Magnus Hirschfeld was a sexologist and the first lobbyist for the LGBTI* movement. The Nazis destroyed his institute, but not his knowledge.
Magnus Hirschfeld (right) with Dr. Li Shiu Tong at a conference in Brno, 1932. Li Shiu Tong was not only Hirschfeld’s colleague, but also his lover Photo: Wellcome Trust/Wiki Commons [CC BY 4.0]
150 years ago, on June 14, 1868, Magnus Hirschfeld was born in Kolberg, now Kołobrzeg, Poland. The son of a Jewish medical family, he became a doctor and sexologist. But above all, he was a co-founder of the first German homosexual movement and its most prominent figure in the German Empire and during the Weimar Republic.
Hirschfeld’s lobbying played a key role in ensuring that Section 175, which criminalized sexual acts between persons of the male sex, was almost abolished in the Reichstag – if the National Socialists’ seizure of power on January 30, 1933, had not promptly overturned this approaching liberalization.
Hirschfeld established his Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, where the House of World Cultures and the Chancellery are located today, in 1919, shortly after the end of the First World War. It was the intellectual and activist center of queer movements in Germany until National Socialism.
Varieties of the Natural
Scientifically today, Hirschfeld’s theory of the non-heteronormative is quite controversial and no longer in the realm of discourse: He invented the term "intermediate stages" – not as a concept of identity, but rather as a descriptor of self-chosen practices and ideas of what the sexual means to one. Hirschfeld established this word for everything and everyone who does not see himself as a man or a woman of heterosexual orientation. For him, casually put, there were many varieties of the natural – not God-given wrong, but somehow naturally present.
At the end of the 1940s, the team around the U.S. sexologist Alfred Kinsey substantiated Hirschfeld’s assumptions with the largest empirical studies to date: In the course of their lives, people have not only heterosexual sexual practices, but also lesbian and gay ones – and they cannot be pressed into the categories of the heteronormative anyway.
No single person was as hated by the volkisch discourse and its friends as Magnus Hirschfeld.
Hirschfeld’s work was lobbyist and expertocratically oriented: In the first gay film in the then still young history of film, "Anders als die anderen" ("Different from the Others", directed by Richard Oswald) from 1919, Hirschfeld co-wrote the script and himself appeared in front of the camera as a doctor, explaining to the audience with the authority of a medical doctor that homosexuality is not a disease. He lived off the royalties of a remedy he invented for male impotence – lucrative until his death. He used most of the money to found the Institute for Sexual Science, located at the now-defunct address In den Zelten 10 at the Tiergarten.
Hirschfeld did not return to Germany after a lecture tour to the USA and Asia in 1931; the new Nazi rulers burned and looted the Institute for Sexual Science as the first address of their hatred. The archival materials were not systematically salvaged; they were burned at publicly staged book burnings on May 6, 1933 – two days before the official book burning on Bebelplatz.
No single person was as hated by the volkisch discourse and its friends as Magnus Hirschfeld. He was already so in 1920, when he was seriously injured by a volkisch mob after a lecture in Munich. Hirschfeld died in exile in Nice on the Côte d’Azur on his 67th birthday, May 14, 1935.
Hirschfeld is definitely appreciated ambivalently in the scientific queer community because he was able to gain something from contemporary thinking in eugenic categories: the improvement of the human genome. Arguments that give him an intellectual co-responsibility for the eugenic programs of the Nazis are erroneous.
In 1933, already out of Germany, Hirschfeld wrote one of the first scientific essays on "racism," first published in English in 1938. The concept of is strictly rejected "racism".