At the age of thirty-seven he told his family and friends that he was sexually attracted to men, and he went on to write a series of essays based on his research about variations of human sexuality, specifically gender identities and sexual orientations.
Five years later Ulrichs became the first gay man to speak out publicly in defense 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 began to be widely discussed.
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 recently found in the Prussian state archives and were subsequently published in 2004. Several of Ulrichs's important works are now back in print, both in German and translated editions.
When Prussia annexed Hannover, Ulrichs moved to Munich and then on to Stuttgart and Würzburg (this blogger’s university city). After publishing the twelfth volume of his human sexuality research findings, he entered into self-imposed exile in central Italy. He continued to write prolifically and publish his works at his own expense. In 1895, he received an honorary diploma from the University of Naples. A short time thereafter he died of kidney failure, just a few weeks shy of his seventieth birthday. He is buried in his chosen city of exile, L’Aquila (Italy); a ceremony at his recently restored grave is shown in the photograph below.
Late in life Ulrichs himself 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.
Forgotten for many years, Ulrichs has recently become a cult figure in Europe. There are streets named for him in Munich, Bremen and Hanover (photo above); his birthday is marked each year by a street party and poetry reading at Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Platz in Munich. The city of L'Aquila has restored his grave and hosts an annual pilgrimage to the civic cemetery at noon every August 26. Subsequent gay rights advocates were aware of their debt to Ulrichs, and Magnus Hirschfeld referenced Ulrichs in his 1914 work, The Homosexuality of Men and Women. As well, the International Lesbian and Gay Law Association presents an annual Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs Award in his memory.
Trivia: Ulrichs penned the first known gay vampire story, titled "Manor" in his book Sailor Stories (Matrosengeschichten).