People in History: Havelock Ellis

256px-Havelock_Ellis_a People in History: Havelock Ellis

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One of the earliest and most influential of the English sexologists was the unlikely figure of Havelock Ellis. Born to a family of sea captains, Ellis emigrated to Australia at sixteen, and spent the next four years working as a teacher (not very successfully: when his first employer discovered his complete lack of qualifications to do the job, he was dismissed; he ended up running the next school he worked at after the master unexpectedly died, but was swiftly replaced). Despite his failures, he reported in his autobiography that in Australia “I gained health of body, I attained peace of soul, my life task was revealed to me, I was able to decide on a professional vocation, I became an artist in literature.”

Upon returning to England in 1879, Ellis was determined to forge a career in the infant study of sexology (Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis wouldn’t be published for another seven years). In order to understand his field, he first determined he needed to understand the human body, and enrolled in  St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in order to qualify as a physician (although he never practised medicine). He supported himself in the meantime with a small inheritance and by editing reprints of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas.

256px-Havelock_Ellis_30yo People in History: Havelock Ellis

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Ellis’ first work, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (co-authored by JA Symonds) was published in German in 1896, and translated into English the following year, the first English textbook on homosexuality. Ellis was often attributed as the person to have coined the term “homosexual,” although he vigorously denied it, declaring it a “barbarously hybrid word” (hybrid because it has mixed Greek and Latin roots; the source of the original complaints against its adoption as the generic term). Ellis instead referred to “inversion” and “inverts” when discussing same-sex attraction.
His work was notable for the real-life case studies of queer couples whom he interviewed in order to understand their sexuality. He concluded that same-sex desire wasn’t diseased, immoral, or criminal, and approached homosexuality with an objectivity which placed him years ahead of most of his generation. That was not to say his works was completely unproblematic. Assuming same-sex affection transcended age as well as gender (and probably informed by classical readings of pederastic relationships), a third of his case studies involved “inter-generational relationships” (as he termed them) which would today be viewed as paedophilic.

256px-Havelock_Ellis_1926 People in History: Havelock Ellis

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Ellis continued his studies by developing the German Magnus Hirschfeld’s work on transvestism (as it usually applied to queer men) to draw a distinction between cross-dressing and being transgender; which he recognised as a separate phenomenon to sexual attraction. Originally termed “sexo-aesthetic inversion,” Ellis later coined the word “eonism” to describe the feeling of having been born in the wrong body. While his understanding of the phenomenon was clumsy at times, he noted it to be “remarkably common” and posited biological causes (he suspected unbalanced endocrine hormones) alongside psychological.

Despite becoming an authority on sex and sexual desire, Ellis was a virgin for most of his life. At thirty-two he married the writer Edith Lees, who was herself openly lesbian. They resided in separate houses all their lives, maintaining an open marriage which was the subject of his autobiography, My Life. It was only at the age of sixty Ellis discovered a way to overcome the impotence which had plagued him his entire life: he could only become aroused by watching women urinate. Ever the scientist, he termed his fetish “undinism,” and was finally able to engage in a sexual relationship of his own.


Born on this day: Nate Berkus (44, American), interior designer and TV personality; Kevin Clash (55, American), puppeteer behind Elmo from Sesame Street; Sir Frederick Ashton OM, CH, CBE (1904-1988, English), ballet dancer; Jade Esteban Estrada (40, American), entertainer and political activist; Charles Griffes (1884-1920, American), composer; Curtis Harrington (1926-2007, American), director noted for horror and experimental films, often hailed as one of the forerunners of the New Queer Cinema movement; Rebecca Kaplan (45, American), current City Councilmember At-Large for Oakland, CA; Aiza Seguerra (32, Filipino), child actor turned singer-songwriter; Bryan Singer (50, American), director best known for X-Men films; and Tim Van Zandt (52, American), former Democratic representative of the 38th district in the Missouri House of Representatives, and first openly-gay member elected to the Missouri General Assembly.

Died on this day: Napier Sturt, 3rd Baron Alington (1896-1940, English), peer.

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2 replies on “People in History: Havelock Ellis”

  1. Misty says:

    LOOOVE the series <3 Thank You!!!

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