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Magnus Hirschfeld: Weimar Germany’s LGBTQ+ pioneer

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Germany is often considered to be one of the most accepting countries in the world when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. And with a third gender option available on legal documents as of 2019, it is clear to see that German ideas have been developing for longer than most. As new laws are put in place to ensure the inclusion of all genders, it is vital we understand the origins of the Germans’ broad-minded views in relation to gender and sex.

Hirschfeld in 1929. Photo: Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0

Although homosexuality was a punishable offence, 1920s Germany, and in particular Berlin, was recognised worldwide as a centre of gay culture. Magnus Hirschfeld, a homosexual Jewish physician and sexologist played a crucial role in this with his contributions to queer culture during the Weimar Era. In fact, John D’Emilio, the co-author of the book Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, acknowledged Hirschfeld as “the founder of the first gay liberation movement”.

Hirschfeld became engrossed in gay rights activism due to the high suicide rate among his fellow homosexual patients. He endeavoured to break the taboo surrounding suicide by carrying out an anonymous questionnaire to provide evidence stating that homosexuals were more likely to be suicidal. He found that a quarter of those asked said they had attempted to end their lives. One of his patients, an army man who killed himself the day before his wedding left Hirschfeld with a letter that read, “Please could you educate the public on the terrible fate of people like me."

Hirschfeld was also motivated by his desire to oppose the degrading treatment of homosexuals. During the 1800s, the creation of “human zoos” showcased indigenous people from around the world. These took place in many Western countries, including the Große Berliner Gewerbeausstellung (Great Industrial Exhibition of Berlin).

Part of Hirschfeld’s research included the investigation and verification of homosexuality as a worldwide human trait. In 1896, he talked to people who were being displayed in these human zoos in order to validate his claim that homosexuality existed in every culture, and therefore was an inborn characteristic.

After obtaining this vital information, he wrote his 1914 book Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (The Homosexuality of Men and Women, which unfortunately was not translated into English until after he died, hence Hirschfeld remained relatively unknown outside of Germany until this point.

In 1897, Hirschfeld established the Wissenschaftlich humanitäres Komittee in Berlin with the intention of lobbying against anti-gay laws in Germany. The institution worked using scientific data to combat negative societal and legal attitudes towards the LGBT+ community, with its motto being er Scientiam ad Justitiam “Through science to justice”. Hirschfeld and the committee demonstrated the innate nature of homosexuality as opposed to an active lifestyle choice and therefore the absurdity of criminalising it.

Max Spohr worked with Magnus Hirschfeld to publish and distribute sexological studies and popular LGBT+ literature, including the book Die Transvestiten (The Transvestites).

In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which went on to survive Germany’s Weimar era. It was based in a large villa in central Berlin and was a place where people could go for help concerning all manner of sex-related issues and concerns such as gender transition and birth control.

The institute also circulated a petition amongst the elite class in an attempt to urge the government under Kaiser Wilhelm II to repeal anti-sodomy laws, which actually reached as far as the Reichstag in 1898.

So, as we celebrate Germany for its admirable stance on LGBT+ rights, we must take a moment to commemorate the man that launched a whole country into a tolerant future.


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