Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, engraving based on an undated portrait photograph
Born(1825-08-28)28 August 1825
Died14 July 1895(1895-07-14) (aged 69)
Known forCampaigning for gay rights

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (28 August 1825 – 14 July 1895) was a German lawyer, jurist, journalist, and writer who is regarded today as a pioneer of sexology[1] and the modern gay rights movement. Ulrichs has been described as the "first gay man in world history."[2]

Early life

Ulrichs was born in the East Frisian village of Westerfeld, incorporated today within Aurich, which at the time was in the Kingdom of Hanover.[3] His father was an architect who died when Ulrichs was only ten years old. After that he was brought up in Burgdorf by his mother's family of Lutheran pastors.[4] Ulrichs recalled that as a youngster he felt different from other boys and was attracted by the bright colors of military uniforms and women's clothing.[5] In 1839, at the age of fourteen, he experienced his first sexual encounter with his riding instructor. He graduated in law and theology from Göttingen University in 1846.[3] From 1846 to 1848, he studied history at Berlin University, writing a dissertation in Latin on the Peace of Westphalia.

From 1849 to 1854, Ulrichs worked as a lawyer for the civil service in the Kingdom of Hannover. Initially he worked as an official administrative lawyer in various locations but did not enjoy the work or thrive. He transferred to the court system in 1853 and joined the bench as an assistant judge in the district court of Hildesheim. He resigned on 30 November 1854 rather than face dismissal should a possible blackmail attempt be made and his sexuality become common knowledge.

Campaigner for sexual reform

Aphrodite Urania, the goddess from whose name Ulrichs derived the term Urning for homosexuals

In 1862, Ulrichs took the momentous step of telling his family and friends that he was, in his own words, an Urning, and began writing under the pseudonym of "Numa Numantius". His first five pamphlets, collected as Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Studies 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, including Urning for a man who desires men (English "Uranian"), and Dioning for one who desires women. These terms are in reference to a section of Plato's Symposium in which two kinds of love are discussed, symbolised by an Aphrodite who is born from a male (Uranos), and an Aphrodite who is born from a female (Dione). Ulrichs also coined words for the female counterparts (Urningin and Dioningin), and for bisexuals and intersex persons.[6]

The first and only issue of Uranus (January 1870), intended by Ulrichs as a regular periodical, bears its own title: Prometheus

In the 1860s, Ulrichs moved around Germany, always writing and publishing, and always in trouble with the law — though always for his words rather than for sexual offences. In 1864, his books were confiscated and banned by police in Saxony.[3] Later the same thing happened in Berlin, and his works were banned throughout Prussia. Some of these papers were later found in the Prussian state archives and published in 2004. Several of Ulrichs's more important works are back in print, both in German and in translation.

Ulrichs was a patriotic Hanoverian, and when Prussia annexed Hanover in 1866 he was briefly imprisoned for opposing Prussian rule. On release, he was forced into exile and left Hanover for good and moved to Würzburg in Bavaria. From there, he attended the Association of German Jurists in Munich where he wished to speak on the need to reform German laws against homosexuality. His motion was banned by the presiding committee, so he took the opportunity on the final day of the conference to protest his exclusion. On 29 August 1867, Ulrichs became the first homosexual to speak out publicly in defense of homosexuality and though he was shouted down it appears that some in the audience were stirred into support for his call. Ulrichs published his account of the events in Munich as Gladius Furens, which he published under his own name and distributed to all the lawyers who had attended the event. In that pamphlet he 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 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.[7]

Thereafter, he began publishing his urning pamphlets under his own name as an 'urning' apologist for the cause. This makes Ulrichs quite distinct from any other writer on the subject at that time and for some time after. In 1868, the Austrian writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny coined the word "homosexual" in a letter to Ulrichs, and from the 1870s the subject of sexual orientation (in modern words) began to be widely discussed.[8][9]

Later he moved to Stuttgart, where he cultivated silkworms for an income but convened a weekly discussion at a restaurant on Gymnasiumstrasse with other urning activists.

In 1879, Ulrichs published the twelfth and final pamphlet in his series on man-manly love, Critische Pfeile. Believing he had done all he could in Germany, he went into self-imposed exile in Italy shortly afterwards. For several years he travelled around the country before settling in L'Aquila.

Grave of Ulrichs in Italy

He continued to write prolifically and publish his works (in German and Latin) at his own expense, notably a latin newspaper Alaudae, which had a wide readership. In 1895, he received an honorary diploma from the University of Naples. Shortly afterwards he died in L'Aquila. His gravestone is marked (in Latin), "Exile and Pauper." His friend and benefactor Marquis Niccolò Persichetti, gave the eulogy at his funeral. At the end of his eulogy, he said:

But with your loss, oh Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the fame of your works and your virtue will not likewise disappear... but rather, as long as intelligence, virtue, learning, insight, poetry and science are cultivated on this earth and survive the weakness of our bodies, as long as the noble prominence of genius and knowledge are rewarded, we and those who come after us will shed tears and scatter flowers on your venerated grave.


Ulrichs distributed his pamphlets widely in a pamphleteering strategy to lawyers and the medical authorities of his day. Karl Westphal, quoted Ulrichs' writings in the first psychiatric paper on 'contrary sexual feeling' and largely used Ulrichs' theoretical framework. Ulrichs also corresponded for many years with the psychiatrist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who later acknowledged in a letter to Ulrichs that:

From that day when you sent your writings – I believe it was in 1866 – I have turned my full attention to this phenomenon, which was just as puzzling as it was interesting to me; and it was only the knowledge of your books which motivated me to study this highly important area.[10][11]

Krafft-Ebing went on to publish Psychopathia Sexualis, arguably the foundational text in sexology. Ulrichs' huge influence on the emerging fields of the sexual sciences was not his only legacy though. When he first started publishing his pamphlets, he received hundreds of letters from same sex attracted men, who began calling themselves 'urnings'. So arguably Ulrichs' greatest legacy was the dissemination of a sexual identity.[12]

Forgotten for many years, Ulrichs later became something of a cult figure in Europe in the late 1980s. There are streets named for him in Munich, Bremen, Hanover, and Berlin.[13] 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 the annual pilgrimage to the cemetery. Later gay rights advocates were aware of their debt to Ulrichs. Magnus Hirschfeld thoroughly referenced Ulrichs in his The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1914). Volkmar Sigusch called Ulrichs the "first gay man in world history."[2]

In Ulrichs' memory, the International Lesbian and Gay Law Association presents a Karl Heinrich Ulrichs Award for distinguished contributions to the advancement of sexual equality.[14]

In an interview, Robert Beachy said "I think it is reasonable to describe [Ulrichs] as the first gay person to publicly out himself."[15]

Latin writer

During his stay in Italy, he devoted himself, between 1889 and 1895, to the international use of Latin with the publishing of the latin newspaper Alaudae,[16] which was widely disseminated and made known many European Latin poets of his time. This review found a suite,[17] in Vox Urbis: de litteris et bonis artibus commentarius published twice monthly by the architect and engineer Aristide Leonori between 1898 and 1913.

See also


  1. ^ Hans-Martin Lohmann: Geschichte der Sexualität – Vom Widerspruch her gedacht (Buchbesprechung: Volkmar Sigusch, Geschichte der Sexualwissenschaft, Campus, 2008), Frankfurter Rundschau Online.
  2. ^ a b Volkmar Sigusch, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Der erste Schwule der Weltgeschichte, Männerschwarm 2000.
  3. ^ a b c "Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 6 March 2021.
  4. ^ McCleary, Rollan (28 July 2017). A Special Illumination: Authority, Inspiration and Heresy in Gay Spirituality. Routledge. ISBN 9781315475677.
  5. ^ LeVay, Simon (1996). "Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality". The Washington Post. Retrieved 6 March 2021.
  6. ^ Licata, Salvatore; Petersen, Robert P (27 August 2013). The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays. Routledge. pp. 106–107. ISBN 9781134735938. Archived from the original on 17 March 2017. Retrieved 8 May 2016.
  7. ^ "Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: Congress of German Jurists, first gay rights protest - 1867". Speakola. 10 October 2019. Retrieved 12 October 2023.
  8. ^ "150 Years Ago, the Word "Homosexual" was Coined in a Secret Correspondence". GVGK Tang. 6 May 2018. Retrieved 6 March 2021.
  9. ^ Pretsell, Douglas Ogilvy (2020). "The Correspondence of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, 1846-1894". Genders and Sexualities in History. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-39763-0. ISBN 978-3-030-39762-3. ISSN 2730-9479. S2CID 219491782.
  10. ^ Pretsell, Douglas (2023). Queer Voices in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, 1883-1901. Genders and Sexualities in History. Cham: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-031-17331-8. ISBN 978-3-030-39762-3. S2CID 255715774.
  11. ^ Pretsell, Douglas Ogilvy (2020). The Correspondence of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, 1846-1894. Genders and Sexualities in History. Cham: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-39763-0. ISBN 978-3-030-39762-3. S2CID 219491782.
  12. ^ Pretsell, Douglas (2024). Urning: Queer Identity in the German Nineteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9781487555610.
  13. ^ "Berlin names street after gay rights pioneer". 17 December 2013. Archived from the original on 1 July 2014. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
  14. ^ Newton, David E. (2009). Gay and Lesbian Rights: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO. p. 171. ISBN 978-1-59884-306-4.
  15. ^ Stack, Liam (1 July 2020). "Overlooked No More: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Pioneering Gay Activist". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 4 July 2020. Retrieved 4 July 2020.
  16. ^ Wielfried Stroh (ed.), Alaudæ. Eine lateinische Zeitschrift 1889–1895 herausgegeben von Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Reprint with an introduction by Wilfried Stroh, Hamburg, MännerschwarmSkript Verlag, 2004.
  17. ^ Vox Urbis (1898–1913) quid sibi proposuerit, in : Melissa, 139 (2007) pp. 8–11.


Further reading