The Amazing Story of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and the Birth of Queer Activism

When did the modern struggle for queer liberation begin — was it with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s? Stonewall in the 1960s? How about 150 years ago, in August of 1867 when Karl Heinrich Ulrichs became the first openly gay man to speak out publicly for equality.

karl heinrich ulrichs
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Karl Ulrich’s Early Life

Ulrichs was a fascinating man who challenged gender even from an early age. As a boy, he longed to be a girl, and surrounded himself with the trappings of femininity from clothing to friends. Though his first same-sex romance occurred when he was just fourteen, it wasn’t until his late thirties that he announced his queerness to family and friends.

Though that may seem late in life by today’s standards, in 1862 it was simply unheard of for anyone to confess was what considered a ruinous affliction.

Gay Men Were Once Called “Uranians”

Back then, there were no terms for queer culture, and Ulrichs used the term “Urning” to describe himself — derived from a figure in Greek mythology who was created from Uranus’ testicles. Though Ulrichs was the first to have written about the term, it was eventually widely used throughout Europe, adapted to “Uranian” in English. “To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble — more noble than other forms,” wrote Oscar Wilde.

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Ulrichs sacrificed his career with his openness. He wrote candidly about being attracted to men, and as a legal expert he argued forcefully for reform of laws persecuting queer people.

Early Public Outings

karl heinrich ulrichs hark a vagrant 2
Comic strip by Kate Beaton.

A milestone came on August 29, 1867, when he spoke out against the criminalization of homosexuality at a meeting of jurists. It was the day after his 42nd birthday, and he was attacked for his stance, but it began a conversation that began scientific investigations into sexuality — a field previously left mostly unexplored.

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In his writing, Ulrichs advanced arguments very similar to those made by civil rights activists 100 years later. He wrote that Urnings have inalienable rights, that their love is natural, and that laws discriminating against them are arbitrary and pointless. He wrote movingly that no government is powerful enough to eliminate queer love.

Ulrichs’ Legacy Today

karl heinrich ulrichs
Comic strip by Kate Beaton.

For his trouble, Ulrichs found himself continuously persecuted wherever he went. He would publish a treatise on homosexuality, only to see his work confiscated and banned. Eventually, he left Germany for Italy, where he was honored by academic institutions.

“I am proud,” he wrote, shortly before his death, “that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.”

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Today, he is little remembered by mainstream queer society. There’s an annual procession to his grave in L’Aquila every year in August, marking both his birthday and the anniversary of his address to the jurists.

It took many more years to decriminalize homosexuality in Germany — it wasn’t until 1994 that the prohibition was lifted, as German society maintained an aggressive worship of male heterosexuality even after the defeat of the Nazis. It was Soviet-controlled East Germany that first officially ended criminalization, a move that later spread to West Germany with reconciliation. It was only this Friday that Germany legalized gay marriage. Likewise, Germany only this year pardoned citizens convicted of homosexuality.

It took over 100 years, but Karl Ulrich’s campaign for tolerance was finally victorious — in large part thanks to the seeds of Pride that he planted in the 1800s.