Today marks the 183rd anniversary of the birth of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (pictured at right), whom academic Les Wright declares, “arguably the first modern theorist of sexual orientation and advocate for equality before the law for sexual minorities.”
Ulrichs’ seminal work on the causes of homosexuality, The Riddle of “Man-Manly” Love, surveyed literary, historical, physiological, and other data to support his argument that homosexuality is not a disease or a sin, but rather a perfectly natural state. He also argued that the strict line of differentiation between men and women has been overemphasized. His conclusion that homosexuality is the work of nature, hence innate and unavoidable, deeply influenced an entire generation of sex researchers, including Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis.
Wikipedia notes that Ulrichs was born in 1825 in Aurich, then part of the Kingdom of Hanover, in north-western Germany, and that he recalled that as a young child he wore girls’ clothes, preferred playing with girls, and wanted to be a girl. His first homosexual experience was in 1839 at the age of fourteen, in the course of a brief affair with his riding instructor. He graduated in law and theology from Göttingen University in 1846, and then studied history at Berlin University from 1846 to 1848, writing a dissertation (in Latin) on the Peace of Westphalia.
From 1849 to 1857 Ulrichs worked as an official legal adviser for the district court of Hildesheim in the Kingdom of Hanover but was dismissed in 1859 when his homosexuality became apparent.
In 1862, Ulrichs took the momentous step of telling his family and friends that he was, in his own words, an “Urning” (i.e., a male who desires men), and began writing under the pseudonym of “Numa Numantius.”
His first five essays, collected as Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Researches on the Riddle of Male-Male Love), explained such love as natural and biological, summed up with the Latin phrase anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa (a female psyche confined in a male body). In these essays, Ulrichs coined various terms to describe different sexual orientations/gender identities, including “Urning” for a male who desires men (English “Uranian”), and “Dioning” for a male who is attracted to women. These terms are in reference to a section of Plato’s Symposium in which two kinds of love are discussed, symbolized by an Aphrodite who is born from a male (Utanos), and an Aphrodite who is born from a female (Dione). Ulrichs also coined words for the female counterparts, bisexuals and intersexuals.
He soon began publishing under his real name (possibly the first public “coming out”) and wrote a statement of legal and moral support for a man arrested for homosexual offences. On August 29, 1867, Ulrichs became the first self-proclaimed homosexual (or, in his words, Urning) to speak out publicly in defense of what we now understand and call homosexuality when he pleaded at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich for a resolution urging the repeal of anti-homosexual laws. He was shouted down. Two years later, in 1869, the Austrian writer Karl Maria Kertbeny coined the word “homosexual,” and from the 1870s the subject of sexual orientation (as we would now say) began to be widely discussed.
Following is how Peter Rivendell outlines the latter period of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ life and work.
Ulrichs’ series of twelve booklets continued until 1879. His goal was to free people like himself from the legal, religious, and social condemnation of homosexual acts as unnatural, and for this he invented a new terminology that would refer to the nature of the individual and not to the acts performed.
Twice imprisoned for his public protests against the invasion and annexation of Hanover by Prussia in 1866, Ulrichs fought not only for the equal rights of homosexuals, but also for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as for the rights of women, including unwed mothers and their children.
But his one-man campaign against the legal oppression of homosexuals was unsuccessful. Indeed, the harsh Prussian anti-homosexual law was extended to the unified Germany in 1872.
Ulrichs left Germany in 1880 for voluntary exile in Italy, where he devoted the last years of his life to promoting Latin as an international language through the publication of a little Latin journal (“Alaudae”) written entirely by himself. He died on July 14, 1895 in Aquila, Italy.
Ulrichs will be best remembered for his courageous stand for the equal rights of all and, as Magnus Hirshfeld wrote, “as one of the first and noblest of those who have striven with courage and strength in this field to help truth and charity gain their rightful place.”
Late in life Ulrichs wrote: “Until my dying day I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face to face in battle against the specter which for time immemorial has been injecting poison into me and into men of my nature. Many have been driven to suicide because all their happiness in life was tainted. Indeed, I am proud that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.”
Forgotten for many years, Ulrichs has become something of a cult figure in Europe. There are streets named for him in Munich, Bremen and Hanover. His birthday is marked each year by a lively street party and poetry reading at Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Platz in Munich. The city of L’Aquila has restored his grave and hosts an annual pilgrimage to the cemetery. Since 2005 the International Lesbian and Gay Law Association has presented an annual Karl Heinrich Ulrichs Award in his honor.
Recommended Off-site Links:
A review by Les Wright of Hubert Kennedy’s Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: Pioneer of the Modern Gay Movement.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: An Early Advocate of Peace and Equality - Hubert Kennedy.
A website dedicated to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and to various efforts that keep his memory alive.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ entry in the Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture.
The Karl Heinrich Ulrichs T-shirt!
See also the previous Wild Reed post:
A Simple Yet Radical Act