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Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity

Robert Beachy's study of gay life in pre-Weimar Berlin reveals just how much influence that subculture had on our current understandings of sexuality.

Excerpted from Gay Berlin by Robert Beachy (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2014 by Robert Beachy. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter One

The German Invention of Homosexuality

On a bright Thursday morning in late August 1867, the German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a former member of the civil service in the Kingdom of Hanover, approached the Odeon concert hall in Munich. Since the beginning of the week, the Association of German Jurists had been assembling in this magnificent neoclassical structure to present papers and discuss the legal issues of the day. The professional group represented lawyers, officials, bureaucrats, and legal academics from the 39 states and cities of the former German Confederation, a loose association created at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This imposing body of Ulrichs’ colleagues made up the government establishment of the nascent German Empire. Dressed formally even in the midst of summer, they had first met in 1860 to facilitate great tasks of statecraft: they were all ardent nationalists and hoped to promote German legal unification, even before the emergence of a nation state. Although the jurists’ political program would have important consequences for the incipient German state, Ulrichs’ appearance at the Odeon marked a revolution all its own. He was preparing to address his professional colleagues on an unmentionable subject, same-sex love, and to protest the various German sodomy laws that criminalized it.

Ulrichs had celebrated his birthday the day before, and now, at the age of 42, he hoped to deliver a speech for which he arguably had spent most of his adulthood preparing. As a university student, he had recognized that he was attracted to other men. This sexual peculiarity and rumors of his intimate affairs had forced him to resign the only professional position he had ever held, as a government official. Finally, in an act of enormous courage, he disclosed his secret to his closest kin. Raised in a pious Christian family whose extended members included numerous Lutheran clergy, Ulrichs strove for years with heart and intellect to make sense of his seemingly unacceptable feelings. Were they unnatural? Had he somehow caused them himself, through actions of his own? He examined carefully his own motivations and desires; he scoured legal and scientific publications on the topic. Following the tradition of the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Ulrichs developed a theory of his own selfhood – though defined in sexual, not spiritual, terms – and formed the conviction that he must face down an established authority and counter centuries of prejudice. For several years now, since 1864, he had published pamphlets under a pseudonym, arguing his case that sexual deviance was an endowment of nature and must be respected.

But on that morning in August, crossing Munich’s beautiful Odeonsplatz, framed by imposing government and cultural buildings, past the grand loggia of the Field Marshalls’ Hall and the baroque spires and dome of the Theatine Church, Ulrichs felt his heart palpitate almost audibly as he neared the handsome Odeon hall. As he would later recount, an inner voice whispered: “There is still time to keep silent. Simply waive your request to speak, and then your heart can stop pounding.” But Ulrichs also remembered those “comrades” who were anticipating his protest – “Was I to answer their trust in me with cowardice?” – and he recalled a desperate acquaintance who had committed suicide to escape criminal prosecution for sodomy and the public humiliation that would have followed. “With breast beating,” Ulrichs entered the magnificent building, mounted the speaker’s platform, and began reading his text to more than 500 professional colleagues. “Gentlemen,” he intoned, “my proposal is directed toward a revision of the current penal law” to abolish the persecution of an innocent class of persons. “It is at the same time,” Ulrichs continued, “a question of damming a continuing flood of suicides.” The victims, he said, were those sexually drawn to members of their own sex.

Expressions of outrage and scattered cries of “Stop!” began echoing through the chamber. Alarmed by the voluble hostility, Ulrichs offered to surrender the floor, but others in the audience urged him to continue, and he again took heart. This “class of persons,” he went on to say, suffered legal persecution only because “nature has planted in them a sexual nature that is opposite of that which is usual.” Raucous shouts now emanated from the audience; Ulrichs heard hooting, catcalls, and cries of “Crucify!” from groups on his left and directly in front. On his right stood those who were not prepared for the content of his address and out of curiosity demanded that he finish. But the cacophony overwhelmed them and the speaker, and Ulrichs descended from the podium without finishing his speech, while the assembly chairman attempted to reestablish order. The Association of Jurists refused to press Ulrichs’ agenda after the meeting concluded. Within five years member states of the new German Empire had adopted a full penal code in which the punitive Prussian law making a crime of sodomy prevailed over the far more liberal statutes of the other German states. But standing at the podium in Munich, Ulrichs had started something important with the first public coming-out in modern history.

Just how much courage did this take? By August 1867 Ulrichs had already forfeited his career and exposed himself to potential rejection by family members. He had little left to lose and later described his appearance before the jurists at the Odeon as the proudest moment of his life. Freed now to go on making a public case for his cause, he continued publishing pamphlets after 1867, but under his own name, not a pseudonym. And although he failed to avert the imposition of an anti-sodomy law throughout the newly unified German nation after 1871, his writings and his actions helped inspire the world’s first movement for homosexual rights, launched a generation later in Berlin, in 1897.

The truly remarkable aspect of Ulrichs’ brave initiative was the important contribution he made to the redefinition – indeed the invention – of sexuality in nineteenth-century Europe. Traditional medical “science” explained “sodomy’ as a willful perversion and the product of masturbation or sexual excess. “Sodomites” were understood to be oversexed predators who had simply grown bored with women. The established science of sexual “perversion” viewed same-sex erotic activity as that which it seemed to be and nothing more, an isolated genital act. It was possible to imagine, in fact, that almost anyone might succumb to the crime of sodomy, either through seduction or by willful decision, but ultimately as a result of moral weakness. Sexual desire was considered a fluid and malleable drive that might easily be warped and perverted. Only in the 1850s did the first medical doctor, a German in Berlin named Johann Ludwig Casper, question this received wisdom and argue that some “sodomites” had an innate, biological attraction to the same sex. By 1900 a progressive school of German psychiatry had formed around the belief that same-sex attraction might be congenital, and somehow an integral feature of a small sexual minority. It became possible now to imagine that certain individuals were attracted innately to their own and not the opposite sex. Indeed, German speakers – both self-identified same-sex loving men and medical doctors – invented a new language of sexual orientation and identity that displaced the older understanding of perversion and moral failure. Invented terms such as Urning (Ulrichs’ own coinage) or “homosexual” first entered the German lexicon and later other European languages as well. Ulrichs’ pamphlet propaganda played a critical role in this development: his theories of an inborn Urning sexuality and character coupled with his outspoken activism helped not only to influence the incipient sciences of sexuality but also to mobilize an imagined community of homosexuals. Concretely Ulrichs spearheaded a conceptual revolution that transformed erotic, same-sex love from one of deviant acts into a full-blown sexual orientation with its own distinct quality and character.


Ulrichs was an improbable innovator, and certainly an unlikely activist for the civil rights of a sexual minority. Born in 1825 in Aurich, a typical small-town German community located in East Friesland, which became part of the Kingdom of Hanover in 1815, the young Ulrichs was sheltered from the cultural and intellectual life of nineteenth century Europe. His father was a district engineering official and civil servant, and his mother’s clan included numerous Lutheran pastors. From infancy, Ulrichs’ conservative family trained him for academic study and a professional career, either as a bureaucrat or clergyman. This early preparation endowed him with a restless intelligence, however, and the independence to follow his own calling.

Ulrichs’ family must be seen as elite – despite small-town origins – and typical of a wider German class of educated professionals (Bildungsbürgertum), a group that enjoyed significant social prominence throughout the German territories. What anchored their elite status was education: most attended Gymnasium or Latin high school, which prepared its graduates for university study. Talent was a necessary but rarely sufficient qualification for Latin school. Germany’s educated elite shared a class background of social and cultural – if not financial – capital, provided by families that could prepare sons for rigorous training and the connections to navigate social and government networks. Higher education was the credential that guaranteed a civil service career as jurist, teacher, cleric, or official in any one of Germany’s many city, state, or church bureaucracies. Many such families boasted a long string of church or state officials, often stretching back generations. The Ulrichs were clearly no exception.

As his parents’ only surviving son – an older brother died in infancy in 1824 –Ulrichs enjoyed the attention and encouragement that prepared him well for academic study. He later described this as a happy childhood: “From loving motherly care, I received in part my first education and in part a whole series of other intellectual impressions and influences.” Ulrichs’ mother also imparted the conservative piety of traditional Lutheranism, teaching Ulrichs devotional exercises, scripture, and prayers. After the death of his father in 1835, Ulrichs and his family moved to live near his maternal grandfather and a married sister in the Hanoverian town of Burgdorf, where he was confirmed in the Lutheran Church by his grandfather on Easter Sunday in 1839, a religious and social milestone marking a new stage of his life. Young Karl then attended Latin school, first in Detmold, home of his mother’s brother (likewise a Lutheran pastor), and then in nearby Celle. The close structure of Ulrichs’ family – infused with conservative Protestant religiosity, loving attention, and careful social control – served the boy well. At 19 he completed his Gymnasium exams with excellent results in Latin and Greek, the subjects required for university entrance.

Berlin and Its Clandestine Sexual Networks

That fall, he began legal studies at the University of Göttingen. Founded in 1734 by George II, ruler of Hanover and also King of Great Britain, Göttingen was just one of the twenty-odd German institutions of higher learning established before 1800. Unlike the centralized states of England and France, which had no more than a handful of universities at this time, the semi-sovereign states of the Holy Roman Empire maintained their independence, both culturally and – to some extent – politically. The size and character of these territories varied tremendously, and counting the tiny estates of the Imperial Knights numbered above 1800. The largest, including Brandenburg-Prussia, Austria, Bavaria, Saxony, or Württemberg, often had the trappings of sovereign states. Since the High Middle Ages, the rulers of these largest German territories founded universities in their competition for cultural distinction and to train the cadres who served in state and city bureaucracies. This political fragmentation also explains best the tradition of a Bildungsbürgertum in German Central Europe: the many small and medium-sized states, each with its own princely court and administrative bureaucracy, required both literate staff and the institutions to educate them. Ulrichs was fortunate to live in the Hanoverian Kingdom, since Göttingen had established itself very quickly as one of the premier German universities. The law faculty was particularly prominent and trained numerous statesman and scholars, including Austrian Prime Minister Clemens von Metternich, Wilhelm von Humboldt, who founded the University of Berlin in 1810, and Otto von Bismarck, first chancellor of the German Empire when it was formed in 1871. By the first decades of the twentieth century, more than 25 Nobel laureates had Göttingen affiliations, either as one-time students or professors.

It was as a student at Göttingen that Ulrichs first identified the issues that would inspire him to take up political activism: here he identified his own sexual peculiarity, but he also embraced the ideal of großdeutsch or “greater German” statehood, a nationalist ideology that promoted the idea of a unified German state that would include all German speakers, including denizens of Austria and the Habsburg Crownlands. Although these two strands of political action were seemingly unconnected, Ulrichs’ human rights activism and his nationalism were curiously intertwined. By promoting “greater German” statehood, Ulrichs would also counter the influence of Prussia, and, in turn, the likelihood that Prussia’s anti-sodomy statute might be imposed on the other German territories.

After five semesters at Göttingen, Ulrichs transferred to the University of Berlin, where he studied for one year. His decision to move was on its face of no particular note; many German students attended several universities before taking a degree. Ulrichs had a special motive, however, for coming to Berlin. In his second year at Göttingen, he had become self-consciously aware of his attraction to men. As he divulged later in a family letter, “Approximately half a year … before I went to Berlin, I was at a dance … But among the dancers there were about twelve young, well-developed and handsomely uniformed forestry pupils. Although at earlier dances no one caught my attention, I felt such a strong attraction that I was amazed … I would have flung myself at them. When I retired after the ball, I suffered true anxieties in my bedroom, alone and unseen, solely preoccupied by memories of those handsome young men.” Clearly this sexual awakening jolted the young Ulrichs, but it also underscored the loneliness he felt in Göttingen. As far as he could see, there was no one else there like himself.

Ulrichs almost certainly had an awareness of Berlin’s reputation. With a population of nearly 400,000, the city was bound to be more exciting than the sedate university town of Göttingen. But there was something more specific. As a garrison city, Berlin had been known for its male prostitution since at least the eighteenth century. As early as 1782 one guidebook devoted a short chapter to Berlin’s “warm brothers” and the prevalence of male prostitution as an income source for garrisoned soldiers. This reputation was well established by the time Ulrichs moved to the city. One telling account, an 1846 volume on prostitution, identified the areas where men sought sex with other men. These included the city’s main thoroughfare Unter den Linden, the large, forested Tiergarten Park at the western edge of the city center, and a grove of chestnut trees just north of the neoclassical Guardhouse, designed by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. One anonymous informant, corresponding with Berlin’s chief medical officer Johann Ludwig Casper in the 1850s, described his sexual initiation as a youth when, on the promenade of Unter den Linden, he encountered a gentleman, who then accompanied him to the Tiergarten for a tryst. Despite Berlin’s tremendous subsequent growth, both Unter den Linden and the Tiergarten Park remained prominent locations – well into the twentieth century – for male prostitution and men cruising for sex with other men. Whether Ulrichs took advantage of the city’s soldier prostitution and clandestine sexual networks remains unclear. But his later writings make plain that he was keenly aware that in Berlin he would be far more likely to find congenial company.

After just one year, however, Ulrichs returned to the town of Burgdorf, where his mother, sister, and uncle still lived, and studied for the Hanoverian civil service test. The aspiring jurist had already distinguished himself as a student and legal scholar. First in Göttingen and then following his stint in Berlin, Ulrichs wrote prize-winning Latin-language legal essays. With these awards in hand and his rigorous education completed, Ulrichs sat for the exhausting three-day examination with a “very good” assessment. This impressive result allowed him to assume his first position as a Hanoverian bureaucrat in the entry-level post of “Auditor.” The career path Ulrichs had chosen began with positions in local government but held the promise of promotions leading to service in the Hanoverian state administration. After four years of service, he was permitted to sit for the next examination on which he again received a “very good” rating, qualifying him for promotion to the next level of “Assessor.” By this time, though, Ulrichs had grown disillusioned with government administration, and he asked for a transfer to the Hanoverian Ministry of Justice. This was a plausible lateral move within the structure of the state civil service, particularly for a talented jurist. His request was granted, and he received the title of Assistant Judge and a position in the town of Hildesheim.

Ulrichs’ promising career was cut short by the threat of scandal, however, which followed him from his earlier posting, forcing him to resign in late 1854. A report submitted by the Superior Court in Hildesheim informed the Justice Ministry in Hanover about Ulrichs’ alleged sexual activities: “Ulrichs is said often to be seen in the company of lower-class persons under circumstances that allow one to conclude a closer connection. … there came to my attention a rumor that Ulrichs practices unnatural lust with other men.” Although Ulrichs’ superior was skeptical, initially, the rumors were soon confirmed by a Hildesheim police official. The report also noted that Ulrichs was suspected of similar indiscretions in his previous posts; but it further conceded that Ulrichs had broken no law, strictly speaking, because the Hanoverian penal code did not make a crime of same-sex love. All the same, Ulrichs’ alleged behavior was unacceptable since the Hanoverian law included the provision that “Whoever is guilty of unnatural lust under circumstances that cause public offense, shall be punished with imprisonment.” Since he was a state official and public personage, mere rumors of Ulrichs’ disreputable private conduct made him liable to disciplinary action. As a result the report called for his dismissal from office. Although he was technically innocent of any crime, gossip about his same-sex affairs, particularly with “lower-class persons,” cost him his position and his career.

Aware of these rumors, Ulrichs tendered his resignation within weeks of assuming the new post on 30 November 1854, before the report even reached Hanover. While he was able to preempt disciplinary procedures, his superiors refused to grant him a formal certificate of service, which limited his ability to find future employment. Ulrichs’ abrupt decision to give up his career was certainly influenced by the dawning realization that he could not accommodate his private life to his public status as a state official. Despite exemplary scores on his civil service exams and positive work evaluations, he had been criticized earlier for consorting with unsavory characters. One report from 1851, during his tenure in Achim, mentioned that he “takes evening meals in second-class taverns.” “If the Auditor [Ulrichs] does not know how to make himself welcome in respectable families,” the evaluation offered, “he himself suffers most from this.” As a single man, Ulrichs was required to maintain a rigid and class-conscious decorum. His apparent “slumming” in working-class locales was suspect and eventually fueled talk of some sexual peculiarity. If unwilling to court young women from respectable families, Ulrichs had little alternative but to embrace a life of solitude.

Ulrichs’ sudden resignation, with all that implied for his reputation and future, thrust him into a state of crisis and despair. Almost overnight, his professional training had become virtually worthless, and now he was left – as he approached his thirtieth birthday – without prospects for employment. Within days of his resignation he fled Hildesheim, venturing first to Burgdorf, “for religious considerations,” as he later explained, “where my pastor lived,” and then to a small town near Göttingen, where he moved in with his sister and her husband, a Lutheran pastor. Ulrichs revealed to these family members the reasons for his resignation and explained that he found himself sexually attracted to men. Against the protests of his brother-in-law, he began to question conventional morality. In the most painful fashion Ulrichs was forced to confront the fact that even the liberal Hanoverian law – which did not make a crime of same-sex eroticism – was an oppressive instrument. Indeed, if his sexual attraction to men was innate, inborn – by extension, God-given, as he increasingly believed – what law or human custom should censor that?


Ulrichs now faced the quandary of finding a new vocation and the more pressing task of supporting himself. Having returned to Burgdorf, he lived with family members. The death of Ulrichs’ mother in Burgdorf in 1856 was a significant blow, which he recalled sadly in later writings. An inheritance of 2,800 florins, as well as a share of his mother’s house, satisfied his immediate material needs. But as a university-trained lawyer, Ulrichs hoped to augment this nest egg with the small fees he collected from clients, many impoverished or with limited resources. But his fledgling legal practice was stymied when he was fined for “unauthorized practice as an advocate” and for using the title of “former Assessor.” The report explaining the penalty cited “a not unfounded suspicion that he [Ulrichs] is guilty of the crimes of unnatural lust. … [which] are said to have led to his resignation from Royal Service.” Ulrichs protested the fine, which was ultimately pardoned in 1860. Though never convicted of breaking any law, Ulrichs was forced once again to contend with the rumors surrounding his resignation from public office.

The Formulating of a Third Sex

Humiliated for his private affairs, Ulrichs was determined to find a way of living so that he would never again need to fear exposure. He soon found himself caught up in the nationalism that so animated German public sentiment. While the nationalist revolutions of 1848 had sparked hopes for German unification, the failure of the Frankfurt Parliament that convened later that year to establish a viable constitutional system left the question of statehood unresolved. The Frankfurt lawmakers were divided by one overarching difference: namely between those who promoted a großdeutsch (“great German”) state and those favoring a kleindeutsch (“small German”) solution to the national question. While großdeutsch partisans hoped to forge a federal state that would include Austria, the proponents of a kleindeutsch solution favored a German state led by the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty. Of course, the rivalry between Hohenzollern Berlin and Habsburg Vienna had dominated intra-German politics since the eighteenth century, and neither dynasty was prepared to cede influence to the other. As the Frankfurt Parliament dithered, the German princes reestablished their control, and when the bourgeois nationalists finally offered an imperial German crown to the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, in May 1849, their opportunity had passed. The Prussian King spurned the offer contemptuously, and claimed that he would never accept such a title from a representative assembly; he ruled, in his own view, by the grace of God. The nationalist project was defeated, at least for a time. In the wake of this failure, German rulers vigorously repressed nationalist agitation and unleashed the forces of political reaction.

The repression of the 1850s inhibited more direct political action, but German nationalist sentiment gained expression through literary and cultural associations. As a staunch supporter of großdeutsch unification, Ulrichs fervently promoted this broader movement, and he joined nationalist literary and cultural associations, including the German Association of Jurists to whom he would later make his epochal appeal for legal reform. He also began writing articles for the Allgemeine Zeitung (Universal Newspaper), a daily paper with a pan-German readership published by the prominent Cotta publishing house based in Augsburg (Bavaria). Perhaps the most important German political newspaper of the nineteenth century, the Allgemeine Zeitung developed an international reputation and supported correspondents around the globe. The paper also maintained strong ties to Austria and a großdeutsch editorial perspective.

Pan-German newspapers and cultural associations were not the only forces that promoted German unification after 1848. Commerce and transport played a powerful role in gradually knitting together the disparate regions that would eventually form the new Empire. In 1834 Prussian officials had organized a Customs Union (Zollverein), which, by 1842, embraced more than half of the thirty-nine members of the German Confederation. This seemingly neutral commercial association was more effective in breaking down the barriers of import taxes, varied currencies, and disparate systems of weights and measures – which had stifled intra-German trade for centuries – than any overt political initiative. But the effect of forming a closer union among its members was indeed unwitting. Prussian rulers remained completely dismissive of German nationalism, and supported the Customs Union simply to promote their commercial advantage, particularly over Habsburg Austria. Significantly, Austria was banned from joining the Union.

German railway construction was another critical force that promoted exchange among the German states. Two long-distance rail lines were completed in the 1830s, the first in Bavaria and a second in Saxony. Into the 1860s, over half of the German railway remained in private corporate hands, since there was no centralized state that could initiate, plan, and construct a national system. Public excitement over the first successful railways sparked a flurry of projects, however, and by 1852 investors had created more than 4,000 miles of track, a figure that increased six-fold to 24,0000 miles by 1873. Between 1850 and 1875, some 25% of German industrial investment flowed into developing railways, stimulating collateral industries like coal mining, steel production, and manufacturing. The railways also lessened bulk transport costs, while opening markets and improving distribution. Of course, the trains reduced travel time, creating a dramatic increase in both commerce and communications.

Ulrichs belonged to that generation of Germans who experienced first-hand this transportation revolution. He could travel from Hanover to Berlin in 1846 in less than a day, a trip that had taken three days by horse-drawn coach. In the 1850s Ulrichs traveled widely outside of his native Hanover – to the German cities of Bamberg, Würzburg, Darmstadt, Mainz, and Wiesbaden, as well as to the Netherlands, Belgium, Bohemia, and Switzerland – trips easily compressed into short periods with the benefit of trains. The convenience of rail transport also made Ulrichs’ work as a free-lance journalist easier. Cheaper and faster distribution increased the circulation of a pan-German paper like the Allgemeine Zeitung. It also lowered the cost of European-wide coverage. In the years 1862-63, Ulrichs wrote more than one hundred articles, many of which required significant travel.

In the summer of 1862, Ulrichs reported stories for the Allgemeine Zeitung on a pan-German shooting festival held in Frankfurt. The German sharp-shooting clubs were still another manifestation of the infectious nationalism that animated a wide spectrum of educated and working class Germans after 1848. (Equally popular were the pan-German choral and gymnastics societies, which sponsored hundreds of local societies and also organized regular festivals, drawing thousands from throughout the German states.) The story captivated Ulrichs, but not merely for its promotion of großdeutsch nationalism. At the beginning of August, Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, a club official and event organizer, was arrested and imprisoned for allegedly molesting an adolescent boy. Ulrichs was outraged by the uncorroborated charges and supported Schweitzer with a pair of lengthy legal defenses. These briefs were little help, and in September Schweitzer received a two-week jail sentence: he was not convicted of committing a sexual crime, however, but of provoking public offense. The youth with whom Schweitzer was alleged to have had sexual relations disappeared before the trial; no witnesses appeared who could swear that a crime had been committed. The only “evidence” provided in court was the account of two women who reported overhearing the boy’s description of his encounter with Schweitzer. This testimony alone proved sufficient to convict Schweitzer of offending public decency. Curiously, the witnesses who recounted the story – based entirely on hearsay – were themselves considered the injured parties.

The apparent injustice of Schweitzer’s imprisonment inspired Ulrichs to begin his public campaign. The centerpiece of this project was a series of publications on same-sex eroticism and the implications of the various German anti-sodomy statutes. By turning to print, Ulrichs hoped to provoke open debate and ultimately win support for legal reform. Print culture, he felt, would also provide an important medium for fostering identity and community. This was a daring initiative without any precedent, and it exposed Ulrichs to ridicule or worse. But working alone and without models, Ulrichs proved to have a remarkably sophisticated ability to garner publicity and also to support men – and likely a few women – who lacked other information or resources.

Ulrichs explored the character of same-sex love by drawing first on his own experience. The drive to understand himself was unquestionably a product of his Lutheran background. Like the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther who defied Pope and Emperor, Ulrichs was driven by his own stubborn reason and a personal integrity that would not allow him to turn away from the truth, as he perceived it. This need to explain himself required first that he confront his family. In the following months he wrote a series of circular letters, explaining both his attraction to men and his writing campaign. Only four letters from this extended correspondence survive, but the character of the debate is clear. In a letter to his sister dated September 1862, Ulrichs dimissed her claim that he might simply “make the decision to change;” his nature, he told her, was “inherent.” The inclination to love men, Ulrichs argued, was as natural for him as the attraction most men feel towards women. Ulrichs also rejected his sister’s charge that his study in Berlin had somehow “perverted” him. “To believe that this tendency was at some time assumed is an error,” he wrote; “it came about exactly at the time of my puberty.” Ulrichs closed by asking his sister to circulate the letter among their closest family members.

In a second letter from November, addressed “Dear Loved Ones,” Ulrichs shared the basic insight that would shape his ultimate theory of sexual identity. Men who loved men, he ventured, represented a third sex, characterized by a feminine nature trapped in the physical body of a man. The chief evidence for this claim came from Ulrichs’ recollections of his own boyhood and adolescence: “How often did my dear mother complain, ‘You are not like other boys!’ How often did she warn me, ‘You will be an odd one.’ Coaxed or by force, nothing could bring me up to the standard of boys. It was not in me. I was already an odd one, namely by nature. Because of my feminine nature even as a boy I was unjustly mistreated and set apart.” The lack of appropriate “boyishness” that Ulrichs identified in himself was also something he claimed to have observed in other men attracted to their own sex: “a so-called feminine mannerism, can be observed since childhood in the inclination to girlish preoccupations, in shyness, in play, in not scuffling, or throwing snowballs as boys do, in manners, gestures, and in a certain gentleness of character.” It was unjust, however, Ulrichs declared, that he be expected to live a life of celibacy. Sexual gratification was a God-given right, “on the assumption that the means of gratification is achieved in the way which nature intended for the individual.” To demand, as his closest family members did, that he and those like him lead a life of sensual deprivation was “an extreme abuse, since we are justified to exist in human society, just as you are.”

In two additional letters, both dated December 1862 and addressed “Dear Uncle,” Ulrichs elaborated his views, emphasizing the hermaphrodite identity of those who loved their own sex. The occurrence of hermaphrodites in nature offered positive proof, Ulrichs claimed, that sexual drives did not always correspond to sexual organs. Not only human hermaphrodites born with male and female genitalia but also “hermaphroditic” animal species like snails confirmed for Ulrichs the natural character of same-sex eroticism. Since nature endowed individuals and entire species alike, Ulrichs reasoned, with ambiguous or even paired male and female sexual organs, it followed that same-sex eroticism was similarly a natural – if fairly uncommon – phenomenon. Ulrichs marshaled additional support for his claims, citing his own interviews with like-minded men, as well as a range of medical and biological sources, including anatomy textbooks and medical journals. This evidence was clearly drawn from the manuscript mentioned in his second letter.

Ulrichs’ siblings, uncle, and aunt could not accept easily, if ever at all, his extraordinary arguments. Their resistance was clear not only from his labored attempts to refute their objections, but also from the postscripts they added to his circulated letters. One brother-in-law attempted to dissuade Ulrichs from publishing his tracts, arguing that they would tarnish the family name. Ulrichs’ uncle scribbled the note “I am unable to judge to what degree your detailed information is substantiated, but I am saddened, dear Karl, that you continue to excuse yourself of that which is, according to my conviction, unpardonable.” (Despite his censure, however, this skeptic signed off “Love you dearly, Uncle.” One comment in the margins of the first letter – written perhaps by Ulrichs’ older sister – conceded “I have always believed to have noticed just such a feminine mannerism about Karl.” But the remarkable, indeed marvelous result of this difficult correspondence was the simple fact that Ulrichs’ beloved family members never explicitly disowned or rejected him: he remained forever welcomed into their homes. The family support that Ulrichs had always enjoyed was not compromised, even after divulging a radical, disturbing truth about his private sexual urges. The ability to come out into the open and find that he was still loved surely bolstered Ulrichs’ confidence.

The Beauty of Censorship Is That It Boosts Sales

Now he pursued his mission with growing assurance and purpose. His first pamphlet, titled “Vindex: Social and Legal Studies on Man-Manly Love,” appeared under the pseudonym Numa Numantius – in deference to his family’s wishes – in April 1864. Here he introduced new terms for describing innate sexual identities: the word Urning named the identity of those men who love their own sex; Dioning denoted the overwhelming heterosexual majority. Ulrichs took inspiration for these neologisms from his classical schoolboy training. He derived Urning from the Greek god of the heavens, Uranus, whose solitary parentage of Aphrodite, the goddess of Eros or sexual love, symbolized same-sex eroticism in Plato’s Symposium. In Plato’s dialogue, the discussion of Eros (sexual love) mentions two contrasting accounts of Aphrodite’s birth. The first Greek myth claims that Aphrodite was parented by Uranus, a birth in which “the female played no part.” The second identifies Aphrodite as the offspring of Zeus and Dione. While the single-parented Aphrodite of the first story was invoked in the Symposium to symbolize the Greek masculine love of male youths, or same-sex attraction, the second represented the more common sexual attraction of a man to a woman. Ulrichs introduced the term Urninden in his second pamphlet to describe same-sex loving women or lesbians. The word Dioning named “normal” (heterosexual) men and women who loved the opposite sex.

With this inventive nomenclature, Ulrichs was able to frame the specific identity of men who loved men, and in so doing to address their characteristics, interests, and the persecution they experienced as a group or class. Same-sex eroticism was no longer simply a collection of disembodied sexual practices, but rather the innate sensuality that defined, at least in part, a significant if tiny sexual minority. The pamphlet’s title, “Vindex” or “Vindicator,” signaled Ulrich’s purpose: he presented himself as the defender, indeed emancipator, of all Urnings who suffered under the prejudice and persecution of a Dioning majority. His central thesis was that Uranian love was inborn or natural, caused neither by pathology nor willful perversion, and as such its expression could not be criminalized. Ulrichs suggested that at least 25,000 adult Urnings resided in the German states. Nothing could justify the denial of fundamental rights to such a large group.

Ulrichs’ second pamphlet, “Inclusa: Anthropological Studies on Man-Manly Love,” appeared just one month later in May 1864. In this work Ulrichs presented evidence for his argument that Urnings were psychological hermaphrodites, in short, biological men with a feminine character. By way of example Ulrichs asserted that when Urnings formed social networks, they frequently gave each other feminine nicknames, or referred to one another as Schwester (sister) or Tante (aunt). Myriad historical figures demonstrated the timelessness of an Urning identity, Ulrichs offered, and urban ethnographies of Berlin and Rome, among other cities, would illustrate the persistence of this minority.

Ulrichs was prolific, and he issued Books Three, Four, and Five in 1865. These installments continued his passionate advocacy for tolerance and the decriminalization of same-sex love. Titled Vindicta: Battle for Freedom from Persecution, Book Three described the legal ramifications of German anti-sodomy laws: many people were imprisoned under these laws, and more than a few of those accused and convicted committed suicide. Although many German states did not formally punish same-sex acts, including Ulrichs’ native Hanover, popular prejudice and public decency laws, as Ulrichs understood so well, remained sources of harassment and discrimination. Equally pernicious was the threat of blackmail by male prostitutes, a threat, Ulrichs claimed, that was “growing rapidly in the dark streets of the largest cities.” Book Four, Formatrix: Anthropological Studies on Man-Manly Love, broadened Ulrichs’ earlier analysis and suggested a wide continuum of sexual identities. Now Ulrichs recognized that some male Urnings had a very masculine demeanor, while female Urninden might very well exhibit feminine character traits. For the first time, Ulrichs also described an identity of Uranodionism, bisexual individuals attracted to both sexes.

In Book Five, Ara Spei (Refuge of Hope) Ulrichs considered the traditional Christian condemnations of same-sex eroticism, perhaps his thorniest challenge. Of course, this had been an important issue for him when he confronted his imposing Lutheran family. As he had in that earlier argument, here he asserted that “Christianity has a place not only for Dionian but also for Uranian love.” The larger issue was that congenital Uranian love had been unknown to Christianity; how then could it possibly have developed a coherent theology about the question. While the Bible condemned same-sex male prostitution or those who perverted their nature, it said nothing about an inborn Urning nature. “There is simply an omission,” Ulrichs wrote. And since Uranian love could not produce children, he reasoned, neither the institution of marriage nor sanctions against extramarital sex had any particular bearing for Urnings. This line of argument conveniently ignored the traditional Christian teaching that sex was meant for procreation, perhaps the greatest barrier for Christians in accepting same-sex eroticism. The Christian principle of charity, Ulrichs declared optimistically, would promote the acceptance of Uranian love as well as its open expression.

In late nineteenth-century Europe, these arguments were extremely provocative, even explosive, and surely enough to stir up the censors. Commissioned by Ulrichs, the publisher Heinrich Matthes, based in Leipzig, printed just under 1,500 copies each of the first two volumes and was responsible for distributing them at the annual Leipzig book fairs and through postal orders. But six weeks after they were first printed, officials in Leipzig seized the remaining copies of the first two books from Matthes’s shop. At the trial conducted later in the month, the prosecutor charged both author and publisher with “degradation of family and marriage” and the advocacy of “illegal behavior.” These charges were hardly surprising, since the Saxon Kingdom where Leipzig was located – unlike Hanover – had a particularly oppressive anti-sodomy statute.

Ulrichs’ great advantage, however, was the influence of the Leipzig publishers, who dominated the German-language book trade. This powerful industry was represented by a well-organized professional group, the Association of German Publishers and Printers (also based in Leipzig), which influenced Saxon censorship laws, their application, and press freedoms more generally. Saxony’s liberal standards for censorship also shaped the print culture of the rest of the German-speaking world, which remained relatively open as a result. Honoring the interests of the Leipzig publishers, the court rejected the prosecutor’s claims and cited the “scientific value” of Ulrichs’ first two publications: “It seems they have been published without the intention of eliciting immorality.” As a consequence, the ban was lifted and the confiscated copies were returned to Matthes on the same day. The court’s decision discouraged the Leipzig prosecutor from filing charges against Ulrichs’ subsequent publications, which were distributed without difficulty, at least from Leipzig. This early victory for freedom of expression was also an important harbinger of the relative tolerance that later German activists and sexologists would enjoy. Officials in Prussia were less tolerant, and Ulrichs’ first two volumes were banned there in September 1864. Certainly this prevented Berlin booksellers from displaying Ulrichs’ works openly, but it was always possible for private individuals to order them from Matthes directly or from other book dealers outside of Prussia.

The print-run was limited for the first five pamphlets, but their distribution was wider than anyone could have expected. Publicity had improved his ideas’ circulation; it did little, however, to improve Ulrichs’ reputation or job prospects. In 1865 the German Foundation for the Sciences revoked Ulrichs’ membership and kicked him out of the organization. Ulrichs had long hoped to establish a reliable source of income – in part to finance his publications – and he continued looking for regular employment. When the small Hanoverian town of Uslar sought a new burgomaster, Ulrichs put himself forward as a candidate in March 1865. Of course, Ulrichs’ credentials as a trained jurist and former Hanoverian official were impeccable. The Uslar town magistrate discreetly requested information on Ulrichs’ character, a predictable and unsurprising effort to vet his application. Unfortunately, the Burgdorf officials who knew Ulrichs readily obliged, and informed the Uslar town fathers of Ulrichs’ unorthodox advocacy for the rights of “Urnings.” They also mentioned the circumstances that led to his resignation from the Hanoverian civil service. As a consequence, the Uslar magistrate rejected Ulrichs and informed him politely that he was no longer under consideration for the job.

Ulrichs achieved his primary goal, however, of stimulating debate about the legal treatment of same-sex eroticism. The mere threat of censorship seemed to enhance the sale of his pamphlets. In his introduction to Volume Three, Vindicta, Ulrichs reported that the first two volumes, Vindex and Inclusa, had nearly sold out. While most of the copies were purchased in Saxony, Baden, the western Rhine provinces, and Austria, there were also orders from outside the German-speaking world, including Italy, France, the Low Countries, and England. Since Ulrichs published under the pen name Numa Numantius, most correspondence was addressed to the publisher Matthes (who then forwarded it to Ulrichs). Many missives came from grateful Urnings, who saw themselves reflected in Ulrichs’ analysis. There were letters from some sympathetic Dionings as well, and Ulrichs reported proudly that the Frankfurt municipal library had placed his first two volumes in its collection. Others condemned Ulrichs, however, for his “perversions” or “moral turpitude.” Newspapers and journals in Hanover, Berlin, Vienna, and the Rhine region included notices of Ulrichs’ publications and the controversy they provoked, most with scorn but a few with guarded tolerance. The volumes also inspired attacks in the Leipzig press, which reported that officials had confiscated the first two volumes. All three Leipzig dailies condemned the court’s original decision and acquittal. Ulrichs rebutted the papers’ editors, and two, including the pan-German Deutsche Allgemeine, printed his response: “By publishing these writings I have initiated a scientific discussion based on facts. This should interest doctors and jurists. Until now the treatment of the subject has been biased, not to mention contemptuous. My writings are the voice of a socially oppressed minority that now claims its rights to be heard.”

Robert Beachy was trained as a German historian at the University of Chicago, where he received his PhD in 1998. He is presently associate professor of history at the Underwood International College of Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.