Magnus Hirschfeld at 150: Sexual Rights and Social Wrongs

This week in North Philly Notes, Heike Bauer, author of The Hirschfeld Archives, blogs about Magnus Hirschfeld’s impact as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

This year marks the 150th anniversary since the birth of Jewish sexologist and sexual activist Magnus Hirschfeld. Born on May 14, 1868 in the small Baltic town of Kolberg, Hirschfeld, a trained doctor, is one of the founders of the modern homosexual rights movement in the West. He is best known today for his efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in Germany and for his foundational studies of what he called “transvestism,” a term he coined to distinguish gender from sexuality, anticipating the later trans vocabulary.

In 1919 Hirschfeld founded the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences. Housed in an imposing building in central Berlin, the Institute was a place for research, political activism and public education. Here Hirschfeld and his colleagues worked on all kinds of questions relating to sex and gender. The Institute was a clinic and research facility, hosted public talks, and provided sex education and counselling services. But the Institute was not only a place of work. It was also a home. Hirschfeld lived there with his partner Karl Giese; other rooms were rented out to permanent and temporary staff and visitors from around the world, most famously perhaps the American writer Christopher Isherwood who gave an account of his time at the Institute in Christopher and His Kind (1976). Hirschfeld’s widowed eldest sister Recha Tobias for a time hosted lodgers in her rooms at the Institute including the philosophers Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, although they did not engage with the Institute’s activities. Another famous inhabitant, Willi Münzenberg, the press officer of the German communist part, similarly remained detached from the sex researchers, but his partner, the journalist Babette Gross, noted that the busy, reform-oriented Institute environment was a great place to conduct semi-secret meetings of the Komintern, the communist international.

Hirschfeld Archives_smThe Institute of Sexual Science encapsulates what was new about Hirschfeld’s sexological work: unlike his medico-forensic predecessors, he was overtly politically motivated, believing that science could bring about social change and justice. As a socialist who engaged little with party politics, his sexual activism focused especially on the decriminalization and destigmatization of homosexuality. Hirschfeld produced, for example, the first surveys about suicide among homosexuals, using the data to support his argument that persecution could make lives feel unlivable. On a more practical level, Hirschfeld and his colleagues supported those whose bodies did not match their assigned gender.

The Institute’s doctors were among the pioneers of ‘sex change’ procedures. One former patient, Dora, who was born Rudoph Richter, was employed at the Institute as a maid, providing her with a secure income whilst maintaining, as the historian Katie Sutton has pointed out, fairly bourgeois domestic arrangements at this in many ways radical home.

Given Hirschfeld’s focus on supporting those whose bodies and desires did not match the norms of their time, it is no surprise that his name has become a byword for sexual activism. Today there exist numerous LGBTIQ organisations that have adopted his name. In Philadelphia, for example, a Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund was set up in 2004 for HIV/AIDS activism and to support the LGBT community. In Germany, there is a Magnus Hirschfeld Society dedicated to his legacy whilst in 2011 the German state itself set up a foundation in Hirschfeld’s name, the Bundesstiftung Magnus Hirschfeld. It aims to foster ‘acceptance’ for people who are not heterosexual and stop the discrimination of LGBTIQ people.

The Bundesstiftung has organised a special ceremony to celebrate Hirschfeld’s 150th  birthday. Featuring scholars and senior politicians, its focus lies on Hirschfeld’s achievements, especially, as the related publicity material suggests, on his homosexual rights efforts. The Bundesstiftung recognizes elsewhere that sexual politics go beyond same-sex rights when it includes intersex people in its mission statement. While there is some debate about whether or not intersex should be included in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer rainbow, such visibility matters because intersex people still remain marginalized in many political debates. The artist DEL LAGRACE VOLCANO has long worked to challenge this absence in the VISIBLY INTERSEX project [http://www.dellagracevolcano.com/gallery/visibly-intersex-35548944]. In the U.K., a new exhibition entitled Transitional States: Hormones at the Crossroads of Art and Science, currently on display at the Peltz Gallery in London, asks questions about gender and the uses of hormones in defying or upholding social norms.

Such interventions are vital given that many intersex infants to this day are subjected to the violence of “corrective” surgeries that conform to social expectation rather than medical need and are undertaken without consent of the young person subjected to them. Hirschfeld did not see young children in his clinic, but he did gather a large collection of photographs of the genitals of intersex people. These photographs are reminders of the emphatic limits of Hirschfeld practice. They reduce people to their bodies. Hirschfeld’s related writings on intersex add little context about the persons under scrutiny, reinforcing their sense of isolation, which stands in marked contrast to the affirmative emphasis on community and collective identity that characterizes Hirschfeld’s work on homosexuality.

In my book, The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death and Modern Queer Culture I turn attention to these today lesser-known aspects of Hirschfeld’s work. They complicate straightforward celebrations of his achievements. 150 years after Hirschfeld’s birth, it remains critical to remember that the struggle for homosexual rights was not a fight for social justice per se.

 

 

 

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