Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Lemme tell you about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs — who I briefly talked about in discussion of Karl-Maria Kertbeny. He is considered by many to be the father of the modern gay rights movement — roughly a hundred years before the Stonewall Riots would push the movement into the mainstream.

Heinrichs, like Kertbeny, came up with his own words to classify human sexuality. His word for a man who desired men was “Urning” which I, for one, am glad is not the word that made it to the mainstream, but since it’s how he identified himself I’m going to use it here. The term, for those curious, comes from the god Uranus, who was male. Totally weak explanation, I know, but that’s what we’ve got.

Ulrichs was born on August 28, 1825. As a child, he recalled, he preferred wearing girl’s clothing, playing with girls, and stated that he had wanted to be a girl. At the age of 14, he had his first sexual encounter with another man — his riding instructor. He studied law and theology at Gottingen University, and then studied history at Berlin University. All told, he finished his formal education in 1848 after which he took a job as a legal adviser for a district court in the Kingdom of Hanover. He lost that job when his sexuality became known in 1857.

In 1862, he came out as an Urning to his friends and family, and declared that his feelings were biological, and natural. He penned five essays under a pseudonym “Numa Numantius” that explained all of this, before he began publishing under his real name. This, of course, meant he was constantly in trouble with the law — though, usually for his words, which argued for decriminalizing homosexuality, and not his sexual activities — and had to keep moving around Germany. His books were banned and confiscated in Saxony, Berlin, and the entirety of Prussia.

In 1867, after a brief imprisonment in Prussia, he moved to Munich. There, he spoke to the German Association of Jurists and urged them to reform the laws against homosexuality. This was the first time in history that an openly homosexual (well, Urning) person publicly spoke on behalf of LGBT rights.

In 1870, Ulrichs wrote and published a book called “Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law” which is particularly remarkable because of the close similarity it bears to the demands of the modern gay rights movement. In this book, Ulrichs vehemently decries not just anti-sodomy laws, but the unequal treatment of Urnings under the law. He calls sexuality a “right established by nature” and states that “legislators have no right to veto nature.”

In 1879, Ulrichs published his 12th book — entitled “Research on the Riddle of Man-Manly Love” and then went into self-imposed exile to Naples. He, apparently, felt he had done all he could for Germany and nothing had really changed. He continued to write prolifically in Naples, receiving an honor degree from the University of Naples. He died on July 14, 1895.

Ulrichs legacy would live on. Streets are named after him in Munich, Bremen, Hanover, and Berlin. (Berlin would go onto become something of a gay capital in Europe — as I think many of us know — in the 1920’s. I find it hard to imagine that that could have happened without Ulrichs.) In Munich each year on his birthday, a street party is held that includes lively poetry readings. In the city of L’Aquila, where his grave is, an annual pilgrimage is hosted.

The International Gay and Lesbian Law Association also awards the Karl Heinrich Ulrichs Award in his memory, recognizing those who have contributed to LGBT+ equality.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

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