If some young person should ever argue that the Gay Rights Movement started with Stonewall, just bring up the subject of Magnus Hirschfeld (1868 – 1935) the German physician and sexologist. An outspoken advocate for sexual minorities, in 1987, Hirschfeld, along with the publishers of the gay journal Der Eigene, founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, a group that carried out the first advocacy for homosexual and transgender rights.
Hirschfeld’s radical ideas changed the way Germans thought about sexuality. In 1896, he wrote and published a pamphlet on queer love called Sappho And Socrates.
The Scientific Humanitarian Committee motto was ”Justice Through Science”. Their first goal was to overturn the notorious 1871 German law Paragraph 175, criminalizing male homosexuality. Not only did they campaign openly and publicly, they urged prominent people to sign their petition to repeal the law. Among the 5,000 signatories were Albert Einstein, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, and Rainer Maria Rilke. When the bill to repeal the homophobic law came before the Reichstag in 1898, it failed, and infuriated, Hirschfeld contemplated outing gay members of the German parliament who had voted against it. Undaunted by the defeat, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee continued to get the bill reintroduced repeatedly over the decades.
34 years before Alfred Kinsey and his groundbreaking book Sexual Behavior In The Human Male (1948), Hirschfeld collected detailed information about sexual behavior in surveys from 10,000 people and published the results in his 1914 book Homosexuality In Men And Women. Extending his push for Gay Rights into all media, in 1919 Hirschfeld wrote and acted in a film titled Different From The Others starring Conrad Veidt (he played Major Strasser in Casablanca in 1942), whose character comes out of the closet to thwart his extortionist ex-lover but then loses his job and kills himself.
Also in 1919, the German government gave Hirschfeld a former palace in Berlin to house his Institute for Sexual Research, which offered medical and psychological consultations, marriage counseling, contraception, sex education, and promoted Women’s Rights and rights for gay and transgender people. The institute’s success inevitably drew the attention of the Nazis. One of the Nazis’ early actions, in May 1933, was to ransack the archives and confiscate names and addresses. The Nazis returned to hold a massive book burning, destroying the invaluable collection of 20,000 volumes and 5,000 images depicting ”deviants” and any ideas that were ”un-German”. Hirschfeld went on a lecture tour of the USA and never returned home. The Nazis were bent on eradicating the triple evils of Socialists, queers and Jews. Hirschfeld was all three.
Hirschfeld wrote that the reason for his Gay Rights activism, was the story of one of his patients: a young Army officer suffering from depression, who killed himself in 1896, leaving behind a suicide note saying, despite his best efforts, he could not end his desires for other men, and so had ended his life out of his guilt and shame. In his suicide note, the officer wrote that he lacked the “strength” to tell his parents the “truth”, and spoke of his shame of “that which nearly strangled my heart”. The officer could not even bring himself to use the word “homosexuality”, which was instead conspicuously referred to as “that” in his note. However, the officer mentioned at the end of his suicide note:
The thought that you [Hirschfeld] could contribute a future when the German fatherland will think of us in more just terms sweetens the hour of my death.
At the same time, Hirschfeld was greatly affected by the trial of Oscar Wilde, which he often referred to in his writings. Hirschfeld was struck by the number of his gay patients who had Suizidalnarben (“scars left by suicide attempts”), and often found himself trying to give his patients a reason to live.
Two months before his death, Hirschfeld named his two lovers, Chinese medical student Li Shiu Tong 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. Eventually he was never able to use his inheritance. 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.
In March 1938 Giese committed suicide in Brno, 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.
On May 14, 1935, his 67th birthday, he had a heart attack and died.
In 1941, Li relocated with all his Hirschfeld trove to the USA, enrolling at Harvard; then returned to Europe to study in Zurich from 1945 to 1960.
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. Abruptly, he quit school, again lovingly crated up the Hirschfeld materials, and made a final return trip to visit his family in Hong Kong. Then Tao 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 Shiu Tong. Nothing was ever heard back.
Later 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.