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Hubert Kennedy

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, an Early Advocate of Peace and Equality

It is not surprising that concern for peace was present at the beginning of the modern gay movement, since the awareness of oppression obviously connects them. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first self-acknowledged and outspoken “gay” man, clearly made the connection. Already in 1870 he wrote:


The oppressed and abused recognize no right of oppression by naked force, nor a right of abuse. Therefore our position is everywhere on the side of the oppressed and abused, whether he is called Pole, Hanoverian, Jew, Catholic, or is an innocent creature who is “disreputable” to people for being so immoral as to be born outside of wedlock, just as we were so immoral as to be born with an Urning nature, or who is a poor “fallen woman,” whom the highly moral barbarism of the nineteenth century drives to acts of despair, child murder, abortion, or even to suicide. We who know what it means to be oppressed and martyred, we can from the heart take the side of those whom we see in a similar position.

Naturally we therefore sympathize with a withdrawal of the force of arms from Poland and from Hanover. (Ulrichs 1994a, Prometheus, 9)


To make this statement meaningful, we need to explain several things in it, especially the term “Urning,” as well as my description of Ulrichs as “self-acknowledged” and “outspoken.” Let us briefly review the life of this extraordinary man (for a complete biography, see Kennedy, 2001) .

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895) was the son of an architect in the civil service of the Kingdom of Hanover, in northwestern Germany. On his mother’s side, his grandfather was a Lutheran Superintendent and an uncle was a Lutheran pastor. He studied law at the universities of Göttingen and Berlin, and in 1848 entered the civil service of the Kingdom of Hanover, serving in judicial and administrative offices. He resigned his position only six years later, however, after his homosexual activities became known to the Hanoverian authorities. Although Hanover did not have an antihomosexual law at that time, as a civil servant he could be dismissed—and he clearly would have been, if he had not anticipated that action by his resignation. Thereafter Ulrichs earned his living as a freelance journalist for the important Allgemeine Zeitung (Augsburg) and, for a while, as secretary to a representative to the German Confederation in Frankfurt.

Having accepted—and acted on—his attraction to other men, Ulrichs believed this attraction natural and sought an explanation and justification for it. His first attempt, in 1861, was based on the popular theory of animal magnetism, but he abandoned it the following year for a more scientific theory, according to which a man such as he, although with a man’s body, actually had a woman’s psyche. Conversely—and he soon became aware of their existence—a woman-loving woman had a woman’s body and a man’s psyche. He published the result of his “Researches into the Riddle of ‘Man-Manly’ Love” in five booklets in 1864–1865.[1] In them he postulated the existence of a bodily substrate for the existence of the “Urning.” (This term was coined by Ulrichs; the term “homosexual” was only later coined by Karl Maria Kertbeny and published by him in 1869; it was never used by Ulrichs.) Ulrichs’s view of the constitution of the Urning has now largely been abandoned; still, he was the first to present a scientific theory of homosexuality (see also Kennedy 1997).

In deference to his family Ulrichs at first published under the pseudonym Numa Numantius. But he planned to appear publicly at the next Congress of German Jurists to present his petition that the antihomosexual laws of the various German states and Austria be repealed, something he had pleaded for in his booklets. In the meantime, however, in 1866 Prussia invaded and annexed his homeland, Hanover. Regarding this, Magnus Hirschfeld wrote in his foreword to a new edition of Ulrichs’s writings in 1898:


Since there was no antihomosexual law in Hanover to fight, he at first opposed social prejudice. But when the events of 1866 came, the whole question had for Ulrichs only one significance: In Hanover no § 175 [the number of the antihomosexual law when Hirschfeld was writing], but in Prussia a § 175. (Ulrichs 1898, 9–10)


No doubt this was one reason Ulrichs was opposed to Prussia at that time, but it was not the only nor the most important reason. Rather, it was the fact of German fighting German, destroying his dream of a larger and peaceful union of all German-speaking peoples. Ulrichs spoke out publicly against the Prussian annexation and was twice imprisoned for it. On his release the first time, he himself wrote the following report of his imprisonment, which was published on 28 March 1867 in the Allgemeine Zeitung:


On the 20th of the month the majority of the Hanoverians who had been transported to Minden, thirteen persons, were set free again, namely eleven Hanoverian soldiers (fighters from Langensalza) along with Pastor Nicolassen of Fischerhude and Amtsassessor a.D. Ulrichs of Burgdorf. In contrast to earlier news reports we can confirm that a kind of judicial investigation was indeed conducted against them in Minden. They were repeatedly interrogated by the military court (garrison assistant judge and an officer as assistant), and the minutes of the interrogation were first sent to the Governor General of Hanover. He then decided on the length of the detention, indeed without—apart from the interrogation itself—giving the prisoners an opportunity to defend themselves. Even this decision itself was not at all disclosed to those concerned. None of the prisoners had any idea during their detention about the length of it. Without being prepared in any way for their release, they were suddenly set free. Some individuals were even told only on their release why they had been confined at all, for example, the above mentioned Herr Ulrichs: “because of anti-Prussian agitation in the press and in unions.” Against him as well as against Pastor Nicolassen there is still pending following their release a judicial proceeding before the regular civil court, namely against Nicolassen “because of spreading seditious proclamations” and against Ulrichs—by request of a Royal Prussian regimental commander—“because of seducing to disobedience those (Hanoverians) subject to military duty.” Only four persons are presently still detained in Minden, all accused of having offended Prussian officers through word or deed. They are civilians. The entire number of those already set free is somewhat more than 30. With the exception of Colonel von Bülow, who was released after a very brief detention, they each have endured nearly 8 weeks of imprisonment, some even almost 9 weeks long. (Quoted in Kennedy 2001, 159–160)


Ulrichs, now expelled from Hanover, never returned. Instead he again took up his struggle for the rights of Urnings by a public appearance at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich, where on 29 August 1867 he spoke to the general assembly, urging repeal of the various antihomosexual laws. This was the first time that a self-acknowledged homosexual spoke out publicly for the civil and legal rights of homosexuals. The occasion may be taken as the birth of the homosexual emancipation movement, and thus Ulrichs was the first gay activist (see Sigusch 2000).

He was not allowed to finish his speech, but was shouted down. He published his speech in his next booklet in the “Researches” series. His true name was on that and all later booklets—there were twelve in all, the last appearing in 1879. But with the formation of the German Empire in 1871 the Prussian antihomosexual law was extended to all of Germany. Discouraged by his lack of success, Ulrichs left Germany in 1880 and spent the last fifteen years of his life in exile in Italy, where he promoted the use of Latin as an international language by publishing a little journal written entirely by himself in that language. Today his tomb in L’Aquila has become the site of an annual “gay pilgrimage” on his birthday (28 August).

We can now return to the opening quotation, written in 1870, ending: “Naturally we therefore sympathize with a withdrawal of the force of arms from Poland and from Hanover.” Ulrichs is referring, of course, to the Prussian occupation and annexation of Hanover in 1866, and also to the occupation of Poland by Russia and Prussia, no doubt thinking especially of Bismarck’s anti-Polish policy. For Ulrichs, Bismarck was the embodiment of the warmonger. As late as 1890, in his Latin journal Alaudae, Ulrichs called Bismarck “the subverter of Germany” (Ulrichs 1889–1895, 163). He never forgot or forgave the Prussian conquest of his homeland, which he called “an act of force that can never be justified” (Ulrichs, 1994a, Incubus, 13).

Ulrichs believed that the nature of the Urning was inborn, so that every individual must follow his own nature and should be judged accordingly. Love between men is a riddle of nature, Ulrichs admits, but he insists that it be solved by science and not “by blindly striking with the so-called sword of justice, which already all too often with regard to heretics, Jews, and witches has shown itself to be a sword of injustice” (Ulrichs 1994a, Vindex, 10).

Ulrichs also opposed religious prejudice, which he saw connected to the politics of his day. The quotation from 1870 continues:


We stand beside the Jew as soon as an arrogant Catholic slanders him, beside the Catholic as soon as an intolerant Liberal reviles him because of his faith. We do not defend a hypocritical rolling of the eyes, but do defend the right to be Catholic, the human right to answer to one’s own conscience whether to believe or not believe, and not to parties that take pleasure in reviling others. We sympathize with those with character, with every free human being, never with contemptible party-slaves.

We fight against the arrogance of despotic majorities. Therefore we despise by all means the prevailing Liberalism, which is hollower than empty nuts, which instead of bread offers us stones, which demands freedom only for the majority, who are already at the helm, but who, as soon as it is a question of an oppressed minority which is not to their taste, never and nowhere stand up for freedom; which endlessly falsifies it through its inherent despotism, which without blushing daily scorns human rights and tramples on human dignity. (Ulrichs 1994a, Prometheus, 9–10)


Naturally Ulrichs’s prime concern was the oppression and condemnation of homosexuality. And this he saw as intimately connected to the status and treatment of women, in a double standard he strenuously objected to. Already in 1865 he pointed out that this injustice results from the social order having been constructed by men and for men:


You have to answer for the present social establishment and the present direction of public respect and disrespect: before us and also before women. In my opinion you have also acted irresponsibly toward women in both.

The moral world order is not identical with the world order that you have made. You must first change your social establishment in a thousand places, if a moral order of things is to come out of it!

The heart demands to be heard: the female and the Urning heart as well! (Ulrichs 1994a, Ara spei, 65)


As an example of the double standard for women, Ulrichs cites the example of the unmarried woman who has given herself in love, becomes known as a “fallen woman,” and is driven to suicide. “I never heard,” Ulrichs says, “that any of you ‘fallen men’ ever killed himself” (Ulrichs 1994a, Ara spei, 8).

Ulrichs compares the irrational hatred and persecution of Urnings (homosexuals) to the earlier treatment of heretics and witches and in 1870, in a bit of wishful optimism, he stated:


The preceding century brought two ideas to maturity and victory: the abolishing of torture and the casting out of witchcraft from the list of crimes. The present one will bring two more to maturity and irresistibly to victory: the abolishing of the death penalty and the freeing of Urning love from the penal code. The spirit of humanity, which strives for truth, wills it. (Ulrichs 1994a, Araxes, 40)


How overly optimistic that statement was!

Having thoroughly justified homosexual love, as he thought, Ulrichs sought the reasons for the continued attitude of the majority. He noted the comments of the Apostle Paul and the catastrophes historically blamed on homosexuality (earthquakes, famine, pestilence). Ulrichs does not think that belief in any of these is the real reason why Urning-love has been prosecuted. They will not admit it, he says, but


it is rather to be sought in that acute and passionate repugnance of a more or less aggressive character (horror, disgust, aversion, indignation), which men born with a woman-loving nature feel toward man-love and with which a strong dose of cruelty is not seldom mingled. (Ulrichs 1994a, Critische Pfeile, 34)


Ulrichs believes this repugnance is not a rational one, such as the repugnance to murder, arson, fraud, and so on, but rather “is only of an instinctive character, and thus only a subjective feeling” (Ulrichs 1994a, Critische Pfeile, 34). It follows that this repugnance cannot be a rational basis for laws, and he criticizes the concept of “people’s consciousness of right”:


If I am not entirely mistaken, what is called consciousness of right is nothing else than precisely this subjective repugnance of the majority. The expression “consciousness of right” is a blinding euphemism for the trite, even ugly word “repugnance.” (Ulrichs 1994a, Critische Pfeile, 37)


(The “people’s consciousness of right” was called on in the motive for the German antihomosexual law, paragraph 175, the number it received in 1871 when it was taken over from the Prussian code and extended to all of the new German Empire. The concept was later called on many times by the Nazis.)

In discussing the irrationality of the antihomosexual paragraph, Ulrichs wrote:


When one shrugs his shoulders over everything that has been shown to be valid against the paragraph, when in spite of everything punishment is to continue because of it—without any basis in right—then it reminds me vividly of the poisoning of a Christian fountain, for which a Jew was to be burned. But it turned out that the Jew was innocent.

“It doesn’t matter,” someone cried, “the Jew will be burned!” (Ulrichs 1994a, Araxes, 34)


Ulrichs applies this to the case of Urnings and presents a proponent of the antihomosexual law as saying in the face of all the arguments against the law: “It doesn’t matter, the Urning will be punished.”

In telling the story of the poisoning of a Christian fountain, Ulrichs probably does not have a particular instance in mind. Rather, he is calling on the Enlightenment view expressed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in his drama of tolerance Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise, 1779). The words “It doesn’t matter, the Jew will be burned!” are those of the Patriarch in act 4, scene 2. And like the Patriarch, Ulrichs repeats his version three times.

Ulrichs’s views were grounded in the optimistic Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and strongly influenced by the advancement of science in the nineteenth century, particularly in the study of embryology. Although his efforts for legal reform had no effect in his day, so that he left Germany discouraged, he has since been seen as the real pioneer of the modern gay movement. Magnus Hirschfeld, who founded the first “gay rights” organization in Berlin in 1897 (the Scientific Humanitarian Committee), published a new, collected edition of Ulrichs’s writings in 1898 and stated in the foreword:


When posterity will one day have included the persecution of Urnings in that sad chapter of other persecutions for religious belief and race—and that this day will come is beyond all doubt—then will the name of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs be constantly remembered as one of the first and noblest of those who have striven with courage and strength in this field to help truth and charity gain their rightful place. (Ulrichs 1898, foreword)


Ulrichs’s larger view of the connections between the rights of homosexuals and of women, of religious and political tolerance, as well as his hopes for peace and freedom of all peoples—for equal rights of all—deserve our recognition and attention.





Kennedy, Hubert. 1997. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, First Theorist of Homosexuality. In Science and Homosexualities, ed. Vernon A. Rosario, 26–45.  New York/London: Routledge.

———. 2001. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: Leben und Werk. 2nd revised ed. Hamburg: MännerschwarmSkript. An English version is available on the Internet at:

Sigusch, Volkmar. 2000. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: Der erste Schwule der Weltgeschichte. Berlin: Verlag rosa Winkel.

Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich. 1889–1895. Alaudae (nos. 1–33). 388 pp. (This journal was written entirely by Ulrichs.)

———. 1898. Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe. Ed. Magnus Hirschfeld. Leipzig: Spohr. Reprint in 30 copies, 1925; Reprint New York: Arno, 1975.

———. 1994a. Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännlichen Liebe. Ed. Hubert Kennedy, 4 vols. Berlin: Verlag rosa Winkel.

———. 1994b. The Riddle of “Man-Manly” Love: The Pioneering Work on Male Homosexuality. Trans. Michael A. Lombardi-Nash, 2 vols. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

1 Ulrichs coined the term “mannmännlich” to describe the love of a man for another man. The translator of Ulrichs’s writings (Ulrichs 1994b) in turn coined “man-manly” for this. I have adopted his term here.