Karlinsky was born in Harbin, Manchuria, which was then a Russian outpost. He immigrated to the United States in 1938 and settled in Los Angeles. In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army, and he served as an interpreter in Germany for various agencies through the early 1950s. In the mid-1970s, after he was well established in his academic career, he began to write about the history of homosexuality in Russia. His husband (and partner of 35 years) was Peter Carleton.