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Ulrichs: Publications/Hubert Kennedy Review

Review by Hubert Kennedy

Books on Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Hubert Kennedy The year 2000 marked many historical events, not the least of them being the 175th anniversary of the birth of the German homosexual emancipationist and theorist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895).

The number 175 is significant. It was the number given to the old Prussian anti-homosexual law when it came into force in 1872 throughout the new German Empire. Ulrichs fought, unsuccessfully, against this law during his lifetime, and the law was not abolished until 1994 -- and then not without transferring some of its effect to a new law to "protect" children under the age of sixteen. Ulrichs's campaign was revived shortly after his death by Magnus Hirschfeld and others in Berlin, but any progress they seemed to be making was cut short when the Nazis assumed power in 1933, and no significant change was made until the Federal Republic set an age of consent of 21 in 1969 (lowered to 18 in 1973). But Ulrichs was the pioneer in this campaign and he has been honored in several ways in 2000 -- in particular by the publication of the three books reviewed here.

When Ulrichs began publishing on the subject of homosexuality (or Uranismus, as he called it) in the 1860s, his sexual theory was based in part on the introspection of his own strongly developed sexual identity. A century later psychoanalysts would have found the source of his homosexuality in the absence of his father (who died shortly before his son's tenth birthday), a close-binding mother, and the fact that he grew up with two sisters. This idea seems never to have occurred to Ulrichs. Rather, basing his theory on current developments in embryology -- and on the conviction that sexual attraction to a male is a female trait -- he proposed the view that an "Urning" has a female psyche confined in a male body, expressed in the Latin phrase anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa. He felt that his love for men was natural and concluded that the law which branded homosexual acts as "against nature" was therefore unjust. In defense of his fellow Urnings, he used his skills as a writer and trained jurist in an effort to effect a change, putting himself on the line in 1867 when, as a self-acknowledged Urning, he appeared publicly before a Congress of German Jurists in Munich and defended his proposal for legal reform. That date -- 29 August 1867 -- may be taken as the birth date of the modern gay movement.

Volkmar Sigusch's short, but wide-ranging book is an excellent introduction to the life and views of this extraordinary man, "the most resolute and influential pioneer of homosexual emancipation" (18), whom he sees as something historically new: a sexual subject. The first half of his book discusses this idea, which also explains the book's title:

It is remarkable that this larger-than-life man, who was more than an active individual and more than an isolated activist, is not universally considered as the 'father' of the homosexual movement. He could even be designated, historically somewhat ahead of his time, as the first gay man, if by 'gay men' [Schwule] one understands homosexual men who, proudly and politically, publicly acknowledge their desires. (20)
The psychiatric establishment, however, led by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, was busy classifying Ulrichs's "condition" as a sickness. Although Krafft-Ebing was first interested in homosexuality by the writings of Ulrichs, as he wrote Ulrichs in a letter of 1879, he placed homosexuality within his theory of degeneration as one of the many sexual perversions in his perennial best seller Psychopathia sexualis (1886) -- many of which kept the names coined by Krafft-Ebing, e.g., sadism, masochism, pedophilia. And although Ulrichs anticipated Sigmund Freud in asserting the importance of dreams for sexology, Freud took no notice of that. Instead, in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), without naming Ulrichs or any of his writings, he opined that this "spokesman of male inverts" had expressed the doctrine of bisexuality "in its rawest form," whereby, as Sigusch says:
without hesitation he equated Ulrichs's "anima" with "brain" ("female brain in the male body"), that is, he took no notice of Ulrichs's developed theory, so as never again to have to come back to Ulrichs's views in his profuse work. (35)
Sigusch's succinct, but careful summary of Ulrichs's theory places it in historical context, with valuable insights into the requirement of the times for "scientific proofs."

The second half of the book includes several topics of special interest for the biography of Ulrichs. Sigusch exposes, for example, the absurdity of the way a supposedly high-minded scientific/cultural society in Frankfurt expelled him as an undesirable member. This section is illustrated by facsimiles of Ulrichs's handwritten protests. Sigusch also shows how Ulrichs anticipated some proposals of later gay activists, e.g., by threatening to "out" a high-ranking member of that society. There are also facsimiles of notes that Ulrichs made in two of his own copies of his works, along with several interesting quotations from them. Finally, Sigusch gives the text (in the Latin original and in German translation) of Ulrichs's last publication on our topic, namely a commentary on an 1894 publication of Krafft-Ebing. It shows that Ulrichs, who spent his last fifteen years in exile in Italy, had still, at the age of sixty-nine, not lost his fiery spirit.

The volume of Documents on His Life and Work is a treasure house of source material. In his lead article, editor Wolfram Setz shows how topical Ulrichs's emancipation efforts are, as he reminds us how fragile the legal situation in Germany is. He quotes from the 49th edition (1999) of a respected and widely distributed commentary on the German Penal Code, which includes a criticism of the new law that replaced the old § 175; it concludes: "It is therefore not justified to dispense with the penal protection of male youths already on the attainment of the 16th year, that is, already before the end of puberty" (6). It is a chilling reminder of how easily the situation changed when the Nazis took power and then strengthened § 175 in 1935.

Although many of Ulrichs's ideas are still pertinent, Setz finds the evocation of Ulrichs's name to support the current call for "gay marriages" to be unhistorical. Ulrichs's view of an "Urning marriage" was just too bound up with his time and his theory. But he concludes: "His engagement and straightforwardness are timeless and exemplary. … Exemplary, too, is his 'sympathy for our fellow oppressed'" (16). This is followed by a facsimile reprint of sixteen pages from Magnus Hirschfeld's Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (1914). It contains information on Ulrichs's life and describes his various publications on "Uranismus." Since these few pages were the prime source on Ulrichs for three quarters of a century, the facts -- and fiction -- in them have become part of the literature. So, with all due respect to Hirschfeld, this might be a good place to correct a couple of his errors. He wrote that Ulrichs's estimate of the percentage of Urnings was "much too low (0.002% instead of 2%)" (956). In fact, Ulrichs wrote that one man in 500 is an Urning, i.e., 0.2%. This is still too low (Ulrichs's contemporaries thought it too high), but is 100 times more than what Hirschfeld reported.

Hirschfeld mentions his publication in 1899 of four letters that Ulrichs wrote to relatives: "They were placed at my disposal by Ulrichs's then still living, only sister" (955). In 1914 Hirschfeld had apparently forgotten that one letter, addressed to eight relatives, included his two sisters among them. (This passage may explain why Sigusch wrote that only one of Ulrichs's sisters survived infancy.) But Hirschfeld's report contains much valuable information, in particular about his pilgrimage to Ulrichs's grave in L'Aquila (Italy) in 1909 and his conversation there with Ulrichs's patron Niccolò Persichetti. And I certainly agree with his reasons for writing his report: "We have lingered a bit longer by Ulrichs, because he is of triple importance: as a researcher into Uranismus, as a fighter for it, and last but not least, as a Uranian personality" (967).

Ulrichs himself documented his appearance before the General Assembly of the Sixth Congress of German Jurists in Munich on 29 August 1867. But he also spoke twice in smaller sections. The official protocol of those speeches is included here in a group of "Autobiographical Witnesses," which also includes an entry (and its later revision) in a literary reference work. All three add interesting touches to Ulrichs's biography.

This is followed by a long list of "Corrections and Additions" written by hand in Ulrichs's own copies of two of his booklets. At first glance these appear to be mostly typographical changes and corrections. But closer inspection reveals something of the progress of his thought, as we notice additions that sometimes occur verbatim in later booklets in his series of twelve Researches on the Riddle of Man-Manly Love. I learned, for example, that in one note he used the term "Urnigin" for the female counterpart of the male Urning. This term then appears in print in his next publication. Till now I had thought it was a misprint there for "Urningin," a term he had introduced earlier.

René Hornung's article "Jakob Rudolf Forster (1853-1926), or How Ulrichs Shaped a Life" describes the early life of a Swiss man "who developed into an ardent admirer of Ulrichs, whose theories he spread and, because of this, ran afoul of the judicial system" (69). Forster, whose sexual exploits began early, became acquainted with Ulrichs's writings at age 24 while on a trip to Germany and later met Ulrichs in person, writing of him in one of his notebooks: "One must love this man, when one knows what he has already done for us Urnings. Never will I forget this man, always be grateful to him, may God grant him a long, long life" (70). In 1891 he wrote from prison in St. Gallen (Switzerland) to Ulrichs, who was then in Italy, to request from him a petition for pardon, which Ulrichs wrote to the Swiss authorities -- without effect. Two years later a federal commission for a unified Swiss penal code began its work, but it was fifty years before the new code went into effect: From 1942 homosexual acts between men -- with an age of consent of 20 -- were no longer criminal. Forster, who had disappeared from sight for many years, was long since dead.

Most interesting and original is the article "Karl Heinrich Ulrichs as Pioneer of a Living Latin" by Wilfried Stroh; it is the first competent evaluation of Ulrichs's ability and achievement as a Latinist. Ulrichs's love of the Latin language continued throughout his life: as a student he wrote two award-winning essays and later many poems in Latin, two of which were included in a student song book. In exile in Italy he published Alaudae [Larks], a little journal written entirely by himself in Latin (with a total of 388 pages). In it he promoted the language he believed "has a quite extraordinary power to unite peoples." Thus Stroh sees Ulrichs as a pioneer of the continuing effort to return Latin to its older position: "'Latinitas viva,' living Latin, is today the battle cry of this world-wide movement" (81). As an example, since 1997 there is in California a North American Institute for Living Latin Studies.

Many of Ulrichs's poems were translations from German, which he compared with an attempt he once made to transfer an image of Antinous in a picture of a Roman coin to an alabaster bas-relief. Stroh discusses several and finds them of varying quality, but he says of a translation of a Goethe poem: "Here at least there once gleams alabaster" (89). Stroh finds Ulrichs's poetry careful in form and of a fine sentiment. But: "In Latin, too, a feeling for form and a sensitivity do not suffice to make an important poet: with all appreciation, Ulrichs lacks here the really great fantasy and creative force; and so in the end he accomplished his best work as a Latin journalist" (91). (Stroh's article is also available on the Internet at

The final section, almost one half the book, is given to a facsimile reproduction of the rare memorial volume that Niccolò Persichetti dedicated to Ulrichs a year after his death. It is partly in Latin and partly in Italian, but the whole has also been translated into German by Jochen Engling and Wolfram Setz; this is a great service and very welcome. It includes appreciations of Ulrichs from those who knew him in his last years, especially as a Latinist, and contains much valuable biographical information, including Ulrichs's application for membership in the venerable Academia Pontaniana in Naples. Also informative -- and moving -- is Persichetti's funeral oration. A noble and wealthy citizen of L'Aquila, Persichetti had befriended Ulrichs and, after his death, arranged to have him buried next to the Persichetti family mausoleum.

Ulrichs's grave was later covered by a beautiful inscribed tombstone, donated by friends and correspondents who appreciated his efforts for the Latin language. It is good to know that Ulrichs was so appreciated, but ironically, today it is the gay movement that has reclaimed Ulrichs as its own. When I visited the grave in 1983 it was so covered with moss and lichens that I could scarcely read enough of the inscription to identify it. Since 1988 there have been annual pilgrimages there on Ulrichs's birthday and the tombstone has been cleaned and restored. (Our editor has also included a photograph of the tombstone.) The celebration there in 2000 was especially international.

The most extensive birthday celebration, however, was in Munich where, in addition to an outdoor ceremony at the square named for Ulrichs, there was also a series of weekly lectures. Seven of them are included in the third book under review here, prefaced by introductory remarks of the editor (and lecture series organizer), accompanied by a charming photograph of the birthday bash itself. It shows Ulrichs (in the person of the actor Harald Hasel, who also portrayed Ulrichs in Rosa von Praunheim's film Schwuler Mut [Gay Courage; 1997]) flanked by two young hussars.

Bernd-Ulrich Hergemöller's article "From the 'silent sin' to the 'disappearance of homosexuality'" gives an excellent survey of the developing views of homosexuality, from the Middle Ages to Ulrichs (and the homophobic reaction to his writings by Marx and Engels), on to the present, with nods to Karl Maria Kertbeny, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Michel Foucault along the way. He concludes: "The concept of 'sexual identity' is obsolete. … [It] is not a scientific but rather a political category" (40).

Even though -- or perhaps, because -- this essay is so well done, a couple of small quibbles may be allowed. Hergemöller notes that Ulrichs's term "Urning" refers to a speech in Plato's Symposium. But instead of that of Aristophanes (the myth of the primordial creatures with two heads, four hands, four legs, and two sets of genitals -- whose division by Zeus formed today's human beings), it rather refers to the speech of Pausanias. And in reporting Kertbeny's sexual classification: "Monosexuals (i.e., masturbators), homosexuals (male as well as female), heterosexuals (man and woman), and amphisexuals (i.e., bisexuals)" (27), the fourth category should rather be "Heterogenit" (i.e., those who have sex with animals).

The title of Gert Hekma's article, "The Marquis de Sade As Pioneer of the Gay Movement," will surprise many, but he makes a convincing case for it. He refers in particular to the pamphlet "Frenchmen, yet an effort if you wish to be republicans," which Sade inserted into his Philosophy in the Boudoir (1795). It was, like much of Sade's work, printed anonymously. Ulrichs, who had a German translation of it, knew that Sade was the author of the novels Justine and Juliette, but did not know (or perhaps did not wish to say) that Sade was the author of a pamphlet from which he favorably quoted in his final booklet Critische Pfeile [Critical Arrows] (1879; the quotation is on page 75). According to Hekma, the pamphlet "contains a defense of male love that in the 18th as well as the 19th century is without equal. In it are found the Enlightenment belief in nature and also later ideas of Ulrichs, Hirschfeld, and many others" (55).

What meaning could this "astonishing defense of sodomy" (55) have for gay emancipation today? Hekma has several pertinent remarks. First, he finds Sade's theory of desire "queer": "People are not homo-, hetero-, or bisexual, but rather have all possibilities within themselves" (58). Second, Sade is queer not only sexually, but also in regard to gender: "He expresses himself very ironically on masculinity, male honor, and hetero-dogmatism" (59). Third, "Sade pursues a lust principle that was and is rarely found in gay defenses. In many gay presentations there is opposition to sodomy, S/M, public sex, and sex with children, or the sexual in being gay is obscured with terms like homophile" (59). One thinks here of the Swiss journal Der Kreis [The Circle], whose editor avoided the term "homosexual" -- and condemned prostitution. Hekma reminds us that Ulrichs -- with reservations to be sure -- approved of straight men giving themselves to Urnings for pay.

Hekma states (with some exaggeration, I think), "Ulrichs's theories about the nature of Uranismus are universally accepted, although I do not find them very plausible," and he concludes: "I, however, believe that Sade's theories, which are even a century older, offer more and more important suggestions for future sexual politics" (63). Volkmar Sigusch's article on Ulrichs as "Preceptor of the Homosexual and Gay Movements" is a short version of the main part of his book discussed above, and is equally to be recommended.

In "Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and America" Michael Lombardi-Nash reports his personal engagement as translator (and publisher) of Ulrichs's writings, which has occupied him for over two decades and has resulted in an impressive achievement. He also gives us examples of Ulrichs's contact with Americans and news from America reported by Ulrichs. Among the first was an adventurous American medical student in Germany who expressed a desire to have a transfusion of Ulrichs's blood in order to experience being an Urning -- the effects of blood transfusion were much discussed at the time. Ulrichs also reported an attempted lynching of an Urning in Chicago -- "probably the first report of a hate crime in connection with sexual orientation in the United States" (97). Ulrichs also reported that a distant relative of his, a pastor, was denounced as an Urning and forced to resign his position. He then went to America.

Ulrichs himself noted that his writings were read in America, and they were also mentioned in print. For example, Blair Niles published the novel Strange Brother (1931), in which she described the theory of Ulrichs, "an Austrian." Lombardi-Nash traces this "Austrian" canard back to Edward Carpenter's anthology Ioläus (1902). And actress-playwright Mae West even included a book by Ulrichs in her play The Drag (1927), in which several characters discuss it. As Lombardi-Nash notes, "Mae West indeed appears to have had an authentic knowledge of Ulrichs's work," and he reports her statement (quoted by West's biographer): "I read Freud and Ulrichs, who called gays 'Urnings.' I learned a lot about the yearnings of urnings" (103).

The web site Celebration 2000 maintained by Lombardi-Nash and his partner Paul Nash must also be mentioned here. It contains a wealth of information relating to Ulrichs, along with news of events, publications (including Lombardi-Nash's translations), and many interesting pictures.

Dirk Linck's splendid article "Literature and the Outsider -- the Outsider and Literature" may have been a bit abstruse for a public lecture, but is well worth close study. He finds that in preparing his Researches Ulrichs "followed necessity, rather than inclination" (119), but was still not 'scientific' enough for his contemporaries, insufficiently distinguishing, for example, between subject and object of study. Further: "The finding may be generalized, that participation in social discourse is only to be had at the price of reducing the expression. I am only understandable when I renounce expressing myself" (124). Linck pursues this to include not only literature, but all art: "Art is outsiderly just as the homosexual is. Society delegates to both what it is itself at pains to suppress: its contradictions. And it reacts to both with a mixture of secret envy and open aggression" (129). This process occurs on several levels: "In a reflexive way, homosexuals imitate the behavior of those who despise them: as oppressing oppressors, they pass on to the 'queens' what the heterosexuals have shoved onto them" (137). He concludes with some examples of poetic praise of the (symbolic) hermaphrodite, adding: "One thing the hermaphrodite does not allow: the incongruous conclusion that the homosexual is a man like every other" (140).

There is an echo of this in Jörg Hutter's "From Sodomy to Queer Identity." To Krafft-Ebing's reference to "a certain assessor, Ulrichs, himself subject to this perverse instinct," Hutter comments: "Ulrichs's role as an outsider cannot be cemented more plainly than this" (160). But Hutter's article is a sociological-historical study, an exemplary survey of the transition of his title.

The title of Martin Dannecker's article "The 'Average Homosexual' at the Threshold of the New Millennium" recalls the book published by him and Reimut Reiche a quarter century ago. Der gewöhnliche Homosexuelle (The Average Homosexual; 1974) was a sociological investigation of male homosexuals in the Federal Republic of Germany. Dannecker was criticized especially for his Freudian views, which appear to have softened at the end of the millennium, just as homosexuals themselves have changed.

Finally, I note that the last book reviewed is volume 25 in the series Bibliothek rosa Winkel, under the editorship of Wolfram Setz. It appeared, appropriately, on the 25th anniversary of Verlag rosa Winkel, Germany's premier gay publisher. Congratulations are due all around.

Hubert Kennedy, PhD*

*Hubert Kennedy is Research Associate of the Center for Research and Education in Sexuality, San Francisco State University.

Published in: Journal of Homosexuality, 42(1) (2001): 170-178.

Ulrichs: The First Gay Man in World History

Ulrichs: Der erste Schwule der Weltgeschichte [Ulrichs: The First Gay Man in World History] by Volkmar Sigusch. Berlin: Verlag rosa Winkel, 2000. 127 pp.

In Honor of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: Documents on His Life and Work

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs zu Ehren: Materialien zu Leben und Werk [In Honor of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: Documents on His Life and Work]. Edited by Wolfram Setz. Berlin: Verlag rosa Winkel, 2000. 166 pp.

History of Homosexualities Die Geschichte der Homosexualitäten und die schwule Identität an der Jahrtausendwende: Eine Vortragsreihe aus Anlass des 175. Geburtstags von Karl Heinrich Ulrichs [The History of Homosexualities and Gay Identity at the Turn of the Millennium: A Lecture Series on the Occasion of the 175th Birthday of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs]. Edited by Wolfram Setz. Berlin: Bibliothek rosa Winkel, 2000. 198 pp.

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