Monday, May 14, 2018

Born Today In 1868, 'The Einstein of Sex,' Sexologist and Early LGBTQ Rights Advocate Magnus Hirshfeld

Magnus Hirschfeld was born today, May 14, in 1868.  He was a German Jewish physician and sexologist educated primarily in Germany; he based his practice in Berlin-Charlottenburg. An outspoken advocate for sexual minorities, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. Historian Dustin Goltz characterized this group as having carried out "the first advocacy for homosexual and transgender rights."

Hirschfeld was born in Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg, Poland), in an Ashkenazi Jewish family, the son of a highly regarded physician and 'Medizinalrat' Hermann Hirschfeld. In 1887–1888, he studied philosophy and philology in Breslau, then from 1888 to 1892 medicine in Strasbourg, Munich, Heidelberg, and Berlin. In 1892, he earned his doctoral degree.

Hirschfeld first became interested in gay rights when he noticed that many of his gay patients were committing suicide. In the German language, the word for suicide is Selbstmord ("self-murder"), which carried more judgemental and condemnatory connotations than its English language equivalent, making the subject of suicide a taboo in 19th century Germany.

In particular, Hirschfeld mentioned as a reason for his gay rights activism, the story of one of his patients: a young Army officer suffering from depression, who killed himself in 1896, leaving behind a suicide note saying, despite his best efforts, he could not end his desires for other men, and so had ended his life out of his guilt and shame. Hirschfeld had been treating the officer for depression in 1895–96, and the use of the term "us" led to speculation that a relationship existed between the two. However, the officer's use of sie, the formal German word for you, instead of the informal du, suggests Hirschfeld's relationship with his patient was strictly professional.

After several years as a general practitioner in Magdeburg, in 1896 he issued a pamphlet, "Sappho and Socrates," on homosexual love (under the pseudonym Th. Ramien). In 1897, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee with the publisher Max Spohr, the lawyer Eduard Oberg, and the writer Franz Joseph von Bülow. The group aimed to undertake research to defend the rights of homosexuals and to repeal Paragraph 175, the section of the German penal code that, since 1871, had criminalized homosexuality. They argued that the law encouraged blackmail. The motto of the Committee, "Justice through science," reflected Hirschfeld's belief that a better scientific understanding of homosexuality would eliminate social hostility toward homosexuals.

Under Hirschfeld's leadership, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee gathered more than 5,000 signatures from prominent Germans on a petition to overturn Paragraph 175. Signatories included Albert Einstein and Hermann Hesse.

The bill was brought before the Reichstag in 1898, but was supported only by a minority from the Social Democratic Party of Germany. August Bebel, a friend of Hirschfeld from his university days, agreed to sponsor the attempt to repeal Paragraph 175. Hirschfeld considered what would, in a later era, be described as "outing," forcing out of the closet some of the prominent and secretly homosexual lawmakers who had remained silent on the bill. He arranged for the bill to be reintroduced and, in the 1920s, it made some progress until the takeover of the Nazi Party ended all hopes for any such reform.

As part of his efforts to counter popular prejudice, Hirschfeld spoke out about the taboo subject of suicide and was the first to present statistical evidence that homosexuals were more likely to commit suicide or attempt suicide than heterosexuals. Hirschfeld prepared questionnaires that gay men could answer anonymously about homosexuality and suicide. Collating his results, Hirschfeld estimated that 3 out of every 100 gays committed suicide every year, that a quarter of gays had attempted suicide at some point in their lives and that the other three-quarters had had suicidal thoughts at some point. He used his evidence to argue that, under current social conditions in Germany, life was literally unbearable for homosexuals.

A figure frequently mentioned by Hirschfeld to illustrate the "hell experienced by homosexuals" was Oscar Wilde, who was a well known author in Germany, and whose trials in 1895 had been extensively covered by the German press. Hirschfeld visited Cambridge University in 1905 to meet Wilde's son, Vyvyan Holland, and was struck by how his son had changed his surname to avoid being associated with his father. Hirschfeld noted "the name Wilde" has, since his trial, sounded like "an indecent word, which causes homosexuals to blush with shame, women to avert their eyes, and normal men to be outraged." 

Hirschfeld's position, that homosexuality was normal and natural, made him a highly controversial figure at the time, involving him in vigorous debates with other academics, who regarded homosexuality as unnatural and wrong.

Hirschfeld played a prominent role in the Harden–Eulenburg affair of 1906–09, which became the most widely publicized sex scandal in Imperial Germany. During the libel trial in 1907, when General Kuno von Moltke sued the journalist Maximilian Harden, after the latter had run an article accusing Moltke of having a homosexual relationship with the politically powerful Prince Philipp von Eulenburg, who was the Kaiser's best friend, Hirschfeld testified for Harden. In his role as an expert witness, Hirschfeld testified that Moltke was gay and, thus, what Harden had written was true. Hirschfeld — who wanted to make homosexuality legal in Germany — believed that proving Army officers like Moltke were gay would help his case for legalization. He also testified that he believed there was nothing wrong with Moltke.

Most notably, Hirschfeld testified that "homosexuality was part of the plan of nature and creation just like normal love." Hirschfeld's testimony caused outrage all over Germany. The Die Vossische Zeitung newspaper condemned Hirschfeld in an editorial as "a freak who acted for freaks in the name of pseudoscience." 

After the jury ruled in favor of Harden, Judge Hugo Isenbiel was enraged by the jury's decision, which he saw as expressing approval for Hirschfeld. He overturned the verdict under the grounds that homosexuals "have the morals of dogs" and insisted that this verdict could not be allowed to stand.

After the verdict was overturned, a second trial found Harden guilty of libel. At the second trial, Hirschfeld again testified as an expert witness, but this time, he was much less certain than he had been at the first trial about Moltke's homosexuality. Hirschfeld had been threatened by the Prussian government with having his medical license revoked if he testified as an expert witness again along the same lines that he had at the first trial, and possibly prosecuted for violating Paragraph 175.  Moreover, far from precipitating increased tolerance as Hirschfeld had expected, the scandal led to a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash, and Hirschfeld's biographer Elena Mancini speculated that Hirschfeld wanted to bring to an end an affair that was hindering rather helping the cause for gay rights.

Because Eulenburg was a prominent anti-Semite and Hirschfeld was a Jew, during the affair, the völkisch movement came out in support of Eulenburg, whom they portrayed as an Aryan heterosexual, framed by false allegations of homosexuality by Hirschfeld and Harden. Various völkisch leaders, most notably the radical anti-Semitic journalist Theodor Fritsch, used the Eulenburg affair as a chance to "settle the accounts" with the Jews. As a gay Jew, Hirschfeld was vilified relentlessly by the völkisch newspapers. Outside Hirschfeld's house in Berlin, posters were affixed by völkisch activists, which read "Dr. Hirschfeld A Public Danger: The Jews are Our Undoing!" In Nazi Germany, the official interpretation of the Eulenburg affair was that Eulenburg was a straight Aryan whose career was destroyed by false claims of being gay by Jews like Hirschfeld.

In 1920, Hirschfeld was very badly beaten up by a group of völkisch activists who attacked him on the street; he was initially declared dead when the police arrived. In 1921, Hirschfeld organised the First Congress for Sexual Reform, which led to the formation of the World League for Sexual Reform. Congresses were held in Copenhagen (1928), London (1929), Vienna (1930), and Brno(1932).

Hirschfeld was both quoted and caricatured in the press as a vociferous expert on sexual matters; during his 1931 tour of the United States, the Hearst newspaper chain dubbed him "the Einstein of Sex." He identified as a campaigner and a scientist, investigating and cataloging many varieties of sexuality, not just homosexuality. He developed a system which categorised 64 possible types of sexual intermediary, ranging from masculine, heterosexual male to feminine, homosexual male, including those he described under the term transvestite (Ger. Transvestit), which he coined in 1910 to describe people who, in the 21st century, might be referred to as transgender or transsexual.

Hirschfeld co-wrote and acted in the 1919 film Anders als die Andern ("Different From the Others"), in which Conrad Veidt (right) played one of the first homosexual characters ever written for cinema. The film had a specific gay rights law reform agenda; after Veidt's character is blackmailed by a male prostitute, he eventually comes out rather than continuing to make the blackmail payments. His career is destroyed and he is driven to suicide.

Hirschfeld played himself in Anders als die Andern, where the title cards has him say: "The persecution of homosexuals belongs to the same sad chapter of history in which the persecutions of witches and heretics is inscribed...Only with the French Revolution did a complete change come about. Everywhere where the Code Napoleon was introduced, the laws against homosexuals were repealed, for they were considered a violation of the rights of the individual...In Germany, however, despite more than 50 years of scientific research, legal discrimination against homosexuals continues unabated...May justice soon prevail over injustice in this area, science conquer superstition, love achieve victory over hatred!"

In May 1919, when the film premiered in Berlin, the First World War was still a very fresh memory and German conservatives, who already hated Hirschfeld, seized upon his Francophile speech in the film praising France for legalizing homosexuality in 1792 as evidence that gay rights were "un-German."

At the end of the film, when the protagonist Paul Körner commits suicide, his lover Kurt is planning on killing himself, when Hirschfeld appears to tell him: "If you want to honor the memory of your dead friend, you must not take your own life, but instead preserve it to change the prejudices whose victim - one of the countless many - this dead man was. That is the task of the living I assign you. Just as Zola struggled on behalf of a man who innocently languished in prison, what matters now is to restore honor and justice to the many thousands before us, with us and after us. Through knowledge to justice!" The reference to Émile Zola's role in the Dreyfus affair was intended to draw a parallel between homophobia and anti-Semitism, while Hirschfeld's repeated use of the word "us" was an implied admission of his own homosexuality.

The anti-suicide message of Anders als die Andern reflected Hirschfeld's interest in the subject of the high suicide rate among homosexuals, and was intended to give hope to gay audiences. The film ends with Hirschfeld opening a copy of the penal code of the Reich to strike out with a giant X Paragraph 175.

A party at the Institute for Sexual Research is shown here. Magnus Hirschfeld (second from right) is the one with the moustache and glasses. His partner Karl Giese is holding his hand.
Under the more liberal atmosphere of the newly founded Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld purchased a villa not far from the Reichstag building in Berlin for his new Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexual Research), which opened in July 1919. 

The Institute housed Hirschfeld's immense archives and library on sexuality and provided educational services and medical consultations. Institute also housed the Museum of Sex, an educational resource for the public, which is reported to have been visited by school classes. Hirschfeld himself lived at the Institution on the second floor with his lover, Karl Giese, together with his sister Recha Tobias. Giese and Hirschfeld were a well known couple in the gay scene in Berlin, and as the latter liked to cross-dress.

In March 1930, German politics moved in a more right-wing, authoritarian direction. In 1929, the Müller government had come very close to repealing Paragraph 175, when the Reichstagjustice committee voted to repeal Paragraph 175. However, the Müller government fell before it could submit the repeal motion to the floor of the Reichstag. Under the rule of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning and his successor, Franz von Papen, the state became increasingly hostile toward gay rights campaigners like Hirschfeld, who began to spend more time abroad. Quite apart from the increased homophobia, Hirschfeld also became involved in a bitter debate within the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, as the repeal bill, championed by Müller also made homosexual prostitution illegal, which badly divided the committee. Hirschfeld had always argued that "what is natural cannot be immoral" and, since homosexuality was, in his view natural, it should be legal. Connecting the question of the legality of homosexuality to the legality of prostitution was a blurring of the issue, since these were different matters. Brüning, a conservative Catholic on the right-wing of the Zentrum party, who replaced Müller in March 1930, was openly hostile toward gay rights and the fall of Müller ended the possibility of repealing Paragraph 175.

In 1930, Hirschfeld predicted that there was no future for people like himself in Germany, and he would have to move abroad. In November 1930, Hirschfeld arrived in New York, ostensibly on a speaking tour about sex, but in fact to see if it was possible for him to settle in the United States. Significantly, in his speeches on this American tour, Hirschfeld, when speaking in German, called for the legalization of homosexuality, but when speaking in English did not mention the subject of homosexuality, instead urging Americans to be more open-minded about heterosexual sex. The New York Times described Hirschfeld as having come to America to "study the marriage question," while the German language New Yorker Volkszeitung newspaper described Hirschfeld as wanting to "discuss love's natural turns." Hirschfeld realized that most Americans did not want to hear about his theory of homosexuality as natural. Aware of a strong xenophobic tendency in the United States, where foreigners seen as trouble-makers were unwelcome, Hirschfeld tailored his message to American tastes.

After his American tour, Hirschfeld went to Asia in February 1931. Hirschfeld had been invited to Japan by Keizō Dohi, a German-educated, Japanese doctor who spoke fluent German and who worked at Hirschfeld's institute for a time in the 1920s. In Japan, Hirchfeld again tailored his speeches to local tastes, saying nothing about gay rights, and merely argued that a greater frankness about sexual matters would prevent venereal diseases. Hirschfeld become very interested in the Kabuki theater, where the female characters are played by men which, for him, indicated that Western ideas about masculinity were a cultural construct and not biological. One of the Kabuki actors, speaking to Hirschfeld via Iwaya, who served as the translator, was most insistent about asking him if he really looked like a woman on stage and was he effeminate enough as an actor. Hirschfeld noted that no-one in Japan looked down on the Kabuki actors who played female characters; on the contrary, they were popular figures with the public.  

After Japan, Hirschfeld went to China. In Shanghai, Hirschefeld began a relationship with a 23-year-old Chinese man studying sexology, Tao Li, who remained his partner for the rest of his life. Hirschfeld promised Tao that he would introduce him to German culture, saying he wanted to take him to a "Bavarian beer hall" to show him how German men drank. Tao's parents, who knew about their son's sexual orientation and accepted his relationship with Hirschfeld, threw a farewell party when the two left China, with Tao's father expressing the hope that his son would become the "Hirschfeld of China."

After staying in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), where Hirschfeld caused an uproar by speech comparing Dutch imperialism to slavery, Hirschfeld arrived in India in September 1931.  While staying in Patna, Hirschfeld drew up a will naming Tao as his main beneficiary and asking, if he should die, Tao should takes his ashes to be buried at the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin.

In Egypt, where Hirschfeld and Tao traveled to next, arriving in November 1931, Hirschfeld wrote "to the Arabs...homoerotic love practice is something natural and that Mohammad could not change this attitude."  

In March 1932, Hirschfeld arrived in Athens, where he told journalists that, regardless of whether Hindenburg or Hitler won the presidential election that month, he probably would not return to Germany, as both men were equally homophobic.

On 10 May 1933, Nazis in Berlin burned works by leftists and other authors considered "un-German," including thousands of books looted from the library of Hirschfeld's Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.

On 30 January 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor. Less than 4 months after the Nazis took power, Hirschfeld's Institute was sacked. On the morning of May 6, a group of university students belonging to the National Socialist Student League stormed into the institution, shouting "Brenne Hirschfeld!" ("Burn Hirschfeld!") and began to beat up the staff and smash up the premises. 

Hirschfeld had stayed near Germany, hoping to return to Berlin if the political situation improved. With the Nazi regime's unequivocal rise to power and with work completed on his tour, he decided to go into exile in France. On his 65th birthday, 14 May 1933, Hirschfeld arrived in Paris. Hirschfeld lived with Li and Giese. In 1934, Giese was involved in a dispute by a swimming pool that Hirschfeld called "trifling" but which led French authorities to expel him. Giese's fate left Hirschfeld very depressed.

A year-and-a-half after arriving in France, in November 1934, Hirschfeld moved south to Nice, a seaside resort on the Mediterranean coast. Throughout his stay in France, he continued researching, writing, campaigning and working to establish a French successor to his lost institute in Berlin. Hirschfeld's sister, Recha Tobias, did not leave Germany and was gassed at a death camp in 1942.

On his 67th birthday, 14 May 1935, Hirschfeld died of a heart attack in Nice. On 14 May 2010, to mark the 75th anniversary of Hirschfeld's death, a French national organization, the Mémorial de la Déportation Homosexuelle (MDH), in partnership with the new LGBT Community Center of Nice (Centre LGBT Côte d'Azur), organized a formal delegation to the cemetery. Speakers recalled Hirschfeld's life and work and laid a large bouquet of pink flowers on his tomb; the ribbon on the bouquet was inscribed "Au pionnier de nos causes. Le MDH et le Centre LGBT" ("To the pioneer of our causes. The MDH and the LGBT Center").

No comments: