Magnus Hirschfeld – The First Pioneer of LGBT Rights

The importance of the work of Magnus Hirschfeld is only just coming into general public awareness, mostly because his work was ruthlessly silenced by the rise of the Nazi’s in Germany in the 1930’s. The more I look at his life, the more impressed I become with this brave and influential man.   

Born on 14th May 1868 to a prominent Jewish family in the German coastal town of Kolberg, now Kolobrzeg Poland, Hirschfeld studied medicine at various universities in Germany before travelling in the USA. In 1896 he moved to Berlin to study sex and sexuality and became an active and prominent Gay Rights campaigner.

He was an openly gay man and active member of Berlin’s gay community where he was known as “Aunt Magnesia.”  Homosexuality had been illegal in German since the 1871 under paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code and this had led to gay men leading double lives to keep their sexuality secret.  Inspired by the death of a gay patient who was unable to cope with this double life, Hirschfeld wrote his first publication in 1896, a pamphlet entitled Sappho and Socrates, on homosexual love arguing that homosexuality was a natural variation of human sexuality and should be decriminalised. 


The following year, on his 31st birthday, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee, WhK) with the primary aims of lobbying for the repeal of paragraph 175 and campaigning for social recognition of all LGBT men and women (although not then called LGBT). This was the world’s first Gay Rights campaigning organisation.

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.    

That same year, Hirschfeld appeared in a 50 minute silent film about Homosexuality, – the first ever film to openly address the topic. The film “Different from the Others” was banned in 1920 and most copies were destroyed by Nazis in the 1930’s so only fragments remain but enough to understand just how ground breaking the film was.  In the short clip below Hirschfeld plays himself as a sexologist consulted by a gay client. 




Hirschfeld first came to my attention because of his work with Transsexualism which led to me featuring him in my Transgender Awareness Training Workshops. It was he who first coined the term Transvestite in 1910, and later Transsexual, although this latter term was not popular until the 1950’s. Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science (Institut füer Sexualwissenschaft) was the world’s first gender identity clinic and his staff performed the first known transsexual surgeries, the most famous of whom was Danish born Einer Wegener who became Lili Elbe. You can find more about this in the article on my Gender Network site.

Unfortunately 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 activities as a gay rights campaigner 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”  

When 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 6th May, 4 days before the main book burning event on 10th May.  The image here, 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.

Hirschfeld himself was no longer in Germany at this time.  He had left in 1931 on a global speaking tour and never returned to Germany, He did return to Europe in 1932 and eventually settled in exile in France, first in Paris and later the Nice where he died on his 67th birthday on May 14th 1935 of a heart attack.

I will be writing later this month about both Lili Elbe and The Nazi persecution of LGBT people so don’t forget to share this post with your friends and sign up to receive the posts in your email – see the sign up box at the top of the right hand column.  You can easily cancel your registration at anytime. 


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  1. Pingback: Movimiento homosexual (I): sodomitas y homosexuales - temporamagazine.com

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