The talk that caused to me walk out of the trans history conference was so bad that almost every slide was either incompetent or dishonest in some way (it can be hard to tell the difference between someone who is just ignorant and someone who is lying for effect). However, one slide I was prepared to give a pass to because I had heard the same point made in a previous talk. It was the slide that said that being “born in wrong body” was an idea that was originally coined to explain being gay.
I should note here that the wrong body meme is not a very useful concept. It totally erases those trans people who are happy transitioning socially without any medical intervention. It encourages a focus on the gender binary, which is unhelpful to anyone who doesn’t want the whole gamut of medical transition options. And of course it is simplistic, which doesn’t help in a subject as complicated as trans people. These days trans activists tend to avoid using it.
Anyway, soon after the conference someone I know on social media asked for more information about this claim, so I did a bit of digging. That’s when things got interesting.
The wrong body meme was first coined by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German writer from the latter half of the 19th Century. Ulrichs was possibly the first modern European to advocate for gay rights. In fact we might describe him as the first gay man, as he was the first person to try to describe being gay in modern terms. The word “homosexual” was coined by his friend, the Austro-Hungarian Karl-Maria Kertbeny, a couple of years after Ulrichs went public with his ideas. Ulrichs himself had used the word “urning” to describe gay men.
It is entirely true that Ulrichs characterized a gay man as an, “anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa” (“a female soul confined in a male body” — he wrote in Latin). However, some very quick Googling about Ulrichs also turned up this:
Ulrichs had a sense of himself as being considerably more feminine than the average man. He recalled that as a young child he wore girls’ clothes, preferred playing with girls, and in fact expressed a desire to be a girl.
If you do read the whole thing you will note that Ulrichs lived apparently happily as a man, but deemed himself quite feminine and preferred sex with very masculine men. On discovering that not all gay men were like him, he revised his theories to allow for other types.
So far from coining the wrong body idea because he needed an explanation for same-sex desire, Ulrichs coined it because that’s how he felt about himself.
Now that we have done proper studies on trans kids we know that the majority of children who express non-stereotypical gender behavior do not grow up to be trans. Some grow up to be gay/lesbian, and some grow up to be straight. However, in expressing a desire to actually be a girl Ulrichs exhibited evidence that he was fairly far towards the trans end of the spectrum. That he grew up to be happy as a man (or at least as happy as one could be, being a gay man in 19th Century Germany) suggests he was not all the way along that spectrum. Of course in his day there was no concept of being trans for him consider. Had he been born today, he might well have identified as non-binary in some way.
Of course there are still those who think that all treatment of trans people should be halted in order to save innocent gays and lesbians from being turned trans by the Evil Trans Agenda. There are also those who believe that trans people would be much happier if they were to consent to psychotherapy to “cure” them of their feelings so that they could become gay or lesbian (or stop being androgynephile perverts). And of course there are still doctors who try to cram all trans people into the gender binary. All of these people are dangerous.
What we actually need is for people to be more like Ulrichs and come to recognize that there is a whole spectrum of identities out there, and to allow people to find their own way to happiness.
I’d like to see some more research done on Ulrichs because he seems to be a good example of a non-binary person from European history. Not being able to read German, and being very rusty on the Latin, I’m not well placed to do that.
What I found very sad was to see Ulrichs’ non-binary nature being erased by someone who appeared to identify as non-binary themselves in order to provide another stick with which to beat binary-identified trans people.