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.

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