Ulrichs and America

If you thought that your own coming out was scary, just imagine what it was like to come out 150 or 200 years earlier, without the support of a gay movement. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs dared to find out. 

In 1854, a betrayal following a sexual encounter compelled Ulrichs to quit his job as an assistant attorney in the German civil service and forsake a career with the state. But a new career began as he justified his erotic interests to himself and came out to his family. 

First Writing
Ulrichs's initiation into radical sexual politics began in the summer of 1862, when a prominent Social Democratic politician was arrested for "a bit of fooling around with a young lad in the castle garden" (as Ulrichs described the crime). In response, Ulrichs wrote his earliest advocacy piece for men who loved men. 

First Publication
Ulrichs published the first of his set of booklets in defense of what he called "urning love" in 1864, using a pseudonym. Between that year and 1879, he published 12 such booklets. 

In these publications, Ulrichs began developing a general theory of sex-love: 

The love of the urning for a "true man" was caused by a feminine soul inhabiting a male body. Urning love, he stressed, was inborn and perfectly natural, though atypical, unusual. It no more deserved legal punishment and social stigma than the "dioning love" of the "true man" and "true woman." (Both terms, urning and dioning, were derived from Plato's Symposium.) 

Ulrichs's theory was later broadened to include masculine men who loved men, and women who loved women. His courageous activity on behalf of the persecuted remains inspiring. 

First Attempt at Public Speech
In 1865, Ulrichs and a supportive friend boldly asked the leading group of German lawyers, judges, and legislators to discuss the decriminalization of sex between men. 

The group refused even to talk about such a scandalous proposal, much less recommend it. But the stubborn Ulrichs, a 40-year-old journalist, student of law and medicine, and independent scholar, refused to drop the issue. 

As Ulrichs began to publish his defenses of urning love, he got to know a larger group of man-loving men and, in September 1865, even drafted a set of "Bylaws for the Urning Union." Though the group probably never existed, the plan formulates the earliest-known dream of a homosexual emancipation organization.

First Actual Public Speech
Two years later, on the morning of August 29, 1867, in Munich, Ulrichs stood before the same group of 500 jurists that he has addressed in 1865, and did what no one in history had ever done before. 

Ulrichs publicly championed the cause of a "class of persons" subjected "to an undeserved legal persecution for no other reason than ... nature has planted in them a sexual nature that is the opposite of that which is ... usual."

Ulrichs' perception that same-sex lovers formed a "class" suggests that this group was forming a sense of its collective existence and persecution.

"I acted fearlessly, although my heart was pounding," Ulrichs said later. His advocacy caused a great furor, and discussion of decriminalization was not permitted. 

First Magazine
In 1870, Ulrichs achieved another first by publishing a single issue of a magazine for man-loving men -- the first homosexual emancipation periodical. 

Ulrichs's interests were wide; for opposing the Prussian conquest of Hannover, he was twice imprisoned. He also spoke up for German unification, and for the end of the death penalty. He advocated for the struggles of all who were persecuted: "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." 

But no movement formed to support Ulrichs's revolutionary ideas, and he became discouraged when, by the 1870s, due to Prussian influence, almost all the German states had passed sodomy laws.

In 1880, Ulrichs moved to Aquila (now L'Aquila), in Italy, and ceased to agitate publicly for urning love. 

Symonds Visits
In October 1891, the 66-year-old Ulrichs was visited by the leading troublemaker of the next generation, John Addington Symonds.

This English literary critic and historian had privately published two essays in defense of "sexual inverts" (his term for men and women sexually attracted to their own sex). He had also unsuccessfully badgered Walt Whitman to come out in support of sodomy law reform. And Symonds would also initiate research on the important early book Sexual Inversion, published as the work of Havelock Ellis.

With his handsome servant and lover, Angelo Fusato, Symonds spent an afternoon and evening with Ulrichs, later describing him to a friend:

"There is a singular charm about the old man: great sweetness, the remains of refined beauty. His squalor was appalling . . . . He had no shirt and no stockings on. My magnificent Venetian gondolier and manservant was appalled at the sight of this poor beggar sitting next to his padrone. However, I told Angelo that the old man was one of the men I prized and respected most in Europe. And Angelo got to like him in spite of his rags." 

Today's gay people can make the acquaintance of Ulrichs, thelr brave and ardent forefather, in Hubert Kennedy's carefully researched scholarly biography, Ulrichs (Alyson Publications, 1988), to which I'm indebted for the information recounted here.

Ulrichs and America

If researchers follow up on any of the following leads OutHistory will be very glad to publish your findings. Contact: outhistory@gmail.com

References to rare, intriguing, and tantalizingly incomplete bits of LGBTQ U.S. history are scattered throughout Ulrich's writings. I thank Hubert Kennedy for providing these intriguing details, some of which may lead researchers to fascinating new evidence. These references all appear in Ulrichs' original German publications.

*1865, Ulrichs discussed philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's comment that "lack of women" can sometimes "give rise" to pederasty (same-sex sex) in "womenless colonies -- California was cited as an example! The state already had a reputation as a breeding place for those who experienced what were thought of as irregular sexualities

*1866: Ulrichs argued that women who dressed and fought as men in the recent American Civil War should not be denied their rights -- just as urnings had inalienable rights, regardless of what they wore. This is an amazing, early linking of what we call transgender rights with the rights of those that Gore Vidal called "same-sexers."

*1867: a German theater director named Feldtmann was arrested and jailed for having sex with three 19-year-old men, one named "Benguot from New Orleans."

*1867: a respected Methodist minister, Rev. Cartridge of Stockton, California, was caught with another man, causing an uproar in his congregation, though not all of his parishioners condemned the preacher. Cartridge was sentenced to five years in jail. California again appears as a hotbed of same-sex carnality.

*1868: Rejecting the notion that same-sex erotic activity was caused by masturbation (a popular medical theory), Ulrichs cited Dr. Julius Hoffmann of Wurzburg, Bavaria, who in 1868 had worked in an insane asylum in Jacksonville, Illinois. Hoffman there observed that, given the chance, inmates who masturbated never turned to their own sex, but went right on playing with themselves. Hoffman reportedly supported sodomy law repeal or reform. It would be fascinating to know more about that Illinois asylum, Dr. Hoffman's work there, and Dr. Hoffman, himself.

*1869: an American studying medicine in Wurzburg (probably Dr. Hoffman, cited above), reports that he wished "to receive a blood transfusion" from Ulrichs "to be transformed into a uranian once for about two weeks" -- so that he could "study uranianism in himself during that time."

*1869: Ulrichs' books had reached New York, St. Louis, and other Amerian cities, he reports the above year.

*1869: This year Ulrichs reports the "attempted lynching of a uranian" by a mob in Chicago.


Last edit: August 22, 2019, 9:22 EST.

This essay is adapted from Jonathan Ned Katz's column, "Katz on History," The Advocate, April 25, 1989, pages 47-48. The essay was titled "The First Gay Revolutionary, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: A Daring Pioneer of Sexual Emancipation."