You are here: Canon » Stories » From sodomite to homosexual

From sodomite to homosexual

In the 19th century it was not only the police and judiciary who were concerned with men having sex with men (they hardly cared about women). A whole procession of domestic and especially foreign ‘experts’ were looking for explanations for deviant sexual behaviour. At first we only knew the sodomite, but in the course of the century the pederast, the uranist, the urninde and the homosexual, among others, made their appearance.
In the early 1800’s, forensic physicians examined the bodies of apprehended sodomites for evidence of anal penetration. They rarely found hard evidence of this. From about 1850, attention shifted from the body to the psychological condition of sexual perverts and it was mainly psychiatrists who dealt with them.

Acquired or innate?

A key question for them was always whether homosexual behavior is innate or acquired. The answers to that question varied widely. Many experts agreed that there is both a group of perverts who were born that way and another who became that way. In the first category, hereditary defects, degeneration and insanity would mainly play a role, in the second excessive masturbation, lust, thirst for new stimuli and wrong education. In 1893 Cornelis Winkler, the then brand new Utrecht professor of psychiatry, stated that ‘an urning per se [= by nature] is a madman’.
Not everyone thought so. There was agreement, however, that ‘wrong lovers’ constituted a social danger, because they mainly tried to seduce young people into the same evil. It was not until the end of the 19th century that physicians came forward who expressed a different view and defended the existence of ‘normal’ homosexuals.

Uranism and Homosexuality

In the same 19th century, another category of ‘experts’ also made itself publicly known for the first time: men who loved men themselves, such as the German lawyer and journalist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) and the Hungarian-Austrian writer, journalist and translator Károly Kertbeny (1824-1882).
According to Ulrichs, same-sex love was innate in a type of person he described as the ‘third sex’. He called the male members ‘female souls enclosed in a male body’, the female members ‘male souls enclosed in a female body’. Ulrichs called this phenomenon uranism and the men and women concerned respectively uranists, uranians or urnings and urninden or urningines. He set out his ideas in twelve brochures, which were also directed against the Prussian Penal Code, which criminalized sex between men.
In his fight he was supported by Kertbeny. However, he rejected the theory of the third sex and proposed as new concepts homosexual and homosexuality (from the Greek ‘homo’ = self, own and the German ‘sexual’ = concerning sex life). Opposite the Homosexualist was the Normalsexualist, replaced in a later publication by the Heterosexualist. The neutral terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘homosexuality’, which could be used for all kinds of relationships between peers, made their international breakthrough and are still the most commonly used words in many languages.
‘Homosexual’ and ‘homosexuality’ were first used in Dutch in the gossip book ‘Europeesche Hof-schandalen’ (European Court Scandals; Amsterdam 1872; translated from German) and only twenty years later in the Geneeskundige Courant (medical newspaper). Already in 1870, the same magazine, in a (very negative) review of two of Ulrichs’ brochures, had the Dutch first of the word ‘urning’.

​Sex and gender diversity

At the end of the 19th century, the German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld was inspired by Ulrichs’ ideas. In 1897 he and others founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäre Komitee / WhK (scientific humanitarian committee) in Berlin, the first gay advocacy organization in the world. According to Hirschfeld, Uranists formed a third gender in addition to men and women, and nature also knew all kinds of intermediate and transitional forms.
In the same year, the Dutch physician and writer Arnold Aletrino defended the thesis in the Psychiatric and Neurological Journals that, in addition to ‘normal’ heterosexuals, there are also ‘normal’ homosexuals with an innate sexual preference. According to him, psychiatrists gave a distorted picture of homosexuality because they only knew patients and not healthy and happy homosexuals. Four years later, Aletrino was also the first to defend homosexuality as a normal variant of sex life at a scientific conference (the Fifth International Congress of Criminal Anthropology in Amsterdam).
Although the names and definitions are not exactly the same, it can be said that Hirschfeld and his followers already had an eye for a large part of the sexual and gender diversity that we know today. In the Netherlands this was the case for Lucien von Römer, a pupil of Hirschfeld, who published extensively on uranism in the early 20th century and became embroiled in all kinds of debates about its nature. He later founded, in 1912, a Ducht section of the WhK with Aletrino, the lawyer Jacob Anton Schorer and the writer M.J.J. Exler.

Passionate friendships

In addition to the sodomite, the uranist and the homosexual, 19th-century love for men and women had other, somewhat more elitist forms. The romantic friendships or companionships between soul mates are perhaps most reminiscent of gay and lesbian relationships today. With one big difference: the 19th century best friends usually left it open whether they also had an erotic relationship with each other.
A Dutch example of an intimate male friendship is that between the poets Willem Kloos and Albert Verwey in the 1980s. It inspired Verwey to write the sonnet cycle ‘Of the love that is called friendship’. More than a hundred years earlier, the friendship between the writers Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken was less stormy and in mutual loyalty to the end.
Then there were men who preferred a relationship, whether or not platonic, with an adolescent and took the love of boys from Greek antiquity as an example. They were often referred to as pederast, although in the 19th century the same word was also used for anal sex or as a general term of abuse next to sodomite, sodomite, fagot or ‘van den zachten zijn’ (being of the soft).
The writer Johannes Kneppelhout was a passionate advocate of pedagogical friendship. Between 1864 and 1874 his best-known protégé was violinist child prodigy Jan de Graan, who remained unmoved by all the attention and money from Kneppelhout’s side.

Psychopathia Sexualis

In the 19th century, gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbian women were given a voice. Not only Ulrichs and Kertbeny took the floor. This also applied to countless anonymous men and women whose autobiographical story ended up in the psychiatric literature as a ‘case report’. The most famous work – many times reprinted and translated into many languages – was Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) by Richard von Kraft-Ebing. Because it contained many case studies or ‘observations’, the book also reached a large lay audience.
For many gay and lesbian readers, Psychopathia Sexualis must have been their first introduction to the experiences of other homosexuals. The cases (about forty in the first Dutch translation from 1896-1897) present people with a range of identities and with feelings that they themselves experience as something natural. They tell of the ease with which some had sex with peers at a young age. They testify to sometimes long lasting friendships between two men or two women that prove difficult but not impossible. And they reveal that meeting places and networks of urningen exist and that homosexuality exists in all walks of life. In addition to all that useful and encouraging information, gay and lesbian readers have to accept that Krafft-Ebing continues to call them sickly and insane. But he adds – with a few exceptions – they are actually incurable.

Maurice van Lieshout




Robert Aldrich (redactie), Van alle tijden, in alle culturen. Wereldgeschiedenis van de homoseksualiteit (Amsterdam 2006).

Hans Hafkamp en Maurice van Lieshout (redactie), Pijlen van Naamloze Liefde. Pioniers van de homo-emancipatie (Amsterdam 1988).

Gert Hekma (samenstelling en inleiding), Honderd jaar homoseksuelen. Documenten over de uitdoktering van homoseksualiteit (Amsterdam 1992).

Gert Hekma, Homoseksualiteit in Nederland van 1730 tot de moderne tijd (Amsterdam 2004).

J. Kneppelhout, Opvoeding door vriendschap. Toegelicht door Marita Mathijsen en Frank Ligtvoet (Amsterdam 1980).

J. Kneppelhout, Een beroemde knaap. Ter herinnering aan Jan de Graan. Bezorgd door Marijke Stpart-Eggen (‘s-Gravenhagde 1981).

Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Leerboek der zielsziekten van het geslachtsleven vooral met het oog op de tegennatuurlijke geslachtsdrift. Met 191 waarnemingen over Sadisme, Saphisme, Masochisme, Fetischisme, Bestialiteit, Homo-sexualiteit, Paederastie enz. enz. 2 delen (Amsterdam 1896-1897).

Maurice van Lieshout, ‘Wetenschappelijke controverses over criminelen en homoseksuelen. Het vijfde Internationale Congres voor Crimineele Antropologie in Amsterdam, 1901’, Amstelodamum. Tijdschrift voor de kennis van Amsterdam 108 (2021) 4, 213-230.

Harry Oosterhuis, Stepchildren of Nature. Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry and the Making of Sexual Identity (Chicago / London 2000).




Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (from Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen1 (1899))

Károly Maria Kertbeny, ca 1865 (photographer unknown, from Goodbye to Berlin? 100 Jahre Schwulenbewegung (Berlin 1997))

Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken (engraving A. Cardon 1784, Literature Museum The Hague)

Session of the Fifth International Congress of Criminal Anthropology in the auditorium of the University of Amsterdam, September 1901. The doctor Arnold Aletrino defended the existence of ‘normal’ Uranists during this congress. (Archive and Documentation Center of the Dutch Behavioral Sciences)

Title page Dutch translation (1896-97) by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Pyschopathia Sexualis.