Happy 150th Birthday to LGBTI Activism

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the father of the LGBTI movement
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the father of the LGBTI movement

August 29 2017 marks the 150th birthday of LGBTI activism, which all started with Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the father of LGBTI activism and the first modern gay man.

On the 29th of August 1867, LGBTI activism was born, as a journalist and jurist publicly came out and challenged the German Confederation to abolish its anti-sodomy laws.

This act, from 150 years ago, was a courageous and defining moment that changed our understanding of sexuality and human rights forever. But who inspired this momentous change? Who was the remarkable person behind it?

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was his name, and he, in effect, is the father of LGBTI activism and the first modern gay man.

Ulrichs laid down the paradigm for modern LGBTI movements by calling for the repeal of all anti-sodomy laws and demanding equal rights, including the rights for marriage, family, adoption, gender identity, expression, and anti-discrimination. In a sense, his work is the cornerstone for 150 years of equality activism. His works became the foundation for queer, gender rights activists as well as civil liberties movements.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was born on the 28th of August 1825 in Westerfeld, which was then part of the Kingdom of Hanover and was later annexed by Prussia and unified into Germany.

His first observations regarding sexuality were about his own nature, recalling that he became aware of his first same-sex attraction at the age of nine, and had his first gay experience at the age of 14, in the course of a brief affair with his riding instructor.

Ulrichs’s achievements were immense, he published the first scientific theory of sexuality altogether, which saw same-sex desire as natural, and correspondingly he demanded that it should be legalised.

He graduated in law and theology from Göttingen University in 1846. He studied history from 1846 to 1848 at Berlin University, writing a dissertation in Latin on the Peace of Westphalia.

University of Goettingen, Germany

From 1849 to 1857, Ulrichs worked as an official legal adviser for the district court of Hildesheim in the Kingdom of Hanover. He was dismissed when his homosexuality became open knowledge.

In 1862, Ulrichs decided to come out to his family and friends, who, despite being religious, accepted him. According to his diaries, however, he had still not found a name for a person who experiences same-sex desire.

After coming out, he decided to explain the nature of his sexuality. At the time, same-sex desire had no naturalistic name of its own to denote an inherent part of nature or of a person, instead it was dismissed as a “learned” vice and a sin. He therefore embarked on explaining and exploring the issues, writing under the pseudonym of “Numa Numantius”. He initially wrote two booklets in 1864, which soon grew to five, collectively known as his ‘Researches on the Riddle of love between Men,’ eventually he published twelve volumes over the decade.

In these writings, Ulrichs put forward two revolutionary ideas about sexuality, that would forever change the way the world thinks about LGBTI people. First, he declared that homosexuals were a distinct class of individuals, innately different from heterosexual people.

As mentioned, at that period, there was no word to scientifically describe a class of people, aside from the pejorative, or religious terms corresponding to behaviour-based adjectives such as “sodomite”, “pederast”, etc…  Ulrichs, instead, coined the word “urning,” meaning follower or descendant of Uranus. The name is a reference to a passage in Plato’s Symposium, in which Pausanias calls same-sex love the offspring of the “heavenly Aphrodite,” daughter of Uranus.

Ulrichs later added the feminine form “urningin” to define women we now refer to as lesbians. Heterosexuals, in Ulrichs’s parlance, became “dionings”: descendants of the “common Aphrodite,” daughter of Zeus by the mortal woman Dione.

He later revised his theory, decades before Kinsey, and explained that human sexuality was, in fact, a continuum. Ulrichs also coined words for the female counterparts (Urningin and Dioningin), and for bisexuals and intersex people.

Ulrichs also put forward a theory to account for the development of sexual orientation. In his earliest conception of this theory, Ulrichs posited the existence of a “third sex”, whose nature is inborn: basically, what we now term “born this way”.

In his initial theories, the human embryo was viewed as having the potential for bodily and mental development in either the female or the male direction. In most people, the sexual development of the body and the mind was concordant: either both were male or both were female. In fetuses destined to become urnings, however, the sex of bodily development was male, while the sex of mental development was female. These individuals, being neither totally male nor totally female, constituted a “third sex.”

He later put forward a similar explanation for the origin of urningins: he theorised that the sex of bodily development was female, while that of mental development was male. In this sense, he also laid down the first modern foundations for understanding transgender and intersex people. All forms of sexualities, to Ulrichs, were natural and inborn, and thus should not be criminalised or viewed as sinful. He also argued against religious doctrines, such as those of Saint Paul, who he claimed made a mistake in calling same-sex behaviour “against nature”, as these were natural occurrences.

Later he revised his theories again and showed that urnings saw themselves and behaved in various ways from very masculine to feminine and also were attracted to different types of same-sex partners and could range in their sexual preferences (i.e. active, passive, versatile and so on).

Ulrichs even sent his publications to Marx and Engels, in the hope that the fathers of communism would be sympathetic, instead his views about equality were rejected as perverse and he was branded a “paedophile”.

Engels (left) and Marx (right)


The booklets led to Ulrichs corresponding with thousands of LGBTI people from all over Germany and beyond. He also tried to influence anti-LGBTI politicians and explain the nature of sexuality to them, as well as to doctors and lawyers. But his activism did not end there, he also attempted to intervene in cases where LGBTI people were put on trial accused of sodomy or offences to morality laws. Ulrichs even sent his publications to Marx and Engels, in the hope that the fathers of communism would be sympathetic, instead his views about equality were rejected as perverse and he was branded a “paedophile”.

In 1867, Ulrichs, along with his straight lawyer friend August Tewe, decided to mount a courageous attempt to decriminalise same-sex desire from all German states as well as Austria. They wrote 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,” and was presented at the Association of German Jurists, the top legal fraternity in the German Confederation.

Although the resolution was excluded from the agenda, on the 29th of August 1867, precisely 150 years ago, he read out his proposal, despite being shouted down by the audience. He demanded:

“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.”

In other words, Ulrichs became the first gay person to speak out publicly in defence of diverse sexualities in front of lawmakers, calling for legal revision and repeal of all discriminatory legislations. As an activist, Ulrichs was ahead of his time and he fought not only for the equal rights for LGBTI people, but also for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as the rights of women, including unwed mothers and their children.

The first and only issue of Uranus (January 1870), intended by Ulrichs as a regular periodical
The first and only issue of Uranus (January 1870), intended by Ulrichs as a regular periodical.


Ulrichs also launched the first ever LGBTI magazine in 1870, but only managed to print one issue, it was nevertheless widely circulated around Europe and beyond and enabled many people to start recognising their nature and discuss their sexuality.

In 1870 Ulrichs published “Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law” a remarkable document similar to modern LGBTI rights movement demands.

The Urning (gay) is a person and therefore, has inalienable rights. Sexual orientation is a right established by nature, which legislators have no right to outlaw, so long as sex acts are private and between consenting adults, furthermore it cannot persecute or torture Urnings.

The Urning is also a citizen entitled to full civil rights which the state has certain duties to fulfill as well. The state cannot persecute urnings and treat them outside the law.

Unfortunately, when Prussia united forcibly the German states it had conquered under Kaiser Wilhelm I, its anti-sodomy law, Paragraph 143, was enforced and later became Paragraph 175 of the penal code of the German Empire, which was also used to persecute LGBTI people by the Nazis.

Ulrichs continued to fight for LGBTI equality but finally gave up in 1879 after repeated arrests, running out of money and constantly being fired from jobs due to prejudice against his sexuality. He then crossed over the Alps, settled in the central Italian town of L’Aquila, where he lived for 12 years until his death on July 14, 1895.

Despite persecution, imprisonment, discrimination and exile, Ulrichs never regretted his activism, writing: “Until my dying day I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face to face in battle against the spectre which for time immemorial has been injecting poison into me and into men of my nature. Many have been driven to suicide because all their happiness in life was tainted. Indeed, I am proud that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.”

During his lifetime, Ulrichs already inspired many other nascent gay intellectuals, even reaching to the Bloomsbury Group in London. Unfortunately, his theories were distorted and also used negatively by scientists and doctors to pathologise homosexuality.

The word “homosexuality” was coined by Karl-Maria Kertbeny in 1869, a Hungarian journalist (and not a “Doctor” as Foucault erroneously claimed), after an extensive correspondence with Ulrichs, who deeply objected to this term.

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

Today is the 150th birthday of LGBTI activism, and yesterday was Karl Heinrich Ulrich’s 192nd Birthday.

About Dan Littauer 6 Articles
Journalist who specialises in LGBTI current affairs, travel writing, feature writing and investigative journalism.

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