The ‘Intermediate Sex’: A lost chapter in British queer history

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Gender and sexuality are different things. At least, they are at the moment. The way we define our sexual selves does not, generally, dictate the way we define our gendered selves — or vice versa — and this is partly a result of the emphasis that early gay liberation campaigns put on the ‘normality’ of homosexuals in their day-to-day presentation (i.e. in line with their assigned gender). But before these campaigns gathered pace in the 1950s, there was a school of thought that believed homosexuality was, in fact, an intersex condition. In Britain it was largely gay men who pushed the concept of an ‘intermediate sex,’ hoping it would unlock public sympathy and ultimately help lift the ban on homosexual acts that had been in place since the sixteenth century. Despite its obscurity now, this chapter in British queer history has a complex legacy which still affects the way we talk about gender and sexuality today.

The idea had its roots in nineteenth-century Germany, one of the epicentres of early sexology. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs suggested the idea of a ‘third sex’ called the Uranian, which, as Theo Lang put it in 1940, implied that homosexuals were actually females occupying ‘male’ bodies. One of the earliest expressions of Uranian theory in Britain was to be found in Edward Carpenter’s book The Intermediate Sex (1908), which observed that humans display a wide variety of ‘gradations of Soul-material in relation to Sex’. Although Carpenter described the Urning (male Uranian) as having a ‘defect,’ he also argued that it gave them ‘an extraordinary gift for … affairs of the heart’. By presenting Urnings in a sympathetic light, Carpenter tried to carve out a space in which the supposed femininity of the homosexual could become a virtue.

This mode of understanding survived well into the mid-twentieth century, with numerous gay writers picking up the baton. An anonymous author, under the pseudonym ‘Anomaly,’ argued in a 1927 book titled The Invert that:

Because Anomaly saw the psyche as, by definition, attracted to its bodily ‘opposite,’ he concluded that ’all psychosexual attraction is essentially heterosexual’. This implied two things: first, that homosexuals were not really men; and second, that the word ‘homosexual’ was in any case misleading. As such, the ‘intermediate sex’ theory posed a direct threat to the gender-binary and to the demonization of ‘same-sex’ love.

The key moment came in 1954, when the Conservative government in Westminster appointed the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. It was tasked with examining the law on homosexual intimacy between men, which at that time was still categorically illegal. As part of their evidence-gathering process the committee heard from Carl Winter, the homosexual curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, who told them that humanity ‘is not divisible into two perfectly clear-cut sexes … on the contrary we all embody, for better or worse, many characteristics of both sexes … but not necessarily always in a body of the same sex as the psyche’. The implication was that homosexuals were merely a product of natural genetic variations, and as such it was unfair for the law to single them out. But in the maelstrom of competing ideas on sexuality in 1950s Britain, the ‘intermediate sex’ theory lost out.

The Committee’s final report in 1957 did recommend the partial decriminalization of homosexual acts, but it made no mention of the concept of an intermediate sex. This was no doubt partly a reflection of the theory’s intellectual ambition. It undermined the idea of two complementary sexes, introduced a concept similar to transsexualism, and discussed homosexuality using a lexicon totally removed from anything the political establishment or the general public was used to. Its thoughtful sympathy towards homosexuals chimed with the cautious tolerance of the liberal elite, but it was simply too alien, too threatening, and too confusing to be the basis for political change.

In the 1950s, anyway, a far less destabilizing argument for decriminalization was being codified. Peter Wildeblood, a former Daily Mail journalist imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’ in 1953, became one of the most prominent gay men of his time after publishing his memoir, Against the Law, in 1955. He spurned the notion of everyone possessing ‘characteristics of both sexes’ and famously condemned ‘the pathetically flamboyant pansy with the flapping wrists’. Most homosexuals, he wrote, ‘are not like that. We do our best to look like everyone else, and we usually succeed’. This is a telling passage, singling out the ‘flamboyant pansy’ only to convince the reader that he deserves no special attention. It insists that most homosexual men really are men — masculine, reserved, harmless. In a strictly binary-gendered society, this was a much more comforting proposition.

Wildeblood did not jettison the idea of mixed sex characteristics altogether. When invited to speak to the Committee, he told them of his encounters with homosexual prisoners ‘who really are sort of women to all intents and purposes. They just happen to have a male body. They think like women and behave like women’. However, instead of invoking sympathy, he presents these people as pariahs who cause ‘a lot of the public feeling against homosexuals’. This concern to avoid association with ostentatious behaviour fits into the wider blueprint of ‘respectable’ homosexual politics in the 1950s, later encapsulated by the campaigner Antony Grey’s comment that one ought ‘to dress, behave and speak in ways calculated to win the sympathetic attention of those whom you wish to influence’. In modern parlance we call this ‘straight acting’. Whereas the ‘intermediate sex’ theory tried to legitimize new forms of gendered expression, respectability politics put the onus on homosexuals to scrupulously self-regulate their behaviours.

It was on the basis of this appeal to the normality of most homosexuals that the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was passed, decriminalizing homosexual acts between men in private. The ‘intermediate sex’ theory in its original guise fell by the wayside. But remnants of this remarkably imaginative and forward-thinking idea are still present in the way we discuss our identities today. For example, Uranian theory heavily influenced early conceptions of transsexual identity with its focus on ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains occupying ‘the wrong body’. It also prefigured the notion of non-binary identities by recognizing that not everyone fits into cleanly-defined ‘male’ and ‘female’ boxes. Furthermore, by explicitly linking sexuality and gender within the same theoretical framework, it offered an early glimpse of the synergy between sexual and gender politics which is now evident in the acronym ‘LGBT’. We are still, in a roundabout way, living with the legacy of a theory that was swept aside over fifty years ago.

Historian of modern Britain, popular culture, and queer identities. PhD student, trans activist, and Quaker from South Wales. She/her pronouns.

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