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Magnus Hirschfeld”

Magnus Hirschfeld, circa 1930.
Courtesy of Magnus-Hirschfeld Gesellschaft

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (May 14, 1868 – May 14, 1935) was a German physician and researcher who was a trailblazer in studying human sexuality. His work was famous across the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Hirschfeld’s overlapping identities as gay, socialist, feminist, and Jewish shaped his work as a scientific researcher and political activist for LGBTQ+ rights.

Informed by decades of research, Hirschfeld argued that human sexuality and gender existed along a spectrum of what he termed “sexual intermediaries.” He argued that because these variations were natural and inborn, society should not legally or socially discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.

Hirschfeld founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humaniäres Komitee) in Berlin in May 1987, which advocated for the rights of LGBTQ+ people. It also published the Yearbook for Sexual Intermediaries (Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen), the earliest scientific journal for what we today might call queer studies. The Committee is often considered the first LGBTQ+ rights organization in the world.

In 1919, Hirschfeld established the Institute for Sexual Science (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft)in the heart of Germany’s capital. The Institute provided a library, social gatherings, counseling services, and healthcare for the public. The Institute also partnered with the Berlin Police Department to issue certificates that helped protect trans people from being arrested or fired under the law that classified so-called “cross dressing” as a public nuisance.

In 1918, Hirschfeld met Karl Giese. He had hired Giese to work at the Institute, but the two began a romantic relationship soon afterward. They were a well-known couple in Berlin. In 1931, Hirschfeld embarked on an eighteen-month world speaking tour. At a lecture in Shanghai, Hirschfeld met and fell in love with a Chinese medical student named Li Shiu Tong. The two traveled the world together speaking about the science of human sexuality. Hirschfeld, Giese, and Li maintained their relationship together until Hirschfeld’s death.

As the Nazis gained influence and followers, they targeted Hirschfeld and his Institute because of his political work in favor of LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. In May 1933, college students who supported the Nazis attacked the Institute for Sexual Science and destroyed its collection. Nearly 20,000 books, journals, and rare artifacts were burned in the infamous book burnings in Berlin that evening.

Fortunately, Hirschfeld was abroad on a speaking tour, so he was not physically harmed. He hoped to rebuild his life’s work, but he was never allowed to return to Germany. He died of a heart attack on his 67th birthday in 1935. 

Magnus Hirschfeld (at right with glasses and bushy mustache, holding the hand of his partner, Karl Giese) at a costume party at the Institute for Sexual Science, 1920. Courtesy of the Magnus-Hirschfeld Gesellschaft

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For citation: Jake Newsome, “LGBTQ+ Stories from the Holocaust: Magnus Hirschfeld,” (2022) 

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LGBTQ+ Stories from the Holocaust: Magnus Hirschfeld © 2022 by Jake Newsome is licensed under CC BY 4.0