cool Jews in history: Magnus Hirschfeld

Magnus Hirschfeld was a gay Jewish sexologist and physician most known for his groundbreaking advocacy for gay and transgender rights.

He was born in 1868 in Kolberg, Germany (then a part of Poland). After earning his medical degree in 1892, Hirschfeld traveled to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition. It was there that he first developed his understanding of the universality of homosexuality around the world, noting that gay subcultures existed in Brazil, Morocco, and Tokyo, in addition to Germany and the United States.

After many of his gay patients took their lives, Hirschfeld began advocating for gay and transgender rights. Specifically, Hirschfeld started his activism after one of his gay patients, a young army officer, took his life in 1896, leaving a suicide note behind that stated that no matter how hard he tried, he simply could not end his sexual desire for other men.

In 1897, Hirschfeld, along with Max Spohr, Eduard Oberg, and Joseph von Bülow, founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The goal of the committee was “justice through science”; in other words, they used scientific research to advocate for LGBTQ human rights. A main focus was the repeal of the German law that had criminalized homosexuality since 1871.

Hirschfeld gathered 6000 signatures from prominent Germans to overturn the law. In order to succeed, he considered outing prominent German lawmakers that remained silent on the bill; however, in the end, he didn’t do so. In the 1920s, Hirschfeld almost got the law repealed. However, this all changed when the Nazis came into power.

In 1914, Hirschfeld published the book “The Homosexuality of Men and Women,” in which he argued that homosexuality was universal and occurred in every culture. Hirschfeld also compiled other research, including questionnaires that LGBTQ folks could answer anonymously. He then estimated that 3 out of every 100 LGBTQ folks took their lives every year, 1/4 attempted to take their lives over their lifetimes, and 2/3s suffered from suicidal ideation. His conclusion was that life in Germany for LGBTQ folks was simply unbearable.

When World War I broke in 1914, Hirschfeld became aware that, because he was Jewish and gay, other Germans did not consider him a “proper” German — or even German at all. As such, he overcompensated by taking a loud pro-Germany position. However, he later changed his mind, and by 1916, he was writing pro-peace pamphlets.

In 1920, Hirschfeld was badly beaten on the street; he was initially declared dead, but he survived. In 1921, he organized the First Congress for Sexual Reform, which was held again in 1928, 1929, 1930, and 1932.

Hirschfeld was mocked worldwide. The Hearst newspaper chain in the United States called him “the Einstein of sex.” In 1910 and 1923, he coined the terms “transvestite” and “transexual,” respectively. He issued doctor’s notes known as “transvestite passes” for transgender folks to prevent them from being stopped and arrested by the police.

In 1919, Hirschfeld wrote one of the first films to feature a gay character. The character was played by Conrad Veidt, who was likely bisexual.

Hirschfeld’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee provided a plethora of medical services for LGBTQ folks, including contraceptive treatment, gynaecological examinations, treatment for STDs, marital and sexual therapy, and other treatments, such as treatment for alcoholism. Additionally, the organization provided educational resources.

Most significantly, the organization pioneered gender-affirming surgeries, including one of the earliest sex-reassignment surgeries in 1931. Other surgical and medical services included facial feminization and masculinization surgery and early forms of body hair removal.

Hirschfeld also pioneered intersex research. He was the first to advocate for the right of intersex individuals to choose their own gender upon turning eighteen. However, in some cases, he supported sex assignment at birth on a “scientific basis.”

Hirschfeld went out of his way to hire transgender folks, who otherwise experienced severe employment discrimination in Germany. The Scientific Humanitarian Committee had an enormous library with works on homosexuality, gender, and eroticism.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Hirschfeld happened to be on a world book tour and was therefore outside the country. Four months after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, the Nazis sacked the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, burning Hirschfeld’s enormous library of archives to the ground.

Hirschfeld knew that he couldn’t return to Germany, though he remained close in Europe, hoping that the political situation would improve. As a gay Jew, he was doubly at risk, as the Nazis believed that homosexuality was a Jewish perversion. In 1935, Hirschfeld died of a heart attack in Germany. His sister, who had remained in Germany, died in Terezín concentration camp in 1942.

Hirschfeld believed that the causes of LGBTQ rights and women’s rights were closely tied. In addition to advocating for gay and transgender folks, he advocated against the criminalization of abortion and argued that the commonly held idea that African women had “enlarged labia” was utter nonsense. Hirschfeld also was one of the first to point out that the Nazis’ ideas of race were pseudoscientific and not rooted in actual science.

However, Hirschfeld did hold some problematic views. For example, he believed gay men were inherently naturally effeminate.

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