Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich

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the "third sex" theory
anti-prussian activism

ULRICHS, KARL HEINRICH (1825–1895), German homosexual emancipationist, lawyer, journalist, and author.

In the written and spoken word, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was the first person to demand not just the decriminalization of homosexual practices but also the complete legal equality of homosexuals and heterosexuals. A man ahead of his time, he came out publicly as a homosexual in 1867 and envisioned a political and sociocultural movement of homosexuals organized to demand their rights as an oppressed minority. Unable to rally any substantial solidarity among the homosexuals of his era, he left Germany for voluntary exile in Italy.

Ulrichs's ability to imagine homosexual emancipation and his maverick willingness to challenge authority was surely in part a matter of individual temperament but may also have derived from his family heritage in Frisia, the coastal region straddling Holland, Germany, and Denmark that is the only part of Germany that remained free of feudalism in the Middle Ages. He was born on 28 August 1825 in Aurich, the foremost Frisian city, as the son of an architect in the civil service of the kingdom of Hanover. Following the study of law at the Universities of Göttingen and Berlin, Ulrichs began a promising judicial career in Hanover in 1848. Six years later, however, his homosexual proclivities came to light, and he chose to resign from the civil service rather than face certain dismissal. He moved to Frankfurt am Main, where he worked as a newspaper journalist and as an administrative assistant for a delegate to the German Confederation.

In 1864 Ulrichs published the first of a series of twelve small books that appeared under the collective title Investigations into the Riddle of Man-Manly Love. In language that was closely reasoned and legalistic but at times also impassioned and immediately accessible, this wide-ranging set of books surveyed the domains of law, religion, medicine, history, literature, and current events in an almost encyclopedic effort to assemble all available information on homosexuality, challenge homophobic prejudice, and muster support among homosexuals themselves. These books—the first five appeared in 1864 and 1865—led to a far-flung correspondence with homosexuals throughout Germany and abroad, and they document Ulrichs's own growing knowledge about homosexuality, drawing on data and leads he received from his correspondents.

the "third sex" theory

Ulrichs began with the assumption that virtually all homosexuals shared his delicate features, which he himself described as feminine, as well as his boyhood interest in girls' pastimes and their colorful clothing, which contrasted vividly with the increasingly drab men's dress of his era. His first awareness of homosexual interests came at age fifteen, followed by a full recognition of his orientation at twenty-one, and he frankly described his erotic fascination with laborers clad in working-class garb and soldiers decked out in colorful uniforms. His contacts with his contemporaries soon convinced him, however, that beyond effeminate homosexuals of his own stripe there were fully masculine ones as well as butch and femme lesbians, and he eventually came to recognize bisexuality as a valid sexual category.

Despite his acknowledgment of a panoply of sexual orientations and types, Ulrichs basically maintained his "third sex" theory of homosexuality, according to which gay men are endowed at birth with a female anima (which might be translated as spirit, psyche, or soul) and lesbians are endowed with a male one. He coined the word Urning for a homosexual, drawing on the speech by Pausanias in Plato's Symposium in which the origins of same-sex and opposite-sex love are attributed to the two avatars of the love goddess, one being the motherless daughter of Uranus, and the other the daughter of Zeus and Dione (thus Dioning was Ulrichs's name for heterosexuals). The term Urning, occasionally rendered in English as Uranian, had some European-wide currency for a few decades but was ultimately edged aside by adoption of the term homosexual, which was likewise coined in the 1860s. Ulrichs argued that the natural, innate quality of homosexuality meant that it was unjust and pointless to punish it, and he compared the persecution of homosexuals with that of witches in earlier centuries, confident that growing enlightenment would ultimately lead to homosexual equality.

anti-prussian activism

Ulrichs's publication series was halted by the wars of German unification spearheaded by Otto von Bismarck. A local patriot, Ulrichs was twice imprisoned in 1866 for opposing the Prussian invasion and annexation of Hanover. His house was searched and his papers, including a manuscript collection of homosexual poetry, were confiscated. Shortly after his second release from prison, he traveled to Munich to deliver an address on homosexual rights at the 1867 Congress of German Jurists. His call for the repeal of sodomy statutes in the various German states was roundly shouted down by the entire outraged audience.

Following his aborted speech in Munich, Ulrichs resolved to come out publicly as a homosexual to the entire German nation. "As Urnings, we should and must present ourselves without a mask. Only then will we conquer ground to stand on in human society; otherwise, never" (Ulrichs, vol. 1, p. 123). Whereas his first five books had appeared under the pseudonym Numa Numantius, his sixth, published in 1868, was published under his own name, as were his six subsequent volumes on homosexuality that appeared between 1869 and 1879. Banned from Hanover, Ulrichs moved initially to southern Germany. These books documented a growing international network of homosexuals and an increasing knowledge of the homosexual subculture, including the slang and practices of his era in Germany, England, and elsewhere. He criticized the homophobia of the majority but also lamented the cowardice of his fellow homosexuals.

Ulrichs was bitterly disappointed when Prussia, with its harsh antisodomy statute, became the foremost state following national unification in 1871, which led in the following year to the imposition of Prussia's criminal code throughout Germany. Ulrichs left Germany for voluntary exile in Italy in 1880, and here he spent the last fifteen years of his life cultivating the revival of Latin as a universal language. His grave is in Aquila, Italy, where he died on 14 July 1895.

In Aquila, Ulrichs was visited by John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), who provided a sympathetic portrait of Ulrichs as an individual along with a useful précis of his third-sex theory in A Problem in Modern Ethics (1881). In Germany, Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902) credited Ulrichs with first drawing his attention to homosexuals, these "stepchildren of nature" (Ulrichs, vol. 2, p. 512), and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) commented, albeit disparagingly, on Ulrichs's theory in his Three Essays on Sexuality (1905). Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) admiringly noted that Ulrichs single-handedly developed virtually the entire platform of the homosexual emancipation movement that finally came into being at the close of the nineteenth century, including proposals of a homosexual journal, a national petition to repeal the antisodomy statute, and even a "bond of love" or civil union "analogous to" heterosexual marriage (vol. 1, p. 234). In their private correspondence, Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) commented on Ulrichs's writings, remarking that "the pederasts" were beginning to count themselves and to notice that they formed an organizable minority.

Although he estimated that homosexuals constituted just 0.2 to 0.4 percent of the German adult male population, Ulrichs indeed recognized that homosexuals constituted a minority that could demand its "inalienable … civil rights" from "despotic majorities" (vol. 2, pp. 605, 547). He fully anticipated the identity politics of the late twentieth century by placing homosexuals on a par with other oppressed minorities and reminding his fellow homosexuals of their duty to practice solidarity "on the side of the victims of violence and abuse: whether they are called Poles, Hanoverians, Jews, Catholics" (vol. 2, p. 547). By the early twenty-first century, German homosexual activists had successfully lobbied to have streets in Aurich, Hanover, Bremen, and Munich named in his honor.

See alsoFreud, Sigmund; Hirschfeld, Magnus; Homosexuality and Lesbianism; Krafft-Ebing, Richard von; Symonds, John Addington.


Primary Sources

Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich. The Riddle of "Man-Manly" Love: The Pioneering Work on Male Homosexuality. 2 vols. Translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash. Buffalo, N.Y., 1994.

Secondary Sources

Kennedy, Hubert. "Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: First Theorist of Homosexuality." In Science and Homosexualities, edited by Vernon A. Rosario, 26–45. New York, 1997.

——. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: Pioneer of the Modern Gay Movement. 2nd ed. San Francisco, 2005.

James D. Steakley