Chalk it up to perversity: In the midst of a horrifying anti-LGBTQ+ backlash, amid a wave of state legislative violence against trans people specifically and our self-expression broadly, all I can think about is queer utopia. If that phrase brings to mind something like the meme of a glassy, futuristic cityscape dotted with pristine green spaces and flying cars—maybe with more rainbow decals—it’s more abstract than that. These days, when I wax utopian, I’m picturing the flourishing of a certain outsider perspective that tests, reimagines, and improves the received normal for everyone. I’m looking ahead to a world that values our difference, that recognizes, grudgingly or enthusiastically, that it’s better off with us than without us.
A decade ago, it was the other way around. During the relatively summery Obama years, as we rode wins for marriage equality from Iowa to New York to the U.S. Supreme Court, as we secured unprecedented federal backing for workplace protections, housing, and health care, I didn’t trust the optimism. I volunteered with the New York City Anti-Violence Project, a nonprofit tracking violence against LGBTQ+ and HIV-affected communities, and we were the gay killjoys braced for the counter-swing. It’s well documented how bias-motivated violence increases alongside advancements in LGBTQ+ rights. Our teeth-gritting may not have fit the moment, but triumphalism spooked me. Love demonstrably doesn’t always win.
Now, after the Pulse and Club Q shootings in 2016 and 2022, in the midst of a concerted anti-trans panic from the right and the cowardly ambivalence of center-left institutions, with armed posses marshalling to intimidate drag queens reading storybooks, and state governments siding against the queens and the books, pessimism is in. And yet it is at this moment that I am most persuaded that LGBTQ+ people are poised to bring about a better world. That it is our perversity exactly, our ill-fittedness within a society that can’t quite accept us, that holds the most value.
That conviction drives my new book Uranians, a collection of short speculative fiction about queer difference. I started writing these stories after Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and Brazil’s election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, when it was clear things were going to get much worse—for the gays, for the planet, for everything. And naturally, there are plenty of contemporary anxieties running around the stories, from climate change to hypercapitalist artificial intelligence. But there’s also a weird, unnerving optimism building over the course of them—I didn’t know where it came from—that culminates in the title story, a piece of full-throated, operatic queer utopianism.
That title comes from Edward Carpenter, a pioneer of gay rights in Victorian England. In his remarkable 1908 book, The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women, he proposes the “Uranian”—his term for gay men and women—as not only worthy of compassion and tolerance, but also full of radical, utopian potential, even “the natural leaders of mankind.” It was an audacious thesis for the time, and of course not all of it holds up. But even so, it is precisely now that Carpenter’s earnest, almost cringey utopianism strikes me as utterly compelling. However dangerous, exhausting, and evil the current anti-LGBTQ+ wave is, it clarifies why such powerful interests mark us as a threat: because, as Carpenter saw, we really can change the world.
Carpenter’s queer journey catalyzed in the spring of 1891, when the distinguished lecturer, poet, and socialist got cruised at a Derbyshire train station. He had noticed the 24-year-old George Merrill in the train car and clocked his “somewhat free style of dress”; the two men exchanged a look of recognition. When he descended from the train in rural Sheffield, Carpenter greeted some friends on the platform who had come to visit him and set off walking toward his cottage in Millthorpe, about four miles over low pastureland. Merrill, ditching his own friends, followed at a distance. After a mile, Carpenter improvised to fall behind his guests and talk to Merrill, who suggested they turn back to town “and so forth.”
At 46, Edward Carpenter cut a strikingly handsome figure, with dark, high-arched brows, a full, silver beard, and an intensity to his features belied by the sheer earnestness of his idealism. An early British socialist, Carpenter organized and wrote polemics advocating for unions, animal welfare, vegetarianism, and anti-pollution measures. He was an early adopter of a certain rural, “simplified” lifestyle movement that George Orwell would later deride as “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” Orwell here definitely had Carpenter in mind, and only the fourth charge (“sex-maniac”) was unfair. Carpenter was, if anything, too careful, a bit hopeless even, his enthusiasm for men more often unconsummated and unrequited, directed at younger, working-class socialists with at best ambivalent sexualities. Carpenter did not take up Merrill’s invitation and abandon his guests. But he did get the young man’s name and address.
George Merrill came from the slums of Sheffield, with the proletarian bona fides Carpenter romanticized in his pamphlets and pined after privately; he was sexually confident, experienced, foul-mouthed, flirtatious. In drifting between industrial and service jobs around England, Merrill had racked up several affairs with upper-class men, whose gifts he’d sent home to his father to be pawned. Nothing went unconsummated between him and Carpenter.
Merrill’s sexual audacity had a famous galvanizing effect on others. When E.M. Forster first visited the couple at the cottage in Millthorpe, in 1913—more than 30 years after their first encounter—the novelist was self-conscious and too much in awe of Carpenter, until Merrill came up beside Forster and gently palmed the crest of his ass. “The sensation,” Forster wrote, “was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long-vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving any thought.”
Forster went home and wrote his great gay novel Maurice, its cross-class lovers modeled on Carpenter and Merrill. He sent it to Carpenter the next August, though it would not see publication until 1971, after Forster’s death.
For Carpenter, the influence of his happy affair with Merrill showed in his invigorated interest in liberal sexual politics, and, in particular, his criticism of Britain’s “gross indecency” laws, which had recently expanded the criminalization of homosexual acts. From 1893 to 1894, he wrote four progressive tracts on sexuality: Woman and her Place in a Free Society, Marriage in a Free Society, Sex-Love and its Place in a Free Society, and finally, Homogenic Love and its Place in a Free Society.
Homogenic Love kicks off with erudite citations of same-sex “Comradeship” in works of Homer, Sappho, Hafiz, Tennyson, and Whitman—as well as an inexpert, though well-meaning, argument that similar bonds appear across African, Polynesian, and other non-Western cultures. It then insists that this form of love, though not to be reduced to “a sexual act of the crudest and grossest kind,” still “demands some kind of physical expression.” Summarizing still-untranslated work by early sexologists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Homogenic Love places homosexuality and heterosexuality on equal footing spiritually, sociologically, and scientifically, with either liable to descend into “morbid,” neurotic forms or inspire great virtue in lovers. Carpenter’s argument is scholarly, reasonable, inescapably defensive—a polite polemic meant to win persuadable allies from out of a skeptical public.
In 1895, just as the four pamphlets were set to be printed, the disaster of Oscar Wilde’s three trials hit London. The trials are remembered now for Wilde’s eloquence and occasional courage in the witness box but, at the time, were dominated by lurid sensationalism, speculation, and open vilification of homosexuality. Public discourse revolved around Wilde’s decadence, his glib amorality, his retinue of teenage sex workers and blackmailers. Wilde’s scandal—and his sentence of two years’ hard labor—engendered a poisonous moral panic and a corresponding timidity by institutions that might have been receptive to Homogenic Love. Wilde’s diabolical example also gave the lie to Carpenter’s high-minded defenses of comradeship—and threw his own tastes for younger, working-class men into sordid relief. The pamphlet’s printer pulled the contract, Carpenter’s socialist friends condemned Wilde, and public opinion on homosexuality entered a dark and diffident period.
Still, Carpenter continued to write cultural surveys and defenses of homosexuality through the decade after the Wilde trials, growing ever bolder in his optimism. In 1908’s The Intermediate Sex, Carpenter comes out swinging. Here, not only is homosexual love not worse than its more familiar counterparts—maybe it’s better. Maybe the increased public attention to homosexuals indicates a “new type of humankind may be emerging,” for whom an “immense capacity of emotional love represents … a great driving force.”
This “Uranian”—taking up a term from Ulrichs, inspired by Plato—“puts Love before everything else … postponing to it the other motives like money-making, business success, fame, which occupy so much space in most people’s careers.” These new, “intermediate” sexes pursue their relationships “beneath the surface of society,” at the risk of disgrace, prosecution, and ruin. (Here, Carpenter’s early stabs at gender theory are limited, but still interesting, invoking a stereotypical binary to position queer people as healthy, helpful intermediaries.) Though copping to Uranians’ fair share of “a poor and frivolous sort,” generally, Carpenter says, “the experience of the Uranian world forming itself freely and not subject to outside laws and institutions comes as a guide—and really a hopeful guide—towards the future.” In short, if we’re trying to create a socialist utopia, one driven by open, democratic principles instead of greed and narrow thinking, who better to lead this transformation than the Uranians?
The idea is painfully beautiful, especially with the Wilde trials and the kiboshing of Homogenic Love in mind—that it is precisely because of our exclusion from polite society that we are able to better it. In 1923, an 11-year-old Harry Hay, a future founder of the Mattachine Society and Radical Faeries, discovered a copy of The Intermediate Sex in a library and was inspired.
At almost the same time, the Harlem Renaissance writer Countee Cullen came across Carpenter’s books, which, he wrote, “threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural. I loved myself in it.”
Now, in another historically bleak moment for queer acceptance, it’s vital to remember that optimism of Carpenter’s, that our friction with majorities isn’t the problem: It’s our singular gift.
By Theodore McCombs
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Carpenter’s argument in The Intermediate Sex reminds me—and here I’m being truly perverse—of the Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton’s argument in his book Orthodoxy, which positions the Christian as a kind of utopian fanatic, “who hates [the world] enough to change it, and yet loves it enough to think it worth changing,” struggling for a vision of the world that should be over more rational appeals to incremental progress. Both Chesterton’s Christianity and Carpenter’s Uranian Love stand ready to overthrow systems of reasonableness (class, capital, polite religiosity) for an ideal experienced pre-rationally, even libidinally. Both accommodate a broken world, however; neither conditions one’s happiness on any final victory over injustice. Rather, they equip their utopians with ways to conceptualize lives of personal integrity within a hostile environment.
It’s a risky, thrilling political position, rooted in a self-assured zeal that’s hard to nurture, impossible to justify. My collection Uranians is in many ways a set of experiments testing this politic against our massive systemic challenges like climate change and inequality. And, to be honest, I’m not sure it works all that consistently. For every Marsha P. Johnson, a George Santos. In the era of Pride parades brought to you by J.P. Morgan Chase, queerness’s anti-capitalist potential often seems more conspicuous in its failure than its fruition. But success is hardly a fair measure for utopias—they all bomb at scale, that’s their whole vibe. It may be that Carpenter’s queer utopianism works best as one more lifestyle movement, inhabited instead of evangelized.
Take climate change. Fossil fuel interests may have abused the notion of individual carbon footprints, but it’s still important to confront how mass consumption drives demand. And in the U.S., at least, when we look at the sectors responsible for most of our emissions, it’s hard not to see the connection between, on the one hand, emissions from transportation, power generation, land use, agriculture and the meat industry, etc., and on the other hand, a pattern of consumption tied up with a certain image of American middle-class prosperity. You know the one: single-family suburban home, the crowded commute, college funds for the kids, and the high-earning jobs that pay for this lifestyle—which tend to be jobs aligned, indirectly or not, with our fossil-fueled status quo. As one of my characters in Uranians puts it, “Maybe feeling like you have to have two kids, two cars, a grass lawn all winter, and a steak dinner every night to be happy is what got Earth into such a bad state.” And, more than unsustainable, the dream is precarious, so that any attempt to swap out its props and set dressings gets treated as a threat to happiness itself.
Queer people aren’t exempt from this way of thinking—oh my God, we are not—though for a long time, this particular American dream was actively hostile to us. More fundamentally, we are all equipped with some experience of breaking out of vigorously defended social narratives, of letting go of precarious, unhealthy self-conceptions, of doing the painful work of figuring out our own thriving in an adverse environment. That’s real strength, and it’s strength the rest of our country needs to see—especially in the rough times ahead. Happiness doesn’t have to look like whatever you’ve been sold. Trust us. This is the “experience of the Uranian world forming itself freely” that Carpenter proposed as a “hopeful guide” for the future, and I think he’s still right—at least, he could be.
If that’s optimism, then I admit, it’s a more sobered, wind-bitten kind than what we usually like that word to mean. Not an assurance that things will turn out all right, but an opportunity to make a breaking world a little more livable. Not that gleaming futuristic city on a hill, but a home that only we can build.