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Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (28 August 1825 – 14 July 1895) was a German writer who is seen today as a pioneer of the modern gay rights movement. In 1864 Ulrichs published the first of twelve texts calling for legal reform. Ulrichs himself was homosexual and his theory that ‘Urnings’ were a separate sex was adopted by several doctors, usually in Latin: ‘anima muliebris in corpore virili inclusa’ (‘a woman’s soul shut up in a man’s body’).
Ulrichs was born in Aurich in Lower Saxony, then part of the Kingdom of Hanover. Ulrichs recalled that as a young child he wore girls' clothes, preferred playing with girls, and wanted to be a girl. His first homosexual experience was in 1839 at the age of fourteen, when his riding instructor sexually abused him. He graduated in law and theology from Göttingen University in 1846. From 1846 to 1848, he studied history at Berlin University, writing a dissertation in Latin on the Peace of Westphalia.
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 took the momentous step of telling his family and friends that he was, in his own words, an Urning, and began writing under the pseudonym of "Numa Numantius". His first five essays, collected as Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Studies on the Riddle of Male-Male Love), explained such love as natural and biological, summed up with the Latin phrase anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa (a female psyche confined in a male body). In these essays, Ulrichs coined various terms to describe different sexual orientations, including Urning for a man who desires men (English "Uranian"), and Dioning for one who desires women. These terms are in reference to a section of Plato's Symposium in which two kinds of love are discussed, symbolised by an Aphrodite who is born from a male (Uranos), and an Aphrodite who is born from a female (Dione). Ulrichs also coined words for the female counterparts (Urningin and Dioningin), and for bisexuals and intersexual persons.
He soon began publishing under his real name (possibly the first public "coming out" in modern society) and wrote a statement of legal and moral support for a man arrested for homosexual offences. On 29 August 1867 Ulrichs became the first homosexual to speak out publicly in defence of homosexuality when he pleaded at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich for a resolution urging the repeal of anti-homosexual laws. He was shouted down. Two years later, in 1869, the Austrian writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny coined the word "homosexual", and from the 1870s the subject of sexual orientation (as we would now say) began to be widely discussed.
In the 1860s, Ulrichs moved around Germany, always writing and publishing, and always in trouble with the law — though always for his words rather than for sexual offences. In 1864, his books were confiscated and banned by police in Saxony. Later the same thing happened in Berlin, and his works were banned throughout Prussia. Some of these papers were found in the Prussian state archives and were published in 2004. Already several of Ulrichs's more important works are back in print, both in German and in translation.
Ulrichs was a patriotic Hannoverian, and when Prussia annexed Hannover in 1866 he was briefly imprisoned for opposing Prussian rule. The next year he left Hannover for good and moved to Munich, where he addressed the Association of German Jurists on the need to reform German laws against homosexuality. Later he lived in Würzburg and Stuttgart.
In 1879, Ulrichs published the twelfth and final book of his Research on the Riddle of Man-Manly Love. In poor health, and feeling he had done all he could in Germany, he went into self-imposed exile in Naples. For several years he travelled around the country before settling in L'Aquila, where his health improved.
He continued to write prolifically and publish his works (in German and Latin) at his own expense. In 1895, he received an honorary diploma from the University of Naples. Shortly afterwards he died in L'Aquila. His gravestone is marked (in Latin), "Exile and Pauper." "Pauper" may have been a bit of a romantic licence. Ulrichs lived in L'Aquila as the guest of a local landowner, Marquis Niccolò Persichetti, who gave the eulogy at his funeral. At the end of his eulogy, he said:
But with your loss, oh Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the fame of your works and your virtue will not likewise disappear... but rather, as long as intelligence, virtue, learning, insight, poetry and science are cultivated on this earth and survive the weakness of our bodies, as long as the noble prominence of genius and knowledge are rewarded, we and those who come after us will shed tears and scatter flowers on your venerated grave.
Late in life Ulrichs wrote:
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.
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