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The father of us all: meet the world’s first LGBT activist

150 years ago this year Karl Heinrich Ulrichs came out to his family. Five years later he came out to the world. He had become the world’s first LGBT rights campaigner and eventually published twelve manifestos which contain all the demands we still fight for today
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

While the LGBT rights movement in the English speaking world dates back a half a century, its beginning came a century earlier.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the coming out of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs — the first man to identify himself publicly as a homosexual and campaign for LGBT rights.

During nearly two decades of activism, Ulrichs would identify all of the rights that LGBTs still fight for today – the right to marry, the right to form a family, and the right to find accommodation, work and to be free from violence.

He began his quest from a point of almost unbelievable naivety but by examining his own feelings and speaking to other homosexuals he would eventually develop theories about sexuality and gender identity that would be echoed by scientists in the 20th Century.

Ulrichs was born to a religious middle class family in Hanover on August 28, 1825.

At age nine he recorded his first infatuation with a boy two years his senior but the family moved to Burgdorf the following year after his father’s death.

As he grew older, Ulrichs began to feel himself drawn to the bodies of Greek statues he saw in books and to the young soldiers on patrol around town.

At 18 he wrote a poem to a male sweetheart, recording, ‘How we embraced so snugly, wandering under boughs, as evening’s twilight fell.’

A year later, he was studying among the handsome students of the University of Gottingen. But although the French had decriminalized homosexuality in much of Germany following the Napoleonic Wars, acting on his feelings would have killed his reputation in the small university town.

Two years later Ulrichs transferred to Berlin, where the cover of a big city allowed him to finally act out his sexual longings.

In 1848 Ulrichs graduated with a law degree and befriended August Tewes, a heterosexual lawyer who would become his closest ally in his campaign for the rights of LGBTs in Germany.

In 1862 Ulrichs made the momentous step of coming out to friends and family. Despite their religiosity, they did not reject him.

The same year Ulrichs decided to quit the legal profession and become a journalist, which would allow him more time to pursue private studies into understanding his sexuality.

He had become convinced that he was ‘born this way’ and if homosexuals were naturally inclined to be attracted to men then the law should not punish them for acting on that with consensual partners.

Ulrichs first attempted to have his ideas published in the German press, but after being knocked back by editor after editor, in 1863 he decided he would have to self-publish to be heard.

Ulrichs penned two booklets, which soon grew to five, collectively known as his ‘Researches on the Riddle of love between Men,’ and he would eventually publish 12 volumes over a decade, in print runs into the thousands, before the money dried up.

Through these booklets he explained his theory of ‘the third sex’. He believed homosexuals, who he gave the name ‘Urnings’, were the result of a female consciousness being born into a male body.

He thought such individuals numbered perhaps one in every 500, but later came to realize there were many times more.

Having only very limited experiences speaking to other gay men, Ulrichs believed all Urnings were effeminate and were by nature attracted to heterosexual men.

The idea that the rough trade he met in parks could be gay or bisexual and in the closet did not occur to him until much later, although he would later accept that Urnings could love each other and be masculine in character.

At this early naive stage, Ulrichs, thought that if anyone was to be punished for sex between men, it was the heterosexual man who chose to turn to an Urning for release.

Police raided his printer in 1864, confiscating nearly all copies of his first pamphlet, but the second had already been posted.

Published anonymously at first, the booklets led to a flood of letters to Ulrichs from gay men all over Germany who spoke about their experience of homosexuality.

Ulrichs also began sending booklets to politicians, doctors and lawyers, including judges trying sodomy cases.

In his next booklets, he wrote of lesbians and of heterosexual men who displayed feminine characteristics, envisaging a spectrum of gender and sexuality that would resonate with American sex researcher Alfred Kinsey nearly a century later.

But Ulrichs was about to ratchet his activism up a further notch with a return to the law, and he enlisted the help of his heterosexual lawyer friend August Tewes in the task.

Together they penned 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,’ to be presented at the Association of German Jurists, the top legal fraternity in the German Confederation.

The resolution was excluded from the agenda on their first attempt but, undeterred, on August 29, 1867, Ulrichs and Tewes returned to speak.

Although nearly drowned out by the audience, Ulrichs was able to read out his proposal, “[addressing] 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.

‘It is also a question of the establishment of a unified law in Germany … Bavaria and Austria both presently condemn prosecution, and their law stands diametrically opposed to the rest of Germany.

‘Finally it is a matter … of cutting of the source of abundant suicides.’

In 1868, Ulrichs went the further step of publishing a booklet with his full name emblazoned on the cover and was soon so well known that his books were being reviewed in medical journals, and even Karl Marx had heard of him.

Ulrichs’ books were soon being read as far a field as Russia and the United States and he could name twenty prominent Germans who had voiced their support for his call for reform — all of them non-Urnings.

But when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, the smaller German states fell into line behind Prussia to form a united Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm I who extended the Prussian’s Paragraph 175 law, later used to persecute homosexuals by the Nazis, to the whole of Germany.

Ulrichs published his final booklet, Critical Arrows, in 1879, then walked over the Alps into Italy with his spirit broken, eventually settling in the mountain town of Aquila where he lived for 12 years before his death on July 14 in 1895.

Sadly, Ulrichs would never learn of the global LGBT rights movement he would inspire.

In his own lifetime, Ulrichs was a direct inspiration for Karl Maria Kertbery, the man who would coin the term “homosexual” in 1869 and write a pamphlet of his own, beginning the medicalization of homosexuality.

Medicalization would come with cruel attempts to cure homosexuals but it would also provide a basis to argue against the criminalization of them.

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

In 1921 the group held its First Congress for Sexual Reform, leading to the formation of a World League for Sexual Reform that aimed to take the fight for justice global, and by 1932, congresses had been held in England, Denmark, Czechoslovakia and Austria.

In 1933 Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took control of Germany and Hirschfeld died in exile in France in 1935.

But following the war, many gay American soldiers who had been stationed in Germany returned home after learning of the German gay rights movement that had arisen before the Nazis came to power.

Some of these soldiers would be among the earliest members of the pioneering American gay rights group the Mattachine Society.

One of these was Frank Kameny, who co-founded the Mattachines' Washington DC chapter in 1961 after being fired from his job as an astronomer with the US Army Map Service in 1957.

The Mattachines would inspire the first generation of activists who would label themselves ‘gay’ and form the modern LGBT rights movement of the post Stonewall period that we know today.

Ulrichs message to the world is best summed up in his booklet, Araxes-

‘The Urning, too, is a person. … His sexual orientation is a right established by nature. Legislators have no right to veto nature … no right to torture living creatures who are subject to those drives nature gave them.’

‘The Urning … has civil rights; and according to these rights, the state has certain duties to fulfill as well.

Legislators should give up hope … of uprooting the Uranian sexual drive at any time. Even the fiery pyres upon which they burned Urnings in earlier centuries could not accomplish this.’
 

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