This August marks the 150th anniversary of the first public gay rights protest. It consisted of a single man taking the stage at a theater in Munich, Germany. Despite the small size of the protest, it would influence a movement, encouraging the use of science as a tool to explain the validity of queer identities.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was born in 1825 in Aurich, in Lower Saxony. In 1862, he began writing under a pseudonym, defending the love between men as natural and arguing that such relationships possessed a biological basis. His essays established scientific categories and terms to denote different types of desires: men who loved men were urnings, men who loved women were dionings. There were terms for bisexual and heterosexual women, as well as intersex people. Ulrichs saw sexuality as defined by three axes: sexual orientation, preferred sexual behavior, and gender characteristics.
Above all, he defended the idea that there was nothing wrong with desiring a person of one’s own gender. By 1867, he was writing under his own name, advancing his theory that people were born with their sexuality already set and that it was completely natural. As such, he argued that queer sexuality should not be legislated against or treated as a disease or mental disorder.
1867 found him on the stage of the Grand Hall of Munich’s Odeon Theater. He had come to the Congress of German Jurists (Ulrichs had worked as a lawyer until being dismissed when his sexuality became known) to publicly protest anti-sodomy laws and continue his push for recognition and acceptance of queer identities.
Ulrichs was part of an early group of men who were fighting for the recognition of (primarily cis-male) homosexuality; as now, a variety of tactics were explored and tested. His contemporary Karl-Maria Kertbeny argued for the extension of rights as a matter of privacy. (In an interesting note, this basis would again appear many years later in the ruling Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated anti-sodomy laws in the United States in 2003.)
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ language and ideas were largely forgotten until recently, overshadowed by other theorists and activists who followed in his footsteps. His tactics and his belief in the validity of queer identity and the scientific basis of sexuality and gender expression was not forgotten, however. In a more recent parallel, Dr. John Fryer, in the guise of Dr. Henry Anonymous, also argued before his profession in 1972 for the recognition of homosexuality as a natural aspect of sexuality. Throughout the centuries, there is evidence of a reoccurring concept: marginalized sexualities are not anomalies or diseases; rather, they have a scientific basis.
In more recent years, Ulrichs’ memory has been resurrected, and he is honored with streets named after him in a number of countries. The International Lesbian and Gay Law Association presents an award bearing his name to individuals who have contributed to the advancement of sexual equality.