Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs

German-born activist Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), was a 19th-century pioneer of the modern gay rights movement. He had his first homosexual experience with his riding instructor at the age of fourteen, although he later wrote that as a child he had frequently worn girls’ clothes and wanted to be a girl. He went on to university, from which he graduated with degrees in law and theology, after which he studied history. He then worked as an official legal adviser for a district court in northwest Germany (Hanover), but he was dismissed when his homosexuality became open knowledge.

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.

Marquis Niccolò Persichetti, who gave the eulogy at his funeral, spoke these words: 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 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).

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