A decade before Alfred Kinsey founded the Institute for Sex Research in the United States, sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld was dying in France, where he was exiled after fleeing public death threats by the Nazi government. Hirschfeld was the founder of the Institute for Sexual Research and an early pioneer in the field of sexology. He was also a Social Democrat, gay, and Jewish. In a new translation for Monthly Review Press, German researcher Ralf Dose argues convincingly that the origins of the gay liberation movement cannot be understood without the contributions of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. Dose details Hirschfeld’s life, his legacy of activism, as well as his contributions to society’s understanding of sexuality and gender. The biography is an important step in restoring Hirschfeld’s place in the Left’s collective memory of struggle and in the history of gender and sexuality studies.
Most readers in the United States will not have heard of Hirschfeld, whose legacy was purposely hidden and attacked by fascists. Born in 1868 in Pomerania to a prominent Jewish family, he studied medicine in various universities around Germany in what is now Poland, completing his medical degree in 1892. Early in his career, Hirschfeld separated himself from the dominant ideas of the medical establishment. He settled in Magdeburg and treated patients with “naturopathy,” specializing in the use of hydrotherapy. His first foray into public activism occurred when he spoke in favor of various aspects of the “life reform movement,” or lebensreform, which sought to remedy the worst effects of industrialization on workers, though mostly by changing workers’ behaviors, rather than their employers’.
Hirschfeld’s turn toward the study of gender and sexuality occurred decisively in 1897, when a patient killed himself just hours before he was supposed to be married. In a suicide note, he explained that he was gay, and asked Hirschfeld to help educate the public about the plight of homosexuals. Hirschfeld, in turn, organized the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, a group of scientists that lobbied to end the criminalization of male homosexuality, and later allied itself with radical feminists when new laws targeted female homosexuality as well. Hirschfeld never spoke publicly about his own sexual identity, though it is clear he was in an intimate partnership with a man, Karl Giese, for many years. Dose argues Hirschfeld’s secrecy was likely a conscious choice to protect himself from being accused of being biased in his research.
The concept of sexual intermediacy was Hirschfeld’s central contribution to the scientific understanding of sexuality. He theorized that all human characteristics, both physical and psychological, could be classified into gendered types—feminine, masculine, and occasionally, androgynous. Rather than being a model for biological essentialism and gender rigidity, Hirschfeld’s theory explained that it was only natural that people did not fit neatly into categories of man and woman but had traits that fit in both categories. A person might have masculine appearance, and masculine behaviors, for instance, but feminine sexual desires, thus displacing the notion of a gender binary and the notion that any deviance from it represented an abnormality, rather than simply one of many possible combinations.
Importantly, this theorizing of natural sexual variety formed the scientific basis on which Hirschfeld argued for the decriminalization of homosexual acts between men, a position that put him in opposition to the majority of Social Democrats of his day. He also defended women’s rights to abortion and their ability to remain employed in civil service after becoming pregnant. Sexual intermediacy placed all women, gay men, men who dressed as women, and others seen as deviants at the time on a spectrum of normal and natural variation across humans.
Hirschfeld’s outspokenness on such taboo issues placed him and his racial identity firmly in the crosshairs of the Right. His dissidence and desire to embrace a German identity over a religious or ethnic one did not spare him the brunt of anti-Semitism. A target of anti-Semitic attacks throughout his public life, the attacks turned violent after he gave a lecture in Munich in 1921, where he was beaten and nearly killed. The threats and propaganda against him escalated through the years. In 1937 Nazi Hans Diebow wrote of Hirschfeld: “[E]ven his physical appearance is certainly the most repulsive of all Jewish monsters.” Public editorials assured Hirschfeld his skull would be crushed if he returned to Germany after an extended speaking tour abroad. In 1938, in his adopted home of France, he wrote a book called Racism to combat the mythologies regarding biology underlying the scientific racism of the day.
Despite Hirschfeld’s encounters with and opposition to racism, Dose notes, he also supported eugenics. Hirschfeld saw eugenics both as a way of empowering marginalized people to take control of their lives, and as a coercive option society should use to protect itself from sociobiological threats, mostly those with perceived intellectual disabilities who were thought to have a predisposition to criminality. Dose points out the obvious contradictions between Hirschfeld’s antiracism and his dabbling in eugenics, and that he could not come to terms with the racial logic of eugenics, even as the Nazis fully embraced it.
Other than a few brief moments such as this discussion of eugenics, ISR readers may be disappointed by the book’s matter-of-fact telling of Hirschfeld’s life, and will be hungry for more political analysis of the man and his relationship to the period’s biggest debates than Dose offers. The book’s structure around various individual topics in his life (i.e., “His Work,” “His Impact and Influence”) disperses what could be compelling commentary on some of the central conflicts in Hirschfeld’s work and activism. While it is clear Hirschfeld was a thinker far beyond his time on many political questions, Dose’s biography also demonstrates the insufficiency of his politics, even as a groundbreaking Social Democrat, in the face of the rising tide of fascism.
At a time of monumental political turbulence and polarization, Hirschfeld was attached to an untenable, liberal politics rooted in soft nationalism, even as his nation began to reject him ever more violently. In 1933 Hirschfeld wrote to a friend who had become sympathetic to the Nazi Party, and argued against the notion “that the world must undergo a Bolshevist or Fascist phase.” Instead, he argued, the best hope for the world lay in the “three great democracies” of France, England, and America.
He remained attached to a desire for worldwide liberal democracy and for peace, despite the imminent threats nationalism was posing in his home country. Near the time of his death, he wrote, “The question ‘Where do you belong—what are you really? tortures me. If I frame the question as: ‘Are you a German—a Jew—or a world citizen?’ then my answer is always ‘world citizen’ or ‘all three.’” The quotation, which Dose mentions on more than one occasion, displays Hirschfeld’s vexation in a political landscape changing horrifically before his eyes; but it also reflects a larger pattern seemingly present in his activism throughout his life. From his hope for liberal democracy, and to his positions on eugenics and lebensreform, Hirschfeld displayed a shallow understanding of how the structures he spoke out against in various ways, including empire, racism, homophobia, and capitalist exploitation, actually lay at the base of the liberal democracy he so desperately aspired to.
As an early contribution to reintroducing Hirschfeld to the English-speaking Left, the book lays the groundwork for analysis and critique of these conflicts and contradictions, such as those I have offered in a preliminary way here. Still, these questions should not prevent admiration for Hirschfeld and his many contributions to the development of the struggle for freedom from sexual, and later racial, oppression.
Hirschfeld should be embraced as an important figure to the LGBTQ movement and the Left for being an early and outspoken critic of homophobic repression in the face of immense violence. Perhaps because of his own fraught position within the Weimar Republic and later in Nazi Germany, he was able to understand the connections between homophobia, sexism, and racism, and their perpetuation through pseudoscientific ideologies. Though his political positions and his career were far from perfect, his vision of utilizing scientific evidence to fight for justice on multiple fronts embodies the kind of intersectional analysis and agitation socialists must bring to LGBTQ politics today.