150 years ago, this queer activist invented sexual identity to stage a public protest

But a straight doctor stole the idea and rose to fame

9 min readJul 31, 2017
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs staged the world’s first queer protest 150 years ago. (Wikimedia Commons/GVGK Tang)

I wait anxiously as the chairman reads my request to speak. Calling for a vote as to whether I should be heard, a resounding cry of “Yes!” echoes through the hall, punctuated by some protest. I approach the speaker’s platform, heart pounding in my ears as an audience of five hundred turns its attention to me. What gives me strength at this very moment is the distant gaze of my comrades fixed upon me. Should I return their trust with cowardice?

On August 29, 1867 — one hundred and fifty years ago — a lawyer named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs took to the stage of the Grand Hall of Munich’s Odeon Theater to protest anti-sodomy laws. Ulrichs sought to codify the queer experience as a collective identity and argue for emancipation as an oppressed group. In doing so, he claimed that queers were a “special sexual class of people.” Queer men, or Urnings, constituted a sex of their own — their psyches were opposite their designated sex and, thus, responsible for their sexual predilections.

The significance of gender and sexual identity in the queer community today is illustrated by the continued expansion of our acronyms (e.g., LGBTQIA+). This “alphabet soup” is often bemoaned by both older (white male) activists who long for the days of Gay Liberation, and younger folks who rebel against the confines of labeling altogether. Yet we would do well to remember the role of these identities in our history. Queer people have long been required to give name to our desires — to name ourselves — in order to be heard, in order to “count,” and thus be protected under the law. New identifiers like pansexual or genderqueer are just a continuation of a long and arduous process of identity construction that began with Ulrichs’ Urning. The lament that “things were simple once” is decidedly false. “Things,” meaning the politics of naming in the queer community, have never been simple.

In an appeal to non-queer sensibilities, Ulrichs sought to affirm a traditional notion of a single, opposite-sex sexual desire. Queer, “third sex” individuals merely embodied the orientation of the “wrong” sex. This idea might now be considered a conflation of what we would now distinguish as sex, gender and sexuality — transgenderism versus homosexuality. However, by representing an attraction to men and masculinity as an inherently feminine attribute, Ulrichs presented same-sex sexual orientation within a relatable scheme of sexuality — one that could be perceived of as part of a “natural” masculine-feminine dynamic. Ulrichs was, indeed, the first queer activist to employ “born this way” rhetoric.

Ulrichs continued to construct a complex subsystem of gendered identities under the third sex umbrella of Urning. Within this classification, a queer man’s gendered presentation was matched to the object of his attraction. For instance, a Mannling was a masculine Urning who was attracted to feminine men and would take the active role in sexual encounters. In turn, a Weibling was a feminine Urning who was attracted to masculine men and assumed the passive role. One may note similarities in how gay men label themselves today — tops and bottoms, butches and femmes, etc. Ulrichs’ terminology also included male bisexuals (Uranodionings) and “men who have sex with men” (Uraniasters), among others.

Karl Maria Kertbeny invented the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Less than a year after Ulrichs’ protest, the itinerant, Austrian-born writer Karl Maria Kertbeny wrote to him to share his own sexual terminology — homosexual and heterosexual. Kertbeny and Ulrichs’ exchange contained the earliest recorded use of the word homosexual. Ulrichs and Kertbeny had much in common, but they disagreed over strategies for queer emancipation. While Ulrichs sought validation through scientific frameworks, Kertbeny did not care whether homosexuality (or any sexual orientation for that matter) was innate. Kertbeny viewed queer activism as a simple matter of extending privacy rights. In the same letter that first contained the word “homosexual,” Kertbeny wrote Ulrichs:

“We should convince our opponents that exactly according to their legal notions they do not have anything to do with this inclination, let it be innate or voluntary, because the state does not have the right to intervene in what is happening between two consenting people aged over 14, excluding publicity, [and] not hurting the rights of any third party . . .” *

Kertbeny’s disinterest in biological determinism proved to be the grand irony that defined his life’s work. Kertbeny’s homosexual would later become the semiotic poster child of anti-queer medical professionals and pro-queer sexual scientists alike.

Kertbeny viewed sexual normality as something determined by the majority. As such, heterosexuality was “normal” only so long as it manifested in a greater number of people. Ironically, however, Kertbeny honed in on the heterosexual majority’s “unfettered capacity for degeneracy.” Heterosexual promiscuity and libido — which he believed was much greater than that of homosexuals — was what made them more likely to engage in pedophilia, necrophilia, and sadomasochism. Kertbeny impugned the heterosexual disposition on the basis of sexual propriety — what could be deemed respectable and, indeed, normative. By implying that heterosexuals themselves were corrupt and depraved, he argued for queer liberation by subverting the definition of queerness itself. Nevertheless, Kertbeny’s homo/hetero personae would be reversed in time.

The term homosexual gradually gained wider circulation. Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing began using the term in the fourth edition of his foundational work Psychopathia Sexualis in 1889. Ulrichs was responsible for Krafft-Ebing’s foray into sexual science; he had introduced Krafft-Ebing to third sex theory. Twenty years prior, Ulrichs sent his first pamphlets to the psychiatrist while he was interning at the University of Vienna. Krafft-Ebing wrote Ulrichs:

“The research in your writings on love between men has interested me in a high degree. . . . From that day on when you sent me your writings, I have given my full attention to the phenomenon. . . . It was the knowledge of your writings alone, which gave rise to my research in this highly important field.” *

Krafft-Ebing began receiving the letters of queer men who heard of his studies. His mailbox became an unlikely confessional. Queer men from all levels of society sought solace in the belief that science would usher in a new era of legitimization and social acceptance. One man wrote: “The puzzle of our existence can only be solved or at least illuminated by unprejudiced, thinking men of science.” This conviction proved to be grimly ironic.

Ulrichs and Krafft-Ebing parted company by 1879 over the latter’s insistence that queerness was a psychological illness. Given procreation was, in his mind, the sole purpose of sexual desire, queerness was a perversion of the sex drive. Krafft-Ebing did feel, however, that anti-sodomy laws did more harm than good. Sympathetic to the queer men who wrote to him, he saw that the legislation forced them into impossible situations of secrecy and susceptibility to blackmail and, thus, prevented them from getting the “help” he believed they so desperately needed. Such individuals ought not be held criminally liable for their “illnesses.”

Krafft-Ebing compiled Ulrichs’ work and the stories of the men who wrote him as case studies of “pathological sexual instinct” in Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). In this work, Krafft-Ebing had co-opted Ulrichs’ ideas, describing men with “inverted” sex drives — a rip-off of Ulrichs’ third sex theory. Queer men were cast as “perverted” male forms (homosexuals), instead of entities unto themselves (Urnings). Despite the offense, Psychopathia provided an unlikely glimmer of hope. Deriving from Ulrichs’ own writings and ideas, the popularity of Krafft-Ebing’s work gave queer men the words and the forum to declare themselves as part of a larger community. For better or for worse, they were no longer alone. Shortly before his death in 1902, Krafft-Ebing finally admitted that some queers were not sick. Meanwhile, in 1895 Ulrichs had gone to his grave denouncing the psychosexual tainting of queerness; he never got the satisfaction of hearing Krafft-Ebing’s concession.

Ulrichs’ ideas reached a non-German audience through Krafft-Ebing’s work. Psychopathia was translated into English by Englishman F. J. Rebman in 1899. He layered his own interpretations onto the text in a way that would greatly impact his English-speaking audience. For example, Krafft-Ebing discussed the “primitive” man’s desire for an “individual of the opposite sex, fulfilling a kind of sexual selection.” Rebman re-termed this drive an “instinctive selection of the fittest,” evoking a Darwinian sense of sexuality that played on contemporary ideas of scientific racism. The new phrasing implied a lack of “healthy” sexual appetite in queers and, in turn, a newly racialized queer degeneracy and inferiority. Given Victorian nationalist anxieties, effeminacy and weakness of the sex drive were feared to endanger domesticity domestically and domination abroad. Concurrently, the trials of Oscar Wilde made speculation about homosexual decadence a public spectacle.

Within this milieu, Krafft-Ebing’s appropriation of the homo/hetero binary — and its literary transference to the English world by Rebman — established an intellectual tradition of homosexual pathology and heterosexual primacy. Sexual hegemony became mired in gendered imperial identity politics. Kertbeny’s homosexual was burdened with a new clinical connotation. The heterosexual, meanwhile, was elevated from his original status as a flighty sex maniac to a model of masculine mastery.

Though inspired by Ulrichs’ research on behalf of queer emancipation, sexology as a field has long been credited as the origin of sexual modernity. While the medicalization of sexuality placed rigid conceptions around experiences that had yet to be labeled, it was also “a reaction against traditional . . . Victorian prohibitions and, as such, an ideology of sexual liberation.” In essence, early sexologists acted as the gatekeepers who legitimized queer identity while layering on their own biases. Published case histories like those of Krafft-Ebing gave queers a medium through which to find both self-expression and communal solidarity. The silence that Ulrichs had broken was answered in full. Testimony — upon the backdrop of “respectable” medical science — was a potent tool that transported queers out of an era of secrecy, silence, and suppression.

Ulrichs barely finished the introduction of his speech at the Odeon before being interrupted by shocked gasps, howls of disgust, and shouts to cease reading. He resumed again, repeating himself:

There is a class of people being “exposed to an undeserved legal persecution for no other reason than . . . a sexual nature that is the opposite of that which is in general usual . . .” *

The theater audience roared — one side calling to adjourn, the other insisting that Ulrichs continue. At this point, the chairman requested that Ulrichs use Latin in continuing his speech (so as to avoid speaking plainly about the “shameful” sexual nature of his proposal). Not interested in giving into their demands, Ulrichs set his notes on the chairman’s table and exited.

Ulrichs described the day of his protest in his sixth treatise “Gladius Furens” (“Raging Sword”). It was the first of his treatises to bear his real name. (OutHistory.org)

In the early twentieth century, more European and American queer activists — inspired by Ulrichs’ legacy — molded our conceptions of sexuality by constructing new frameworks and terminology (i.e., sexual identifiers) to suit their community-building efforts. Today, we have a tendency to conflate all of these early identities — third sex, Urning, homosexual, homogenic, Uranian, invert, intermediate sex, sexual intermediary, simisexual — with “gay” via presentist applications of meaning. The political significance and connotations of these terms remain uncommon knowledge.

The consequences of Ulrichs’ protest are grounded in his act of sexual meaning-making. Ulrichs forged a sexual identity for the express purpose of organizing people to campaign against an issue that affected them collectively (i.e., anti-sodomy laws). Ulrichs pioneered and politicized queer community building by recognizing a shared interest and attempting to build a platform from it.

Queer activism has always engaged a history of sexual meaning-making — political agendas that help determine shifts in the language used to describe sexuality. Exploring how and why identifiers have been and continue to be originated — and subsequently imbued with meaning — helps us to understand and hone modern queer activisms. Please join me in affirming the work of our ancestors and in celebrating 150 years of Ulrichs’ legacy — those he inspired and continues to inspire.

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