Magnus Hirschfeld — Pioneer Gay Activist

Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich

After the First World War, Berlin was the hotspot for free-thinkers, intellectuals, philosophers, poets and artists, in Europe. The city played host to a provocative cabaret scene and decadent smoky salons, Bauhaus design and architecture established itself as a global movement and the gender-bending actress and cabaret artist, Marlene Dietrich, was steadily rising to international fame. It is in this Berlin where the Jewish gay activist, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, devoted most of his life trying to prove the biological basis for homosexuality.

In 1897, Dr. Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee — a group of researchers who campaigned (on conservative and rational grounds) for Gay Rights and the repeal of Paragraph 175 — the section of the German penal code that had criminalized homosexuality since 1871.

The Scientific Humanitarian Committee argued that Paragraph 175 encouraged blackmail and that it kept homosexuals on the fringes of society. They collected over 5,000 signatures, including Albert Einstein’s, with which they petitioned the German government in 1898 to abolish Paragraph 175. The petition was unsuccessful, however it continued to come before the Reichstag — German parliament — and eventually started to make progress in the 1920s, until the Nazi Party obliterated any hope for reform.

In 1919, Hirschfeld co-wrote and performed in the film Anders als die Andern (Different From the Others). The film had a specific Gay Rights law reform agenda. It also boasted one of the first gay characters ever written for cinema, played by actor Conrad Veidt. Veidt’s character is blackmailed by a lover. This eventually forces him to come out rather than to continue making the blackmail payments, but his career is destroyed and he is driven to suicide.

A still from the film Anders Niet Anderin, with Conrad Veidt.

A still from the film Anders Niet Anderin, with Conrad Veidt.

As a practicing physician, Hirschfeld believed that a better scientific understanding of homosexuality — that it occurs in nature, and is not a choice — would eliminate hostility toward homosexuals. As a researcher, Hirschfeld collected questionnaires from tens of thousands of people, which he published in the book Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (“The Homosexuality of Man and Woman”), in 1914. He also built a unique library on same-sex love and eroticism.

Focussing his attentions on the gay, bisexual and transsexual community Hirschfeld opened the doors of his Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research or the Institute of Sexology) 6 July 1919, where the six beds on the top floor of the villa served as a safe haven for homosexuals. His clinic provided educational services and medical consultations with clinical staff that included one dermatologist, one gynaecologist, one endocrinologist and two psychiatrists.

The Institute, not far from the Reichstag building in Berlin, housed Dr. Hirschfeld’s immense archive and library on sexuality as well as the Museum of Sex — an educational resource for the public. As a result of his work at the Institute of Sexology he was both quoted and caricatured in the press as an enthusiastic expert on sexuality.

Berlin's Lesbishe Frauen (1928), a Lesbian city guide to Berlin, by Ruth Margarete Roellig with a foreword by Dr. Hirschfeld

Berlin’s Lesbishe Frauen, a Lesbian city guide to Berlin, by Ruth Margarete Roellig with a foreword by Dr. Hirschfeld

Despite his prominence as a Gay Rights campaigner, Hirschfeld was above all a researcher who investigated and catalogued the many facets of human sexuality. He developed a system that categorised 64 possible types of sexual and social predispositions (known today as the “spectrum” theory of human sexuality), ranging from masculine heterosexual male to feminine homosexual male. He also coined the word ‘Transvestit’ (transvestite), which included people who today would be described as transgender or transsexual.

In fact, doctors at the Institute of Sexology performed the first sex-change operations in the world. They also exempted men from military service due to their sexual “predisposition,” officially changed the genders of “pseudo-hermaphrodites,” and consulted the court in cases of a wide range of “offences”, including those accused of having illegal gay sex.

Hirschfeld used the word “cure” in relation to homosexuality. However, the context in which he applied it was not to propagate reparative therapy for gay people, but rather to put patients in contact with “like-minded people of high standards.” In other words, homosexuals would be cured from their melancholies if they found themselves in an environment with supportive people who were not bigoted. He unashamedly believed that homosexuals weren’t “sick”, but that society was.

Initially, the gay community was sceptical of Dr. Hirschfeld’s “gay science.” Some thought that emphasizing their difference from straight people would cause the public to see gays as mentally disabled. Despite their initial resistance, it is believed that thousands of people visited the Institute before it was looted and destroyed by Nazi Brown Shirts, in 1933.

Today, 81 years ago, on 6 May 1933 — only three months after Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany — the Institute of Sexology was broken into, occupied and ransacked by Nazi Brown Shirts. Several days later, on 10 May, all the content from Hirschfeld’s archive and library was removed and taken to Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square. That night, along with 20,000 other books across Germany, they were publicly burned in a symbolic attack by Nazi officials on those who opposed their ideology… Amongst the texts thrown onto the fire was Heinrich Heine’s Almansor, in which he noted “where they burn books, in the end they will burn humans too.”

10 May 1933, Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square

10 May 1933, Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square

At the time of the seizure of the Institute of Sexology and the book burning, Hirschfeld had already left Germany on a speaking tour that took him around the world. In San Francisco, he was hailed as “The Einstein of Sex” and in New York thousands attended his lectures. He learned about the destruction of his archive and library in news reports that were shown at cinemas.

In 1935, Hirschfield died in exile in Paris. Weeks after his death, the Nazis redrafted Paragraph 175 to prohibit all forms of male homosexual contact. Using these draconian laws, the Nazis continued their persecution of gay men during WWII. Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested because they were suspected of being homosexual, of whom some 50,000 were officially sentenced.

Most of these men served time in regular prisons, and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 were sent to Nazi concentration camps, where they were forced to wear a Pink Triangle. It is unclear how many gay men perished in the camps, but leading scholar Rüdiger Lautmann believes that the death rate of homosexuals in concentration camps may have been as high as 60 per cent, because they were treated in an unusually cruel and brutal manner by their captors.

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, 14 May 1868 – 14 May 1935

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, 14 May 1868 – 14 May 1935

After the end of the war, Paragraph 175 was not repealed and many gay men remained in prison for years to come. Others enjoyed brief liberation, but were re-arrested and imprisoned based on evidence found of their homosexuality during the Nazi years.

The treatment of homosexuals in concentration camps went unrecognised by most countries. It was not until the 1980s that governments began to acknowledge these atrocities. In 1994, Paragraph 175 was eventually revoked in its entirety and it was not until 2002 that the German government apologized to the gay community for this dark period in its history. In 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Holocaust which included the persecution of homosexuals.

The scholar and researcher Ralf Dose founded the Magnus Hirschfeld Society in 1982, in an effort to secure the legacy of Hirschfeld’s work. Whilst most of Hirschfeld’s archive and library were lost on 10 May 1933, Dose have managed to uncover some of his personal and professional belongings.

His work changed the conversation about homosexuality and helped pave the way for today’s transgender movement. Dr. Hirschfeld fought fiercely for equality and Gay Civil Rights decades before the Kingsley Report, Stonewall and Harvey Milk. His Scientific Humanitarian Committee was the world’s first activist Gay Rights organization. Though he was often up against hostile social, political and cultural forces, he remained committed to the idea that all of humanity has a stake in sexual freedom — a message we’re still fighting for today…


About Author

Editor - Francois is a full-time writer & editor based in London. He is actively (and passionately) involved in the LGBT community, promoting equality and acceptance for all. In 2012, he published the book ‘Love Me As I Am – gay men reflect on their lives’. All profits gained through sales of the book are donated to Diversity Role Models — a UK charity tackling homophobia through education.

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