Blog post

Pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld

German doctor who was one of the earliest LGBTQ+ rights activists

Photograph of Magnus Hirschfeld, who is sitting on a sofa
by
Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Magnus Hirschfield was a German Jewish physician and sexologist, considered to be one of the first pioneers of LGBT rights in the early 20th century. His work at the Institute for Sexology was influential and ground-breaking.

drawn sketch of Magnus Hirschfeld
advertisement for event with 'Prof Magnus Hirschfeld, Europe's Greatest Sex Authority'

Early years

Hirschfeld was born in the Prussian town Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg, Poland) in 1868. His father was a prominent Jewish doctor in the town. Hirschfeld studied medicine in Strasbourg, Munich, Heidelberg and Berlin.

After his studies, Hirschfeld traveled to the USA for eight months. There, he wrote articles for German journals. In Chicago, he became involved in the city's gay subcultures, noticing similarities with Berlin. He developed theories that homosexuality was universal around the world.

Returning to Germany, he started a naturopathic practice in Madgeburg and eventually moved to Berlin.

Influenced by the trials of Oscar Wilde, as well as gay patients he treated, in 1896, under a pseudonym, he published Sappho and Socrates - a pamphlet about homosexual love.

Activism

A year later, with Max Spohr, Franz Josef von Bülow, and Eduard Oberg, Hirschfeld established the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. It was the world's first LGBTQ+ rights organisation, aiming to repeal Paragraph 175, the law that criminalised homosexuality in Germany. The committee organised a petition, gathering 6000 signatures from prominent Germans.

The bill was brought before the Reichstag in 1898, but was only supported by a minority of law-makers. It was re-introduced in the 1920s, making progress, but was ultimately not passed.

In the early 1900s, Hirschfeld published widely and became involved in the German feminist movement, as well as being an influential figure in social debates of the time.

entrance ticket to an event with Magnus Hirschfield

Unlike some of his colleagues and contemporaries, he did not believe in forcibly 'outing' people. However, in 1907, he was called to testify as a expert witness in a trial, relating to a widely publicised sex scandal. Army general Kuno von Moltke sued a journalist for libel for asserting that Moltke was gay and having an affair with politically powerful Prince Philipp von Eulenburg. Hirschfeld testified that Moltke was gay, and that this was natural and nothing wrong. However, instead of making Germans more sympathetic to homosexuality as Hirscheld hoped, his testimony caused a homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash.

Ground-breaking sexuality research

Hirschfeld's position that homosexuality was normal and natural made him a highly controversial figure at the time. As a Jewish gay man, Hirschfeld was very aware that many Germans did not consider him to be a 'proper' German, or even truly German, particularly during World War I.

In 1919, during the Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld opened the Institute of Sexual Research (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft), which became a ground-breaking organisation for sexuality and gender studies.

At the Institute, Hirschfeld developed a theory of sexual intermediacy. This was a form of classification, which proposed that every human trait existed on a scale from masculine to feminine. Masculine traits were characterised as dominant and active while feminine traits were passive and perceptive. The theory places homosexuality within a broad spectrum comprising heterosexuality, bisexuality, transgenderism and transvestism (a word invented by Hirschfeld).

page from a book with title Sexuelle Zwischenstufen

Also in 1919, Hirscheld co-wrote and starred in a film Anders als die Andern ('Different From the Others').

The film tells the story of two men, a musician and violin teacher, who fall in love. The relationship is discovered and the couple is blackmailed. Hirschfeld played a doctor visited by the characters, who discusses homosexuality and gender identity, explaining that sexuality is physically determined rather than a mental condition.

black and white advertisement for film Anders als die Andern with text

A role in the film was played by Karl Giese. He was an archivist and museum curator, employed in the Institute of Sexual Research. He later became Hirschfeld's life partner, living together on the second floor of the Institution. When Magnus Hirschfeld went on a on world tour in the early 1930s, he appointed Giese to run the Institute. In 1932, Karl Giese went to meet Hirschfeld in Paris. By then, Hirscheld was involved with another partner, Li Shiu Tong, a Chinese medical student. The three men lived together in a relationship described as a ménage à trois, what we may today describe as a throuple.

Nazi aggression

Being Jewish and a gay man, as well as an activist for sexual freedom, Hirschfeld was a target of right-wing supporters and conserative Catholic and Protestant groups. He suffered serious injuries during an attack in 1920. Later in the 1920s and 1930s, with the growing power of the Nazi party, he was regularly assaulted and his lectures were disrupted.

When the Nazi party came to power in 1933, Hirschfeld was already on an international speaking tour. He was unable to return to Germany, as the Institute for Sexual Science set on fire by Nazi soldiers.

two men, one in Nazi uniform, looking at books and pamphlets which are spread out on the floor below them

Thousands of medical records, publications, photos and artifacts were destroyed. Materials were also confiscated to be used as evidence against gender and sexually non-conforming people in Germany. Between 1933 and 1945, Germany arrested around 100,000 men for being homosexual. Most of these men were imprisoned. Between 5,000 and 6,000 were sent to Nazi concentration camps, with around 60% of these being killed.

Later life & legacy

Hirschfeld first moved to Switzerland and later to the south of France. He died in Nice in 1935, two years after the Nazi party had taken power. Karl Giese, who was then living in Vienna, attended his funeral. Giese - who later moved to Brno after the Nazi annexation of Austria - took his own life in 1938. Li Shiu Tong moved to Switzerland, and eventually, in the 1970s, moved to Canada where he lived until he died in 1993.

colour photograph of a grave in a graveyard

In his will, Hirschfeld made both Karl Geise and Li Shiu Tong as his heirs, stipulating that both men should use their inheritances to advance sexual science.

Despite Hirschfeld's pioneering research, male same-sex relations were not decriminalised in Germany (East and West) until the late 1960s, decades after his death.

Hirschfeld has been commemorated by a number of LGBTQ+ organisations and community centres in several countries. Ireland's first gay community centre, established in Dublin in 1979, was named the Hirschfeld centre. In 1983, the Magnus Hirscheld Center opened in Hamburg, an association and meeting place giving advice to the queer community.

colour photograph of a plaque commemorating the Hirschfeld Centre
sign on wall for the Magnus Hirschfeld Centrum, and plaque with German text showing it opened on 14 May 1983

Since 1990, the German Society for Social-Scientific Sexuality Research has awarded the Magnus Hirschfeld Medal for outstanding contributions to scientific research into sex and sexuality in two categories.

gold medal showing profile portrait of Magnus Hirschfeld and text 'Magnus Hirschfeld 1868 - 1935'