Tuesday , 17 May 2022

LGBTI activism, started by Ulrichs, is today a 149 years old

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

On the 29 August, 1867 LGBTI activism was born when a journalist and jurist publicly came out and challenged the German Confederation to decriminalise anti-sodomy laws.

This act, a 149 years ago, was a courageous and defining moment that would change our understanding of sexuality and human rights forever.  But how did we arrive to this moment?  Who was this remarkable man?

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was his name and he, in effect, is the father of LGBTI activism and the first modern gay man.

Ulrichs laid down the paradigm for the modern LGBTI movement, calling for repealing all sodomy criminalisation and the rights for marriage, family, adoption, expression and anti-discrimination.  In a sense his work is the corner stone for 149 years of equality activism. His works became the foundation for queer, gender rights activists as well as civil liberities movements.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was born on 28 August, 1825 Westerfeld, then a part of the Kingdom of Hanover, later to be part of Germany.

His first observations regarding sexuality were about his own nature, recalling he became aware of his first same-sex attraction at the age of nine, and his first gay experience was at the age of 14, in the course of a brief affair with his riding instructor.

Ulrichs’s achievements were immense, he published the first scientific theory of sexuality altogether, which saw same-sex desire as natural, and correspondingly he demanded it should be legal.

He graduated in law and theology from Göttingen University in 1846. From 1846 to 1848, he studied history at Berlin University, writing a dissertation in Latin on the Peace of Westphalia.

From 1849 to 1857 Ulrichs worked as an official legal adviser for the district court of Hildesheim in the Kingdom of Hanover. He was dismissed when his homosexuality became open knowledge.

In 1862, Ulrichs took decided to come out to his family and friends, who despite being religious, accepted and did not rejected him.  According to his diaries, however, he still did not arrive at a name for a person who experiences same-sex desire.

After coming out, he decided to explain the nature of his sexuality, at the time same-sex desire had no name of its own to denote an inherent nature or person, instead it was dismissed as a “learned” vice and a sin.  He therefore embarked on explaining and exploring the issues, writing under the pseudonym of “Numa Numantius” he, in 1864, initially wrote two booklets, which soon grew to five, collectively known as his ‘Researches on the Riddle of love between Men,’ eventually he published twelve volumes over the decade.

In these writings Ulrichs put forward two revolutionary ideas about sexuality, that would forever change the way the world thinks about LGBTI people. First, he declared that homosexuals were a distinct class of individuals, innately different from heterosexual people.

At that time there was no word to describe this class of people, aside from the pejorative, behaviour-based term “sodomite.”  Ulrichs coined the word “urning,” meaning follower or descendant of Uranus. The name is a reference to a passage in Plato’s Symposium, in which Pausanias calls same-sex love the offspring of the “heavenly Aphrodite,” daughter of Uranus. Ulrichs later added the feminine form “urningin” to define women we now refer to as lesbians. Heterosexuals, in Ulrichs’s parlance, became “dionings”: descendants of the “common Aphrodite,” daughter of Zeus by the mortal woman Dione.  He later revised his theory and explained that human sexuality was a continuum. Ulrichs also coined words for the female counterparts (Urningin and Dioningin), and for bisexuals and intersexual persons.

Second, Ulrichs put forward a theory to account for the development of sexual orientation. In his earliest conception of this theory Ulrichs posited the existence of a “third sex” whose nature is inborn: basically the theory of “born this way”.

In his initial theories human embryo was viewed as having the potential for bodily and mental development in either the female or the male direction. In most people the sexual development of the body and the mind was concordant: either both were male or both were female. In fetuses destined to become urnings, however, the sex of bodily development was male, while the sex of mental development was female. These individuals, being neither totally male nor totally female, constituted a “third sex.” He later put forward a similar explanation for the origin of urningins: in them, the sex of bodily development was female, while that of mental development was male.  In this sense he also laid down the first modern foundations for understanding transgender and intersex people.  All forms of sexualities, to Ulrichs, were natural and inborn and thus should not be criminilised or viewed as sinful.  He also argued against religious doctrines, such as those of Saint Paul, who he claimed made a mistake in calling same-sex behavior “against nature”, as these were natural occurrences.

Still later he revised his theories again and showed that urnings saw themselves and behaved in various ways from very masculine to feminine and also were attracted to different types of same-sex partners and could range in their sexual preferences (i.e. active, passive, versatile and so on). He also saw sexuality as a continuum, much like Kinsey, from heterosexual to bisexual and homosexual.

The booklets led to Ulrichs corresponding with thousands of gays and lesbians from all over Germsany and beyond. He also tried to influence anti-gay politicians and explain the nature of sexuality to them, as well as to doctors and lawyers, he also attempted to intervene in cases where LGBTI people were put on trial because of sodomy laws.  Ulrichs even sent his publications or Marx and Engles, in the hope that the fathers of communism would be sympathetic, instead his views about equality were rejected as perverse and “pedophile”.

The first and only issue of Uranus (January 1870), intended by Ulrichs as a regular periodical
The first and only issue of Uranus (January 1870), intended by Ulrichs as a regular periodical

In 1867 Ulrichs, along with his straight lawyer friend August Tewe, decided to try and mount a courageous attempt to decriminilise same-sex desire from all German states in Austria.  They wrote a resolution “that inborn love for persons of the male sex is to be punished under the same conditions under which love of the female sex is punished,”  and was presented at the Association of German Jurists, the top legal fraternity in the German Confederation.

Although the resolution was excluded from the agenda, on 29 August 1867, he read out his proposal, despite being shouted down by the audience.  He demanded “the revision of the existing material penal code, especially the final repeal of a specific unlawful paragraph … handed down to us from past centuries.’

“It is directed at abolishing this paragraph of the penal code which discriminates against an innocent class of people.”

In other words, Ulrichs became the first homosexual to speak out publicly in defence of homosexuality. As an activist, Ulrichs was ahead of his time and he fought not only for the equal rights of homosexuals, but also for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as the rights of women, including unwed mothers and their children.

Ulrichs also launched the first ever LGBTI magazine in 1870, but only managed to print one issue, nevertheless it was widely circulated around Europe and beyond and enabled many people to start recognising their nature and discuss their sexuality.

In 1870 Ulrichs published “Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law” a remarkable document similar to modern LGBTI rights movement demands

The Urning (gay) is a person and therefore, has inalienable rights. Sexual orientation is a right established by nature, which legislators have no right to outlaw, so long as sex acts are private and between consenting adults, furthermore it cannot persecute or torture Urnings.

The Urning is also a citizen entitled to full civil rights which the state has certain duties to fulfill as well. The state does cannot persecute urnings not treat them outside the law.

Unfortunately when Prussia united forcibly the German states it conquered under Kaiser Wilhelm I, its anti-sodomy law, Paragraph 175, was enforced throughout Germany and later used to persecute homosexuals by the Nazis.

Ulrichs continued to fight for LGBTI equality but finally gave up 1879 after repeated arrests and running out of money and being repeatedly fired from jobs because of his sexuality.  He then crossed over the Alps, settling in the central Italian town of L’Aquila, where  he lived for 12 years until he his death on July 14, 1895.

Despite persecution, imprisonment, discrimination and exile, Ulrichs never regretted his activism, writing:

“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.”

During his lifetime Ulrichs already inspired many other nascent gay intellectuals, even reaching to the Bloomsbury Group in London. Unforunately his theories were distorted and also used negatively by scientists and doctors to pathologise homosexuality.

His writings also inspired the pioneering German sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, who two years after Ulrichs’ death founded the world’s first homosexual rights organization, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee.

Today was the 149th birthday to LGBTI activism, and yesterday was Karl Heinrich Ulrich’s 191st Birthday.

About Dan Littauer

Dan Littauer is a journalist who specializes in LGBTI current affairs, travel writing, feature writing and investigative journalism. He is a correspondent for LGBTQ Nation, ManAboutWorld, and previously worked for Gay Star News, PinkNews, San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, Gay Middle East, Lonely Planet as well as contributing occasionally to the BBC, Al-Jazeera, CNN and The Guardian. He also had an extensive career outside journalism, which included teaching psychoanalysis and social science, and consultancy work for the travel market. When he is not busy writing, he can be spotted rambling around the stunning Scottish landscape, where he lives, spending time at home with his cat.

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  1. Your grammar really should be checked before posting articles it looks unprofessional. That and I doubt he’s the first modern gay man. That’s very dependent on your definition of modern.

    Nonetheless a good article and a good story. Definitely worth sharing on social media once the grammatical errors are fixed.

  2. Thanks , I’ve just been looking for info about
    this subject for a while and yours is the greatest I have came upon till now.
    However, what in regards to the conclusion? Are you sure in regards to
    the source?

  3. ‘the father of LGBTI activism’. Ummm, I think you mean homosexual activism. The endless alphabet spaghetti was not around at that time. I think its ok to say gay.

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