Who was Karl Heinrich Ulrichs? Meet the first man to publicly come out as gay

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs is considered by many as the first gay activist in modern times, and the first person to publicly “come out”.

Throughout his life, Ulrichs fought tirelessly for the rights of gay people – even before the term ‘homosexual’ was coined.

In fact, Ulrichs is widely credited as the pioneer of the modern gay rights movement, and is famous for making his own words up to describe gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and intersex people.

Between 1863 and 1879, Ulrichs published a series of twelve essays known collectively as Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (or, in English, ‘Studies on the Riddle of Male-Male Love’).

In these works, Ulrichs fought for the rights of gay people and outlined his theories on homosexuality.

But who was Ulrichs? What were his theories? Here’s all you need to know.

Formative years

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Born on 28 August 1825 in in Aurich, north-west Germany, Ulrichs wore girls’ clothes as a young child and preferred making friends with girls; he even expressed a desire to be a girl.

Ulrichs went on to study law and theology at Göttingen University, where he graduated in 1846. Then, from 1846 to 1848, he studied history at Berlin University, writing a dissertation in Latin on a peace treaty called Peace of Westphalia.

Afterwards, he worked in the civil service of Hanover until 1854, when he stepped down before he could be dismissed over his homosexual activity. Although gay acts weren’t yet illegal in Hanover, he could still be fired from his job as a civil servant.

Ulrichs worked as a reporter for the German regional newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung for the next few years. He also had a job as a secretary to a representative of the German Confederation – an association of 39 German states, which fell apart in 1866.

Essays on gay love

Between 1863 and 1865, Ulrichs wrote a series of five essays published as Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Studies on the Riddle of Male-Male Love), in which he provided his own terms for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and intersex people.

He initially wrote these under the pseudonym Numa Numantius, but later acknowledged these writings as his own. Ulrichs continued this series until 1979, when he published his twelfth and final volume.

In his essays, Ulrichs called gay men ‘Urning’ – a term inspired by a section in Plato’s philosophical text Symposium – and lesbians as ‘Dioning’. Ulrichs’ definitions were ground-breaking for the time – it wasn’t until 1869 that Austrian writer  Karl-Maria Kertbeny coined the term “homosexual.

Klaus Müller, a German historian, has described Ulrichs’ works as “the first scientific theory of sexuality altogether”.

Related: Meet the bisexual, black cabaret dancer and spy who dated Frida Kahlo and helped defeat the Nazis in France


(An essay by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, published in 1868)

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In his works, Ulrichs campaigned for the rights of gay people, as well as for women, and ethnic and religious minorities.

Although Ulrichs initially thought that homosexuality in men was caused by having a female soul or “psyche” trapped in a male body, he later argued that being gay is natural and inborn, which was a ground-breaking belief for the time.

Ulrichs argued on this basis that same-sex relationships for both men and women should be legally permitted, including the right to marry.

As Hubert Kennedy in his article ‘Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: First Theorist of Homosexuality’, writes: “This was a major departure from previous and subsequent theories that saw the practice of homosexuality/“sodomy” as an acquired vice.”

In one essay, published in 1970 – titled ‘Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law’ – Ulrichs is particularly noted for his pioneering approach to homosexuality, which he defends throughout the piece.

In this essay, Ulrichs writes: “The Urning (gay man), too, is a person. He, too, therefore, has inalienable rights. His sexual orientation is a right established by nature.”

“Legislators have no right to veto nature; no right to persecute nature in the course of its work; no right to torture living creatures who are subject to those drives nature gave them.”

“The Urning is also a citizen. He, too, has civil rights; and according to these rights, the state has certain duties to fulfill as well.”

“The state does not have the right to act on whimsy or for the sheer love of persecution. The state is not authorized, as in the past, to treat Urnings as outside the pale of the law.”

In August 1867, Ulrichs spoke out publically in defence of homosexuality – urging for the repeal of anti-gay legislation – at a congress of jurists in Munich.

According to historian Keith Dockray, Ulrichs was the first homosexual to publically defend homosexuality, even though he was shouted down.

In his biography on Ulrichs, Hubert Kennedy, a mathematician and historian, said the speech marked “the beginning of the public homosexual emancipation movement in Germany”.

Ulrichs’ activism also showed in other aspects of his life – he was twice imprisoned for protesting against Purssia’s invasion and annexing of Hanover in 1866.

In fighting for gay rights, Ulrichs faced great opposition – his works were banned and confiscated by police and he was ridiculed in the press.

But, despite his efforts, Prussia’s anti-gay laws were implemented across all of unified Germany by 1972.

Related: Meet the Spanish lesbians who got married under the nose of the Catholic Church in 1901


(Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

He spent his later life in Italy

In 1880, Ulrichs left Germany and spent the last 15 years of his life living in Italy.

He earned his living by tutoring foreign languages and continued to write extensively, including publishing a journal on reviving Latin as an international language.

Ulrichs travelled around Italy for a few years before settling in L’Aquila. In 1895, shortly before his death, the University of Naples gave him an honorary diploma for his work. He died aged 69 in L’Aquila on 14 July 1895.

Ulrichs was ahead of his time. Today, he is widely regarded as the first gay activist – and the first person to publically come out as gay.

He is credited by historians for pioneering the modern gay rights movement. “Ulrichs was an intelligent, educated man, who deserves our admiration for his bravery and persistence,” says Kennedy.

There are streets named after Ulrichs in Berlin, Munich, Hanover, and Bremen. In Munich, his birthday is celebrated each year with poetry and a street party in the city’s Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Platz, and L’Aquila, where he is buried, holds an annual pilgrimage to his grave.

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