Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

“I am proud, that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.” — Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

To discuss the beginning of the “queer movement” is to find yourself digging for roots that go far deeper than anyone can imagine. Many people define the start of the queer movement with the Stonewall Riots, a political act in 1969 that sparked a revolution in America, a moment that may more accurately be described as one that turned the tides. Another commonly choice is found in the life and work of Magnus Hirschfeld, who revolutionized research surrounding queerness in all its forms, bringing people together and building a base we all now stand on. Today though, we look earlier to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a man who inspired Magnus Hirschfeld, and pushed the queer movement into the spotlight.

Born August 28, 1825, in what was then the Kingdom of Hannover, much of the beginning of Karl Ulrichs’ life makes it clear how many of his ideas came from his own life experience. From a young age, he showed what he later said to be early displays of queerness. Ulrichs gravitated towards activities and clothing that were deemed feminine by his culture; this gravitation would later inform how he discussed queerness and how it existed within men specifically.

His first sexual experience with a man happened when he was fourteen and he was sexually abused by a riding instructor, something that would remain with him throughout his life. This experience was probably a factor in his desire to separate queerness from pedophilia. At the time, the two were often viewed as nearly identical.  

As he grew and moved to working in law Ulrichs worked to be self-aware, interrogating his identity and his attraction to men in ways that were not common for the time period. It was in 1857 that this self-awareness led to his dismissal from his job as an official legal adviser for the district court of Hildesheim. But this setback did not hinder his growth and as he became more comfortable with this identity, he also became more vocal about it. He told his family about being an Urning, a word he coined at the time to describe men who were attracted to other men.

This word, in fact, was one of his first leaps in changing the discussion around queerness. He then wrote a series of essays published under the pseudonym Numa Numantius. By creating a new word, he removed the separation between the act and the person. Scholar Hubert Kennedy wrote about this, saying: “Ulrichs’ goal was to free people like himself from the legal, religious, and social condemnation of homosexual acts as unnatural. For this, he invented new terminology that would refer to the nature of the individual, and not to the acts performed.”

Though "Urning" would not catch on as he hoped, it is now considered one of the earliest words to describe queerness in the way he was attempting to, coming before words like gay or homosexual. The word homosexual came soon after, still within Ulrichs’ own lifetime. He actively chose not to use it, finding the mixture of the greek and latin within the word not to his taste. He resented that “sexual” was a part of the word at all, as he was working to expand the understanding of queerness to be seen beyond sexual acts.

As he continued writing and self-examining, he found himself coming to the conclusion that love between two men was natural, and something that people were born with. He described it as men attracted to men being born with a “germ” that made them internally feminine. While through a modern lens this can seem like a worrying description, it was revolutionary at the time. It laid the base for an argument in favour of fair treatment of queer identities, an argument that has shifted and grown, but is still used today.

Ulrichs was also a proponent of the belief that queer love existed in more than one way. Hubert Kennedy described this belief, writing “By the end of 1864, [Ulrichs’] increasing contacts with other Urnings—both direct contact and through correspondence with readers of his first publications—had convinced Ulrichs that things were not as simple as he had originally thought. Thus, there were men who loved women and men alike, there were men who loved other men “tenderly and sentimentally” but desired women sensually, and so on. To accommodate these possibilities, he expanded his theory and assumed that there was not one germ for the sexual drive (as he had at first assumed), but two: one for “tender-sentimental” love and one for sensual love.”

This belief is one that is still shifting and growing within the queer community as we work to find more words to describe the different types of love and attraction that humans are capable of. His system was admittedly quite complicated, but he embraced that and predicted our continued growth in determining and labeling these kinds of love and attraction, saying, “I suppose a future researcher will discover an underlying law for this apparent chaos of varieties, a law according to which the seeming arbitrariness of the mixture becomes a necessity of nature. Needed for this is a comprehensive observation of individuals who belong to the particular varieties and, of course, a bit of talent for gaining new insight by taking a synoptic view of the variety. One must find a formula for this law, I might say, just as exact as that formula Kepler once found for the laws of the motions of the planets and comets”

And this brings us to one of the largest limitations of Ulrichs’ work, and that is the very limited view. This is not as much of a flaw of Ulrichs though, but of the world in which he lived. He did not know the vastness and diversity of the queer community, because in a sense that community didn’t quite exist yet. Still divided by shame and fear of legal repercussions, the queer community existed much more in pockets than in a global, or even country-wide context. Ulrichs played a large part in changing that.

He was a man who, on the 29th of August, 1867, became the first queer person to speak publicly in defense of queerness. He did so by pleading with the Congress of German Jurists, urging them to repeal anti-homosexual laws. And while he was shouted down, this act was not fruitless. It was a speech that was shouted down but never forgotten because it was for most people there the first time they heard queerness discussed in a positive way. And his continued advocacy work went on to inform people for generations after him, including Magnus Hirschfeld. In remembering Karl Ulrichs, he said, "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."

And his words struck a chord with people, even if they didn’t stick around. Oscar Wilde said, “To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble — more noble than other forms,”

Was he the first person to speak favourably about queer people, or advocate for their rights? No. Was he the first queer person to work against laws that discriminated against queer people? Also no. But was he the start of the queer movement? That obviously depends on how you define the queer movement.

But he himself defined his role within the queer movement quite beautifully, saying, “I am proud, that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.”

He changed the conversation. And although he died in 1895 at the age of 69, the ripples of the splashes he made are still seen all around us today.

It is possible to see him as the beginning of the queer movement, and we would not fault that interpretation. But we do believe he was not a dandelion growing from the pavement. He was, like all of us, surrounded by the work and changes caused by the queer people who came before him. Though those things were less visible in his time, they were there, quietly. In the love poems too beautiful to be burned. In the glances of understanding shared. And in plain words discussed around him and before him.

As long as discrimination against us has existed, queer people have fought back. It has not always been loud fighting, but it has been there. In just the simple act of deciding to love anyway, deciding to be happy anyway, deciding to speak anyway, the beginnings of the queer movement can be found. And with each continued act of rebellion, no matter if it is a man shouting in a courtroom, desperate to be heard, or two women holding hands while walking down the streets, we grow. In courage, in visibility, in acceptance, we have always, and will always, grow. The queer movement because of its’ very nature does not have a clear beginning. And while that may make recording it much more difficult, it makes loving it much more simple. We have always been rebelling, and we have always been choosing the love of ourselves, and the love of those around us over all else.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Kennedy, Hubert. "Karl Heinrich Ulrichs First Theorist of Homosexuality." Science and Homosexualities. New York: Routledge, 1997. (pp. 26–45).

Kennedy, Hubert. "Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich." The GLBTQ Project. New Jersey: Cleis Press, 2004.

"Karl Heinrich Ulrichs." The Federal Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld. Berlin.

Duhaime, Lloyd. "Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, 1825-1895 (Germany)." Duhaime.org.

Ed. Michael Lombardi-Nash."Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: Urning Pride and the First Known Gay Activist." 2008.

Baume, Matt. "The Amazing Story of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and the Birth of Queer Activism." Hornet Stories. 2017.