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Magnus Hirschfeld – Scientist, Campaigner and Sex Expert

Magnus Hirschfeld was born in Kolberg, Poland in 1868 and was part of an Ashkenazi Jewish Family

He studied philosophy and philology and then went into medicine from 1888 to 1892, where he got his doctoral degree. 

He then went onto the United States and did a bit of travelling and survived off the money he made from writing for German journals. 

Whilst in Chicago he was involved in homosexual subculture. Which had similarities to the same subculture that was in Berlin. So this is where he developed his theory about the universality of homosexuality across the world. 

Magnus Hirschfeld and Gay Rights

Whilst he was practising medicine, Hirschfeld became interested in gay rights as some of his patients who were gay had taken their own lives because of their sexuality. In German, suicide is translated to “self-murder” and was seen as very taboo at the time. He would have patients coming in with scars from trying to end their lives and Hirschfeld would try and help them find a reason to live.

There was one story that Magnus Hirschfeld says stuck with him and really propelled him into gay activism. It was of a young army officer that he was treating for a year as he was suffering from depression and eventually killed himself in 1896.

He left a note behind saying that he lacked the strength to tell his parents the truth and spoke of his shame saying that it “strangled his heart”. He wasn’t able to use the word homosexuality and used the word “that” instead. At the end of his note, he said “The thought that you (referring to Hirschfeld) could contribute a future when the German fatherland will think of Us in more than just terms, sweetens the hour of my death”. 

There was speculation that his use of “Us” was a hint that the two were in some kind of relationship but I honestly think he was just referring to the gay community. 

At the same time as this, he was deeply affected by the trial of Oscar Wilde (which we will get into another time) and he referred to this a few times in his writings. 

The Great Industrial Exhibition of Berlin

Between 1st May – 15th October 1896, The Great Industrial Exhibition of Berlin took place. This was where 9 “human zoos” featured people from the German colonies in New Guinea and Africa for people to gawk at.

Hirschfeld attended these exhibitions and other ones like it with an interpreter to ask the people who were put into these zoos for their stance on sexuality in their different cultures.

It was in 1896 after talking to these people, that he began writing what became his 1914 book called “The Homosexuality of Men and Women”. It was a survey on homosexuality across the globe, in an effort to prove that homosexuality occurred in every culture. 

The Scientific Humanitarian Committee

magnus paragraph 175

In 1897, Hirschfeld founded The Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The aim of this group was to undertake research to defend the rights of homosexuals and to repeal Paragraph 175 – the section of the German penal code that, since 1871, had criminalised homosexuality.

The group argued that the law encouraged blackmail. They had a motto “justice through science” which reflected Magnus’ belief that a better scientific understanding of homosexuality would eliminate social hostility towards the gay community. 

The bill was taken to the Reichstag in 1898 but was only supported by August Bebel who was from the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He was a friend of Magnus Hirschfeld from his University days and agreed to sponsor the attempt to repeal Paragraph 175. 

Now Hirschfeld was a bit of a naughty boy and he “outed” some prominent and secretly gay lawmakers who had remained silent on the bill. This action meant that the movement started to make some headway in the 1920s until the takeover of the Nazi party ended all hopes of any further reform. (It is never ok to out someone). 

Hirschfeld’s Campaigning

As part of his efforts to counter popular prejudice, Hirschfeld spoke out about suicide which was still very taboo. He was the first to present statistical evidence that gay people were more likely to commit suicide or to attempt it than straight people. He estimated that 3 out of 100 gays committed suicide every year; that a quarter attempted it at some point in their lives; and that the other three quarters had had suicidal thoughts. He used these statistics to show that under current social conditions in Germany, life was unbearable for the gay community. 

Hirschfeld went to Cambridge University in 1905 to meet Oscar Wilde’s son, who had to change his name to Vyvyan Holland to avoid being associated with his father, as the name Wilde – Magnus noted at the time – was an indecent word, which caused gays to blush with shame, women to avert their eyes and men to be outraged. 

During his time in England Hirschfeld was invited to a secret ceremony in the countryside where a “group of beautiful, young, male students” from Cambridge gathered together wearing Oscar Wilde’s prison number, C33, and read his poem “The ballad of Reading Gaol”. 

Feminism and Beyond

In 1905 he joined the League for the Protection of Mothers which was a feminist organisation. They campaigned for the decriminalisation of abortions and was against policies that banned female teachers and civil servants from having children or getting married. Hirschfeld believed there was a close connection between gay rights and women’s rights.

Hirschfeld’s position, that homosexuality was normal and natural, made him a highly controversial figure at the time, involving him in vigorous debates with other academics, who regarded homosexuality as unnatural and wrong.

In 1920, Hirschfeld was very badly beaten up by a group of völkisch activists who attacked him on the street. He was initially declared dead when the police arrived but he luckily did survive and he didn’t allow this to stop him.

Hirschfeld was both quoted and caricatured in the press as a vociferous (outspoken) expert on sexual matters. 

magnus hirschfeld-ad

Einstein of Sex

During his 1931 tour of the United States, he was dubbed “the Einstein of Sex”. He identified as a campaigner and a scientist, investigating and cataloguing many varieties of sexuality, not just homosexuality.

He developed a system that categorised 64 possible types of sexual fluidity, ranging from masculine, heterosexual male to feminine, homosexual male, including those he described under the term transvestite. He obviously used that term in 1910 to describe people who, now in the 21st century, might be referred to as transgender.

At this time, Hirschfeld and the Institute for Sexual Sciences issued a number of transgender certificates in order to prevent trans people from being harassed by the police.

Giese and Hirschfeld

Under the more liberal atmosphere of the newly founded Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld purchased a villa not far from the Reichstag building in Berlin for his new Institute of Sexual Research, which opened on 6 July 1919.

Magnus Hirschfeld himself lived at the Institution on the second floor with his lover, Karl Giese, together with his sister Recha Tobias.

Giese and Hirschfeld were a well-known couple in the gay scene in Berlin where Hirschfeld was popularly known as “Tante Magnesia”. Tante (‘aunt’) was a German slang expression for a gay man.

People from around Europe and beyond came to the Institute to gain a clearer understanding of their sexuality. 

The institution became a haven for transgender people, where Hirschfeld offered them shelter from abuse, performed surgeries, and gave otherwise unemployable transgender people jobs. 

The End of the Institute of Sexual Research

On 30th January 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor. Less than four months after the Nazis took power, Hirschfeld’s Institute was sacked. On the morning of 6th May, a group of university students who belonged to the National Socialist Student League stormed the institution, shouting “Burn Hirschfeld!” and began to beat up its staff and smash up the premises.

In the afternoon, the SA came to the institute, carrying out a more systematic attack, removing all books and volumes from the library and storing them for a book-burning event which was to be held four days later. In the evening, the Berlin police arrived at the institution and announced that it was closed forever.

By the time of the book burning, Hirschfeld had long since left Germany for a speaking tour that took him around the world; he never returned to Germany.

In March 1932, he stopped briefly in Athens, spent several weeks in Vienna and then settled in Zurich, Switzerland. While he was there, he worked on a book that recounted his experiences and observations while he was on his world tour and it was published in 1933 under the title ‘Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist‘. 

Hirschfeld stayed near Germany, hoping that he would be able to return to Berlin if the country’s political situation improved. With the Nazi regime’s rise to power which coincided with the completion of his work on his tour book, he decided to go into exile in France.

Life in France

On his 65th birthday, 14th May 1933, Hirschfeld arrived in Paris, where he lived in a luxurious apartment building where he lived with Giese.

In 1934, Giese was involved in a dispute by a swimming pool that Hirschfeld called “trifling” but it led French authorities to expel him. Giese’s fate left Hirschfeld very depressed.

So he moved to Nice, he wrote another book called “Racism” where he believed that although racism was heightened by the Nazis it was more deep rooted than that. He said, “if it were practical, we should certainly do well to eradicate the use of the word ‘race’ as far as subdivisions of the human species are concerned; or if we do use it in this way, to put it into quote marks to show it is questionable”.

The last of his books was published in April 1935. He described his hopes and dreams for his new life in France.

On his 67th birthday, 14 May 1935, Hirschfeld died of a heart attack in his apartment in Nice. His body was cremated, and the ashes were interred in a simple tomb in the Caucade Cemetery in Nice.

The Legacy of Magnus Hirschfeld

Magnus Hirschfeld is one of the most prominent activists in history and was well ahead of his time in terms of raising the profile of LGBTQ+ people in a positive manner and standing up for our rights in a time when it was not necessarily the ‘acceptable’ or ‘popular’ thing to do.

Shannon Halliwell (She/Her)
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