Douglas Pretsell on “Urning: Queer Identity in the German Nineteenth Century” and Pride Month

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In honour of Pride Month, UTP author Douglas Pretsell writes about the meaning of Urning, queer German activists, and the importance of queer German history. Read the full blog post by Douglas Pretsell, here:

In Pride Month, as you don your glad rags to march and shassay in your local pride event, please pause for a moment to remember the first generation of activists that battled for queer advancement. No, I am not referring to the Stonewall rioters, creditable as they were in their own rights. Stonewall is rightly commemorated as the first pride event, a confrontation that forged a new style of being and a directness in activism. But our struggles for acceptance, advancement, and pride have a much longer history that stretches back for more than a century before Stonewall.  

I have been fascinated by this particular part of our queer history since 2008, when I was living in Munich. It was at a gay festival there when a German friend casually mentioned that Germany was the birthplace of gay rights. I have been reading about that history ever since and more recently I have had the pleasure to research and write about it too in my recent book Urning: Queer Identity in the German Nineteenth Century.  

Urning by Douglas Pretsell

Urning was a word used to describe men who were sexually attracted to their own sex. The word was first used in 1864 and became the word of choice in German to describe same-sex attracted men, until it was dislodged by the word homosexual in the early 20th century. The first man to call himself an urning was the Hanoverian jurist and early queer activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Ulrichs published 12 campaigning pamphlets and protested publicly for urning rights between 1864 and 1880. 

The urnings were men who read Ulrichs’s pamphlets and then adopted the terminology and its attributes as a personal identity with all the trappings of the modern gay/queer identities we have today. These men had a strikingly modern conception of their sexual orientation, and for the first time in history, some of them were proud enough to admit to it as a public identity. 

Formal organization of the urnings would not come until 1897, when Magnus Hirschfeld and others formed the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee, WhK (Scientific-Human). By that time, the urning terminology was beginning to fall out of favour and other terms like ‘homosexual’ became more usual. The era when same-sex attracted men in Germany were called urnings fell between the years of 1864 and 1897. Over this period the lives of urning men were far from easy. Most lived in fear of blackmail and ruination. Even in the cities, where liberal tolerance may have prevailed, they were still vulnerable. They were not, however, passive victims buffeted by events. These were men who had taken control of their destinies. They owned an identity and social identification that defied society’s norms. Some of these men took that a stage further and demonstrated agency in attempts to improve the lot of their fellow urnings.  

One of these men was the theatre director Friedrich Feldtmann. He was betrayed by a blackmailer in Bremen and at his trial in 1867, he conducted his own defence to demand that his God-given right to love men be respected, telling his judges: ‘You have the power to condemn me: I must dispute whether you have the right!’ Or what about the Zurich grassroots community activist, Jakob Rudolf Forster, who first met Ulrichs in Stuttgart in 1878 and then returned to his Swiss homeland to campaign there. For his efforts, Forster was repeatedly thrown into prison, and it was the threat of that or blackmail that meant some maintained their activism behind a veil of anonymity. This was why, after one brush with the law, leading writer and publisher Adolf Glaser preferred to keep his activism in the background, working with the Berlin police to improve relations with urnings in Berlin. Up to the late 1880s, the urning had been mainly a character in the societies of German speaking countries and their neighbours. In 1889, the English writer John Addington Symonds discovered the works of Ulrichs and Krafft-Ebing and began writing about them in English. As a result, the ‘uranian’ became a personnage in England briefly before the Wilde trial (1893). 

So, as you enjoy the marches and other events of Pride Month in 2024, be thankful that Ulrichs and his followers started the whole ball rolling approximately 160 years ago! 

Learn more about Urning: Queer Identity in the German Nineteenth Century by Douglas Pretsell, here.


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