Following a historically tumultuous Pride Month couples with the prospect of many LGBTQIA+ Pride Days taking place in August, it is worthwhile spending the days in the meantime looking into one of history’s most important and forgotten LGBTQIA+ advocates, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.
Born August 28th, 1825 in Saxony, Northwestern Germany (then called Aurich, forming part of the kingdom of Hanover) to Lutheran pastors, Karl studied Latin and Greek at university before completing his legal studies at the University of Göttingen. Early in his career, he worked in the Hanoverian Civil Service in prestigious and sought positions in society. He was made an assistant judge but was forced to resign in 1854 when rumours of his homosexuality surfaced coupled with the current laws against public indecency.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs went on to become a journalist for the pan-German newspaper published in Bavaria, the “Allgemeine Zeitung”. It was there he produced many of the works that are now associated with him as an advocate within the LGBTQIA+ community. Most notably, he coined the terms “urnings” to refer to what contemporary society would now call “gay men”, “urinden” for what we would call “lesbians”, “dionings” for “heterosexual people” and “uranodionism” for “bisexual people”. This was found in 12 volumes of essays he published from 1864 onwards discussing “Researches on the Riddle of Love between Men”. It laid the foundation for the study of the fundamental interconnections of gender and sexuality as a field. While the concept of transgender people being distinct from homosexuality and bisexuality did not exist at the time, it was Ulrichs’s writings in his essays, pamphlets, letters and diaries that broached the subject in society at the time when such concepts were thought of as inconceivable.
What’s notable is the linkage between Ulrichs’s works in advancing the recognition of marginalised groups and the Classics. Many of the terms make reference to “Dionysus”, the God of wine and ecstasy that appeared in the works of the Greek tragic dramatist, Euripides. More revealing is the inspiration from the story of the God of heavens, Uranus, whom Plato portrayed as both father and mother to the goddess Aphrodite in his work, “Symposium.”
Ulrichs published these pamphlets under a pseudonym until 1867, given society’s attitude towards homosexuality at the time. It was seen as a pathology or sin leading to the degeneracy of the social fabric should enough succumb to its temptation.
In essence, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was the first man to have publicly “come out” when he made his speech at the Association of German Jurists in 1867. He took to the podium of 500 lawyers, officials and academics to advocate for the rights of urings and condemn the penal laws against homosexuality in his German-speaking kingdoms before the creation of Germany.
“Gentlemen, my proposal is directed toward a revision of the current penal law”.
His remarks were met with jeers and cries of “Stop!” and “Crucify!”, forcing him off the stage.
In spite of this, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s works continued to advance the understanding of orientation outside the heteronormative sphere of the time.
“By publishing these writings I have initiated a scientific discussion based on facts,” he wrote in a letter published in 1864 in Deutsche Allgemeine. “Until now the treatment of the subject has been biased, not to mention contemptuous.”
“My writings are the voice of a socially oppressed minority that now claims its rights to be heard.”
Karl, being a German nationalist, wrote in opposition to the growing Kingdom of Prussia and his fears its annexation of Hanover would lead to more regressive laws for same-sex conduct. His fears proved to be correct, as Hanover became part of the Prussian kingdom as one of the first German Empires.
Karl was jailed twice for anti-Prussian activities and the law known as “Paragraph 175” criminalising sodomy of 1872 dealt a massive blow to his career. The law would not be repealed until 1994.
Most notably was the foreshadowing of these laws, as identified and written about in Karl’s works, of the anti-homosexuality laws used to persecute and murder thousands under the Third Reich and the Nazi regime. The murder of Dr. Karl-Günther Heimsoth, Ernst Rhom’s (leader of the SA “brownshirts” or “stormtroopers”) lover in the Night of the Long Knives signified the vicious and brutal homophobia of the Nazi regime before thousands more were sterlised and murdered in the concentration camps.
The rise of Nazism contributed to the burying of his work in the 20th century.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs died July 14th 1895. His works have been linked directly to the advocacy that started the Stonewall Riots in the United States over a 100 years later. In the meantime, he was a voice for those who had been relegated underground since the middle ages.
“I cannot describe what a salvation it was for me, to learn that there are many other men who are sexually constituted the way I am, and that my sexual feeling was not an aberration but rather a sexual orientation determined by nature,” one man wrote in response to one of his letters.
His writings and biography is most detailed in the historian Robert Beachy’s book, “Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity”.
“Until my dying day I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face to face in battle against the spectre 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.” – Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.
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