Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935)

The Father of Transgenderism

Magnus Hirschfeld

Magnus Hirschfeld

Magnus Hirschfeld, a German Sexologist in the early 20th Century known as the “Einstein of Sex” for his pioneering work in the field of sexology, was the first person to systematically describe and work with what he described as Transvestite and Transsexual people. He considered transsexualism to be a form of intersex condition, a view that is increasingly held by many today.

Working with surgeons in Berlin through his “Institute for Sexual Science”, (Institut füer Sexualwissenschaft) he established and operated what was in practice the worlds first Gender Identity Clinic. One of Hirschfeld’s first clients was Einer Wegener, who transitioned to become Lili Elbe, undergoing the worlds first documented male to female gender reassignment.

Magnus Hirschfeld – Short Documentary

Although primarily focused on his work as a Gay Rights activist, this short documentary provides an excellent insight into the life and work of Hirschfeld.

Magnus Hirschfeld – Sexologist and Gay Rights Campaigner

Prior to the 20th Century trans people were not differentiated from gay and lesbian people. The labels used describe “sexually deviant” people largely described their behaviour the most common term for gay men being sodomite and trans people were considered to be effeminate gay men or masculine women.  

The turn of the 20th century saw the birth of sexology as an academic discipline. It seems that in spite of the then repressive attitudes of Victorian society towards all sexual matters throughout Europe, extensive efforts to research and understand the entire spectrum of human sexual behaviour emerged.

In Germany in 1886, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing established sexology as a scientific discipline with the publication of Psychopathia Sexualis. In England Havelock Ellis established himself as the founding father of sexology with the publication of Sexual Inversion in 1897 which describes the sexual relations of homosexual males, including men with boys.

However it was Magnus Hirschfield who probably contributed most to the initial study of Homosexuality and Transsexuality and to separating them as sexual identities.

Hirschfeld and FriendsBorn in what is now Kolobrzeg, Germany to a prominent Jewish family, Magnus Hirschfeld studied medicine at various universities throughout Germany completing his doctorate in 1892 before traveling through the USA and then setting up a medical practice in Magdeburg Germany.

MagnusHirschfeldCartoonIn 1896 he moved to Berlin where he began research into sex and sexuality and campaigning for gay rights. He was openly gay man and active member of Berlin’s gay community where he was known as “Aunt Magnesia.”

Inspired by the death of a gay patient who was unable to cope with his double life, Hirschfeld wrote his first publication that year, a pamphlet entitled Sappho and Socrates, on homosexual love arguing that homosexuality was a natural variation of human sexuality and should be decriminalised.

According to the Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation, 

“Between 1899 and 1923, Hirschfeld and his staff compiled a 20,000-page anthology. The “Yearbooks For Sexual Intermediaries” were intended to show that between the “full man” and the “full woman” there are an infinite number of gradations and combinations. Hermaphrodites, transvestites, homosexuals are the necessary natural link between the two poles of man and woman. The homosexual is a kind of “third sex”. He founded the “Institute for Sexual Research” in 1919 in order to provide a solid framework for this research.

Also in 1919, Hirschfeld appeared as himself in a controversial 50 minute German silent film called “Different From Others” which was the first film to openly promote a positive image of homosexuality and show the difficulties of living a double life. Below is a short extract from the film – if you would like to see a much longer extract follow this link to Different From Others. Only fragments still remain of the original film which was banned in 1920 and sadly most copies were destroyed by the Nazis in 1933.

Magnus Hirschfeld and Gender Reassignment Surgery

MagnusHirschfeld250As a result of this research work in 1910 Magnus Hirschfeld published Die Transvestitenin coining the word transvestism, however many of the biographies in the publication would today be described as transsexual. There is considerable dispute as to who first coined the term Transsexual. Hirschfeld did use the term in a journal article in 1923, but it was not until the early 1950s that the term started to become popular largely following its use by Harry Benjamin, who was responsible for the development of the standards of care for treatment of transsexual patients. Benjamin’s work was greatly inspired by Hirschfeld who he had been responsible for bringing to the USA on a tour just before the Nazi’s came to power in Germany.

Following the publication of Die Transvestitenin, in 1913 Havelock Ellis proposed an alternative label of “sexo-aesthetic inversion” which did not catch on. In 1902 he suggested another term, Eonism, inspired by the Chevalier D’Eon De Beaumont following the model established by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in popularising the term Sadism from the novels Marquis de Sade and masochism from the name of  Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

Magnus Hirschfeld and Lili Elbe

LiliandNurseaftersurgeryAt this time Hirschfeld also began working with Eugen Steinach, a surgeon from Vienna, to develop early Gender Reassignment Surgery techniques. Over the next 20 years a number of incomplete male to female and female to male surgeries were reported and then in 1931 the first complete male to female reassignment surgery was performed by Dr. Levy-Lenz, and Dr. Felix Abraham, two of Hirschfield’s co-workers at the Institute Sexual Science which had been established in 1919. The patient was Dorchen Richter (previously Rudolf), who lived and worked in the Institute as a housemaid.  That same year the institute also reported two men undergoing gender reassignment surgery.

Another of Magnus Hirschfeld’s patients, Danish artist Einer Wegener, was also undergoing what would be a series of five operations at that time. Einer became Lile Elbe and the first publicly acknowledged male to female gender reassignment and caused a media sensation in Denmark and in Germany. The picture to the right is of Lili with a nurse after surgery.  Sadly she died following the final surgery in 1931 intended to enable her to have children, but a book based on her personal writings about her experiences and a subsequent novel, The Danish Girl, made Lili the most famous pre WWII transsexual, although in reality she was probably intersex.

Magnus Hirschfeld and the Rise of the Nazis

HirschfeldsLibraryRansackedUnfortunately in the early 1930s the political climate in Germany was dramatically changing with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party and Magnus Hirschfeld and his Institute for Sexual Science was becoming a primary target.  

Hirschfeld’s activities as a gay rights campaigner and founder of the world’s first gay rights organisation, the World League for Sexual Reform, had made him vulnerable to homophobic behaviour of the far right and he was violently attacked a number of times.  Hitler himself had described Hirschfeld as “the most dangerous Jew in Germany”  

BookBurninginGermanyuWhen in May 1933 Police, German Students and Hitler Youth began burning un-German books, it was Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science that was the first target on May 6th, 4 days before the main book burning event on the 10th. The image to the right, which is well known, is believed to be the burning of Hirschfeld’s library and research and in the middle of the fire, the bust of Hirschfeld himself.

When his institute was destroyed, Hirschfeld was no longer in Germany.  He had left in 1931 on a global speaking tour and and when he returned to Europe in 1932, was advised by friends not to return to Germany.  He settled in exile in France, first in Paris and later the Nice, where he died of a heart attack on his 67th birthday on May 14th 1935.

The Homocast and The Pink Triangle

Gay-nazi-prisonersNot all of Hirschfeld’s records were destroyed. Over 100,000 gay men and trans women were arrested for breach of paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code, the crime of homosexuality, and 15,000 were sent to concentration camps where they were required to wear a pink triangle to identify them as homosexual. There they were subjected to extensive medical experimentation. Many were drugged and subjected to electric shock treatments in the search for a cure for homosexuality. Others were simply seen as disposable subjects for wide ranging medical experiments or as target practice for SS troops, who aimed for the pink triangle on their chests.

NaziPinkTriangleWhen liberation came, less than 4000 had survived, but there was to be no reprieve. Many of the survivors were re-imprisoned by the allies who continued to enforce paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code which was not repealed until 1969.  Being identified as homosexual they were shunned by families for shaming them and were never acknowledged as victims of the holocaust so neither they nor their families were entitled to the compensation other victims were granted.

Only in the past decade have these victims begun to be properly recognised.  You can find more information about the shameful way Gay and Trans people were treated by both the Nazis and the Allies at the HOMOCAUST site where I read this

In the 1945 Nuremberg war crime trials that followed the liberation no mention was ever made of crimes against homosexuals. No SS official was ever tried for specific atrocities against pink triangle prisoners. Many of the known SS Doctors, who had performed operations on homosexuals, were never brought to account for their actions. One of the most notorious SS doctors was Carl Peter Vaernet who performed numerous experiments on pink triangle inmates at the Buchenwald and Neuengamme camps. He was never tried for his crimes and escaped to South America where he died a free man in 1965.

TransgenderTriangleToday the Pink Triangle, originally intended as a badge of shame has been reclaimed as an international symbol of Gay Pride and the Gay Rights Movement, a movement that owes a great deal to a Gay Jewish doctor, Magnus Hirschfeld. It has also been adopted as the background the to Transgender Triangle with the symbols for male, female and “Third Gender”.
More information on Magnus Hirschfeld

If you are interested to explore more on the life and work of Masgnus Hirschfeld, here are a few links to specific articles about him I have discovered that you may find useful.

The Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation


The Gay Victims of the Holocaust

Stonewall Society

Psychological History of Women

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