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The First Gay Rights Activist: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Updated: Jun 26


Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, to you that name may not mean much but it should. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was a German writer and lawyer but is better know now to be a pioneer of the modern gay rights movement. He was born in Aurich, Lower Saxony, then part of the kingdom of Hannover, on the 28th of August 1825. Talking about his childhood, Ulrichs recalls that he wore girls’ clothing, wanted to be a girl and preferred playing with girls. Aged fourteen in 1839, his riding instructor sexually abused him, making this his first sexual experience with a man. This event remained with him and was a reason why he had such a passion to separate homosexuality from paedophilia, which were viewed as almost the same thing.


From 1844 to 1846, Ulrichs studied law and theology at Göttingen University and then went onto to study history at Berlin University from 1846 to 1848. After this, he worked as an official legal advisor but was dismissed when his homosexuality was discovered.


In 1861, while living at Reuterweg, Frankfurt am Main and working as a secretary, Ulrichs authors non-gay legal writings along with coming-out letters to his family, saying he is, in his own words, a “urning,” (a 19th-century term for a man who desires men, which he coined himself.) These were not well received but is one of the first examples of coming out. Next, he began writing under the pseudonym of “Numa Numantius,” he published a collection of five essays titled Forschungen über das Rätsel der Mann männlichen Liebe, (Studies on the Riddle of Male-Male Love.) This explained Male-Male love to be natural and biological, summing it up with this Latin phrase, anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa (a female psyche confined in a male body.)


In 1862, Ulrichs published a statement, under his real name, defending a man arrested for homosexual offences, this is rejected but nevertheless one of the first public coming outs in modern society.


He moved all around Germany, writing and publishing and constantly against the law. In 1864 his books were banned and confiscated by Police in Saxony, Berlin and throughout Prussia. Ulrichs leaves Hannover in 1866, never to return and moved to Munich.

On the 29th of August 1867, Ulrichs did something unheard of, he became the first homosexual to speak out openly in defence of homosexuality. This was in front of the Association of German Jurists, urging repeal of anti-homosexuality laws, but he was shouted down.


He travels all throughout Germany, publishing lots of writings, including poetry. Ulrichs published the twelfth book of Forschungen über das Rätsel der Mann männlichen Liebe in 1979, making it the final one. He then went into self-exile in Italy, travelling the country for several years and then setting in L’Aquila. Ulrichs continued to write and publish his works. In 1895, he received an honorary diploma. Not long late, on the 14th of July 1895, Ulrichs died at age 69 in L’Aquila.


Karl Heinrich Ulrichs claimed a lot of firsts in modern society from coming out publicly to calling for the abolishing of anti-homosexual laws. The works of his life helped shaped the modern gay rights movement. Later in life, Ulrich wrote this, which nicely sums up what he achieved in his own words:

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 with the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.

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