100 Heroes: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

The gay man who pioneered the gay rights movement.

100 Heroes: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was a German lawyer, journalist, and author.

He was a pioneer of the modern gay rights movement.

Early life and career

Born in 1825, Ulrichs was raised in the village of Westerfeld, which at the time was in the Kingdom of Hanover.

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 administrative lawyer for the district court of Hildesheim in the Kingdom of Hanover. He was dismissed when his homosexuality became open knowledge.


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 essays, collected as Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe - Studies on the Riddle of Male-Male Love - explained such love as natural and biological. As a way of describing himself, Ulrichs used the Latin phrase 'anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa' - a female psyche confined in a male body.

In this collection of essays, Ulrichs coined various terms to describe different sexual orientations, including 'Urning' for a man who desires men, 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).

He soon began publishing under his real name. This has been described by some researches as representing the first public 'coming out' in modern society. Ulrichs also wrote a statement of legal and moral support for a man arrested for homosexual offences.

In 1867, Ulrichs became the first self-identifying homosexual to speak out publicly in defence of homosexuality when he pleaded at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich for a resolution urging the repeal of anti-homosexual laws. He was shouted down.

Two years later, in 1869, the Austrian writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny coined the word "homosexual", and from the 1870s the subject of sexual orientation - as we now describe it - began to be widely discussed.

In the 1860s, Ulrichs moved around Germany, always writing and publishing, and always in trouble with the law. He was generally being hassled by authorities because of his words rather than for any sexual offences.

In 1864, Ulrichs' books were confiscated and banned by police in Saxony. Later, the same thing happened in Berlin. His works were also subsequently banned throughout Prussia.

In 1879, Ulrichs published the twelfth and final book of his Research on the Riddle of Man-Manly Love.

In poor health, and feeling he had done all he could in Germany, he went into self-imposed exile in Naples. For several years he travelled around the country before settling in L'Aquila, where his health improved.

He continued to write prolifically and publish his works.

Late in life Ulrichs 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."

Personal life

Ulrichs wrote about his first sexual encounter - it was with his riding instructor, when Ulrichs was 14.

There don't appear to be any other recorded details of significant relationships in his life.

Ulrichs died in 1895, aged 69.

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