October 24, 1825– Karl Ulrichs:
“Sexual orientation is a right established by nature. Legislators have no right to veto nature; no right to persecute nature in the course of its work; no right to torture living creatures who are subject to those drives nature gave them.”
Did you kids know that the idea of the Broadway Musical and the term “homosexuality” happened almost simultaneously? Pure coincidence? I don’t think so.
In the middle of the 19th century, beginning in Paris with Jacques Offenbach and in Vienna with Johann Strauss, the operetta was waltzing and can-canning its way across Europe. In the very same era, The United States of America stumbled upon a musical theatre style of its own. The Black Crook (1866) barely had a plot, loads of crappy songs and scads of spectacle. There had been American musicals before this show, but this was the first to be a great big SRO hit. It spawned hundreds more musical spectaculars with fantasy themes, known as “extravaganzas”. American audiences made these early musicals a major force for what was then referred to as “The Show Business”. And there you have it, the Musical Theatre Queen was born.
Meanwhile back in Europe, lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was restless, often moonlighting as a freelance writer. As a closeted gay guy, he risked certain financial ruin and jail time for engaging in a relationship with a soldier or any other man.
He had his first gay experience with his riding instructor when he was 14 years old. He went on to university, from which he graduated with degrees in Law and History. He then worked as an official legal adviser for a district court in Hannover in northwest Germany.
When he was 34 years old, Ulrichs lost his government job because he was queer. He began publishing pamphlets explaining and defending the love between men.
At 37, he told his family and friends that he was sexually attracted to men, and he wrote a series of essays based on his research about all variations of human sexuality, gender identity and sexual orientations.
When he had just turned 42, he addressed the German Congress, coming out of the closet publicly and demanding they repeal the country’s anti-homosexual laws. He was shouted down before he could finish his speech. His books were banned.
Ulrichs’s goal was to free gay people from the legal, religious, and social condemnation of same-sex love as unnatural. He insisted that people like him were born this way. For this, he invented new terminology that would refer to the nature of the individual, and not to the acts performed. He used the terrific term “Uranian“.
At that time there was no word to describe this class of people, aside from the pejorative, “sodomite”. Ulrichs coined the word Uranian meaning follower or descendant of Uranus, a reference to a passage in Plato‘s Symposium, in which calls same-sex love the offspring of the “heavenly Aphrodite”, daughter of Uranus. Ulrichs later added the feminine form “Urningin” for lesbians. Straight people, in Ulrichs’s parlance, became “Dionings”: named for the descendants of the daughter of Zeus by the mortal woman Dione.
In 1869, his associate, Austrian writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny, coined the word “homosexual”, and from the 1870s the subject of sexual orientation began to be widely discussed. I wish we could go back to Uranian, it has a special ring to it. He continued writing about homosexuality for the rest of his life.
100 years before Stonewall, Ulrichs’ book Araxes stated the modern arguments in favor of Gay Rights. In 1879, he published Research On The Riddle Of Man Love. The film rights were immediately snapped up by Channing Tatum‘s production company.
In one of his pamphlets, Ulrichs outed his cousin, Johannes Diederich Sarnighausen, a minister, who was forced to flee Germany after an accusation of sex with a soldier. Sarnighausen settled in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he took over publishing the very successful German language newspaper, Indiana Staatszeitung, was twice elected a state senator, without another hint of scandal.
After publishing his 12th book, in bad health and sensing he had done everything he could for his cause in Germany, Ulrichs went into self-imposed exile in Italy where he settled in L’Aquila, where his health improved. I know that I always feel better when I am in Italy.
Ulrichs continued to write prolifically and published his works (in German and Latin) using his own money. In 1895, he received an honorary diploma from the University Of Naples, shortly after, he died alone and broke in L’Aquila, where he had lived as the guest of a local landowner, Marquis Niccolò Persichetti, who gave this eulogy at his funeral:
“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.”
In 1897, giving him credit for his unprecedented openness and activism, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the world’s first Gay Rights group, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Berlin, and, though he never came out publicly, he created public support for decriminalization that came close to succeeding before being crushed by those nasty Nazis.
Ignored in North America, and mostly forgotten by nearly everyone else for decades, Ulrichs is now a cult figure in Europe. There are streets named for him in Munich, Bremen and Hannover. His birthday is marked each year with a street party and poetry reading at Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Platz in Munich. The International Lesbian & Gay Law Association gives the Karl Heinrich Ulrichs Award for distinguished contributions to the advancement of LGBTQ equality. The city of L’Aquila has restored his grave, the headstone reads: Exile & Pauper, and the city hosts an annual pilgrimage to the cemetery.
Ulrichs was the first person I know of that urged others to come out of the closet (first to family, next publicly); insist that being gay was not sin, or a disease, or crime; demanded equal rights for everyone including women; sought to abolish anti-gay laws, insisted that churches accept queer people; addressed suicide, murder, police harassment, blackmail, military, family values, hate crimes, privacy issues, economics, democracy, and even suggested Marriage Equality.
My research finds that Ulrichs was quite delighted and amused by singing, dancing felines. I like to think that this most important of LGBTQ Rights pioneers would have named Cats, now and forever, as his all time favorite Broadway Musical.