had become commonplace within Uranian circles, hence was not a ‘borrowing from’ but a ‘bridge to’ the like-minded across the Channel by apologists such as Symonds.
— p.xiii, footnote
Development of classification scheme for sexual types
Ulrichs came to understand that not all male-bodied people with sexual attraction to men were feminine in nature. He developed a more complex threefold axis for understanding sexual and gender variance: sexual orientation (male-attracted, bisexual, or female-attracted), preferred sexual behavior (passive, no preference, or active), and gender characteristics (feminine, intermediate, or masculine). The three axes were usually, but not necessarily, linked — Ulrichs himself, for example, was a Weibling (feminine homosexual) who preferred the active sexual role.
The taxonomy of Uranismus
Note that in these terms, -in is an ordinary German suffix usually meaning "female".
- Urningin (or occasionally the variants Uranierin, Urnin, and Urnigin): A female-bodied person with a male psyche, whose main sexual attraction is to women. ("lesbian" or "straight trans man")
- Urning: A male-bodied person with a female psyche, whose main sexual attraction is to men ("gay man" or "straight trans woman")
- Dioningin: A heterosexual, feminine woman
- Dioning: A heterosexual, masculine man
- Uranodioningin: A female bisexual
- Uranodioning: A male bisexual
- Zwitter: Intersexual
Urningthum, "male homosexuality" (or urnische Liebe, homosexual love) was expanded with the following terms:
- Mannlinge: very masculine, except for feminine psyche and sex drive towards effeminate men ("butch gay")
- Weiblinge: feminine in appearance, behaviour and psyche, with a sex drive towards masculine men ("queen")
- Manuring: feminine in appearance and behaviour, with a male psyche and a sex drive towards women ("feminine straight man")
- Zwischen-Urning: Adult male who prefers adolescents. ("pederast", "hebephile")
- Conjunctive, with tender and passionate feelings for men
- Disjunctive, with tender feelings for men but passionate feelings for women ("metrosexual", "bromance")
- Virilisierte Mannlinge: Male Urnings who have learned to act like Dionings, through force or habit ("straight-acting gay")
- Uraniaster or uranisierter Mann: A dioning engaging in situational homosexuality (e.g. in prison or the military)
- Michael Matthew Kaylor, Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Pater and Wilde (Brno, CZ: Masaryk University Press, 2006)
- Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature, "Urania" (Springfield MA, Merriam-Webster Inc, 1995.)
- Webster's Dictionary of the English Language – Unabridged Encyclopedia Edition, "Uranian" (New York NY: Publisher's International Press, 1977.)
- Winston Dictionary of the English Language, "Uranian (Philadelphia PA, John C. Winston Company, 1954.)
- Lesbian activist Anna Rueling used the term in her 1904 speech, "What Interest does the Women's Movement have in Solving the Homosexual Problem?" text of Rueling's speech