In the late XIX and early XX century, a spiritual and philosophical movement was sweeping Europe in a fascinating way. Citing centuries of poetry, art, law and philosophy, scores of theorists and politicians were coming to many conclusions around a central theme: sexuality is transient, varying and sometimes temporary, and labeling sexuality and gender traits is often an inaccurate practice. This idea was dubbed the term Uranian.
In our XXI century, arguments about sexuality, gender relations and the sex-for-hire trade abound. Globally, prostitution is sometimes legal and regulated. Other times and in other places it is used as a method for war and oppression. Similarly, the escort trade is sometimes accepted and put in a social spotlight—as in our curiosity of how politicians and celebrities spend their time with gorgeous, talented escorts—and other times shunned by conservative thinkers.
But perhaps more hotly debated than prostitution and escorting is sexual orientation itself: while we fight for the right for same-sex couples to marry across the United States, other countries see homosexuality as unnatural and an insult to “god”. In 38 countries in Africa alone, it is illegal to be gay, and the result of homosexuality being common knowledge can lead to imprisonment or even the death penalty.
Which is why the concept of being Uranian is so interesting.
The term was originated by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in a series of pamphlets published in 1864-1865, a few years before the term “homosexual” was commonly associated with same-sex practices. In his publications, Ulrichs detailed the vast variety of sexuality: this was not a mere matter of who one was attracted to or delineated by homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. Rather, physical and emotional characteristics were given terms all their own. Aside from Urningin and Urning—lesbian and gay respectively—there were also terms for feminine straight men, masculine straight women, expressively masculine straight men, men who felt affection for other men but physical passion only for women etc.
Ulrich focused on the physical aspects of sexuality, in turn spawning a class of artists and poets who identified themselves as Uranian, or of the “third sex”.
One such artist was Henry Scott Tuke. Born in Yorkshire, England in 1858, he was an impressionist painter best known for his portraits of naked boys and young men. In his twenties he moved to Cornwall, on the southern coast of England, which had a warm climate suitable for nude bathing, a popular practice at the time and one which he thoroughly enjoyed. There he had a plethora of models—men and boys that he would have pose naked for him while bathing or working on boats.
A contemporary onlooker might, upon first seeing a Tuke painting, think of him as an overtly sexual and somewhat inappropriate artist; he was, after all, painting portraits of naked men and underage boys! But here’s where the blanket term of Uranian contributes to Tuke’s work: his pieces are not really sexual. In them the genitals of the men are never exposed. They’re never touching each other or looking longingly in any sort of hungry, sexual manner. In fact, they’re mostly either literally working on boats or spending the lazy pastime of nude bathing that was so popular.
The Irish poet, playwright and lecturer Oscar Wilde was a friend of Tuke’s and another known Uranian. He lived regularly in London and traveled often to the United States to teach and lecture, penning The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895; to this day it is one of the most popular plays in theater history. Known to practice “Greek love”, as he put it, Wilde had several male sexual partners and is now an icon in contemporary homosexual culture. Yet he also married and was a devoted husband to Constance Lloyd, with which he would have two children that he doted upon.
Homosexuality was not necessarily legal nor accepted during the period in which Uranian thought was developed, despite the marvelous wealth of support for the idea that such sexual practices were natural and inevitable.
The idea was not limited to sexuality itself, and a group of spiritual philosophers called Theosophists took the questions of gender and sexuality several steps further.
Theosophy can be defined in several ideas: a general state of enlightenment; god-wisdom; divine-wisdom; the wisdom of all religions devoid of superstition. Basically, it’s the study of god from a spiritual point of view, common amongst Easter religions (Buddhism and Hinduism being the most obvious examples).
Theosophists took the concept of Uranianism and extended it well beyond who one was attracted to. In fact, they separated the concept from sex completely, believing that those who had achieved Uranianism were beyond sexual and almost asexual in nature, and therefore closer to god.
The two major key points in the Theosophist views were in regards to reincarnation and feminism.
From a spiritual nature, they believed—to varying degrees—that humans are reincarnated into alternatively male and female bodies. Some, like Charles Webster Leadbeater, believed that the soul reincarnated in the same sex 3-7 times before switching gender bodies. Susan E. Gay, who was a leader in Theosophist theory and a trailblazer in regards to Uranian reincarnation, believed that a soul would reincarnate repeatedly in both forms until it had gained the most positive aspects of masculinity and femininity, when it would therefore be asexual and enlightened, no matter the current gender of the body it inhabited.
Reincarnation then extended into feminism: since the soul was born into both bodies, the more advanced souls would shun the idea of female subordination to men, realizing that the only justification for male dominance was because of the physical result of evolution that makes men physically stronger than women.
An even further radical feminist theory was presented by Frances Swiney, who believed that all souls are inherently feminine and had to work up from a masculine form to the higher, stronger gender calling. In publications such as her The Awakening of Women (1899), she theorized that the spiritually enlightened (including Jesus Christ himself) usually took on male human forms as a way of sacrifice, lowering themselves. Theosophists and feminists so believed in reincarnation that they prophesied their former lives, naming themselves and others as historical figures of other genders than their current form.
In Theosophist thought, the term “Uranian” was applied to those who were balanced in feminine and masculine traits. Poet and Theosophist Eva Gore-Booth claimed in an editorial comment in the magazine Urania that “sex is an accident”. This “accidental” state of being was to help women achieve equality in society, for how could a man who had once lived in a female body not understand the equality of the sexes?
The great difference between Theosophist views on what it meant to be Uranian and artists who claimed to be as such was indeed sex itself. Uranian is now mostly associated with homosexual sex or containing personality traits usually associated with the opposite gender. And indeed, to many at the time being Uranian implied sexual preference for one or both genders.
But to the Theosophists being Uranian meant being beyond sex. Because the theories were based on religion and spirituality, they took an almost monastic lean. As priests, monks and swamis devoted their physical bodies to their faith and practiced celibacy, so those who had achieved Uranian enlightenment were also thought to be past having physical urges for sex. Eunuchs and those containing neither genitalia were thought to have achieved that place of cosmic consciousness, and those of one gender claiming to have done so were urged not to have sex at all.
Uranian and Theosophist philosophy went extensively further into these issues, yet many of us have not heard of the term today, or put the term Uranian on par with gay. But many of the things they explored and believed in are profoundly relevant to current debates on the nature versus nurture aspect of sexuality.
Homosexuality is seen in every species on the planet. Sex changes, transgender individuals and bisexuality obviously exist. And maybe if we lived in a time where they were understood to be completely natural and aside from judgment, some scandals involving escorts wouldn’t be so shocking.
Eddie Murphy made waves when he was busted driving a male escort home in the 90s. There’s speculation that Will Smith has had his share of fun with male prostitutes. Stories abound of republican politicians who get busted soliciting sex from men in bathrooms nationwide. And it’s not at all uncommon for men to desire the company of more than one woman—and have those women engage sexually with each other.
Uranian thinking has both supported and been thought to erase the idea of prostitution, depending on the person or Theosophist presenting the issue. In one aspect, since all souls are believed to have inherited male and female forms, the understanding of equality would put men and women on an equal level and therefore eliminate the sex-for-hire industry. On the other aspect, the idea of varying degrees of sexuality and gender traits means that there is more room for exploration and so support the idea of hiring people of both genders for their time or sexual partnership.
The idea of Uranian is quite liberating, both from a sexual and spiritual term. Because of the lack of judgment in both viewpoints we can apply this to our contemporary arguments surrounding prostitution and escorting; sexuality and gender are ever-developing and can’t be contained by words or terms. Instead of those of questionable sexuality being viewed by some cultures as “unnatural”, or the exploration of sexuality being judged:
It may possibly lead to the development of that third order of perception which has been called the cosmic consciousness, and which may also be termed divination.
– Carpenter, quoted in Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader, Joy Dixon