Born in Kolberg, Germany (which is now Kolbrzeg, Poland) on May 14, 1868, the pioneering sexologist began his career in medicine and was soon drawn to the study of human sexuality. Hirschfeld’s interests were personal as well as political. He was a transvestite himself (he even coined the term “transvestism”), although today we might use the phrase trans or transgender. Hirschfeld believed that sexual orientation was a naturally occurring trait worthy of scientific inquiry and political emancipation rather than social hostility.
As a Jew living in an historically antisemitic country, Hirschfeld understood the vulnerability of scapegoated populations and the need for organization. He urged LGBT people from all walks of life to come out and get involved in the growing campaign for emancipation that was developing under the auspices of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee which he had formed in 1897. While urging celebrities and high-profile politicians and public servants to add their names in support of the campaign, he remained skeptical of the potential success of the movement unless LGBT people themselves were more fully involved in the struggle:
“…(I)n the last analysis, you must carry on the fight yourselves….(T)he liberation of homosexuals can only be the work of homosexuals themselves.”
Hirschfeld produced and collected an unprecedented number of books, manuscripts, papers, and pamphlets concerning sexuality, transvestitism and fetishes. His first work, Sappho und Sokrates was printed under the pseudonym Th. Ramien and laid the groundwork for his subsequent research of sexuality. Through his work with the Committee, Hirschfeld published the 23-volume Yearbook for the Sexual Intermediates, the first periodical devoted to homosexual studies. Through the Institute for Sexual Science which he founded in 1919, Hirschfeld also documented thousands of cases of what we now might call LGBT or queer sexual orientation and/or gender identification and further bolstered his theory of the ‘naturalness’, or inborn quality, of homosexuality.
Though much of Hirschfeld’s work rested largely on scientific investigation and political argument, the dramatic success of the Committee at mobilizing large sectors of German and European society on behalf of homosexual emancipation was due to Hirschfeld’s own personality. He was a dynamic speaker and toured Europe, attracting overflow crowds. As a pioneer, he often found himself in the dual role of educator and father-confessor. Hirschfeld himself estimated that he had spoken to over 30,000 men and women in the course of his work and adamantly believed that sexual honesty was a requisite for healthy living. Such a reputation meant that he was often the most sought after party guest, as well as one of the most reviled public figures in Germany.
With an unwavering commitment to his work, Hirschfeld was able to revitalize the Committee after the First World War. Most notably he succeeded in bringing the discussion of homosexuality into the halls of government as well as the homes of everyday people. No longer just a ‘medical problem’, homosexuality was by all accounts a cause celebre in the waning years of the Weimar Republic.
“One of the first sympathetic portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the cinema.”
In 1919 a public education film was released, Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others). The story for Anders als die Andern was co-written by Richard Oswald and Dr Hirshfeld who also had a small part in the film and partially funded the production through his Institute for Sexual Science, with the aim of presenting the story as a polemic against the then-current laws under Germany’s Paragraph 175, which made homosexuality a criminal offence.
In this version the original German has been replaced with English and, thanks to the Munich Film Museum, Russian subtitles.
A target for homophobia and antisemitism combined
As the German fascists gained political and social power, Hirschfeld came under greater and greater attack. His meetings were disrupted by Nazi youth gangs who hurled stink bombs and opened fire on the crowds; Hirschfeld himself was physically attacked twice at meetings in Munich in 1920 and 1921 by antisemites. During the second attack he suffered a fractured skull and was left for dead in the street. Undaunted, he recovered and continued his campaign to repeal Germany’s anti-gay law, Paragraph 175, and participated in the formation of the first global gay rights organization, the World League for Sexual Reform.
It was while he was on an international tour for the League, which had attracted over 130,000 members by 1930, that Hirschfeld was forced into exile. National Socialists in Berlin had launched a campaign to cleanse the city’s libraries of ‘un-German’ material. Their first target was Hirschfeld’s Institute. On May 6, 1933 a crowd of students, backed by stormtroopers and a marching band, stormed the Institute’s offices. The raiders carted off all the contents of the priceless library. The raid culminated in a public bonfire that consumed the 10,000-plus books, articles, magazines, and research material that the Institute had collected and produced. Finally, a sculpted bust of Hirschfeld was carried in a torchlight procession by the Nazis and tossed on top of the bonfire in Opera Square.
Here is an online exhibition with images from that terrible time showing how Dr Hirshfeld was depicted and the destruction of the Institute.
Hirschfeld eventually made his home in France, where he died in 1935. Between the 1933 assault and the end of World War II, the German Nazis succeeded in wiping out most traces of the homosexual emancipation movement from German society and much of Europe.
Though a large quantity of knowledge has been lost, a good portion of Hirschfeld’s labour has survived. Many of the books written by Hirschfeld and his circle of scientist-activist colleagues, and the fragments of records and historical accounts of Hirschfeld’s work at the Institute still exist.