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social sciences

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Third Sex  
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Earlier, but referring to male same-sex sexual desires, the understanding of "third sex" as homosexuals was announced in literature by Honoré de Balzac's (1799-1850) novel Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes [Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans], published in four volumes between 1838 and 1847, as part of Scènes de la vie parisienne in the Comédie humaine.

The "Third Sex" as Homosexuality

In a letter of September 22, 1862 addressed to his sister, German scholar Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) used the term "third sex" to refer to homosexuals. He explains that people like him are not men in the common sense of the word, since there is a "decidedly female element" in them. Although they have a male body, they are "spiritually female" in correspondence to the "direction of their sexual love." Insisting on the inborn and natural character of such a sexual disposition, Ulrichs redefines sexuality within a triadic scope of sexual possibilities and concludes: "We constitute a third sex."

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Two years later, under the pseudonym Numa Numantius, Ulrichs published the first of a series of twelve booklets on "the riddle" of male same-sex love under the title Vindex. Sozial-juristische Studien über mannmännliche Geschlechtsliebe [Social-legal Studies on Sexual Love between Men]. In this treatise, Ulrichs wrote: "We Uranians constitute a special sexual class of people, comparable to hermaphrodites, a sex of its own, coordinate as a third sex with that of men and that of women."

True to the biographical motivation of his scientific pursuits, Ulrichs took at first a male view of the "third sex." His point of departure was the "Uranian," whom he defined as "a female soul trapped in a male body" and distinguished from the normal man, which he termed "Dioning." He later examined female Uranism, that is, women with a masculine love-drive, and concluded that both Uranisms are integral parts of a separate, third sexual class.

Early British Sexual Discourse

The term "third sex" was not used widely by the representatives of the early homosexual rights movement in Britain, who generally preferred more technical concepts for designating individuals attracted to their own sex.

In his "Terminal Essay" (1886) accompanying his translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), the foremost Orientalist of his age, included a vast account of without making any reference to the third sex. Burton's careful avoidance of the concept is all the more significant if one considers that the essay elaborates extensively on an alleged "Sotadic Zone" (located between north latitudes 43º and 30º), where "there is a blending of the masculine and feminine temperaments, a crasis which elsewhere occurs only sporadically"; and discusses Plato's mythical account of the origins of same-sex love.

A similar tendency can be observed in the case of John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). In his influential book Studies in Sexual Inversion, consisting of the treatises A Study in Greek Ethics (1883) and A Study in Modern Ethics (1891), Symonds uses several synonyms for "sexual inversion," but mentions the "third sex" only briefly in references to other authors. In the first Study, Symonds explains that Plato's "theory of sexual differentiation" includes "three sexes" and then describes the "third (hermaphrodite or lunar) sex"; in the second Study, he omits any mention of "three sexes" himself, but quotes the phrase in a passage taken from Ulrichs.

Although Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) was acquainted with the non-technical, but relevant use of the term "third sex" in the writings of Magnus Hirschfeld and other German scholars, he does not even mention the concept in the course of his elucidations on same-sex terminology that introduce the third, revised edition of his famous treatise Sexual Inversion (1915).

In a seminal study of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs published under the title "An Unknown People" (1897) and subsequently incorporated as the second chapter of The Intermediate Sex (1908), Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) depicts the "Uranian type" as a "class of people" born "as it were on the dividing line between the sexes" and destined to become their "reconcilers and interpreters." However, he fails to mention that this "large class" was designated the "third sex" by Ulrichs.

Hirschfeld and the Fictionality of the Third Sex

Magnus Hirschfeld, who used the term for the first time in 1899, made the concept "third sex" popular in the twentieth century. Since "third sex"--like the term Urning ["Uranian"]-- has no moral or medical implications, it has been widely used in self-descriptive contexts.

With "third sex," Hirschfeld designated a whole range of intermediate forms of sexuality that could not be readily classified using the male/female scheme. Although Hirschfeld did not employ the term very often, he conceded that its advantage over "homosexuality" consisted in the fact that it does not necessarily connote sexual acts. This notwithstanding, Hirschfeld underscored that he did not use the term in his scientific publications, where he preferred to use either "sexual intermediaries" or "sexual transitions."

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