Remembering Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

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Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, an engraving taken from “Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen, (“Yearbook of sexual intermediates”), vol. 1″, 1899 | Geschichtswerkstatt | 15031

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was a German writer and lawyer who played key roles both in defining homosexuality and establishing the movement for gay rights.

Hans Rollman, reviewing the book “Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity” by Robert Beachy, explains.

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A homosexual himself, his promising legal career was cut short when rumours began to spread about his sexual activities with other men. Shut out of the legal profession, he gradually rebuilt himself a career in journalism and writing. But as Beachy points out, he was a true product of the Protestant Reformation (his family were ardent Lutherans), with its drive to question accepted traditions in the search for truth. No matter which way he looked at it, he couldn’t find anything wrong with his sexual attraction to other men, and concluded that it was normal behaviour, and that some people are simply born homosexual.

All this was, of course, highly revolutionary for his time, as was his decision to begin campaigning for an end to the existing anti-sodomy laws and moral persecution which accompanied them. He first opened up a remarkable correspondence with his own family in what was essentially the first documented coming-out in history. He tested his own theories on them, and while they clearly disapproved and urged him to change, they didn’t reject him and even re-affirmed their love and support for him.

Thus bolstered, he began issuing a series of anonymous pamphlets, arguing that homosexuality, or ‘Urning’, as he called it, was natural behaviour. In 1867 he ratcheted things up a notch, giving an address to the Association of German Jurists where he presented his views and argued for revision of the sodomy laws. He was shouted down and unable to finish his speech, but he had opened the dialogue, and at the same time emerged as its public spokesperson. As he continued his courageous campaign, he also refined his theories of sexuality to embrace a diversity of sexual and gender identities.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was born on 28 August 1825 and died on 14 July 1895.

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