How to Best Campaign for Sexual Reform: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Karl Maria Kertbeny and their Fiery Correspondence in the 1860s*

Veronika Settele (she/her) is lecturer at Universität Bremen and recently turned to the history of sexuality in nineteenth century Germany, France and the U.S. She is currently researching ego-documents and keeps wondering why we know much more about homosexuality than about heterosexuality. If you have ideas on how to change that – or other comments – she looks forward to being contacted via

Sexologists, gay rights activists, and historians have been awarding fame to the German jurist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895) ever since he started writing in favor of man-manly love, desire, and relationships in the 1860s.[1] The physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld considered himself the successor of Ulrichs from 1900 onwards and began to re-edit Ulrichs’ writings only three years after his death.[2] A century later, the psychiatrist and sexologist Volkmar Sigusch ennobled Ulrichs for having been “the first gay of world history” who stood up naturally and publicly for his sexual orientation.[3] Ulrichs had done so not only before his family but also before the Sixth Congress of German Jurists in Munich in August 1867, arguing for impunity of same-sex acts, thereby causing substantial turmoil which made it impossible for him to finish his speech.[4]

Additionally, Ulrichs has recently been rediscovered as a key figure of liberalism in the history of legal thought.[5] Although only two letters between the Austro-Hungarian journalist Karl Maria Kertbeny and Ulrichs have survived – all others burned either in Ulrichs’ house when it suffered fire in 1893 or were willingly burned by Kertbeny in 1867 after he heard that Ulrichs had been arrested[6]  –, their correspondence allows to trace the loss of significance that “nature” saw in legal thought on sexuality, in decades otherwise obsessed with discovering the true nature of everything and everybody.

The controversy over “innate nature”

Kertbeny had joined Ulrichs as a comrade in the struggle to remove the taboo of “homosexuality” – which he only started to call by that name in 1868/69 – after Ulrichs had published his first book in 1864. On 6 May 1868, however, Kertbeny directed sharp words at his former hero. All Ulrichs had been doing and his whole perspective on man-manly love, Kertbeny claimed, proved to be “utterly purposeless”.[7] There was no longer a need for the scientific, anthropologic, or historic proof of innate nature of man-manly sexual orientation. On the contrary, the focus on innate nature would in fact hinder the legal reform they were striving for, Kertbeny wrote. Their former thrust would multiply prejudice by making urnings[8] “special, peculiar, abnormal” and, even more important, would not convince legislators who “do not give a fig for the innate nature of a drive”– as the prosecution of innately bloodthirsty persons or pyromaniacs showed.[9] What legislators would care about instead was the harm something causes “to the individual or society at large”, Kertbeny had found out in recent discussions with experts in state and law.[10] Kertbeny urged so much for the reframing of their agenda at this precise point of time because he expected German unification and therewith a renegotiation of fundamental legal questions.

German legal unification

Jurists interested in questions of moral life and sexuality were indeed discussing the future legal situation of “sodomy”, which subsumed homosexuality, bestiality, and nonprocreative acts between men and women, in the 1860s. German unification looming on the horizon ever more visibly was about to bring along unification of different state laws. The legal situation of male same-sex acts was particularly distinctive between the 1813 Bavarian Penal Code, in which private consensual sexual acts were no longer justifiable objects of criminal law but remained sins within church jurisdiction, and the states following the Bavarian example, such as Württemberg and Hanover on the one hand, and the 1852 Prussian Penal Code on the other hand, which cherished the legal protection against injuries to moral precepts for male same-sex acts in § 175.[11] As the continuing prominence of § 175, which was finally erased in reunited Germany in 1994, indicates, neither Ulrichs’ nor Kertbeny’s reasoning had the desired effect. On January 1, 1872, § 175 of the Prussian Penal Code gained legal force nationwide. Terribly disappointed, Ulrichs left Germany for “a freer country”, Italy, as did some “urnings” eight years later.[12]

What we can learn from Kertbeny’s and Ulrichs’ controversy is hence less how to successfully campaign for sexual reform, but more how upcoming legal reform inspired the discussion in scope and content. The window of legal change on the horizon motivated these activists to substantially inquire how to best achieve their goals. Engaging with the mechanics of legislature to answer that question, however, also shaped the subject they were fighting for, thereby causing conflict. The episode points to the significance of the historical moment as well as the social, political, and legal condition in which activists for sexual reform were campaigning. Thus, not only did activists shape legislation, in this example legislative thinking left an imprint on the very concepts activists were campaigning for.

Cite this article: Veronika Settele, “How to Best Campaign for Sexual Reform: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Karl Maria Kertbeny and their Fiery Correspondence in the 1860s.”, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 25/01/2023,, (accessed on: Datum).

* I thank Fritz Kusch for helpful comments on an earlier version of this text.

[1] Except for the traditional hiatus between the 1930s and the 1960s where former emancipatory social movements did not attract much interest.

[2] Magnus Hirschfeld, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs [originally: Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes, Berlin 1914, S. 925–967], in: Wolfram Setz (ed.), Karl Heinrich Ulrichs zu Ehren. Materialien zu Leben und Werk, pp. 17–33, here p. 18, Berlin 2000.

[3] Volkmar Sigusch, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs Der erste Schwule der Weltgeschichte, Hamburg 2000.

[4] Karl Heinrich Ulrich, “Gladius furens”. Das Naturräthsel der Urningsliebe und der Irrthum als Gesetzgeber. Eine Provocation an den deutschen Juristentag (Numa Numantius: Sechste Schrift), Kassel 1868, pp. 1–11.

[5] Patrick Singy, Sexual Identity at the Limits of German Liberalism. Law and Science in the Work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895), in: Journal of the History of Sexuality 30, 2021, pp. 390–410.

[6] Douglas Ogilvy Pretsell (ed.), The Correspondence of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, 1846–1894, Cham/London 2020, p. xi and p. 30.

[7] Ibid., p. 200.

[8] Karl Heinrich Ulrichs developed a theory of man-manly sexual orientation in which there were “urnings” – men who were attracted to men who were attracted to women – and “dionings”, which we would today label as heterosexual men.

[9] Pretsell, p. 203.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Isabel V. Hull, Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700–1815, Ithaca/London 1997, p. 349.

[12] In Italy, homosexuality was legalized in the Italian Penal Code of 1889, also known as Zanardelli Code, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Critische Pfeile. Denkschrift über die Bestrafung der Urningsliebe. An die Gesetzgeber, Stuttgart 1879, p. 90; Hubert Kennedy, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Leben und Werk, Hamburg 2001, S. 324.

Cite this blog post
hsl (2023, January 25). How to Best Campaign for Sexual Reform: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Karl Maria Kertbeny and their Fiery Correspondence in the 1860s*. History | Sexuality | Law. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

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