Queer Biography – Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Chances are, you haven’t heard of this guy. He’s a bit of a historical badass though, and I shall explain why.
Badass except for the comb-over, perhaps.
This gentleman is often considered to be the world’s first gay activist. We’re talking about activism that happened over 100 years before the Stonewall Riots, many decades before the word ‘gay’ came to have any connection with same sex attraction… and before the word ‘homosexual’ was coined.
Karl Ulrichs was born in 1825 in Hanover, what is now North-West Germany. Like many queer men, records show that Ulrichs engaged with ‘female’ toys, clothes, and had more girls as friends as a child. He graduated in law and theology when he was 21 from Göttingen University. He then studied history in Berlin before becoming a legal advisor in 1848. He resigned in 1854 to avoid being dismissed or disciplined for his homosexuality – which was known about – and although not illegal at this time in Hanover, it was a problem because he was a civil servant.
Ulrichs was so self-aware, that despite the lack of words existing to describe his same-sex attractions, despite a total social invisibility beyond disapproval and punishment, he actually created new words to use to describe himself, and identities we now recognise today.
The word Ulrichs coined was ein Urning, which was adapted from German into English to be Uranian. This was in 1862, when he came out to his family and friends – and seven years before Homosexual was used in a published work, by Karl-Maria Kertbeny (a lot of pretty cool people by the name of Karl at this time, it seems). Ulrichs considered uranians like himself to be members of a ‘third sex’, people who had a ‘female soul trapped inside a male body’ – because Ulrichs made the assumption that love and attraction towards men was a somehow female quality. This conflation between what the ‘gender of your soul’ was and the nature of a person’s sexual attractions means that by today’s standards, discussion about people who would now be termed gay and discussion about people who would now be termed trans are rather difficult to disentangle, as neither groups of people had been really defined by anyone. This was the start!
‘Sodomite’, the only descriptor that really existed before this time, specifically only described men who committed the act of sodomy, so said nothing about any (shared) sense of identity. What’s more, Ulrichs, Kertbeny and a very small number of others were the first to put forward that same-sex attraction wasn’t ‘wickedness’, and was something people were born with. This idea connected sexuality with biology, unfortunately leading to consideration in medical terms – and the conception of homosexuality as a mental illness. One can be confident that Ulrichs would’ve been unlikely to conceive of himself or his fellow urnings as ‘sick’, but this was the homophobic social development that occurred as popular consensus shifted from a spiritual understanding to a ‘scientific’ one.
Furthermore, Ulrichs was brave enough to come out publicly – in front of the German Association of Jurists – in *1867*. This was only four years before Paragraph 175 was introduced in 1871 – the German legal provision that criminalised homosexual activity right up until 1994. Paragraph 175 came about throughout the new German Empire (German unification occuring in January 1871) because homosexuality was already criminalised in old Prussia. Ulrichs fought bravely to avoid the instigation of this paragraph, using arguments that homosexuality was an innate quality with a biological basis, which flew in the face of contemporary thought. He was also rational enough to modify his position over time as his thinking on sexuality developed. In 1870, Ulrichs published Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law – an essay that stated:
The Urning, too, is a person. He, too, therefore, has inalienable rights. His sexual orientation is a right established by nature. Legislators have no right to veto nature; no right to persecute nature in the course of its work; no right to torture living creatures who are subject to those drives nature gave them.
The Urning is also a citizen. He, too, has civil rights; and according to these rights, the state has certain duties to fulfill as well. The state does not have the right to act on whimsy or for the sheer love of persecution. The state is not authorized, as in the past, to treat Urnings as outside the pale of the law.
Demonstrating the powerful tone he was capable of striking. Throughout his life Ulrichs wrote prolifically, though found limited support. Generally funding and publishing his writings himself, he found his work banned throughout Saxony and Prussia pre-German unification. In 1879 he relocated to Italy, where he died in 1895. The spirit of this man is captured beautifully by this quotation:
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.