Magnus Hirschfeld: Germanys greatest sexology authority

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Content Warning: This article includes discussions of suicide

Written by: Caitlin England, LGBTQ+ Society Events Manager, She/They

February is LGBTQ+ History Month. It is an opportunity for the LGBTQ+ community to come together to celebrate the history of queer people and acknowledge those who have come before us to allow us to have the rights and freedoms we enjoy today.

In the UK, we have LGBTQ+ History Month in February to celebrate the abolition of Section 28 in 2003. Section 28 (or Clause 2A in Scotland) was brought into schools in 1988 to criminalise “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. This not only meant that LGBTQ+ Education was banned, but also that LGBTQ+ teachers were not allowed to be openly out, and homophobic bullying of students and teachers could not be punished.

The history of LGBTQ+ people has been dated back to 9,600 BC where rock art in Sicily depicted male homosexual intercourse. Queer people are found in all societies and cultures across time, but due to ignorance and discrimination, our general education on them is severely lacking.

There are lots of key moments in LGBTQ+ history, including; The Stonewall Riots, LGSM and marriage equality. But I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss my favourite LGBTQ+ Activist, Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was born in 1868 in Kolberg, Prussia (now Poland).

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He was a physician and sexologist in Berlin and founded “the first advocacy [group] for homosexual and transgender rights” (as said by the historian Dustin Goltz). His ‘Scientific-Humanitarian Committee’ supported sexual minorities in Berlin during the Weimar period. He became more interested in gay rights activism when a young man that he was treating for depression, committed suicide in 1896.

In his suicide note, he wrote that the reason he was ending his life was due to the fact that he couldn’t change that he was gay (although he referred to his homosexuality as ‘that’). At the end of his note, he said this; “The thought that you [Hirschfeld] could contribute a future when the German fatherland will think of us in more just terms, sweetens the hour of my death”.

The following year, himself and others set up the ‘Scientific-Humanitarian Committee’ to campaign for LGBTQ+ rights and to try and repeal Paragraph 175 (the German penal code that had criminalised homosexuality since 1871).

 Their motto was ‘Justice Through Science’. They gained over 5000 signatures for a petition for the repeal of Paragraph 175 (including Albert Einstein’s!) and presented it unsuccessfully to The Reichstag in 1898, 1920 and 1929. It started to make some progress in 1929 until the Nazi Party came into power in 1933 and the hope of legalising homosexuality was lost.

He also did lots of research into gender identity, which was an even more underdeveloped field than that of sexuality. His work on transgender and non-binary identities in the 1920s and 30s was revolutionary and met with a lot of criticism. But he never let that stop him.

Devastatingly, when the Nazi’s came to power in 1933, a group of university students ransacked Hirschfeld’s institute and destroyed the building and a lot of his papers and books. The SA came in the afternoon and took the rest of his research to be burned four days later, in a book burning ceremony.

Luckily, Hirschfeld was traveling at the time his institute was destroyed and after this he never returned to Germany. As a well-known gay, Jewish man who advocated for LGBTQ+ rights, he would have been a prominent target for the Nazi regime. He went into voluntary exile in France and stayed there until he passed away on his 67th birthday in 1935.

I think Magnus Hirschfeld is an incredibly important activist for everyone to be aware of. We still hear harmful arguments today that transgender and non-binary identities are a ‘new trend’ that young people have made-up, when in actual fact, scientists like Hirschfeld have been researching gender identity in the 1920’s and 30s. I often think about how our western views of gender may be different now if Hirschfeld’s work hadn’t been destroyed before it could be finished and published all those years ago.

Featured image credit: The Guardian

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