Magnus Hirschfeld: Germany’s pioneer fighter for LGBTQ equality

Many unsung heroes exist in the gay liberation movement across the globe. One of them, Magnus Hirschfeld, who helped found the first successful gay rights movement in the world, is the central figure in Ralf Dose’s absorbing new short new biography.

Working in Magdeburg, Germany as a medical doctor, Hirschfeld (1868-1935) recounted that the suicide of a young army officer who shot himself – because he could not be openly gay – one day before his marriage, had a profound impact on him.  The young man left a letter to Hirschfeld explaining the reasons for his suicide and asked that something be done to deal with the hostile environment against gays.  At the time, Paragraph 175 in the criminal code specified that male (but not female) homosexuality was a criminal offense in Germany.  Hirschfeld, then only 29 years of age, along with others formed the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1897, the first successful movement to work for the liberation of gays in the world. 

From 1897 until 1920, the Committee – which he chaired until 1929 – sent numerous petitions to Parliament, asking for Paragraph 175 to be struck down.  None were successful but the petitions kept on growing in size as each time more people agreed to add their signatures.  The Committee published articles in medical journals, magazines and newspapers, distributed brochures and held public meetings to make their case.  Hirschfeld argued from a scientific point of view that male homosexuality was as normal as hetereosexuality and should not be criminalized and repressed. The Committee’s membership and support grew, notwithstanding divisions and mistakes that cost ii support.

After the World War 1, other gay rights groups, such as the Friendship Leagues and Community of Self-Owners, emerged across the country with thousands of members. The movement nearly achieved its goal of eliminating Paragraph 175 in 1929 when the Parliamentary Committee for Penal law recommended the law be struck down. However, political strife and division that characterized the Weimar Republic during the 1920s led to Parliament being dissolved before its recommendation could be implemented.

Hirschfeld and other leaders of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee later pushed for broader changes that not only included gay rights but reform of marriage and divorce laws and the widespread availability of birth control and abortion. Herschfeld’s mission was a complete overhaul of Victorian era sexual and gender mores in Germany.

Hirschfeld was politically on the left and supported the Social Democrats.

In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin.  Apart from being a teaching and research institute,  it provided, among other things, medical treatments, counseling services and birth control information. In the evenings popular sex education classes were offered to the public and the Institute’s library was open to the public.  The Institute even offered sex change operations to men and women who wanted to change their gender.

The Institute’s fame grew to the point that it became a popular destination for tourists during the 1920s.

According to Dose, Hirschfeld’s other contribution was as a co-founder of the growing field of Sexology.  He advanced the theory of sexual intermediacy where all men and women consist of masculine and feminine characteristics in an unending variety of mixtures and ratios, to find a place for gays and lesbians in nature.   He also developed a therapeutic protocol for doctors to help gay patients accept their sexuality instead of reject it.  The Institute for Sexual Science provided counseling along these lines and established support groups for gays, transvestites and transexuals.

While Hirschfeld never outed himself, part of what motivated his activism was his own homosexuality.  For the most part, he lived his life as an openly gay man, according to Dose.  In 1919, at the age of 52, he start living with 19 year old Karl Geise and later added a second boyfriend, 24 year old Li Shiu Tong, whom he met while touring China in 1930.  Both men, who jealously competed for Hirschfeld’s attention, stayed loyal to him until his death in 1935.

On November 15, 1930, Hirschfeld departed Germany on a world tour that took him to the U.S., Mexico, Japan, China, Egypt and India where he gave lectures, newspaper interviews and conducted research. Hirschfeld, who met many gay and lesbian activists during the U.S. leg of his  tour, found the country’s climate of sexual puritanism stifling. By the time he returned to Europe from his long tour in 1932, Hirschfeld, was being warned by his colleagues not to return to Germany. The dark shadow of Nazism was descending over Germany and articles appeared in German newspapers slandering and threatening Hirschfeld.

Nazi physical education students ransacked and plundered the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin on May 6, 1933. A Nazi lawyer took over the Institute as Director and he auctioned off or sold back to Hirschfeld the Institute’s vast collection of books, documents, and sexual artifacts.

The German sexual reformer fled to Paris and then Nice where he died in 1935.  He was never able to realize his plans to establish another Institute for Sexual Science in France. When Hirschfeld died, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and the Institute for Sexual Science also died. The World League for Sexual Reform also ceased to exist because of political differences. “There no longer existed any institution that might have been able to pass on either Hirschfeld’s scientific legacy or advocacy of social reforms.  Conditions in exile and during the war were not conducive to individuals trying to continue Hirschfeld’s work”, writes Dose. The Nazi’s murdered many of the German sexual reformer’s medical colleagues living in exile in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Interestingly, Hirschfeld’s Chinese boyfriend Li Shiu Tong lived and studied in Europe, the U.S. and then finally immigrated to Vancouver, Canada in 1960, where he lived out the rest of his life until he died in 1993.

Hirschfeld’s contribution to gay liberation was largely forgotten until the late 1960s when a third gay rights movement emerged in Germany that revived his legacy. In 1982, the Magnus Hirschfeld Society and Magnus Hirschfeld Federal Foundations were established in Berlin to honor and continue the German sexual reformer’s work.

While Dose does justice to Hirschfeld in his short readable biography, as he admits, there are still things we do not know about this remarkable man, such as his early life as a gay man, because Hirschfeld never spoke about his private life and personal diaries, if they ever existed, have vanished into the mists of time. Tong, who lived another 58 years after his lover’s death, never spoke or gave interviews about Hirschfeld. Perhaps new material will surface in the future that will allow other scholars to build on Dose’s illuminating work.

“Magnus Hirschfeld: The origins of the gay liberation movement”

By Ralf Dose

Monthly Review Press, 2014, 128 pages