To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes, selected by the magazine’s team of writers and special contributors.
Magnus Hirschfeld – Physician & Sexologist
by Christopher Bryant
Magnus Hirschfeld, dubbed “the Einstein of Sex”, was a German physician and sexologist. In 1896, at the age of 28, he published a 34-page pamphlet called ‘Sappho and Socrates: How Can One Explain the Love of Men and Women for People of their Own Sex?’. He did so after one of his patients committed suicide on the night before he was due to be married. The man left Hirschfeld a letter describing how he could no longer bear the strain of living a double life, and asking that his story be told. From hereon, Hirschfeld’s career was devoted to homosexual rights.
1896 was the year of Oscar Wilde’s trial, and also the year that the first gay magazine, Der Eigene (The Own), was published in Berlin. Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee the following year, and the organisation moved to petition the Reichstag to repeal the law that criminalised male homosexuality in 1871, Paragraph 175 of the German penal code. This was unsuccessful when it was brought before the Reichstag in 1898, and in another first, this led Hirschfeld to consider “outing” prominent and homosexual lawmakers. Hirschfeld did not give up, and continued to petition for the repeal of Paragraph 175.
Hirschfeld courted controversy when he attempted to find out how many male homosexuals lived in Berlin. He started in 1903 by sending 3000 anonymous questionnaires to the students of a Technical College, and found that 1.5% said they were attracted the same sex, and 4.5% to both. In 1904 he sent 5000 anonymous questionnaires to metal workers at a Berlin factory. 1.15% said they were attracted the same sex, and 3.9% to both. He was then taken to court by six students, who charged him with disseminating obscene material. In his defence, Hirschfeld told of men who were driven to suicide because of their negative feelings about their sexuality, and concluded, “I felt it was necessary to bring about this inquiry in order to free humanity of a blemish that it will some day think back on with the deepest shame”.
By the year 1919, Germany was more liberal under the post-war Weimar Republic, and Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin. In 1921 he organised the First Congress for Sexual Reform. This led to the formation of the World League for Sexual Reform.
Hirschfeld was influenced by the sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and believed that homosexuality represented a third or “indeterminate” sex. In his research, he developed a system that categorised sixty-four possible types. These ranged from masculine heterosexual male to feminine homosexual male, and included a word he coined, “Transvestit”. Hirschfeld liked to cross dress, and was known by his contemporaries as Auntie Magnesia.
When the Nazis seized power in 1933, Hirschfeld’s Institute was set upon, and many of its books burned. Hirschfeld had left Germany in 1932 on a speaking tour, and after the Nazis came to power he decided not to return. He lived in France and died of a heart attack in 1935. He was the first advocate for LGBT rights in the wake of the medical classification of homosexuality in 1869. His bravery, and his tenacity, were remarkable, and all the more so in the pre-liberation era.