March 14, 1868 – Magnus Hirschfeld
Hirschfeld was born into a Jewish family in a town in the Prussian Empire that is now part of Poland. He studied to become a physician and eventually moved to Berlin where he received his degree. When news of Oscar Wilde‘s trial and imprisonment reached Germany, Hirschfeld was outraged. This inspired him to to became a pioneering sexologist and an early LGBTQ Rights champion.
In 1896, he wrote Sappho And Socrates, a pamphlet on same-sex love. The following year he joined leaders of the gay journal, Der Eigene (The Self-Possessed), to establish the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which worked towards overturning of Paragraph 175, a part of the German Criminal Code from 1871 to 1994. It made sex acts between males a crime. At least 150,000 men were convicted under the law. The Nazis broadened the law in 1935; in the prosecutions that followed, thousands died in concentration camps as a widespread social persecution of gay people took place.
The Scientific Humanitarian Committee collected more than 5,000 signatures for their petition to repeal the law, including Albert Einstein, and writer Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Rainer Maria Rilke.
When their efforts failed in an unsuccessful vote before the Reichstag in 1898, Hirschfeld was so infuriated by the hypocrisy of certain members of parliament that he threatened to out some of those who had voted against it. The committee pressed on, working tirelessly to have their bill reintroduced repeatedly over the following decades. They were never successful.
The Scientific Humanitarian Committee’s motto was “Through Science to Justice“, which aptly describes an encompassing sexological platform that moves from acknowledging biological facts of human sexuality to a vision of a culture capable of coping with sexual diversity.
Hirschfeld was convinced that scientific understanding of sexuality would lead to tolerance and acceptance of sexual minorities. 34 years before Kinsey, Hirschfeld collected detailed information about sexual behavior in surveys from 10,000 people, and he published the results in his book, Homosexuality in Men and Women (1914).
During the height of the Weimar Republic (1918 to 1933) , Hirschfeld co-wrote, co-funded and acted in a film called Anders als die Anderen (1919), Different From Others in English. This short silent film has a main character coming out to thwart his extortionist male ex-lover, but subsequently loses his job and commits suicide. The project was intended as a statement against Paragraph 175. The film’s basic plot was repeated for the British film, Victim, (1961) starring Dirk Bogarde.
The film is a tragic gay love story, a Hollywood trope that has taken a century for filmmakers to get past.
It begins with the main character reading obituaries in the newspaper, a thinly veiled reference to all men accused of homosexuality who had committed suicide. An aspiring musician and his talented concert violinist teacher fall in love. The relationship is discovered and the couple is blackmailed. Which was happening in Berlin at that time. There were many male prostitutes who made their living by blackmailing adult men who were seeking to have sex.
As the blackmail pressure mounts, the young musician flees, and the older violinist is heartbroken. The blackmailer is relentless. The violinist pays him off, but the blackmailer vows to report him to the police. When the blackmailer is arrested, he accuses the violinist under Paragraph 175, and they both end up in court together.
Hirschfeld, who wrote the screenplay, is also one of the characters in the movie. He is the good doctor who offers affirming comments that same-sex love is a beautiful thing. Appearing as himself as an expert witness, he pleads in court on the violinist’s behalf. The violinist is convicted but given a light sentence, a week in prison. But the scandal has ruined him. He is shunned and his concert tour is canceled. Inconsolable, he kills himself. The young musician hears of his lover’s death, and is devastated. He, too, contemplates killing himself. But Hirschfeld appears again and says:
“Don’t do it, you have another task. You must encourage future generations so they don’t suffer the same destiny as your lover did.”
Also in 1918, the German government offered Hirschfeld a former royal palace in Berlin to use as his Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research), which offered medical and psychological consultations, marriage counseling, contraception and general sex education. The institute also promoted Women’s Rights and the emancipation of gay and transgender people. It also became a gathering place for Berlin’s thriving underground gay scene.
Berlin in the Weimar years made queers comfortable with their sexuality and they acted on it with proud visibility, plus the glamour and the fun of it. That triggered conservative responses, even before the Nazis came to power, especially from Christian Conservatives and right-wing thugs.
The Institute and its work increasingly came to the notice of the Nazi party. At one point, following a lecture Hirschfeld gave in Munich, he was attacked by a bunch of Brown Shirts, who fractured his skull and left him for dead in the street. They were keen on eradicating the triple evils of socialists, homosexuals and Jews. Hirschfeld was all three.
Then things got worse. Adolf Hitler‘s ruthless elimination of a powerful band of hyper-masculine homosexuals (including many of Hitler’s friends) known as the Night of the Long Knives (June 30 to July 2, 1934) , had the Nazis ransacking the institute’s archives and confiscating names and addresses. Four days later the Nazis held a massive book burning in Berlin’s Opernplatz, destroying the institute’s collection of 20,000 books and 5,000 images because they depicted “deviants” and “ideas that were un-German”.
The institute’s buildings were given to the state. At the time Hirschfeld was on a lecture tour in Paris. He never returned home. Hirschfeld learned about what happened from watching newsreels in a Paris cinema, seated next to his Chinese lover, Li Shiu Tong, who was also Hirschfeld’s lifelong traveling companion and researcher.
While Hirschfeld was on a round-the-world lecture tour, the two met in Shanghai, and despite the the 35 year difference in their ages, the attraction was immediate and passionate, and Li joined Hirschfeld’s tour as his “interpreter”. Li was handsome son of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman.
In France, on his 67th birthday in 1935, Hirschfeld died from a heart attack, and his remains were buried in a cemetery in Nice. Two months before his death, Hirschfeld named both of his lovers, Li and archivist, museum curator Karl Giese, as his heirs. Despite some initial jealousy, they had all lived together in Paris in the late-1930s as a threesome after the Nazis took power in Berlin.
Hirschfeld stipulated in his will that both men use their inheritance for the purposes of sexual science and not for personal use. Giese was awarded the library and the objects that had been saved from the Institute. Hirschfeld left all his personal effects to Li. These included the Hirschfeld diaries, kept between 1929 and 1935, photographs and celebrity autograph books and cases of books rescued from the Nazis’ book burnings.
In March 1938, Giese committed suicide in what is now the Czech Republic. His boyfriend, Karl Fein, a lawyer, was deported and murdered by the Nazis in 1942. All of Giese’s possessions, including his inheritance, have since been lost.
In 1941, Li relocated with all his Hirschfeld trove to the USA, enrolling at Harvard.
In 1958, after many attempts, the restitution division of the Berlin regional court managed to contact Li. The court was charged with vetting reimbursement claims for property confiscated or destroyed by the Nazis. They wanted to talk to Li about several claims against the Hirschfeld estate. Li refused to have anything to do with Germany, the country that had destroyed his lover. He crated up the Hirschfeld materials, and made a final return trip to visit his family in Hong Kong. Then Li pretty much dropped off the face of the earth.
In 1999, the 14th World Congress on Sexology meeting in Hong Kong paid tribute to the enormous contributions made to their field by Hirschfeld. They put out a worldwide call to anyone with information about Li.
It was discovered that Li had moved the Hirschfeld archive to Canada. By 1975, he was living in Vancouver, where he died at 86 years old in 1993. What he did in Vancouver, how he lived, who his friends and neighbors were, remains a mystery. In his apartment, it was discovered that in stacks of boxes, were the remains of Hirschfeld’s great library, rescued from the Nazis and carried from country to country across the world by the devoted man who had loved him.
In 1982, a group of German researchers and activists founded the Magnus Hirschfeld Society in Berlin, in anticipation of the then-approaching 50th anniversary of the destruction of Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research. Ten years later, the society established a Berlin-based center for research on the history of sexology.
Hirschfeld often sacrificed his own happiness and comfort for the love and welfare LGBTQ people.