Magnus Hirschfeld, the Founder

"Soon the day will come when science will win victory over error, justice a victory over injustice, and human love a victory over human hatred and ignorance."
– Magnus Hirschfeld

Following our article on the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, we move to one of the founders of the Institute: Magnus Hirschfeld. Magnus was a gay Jewish man in Germany, born in 1868. He lived through and fought against, the rise of Hitler. His life will bring a unique perspective to our World War 2 series.

While the Institute was one of his most prestigious achievements, it is not his only one. As a doctor, Hirschfeld spent much of his life researching queer people and their lives, believing knowledge would be the bridge to equality. He was the first recorded person to run a scientific survey of queer people, and while some information he gathered has since been disproved or modified, he was still years ahead of his time. 

Hirschfeld didn’t believe in the binary of gender or sexuality but believed there was a wide range of identities, recording up to sixty-four in his research. His work was not purely theoretical, however; it had many practical applications. Among those, he performed the first successful modern sex affirmation surgery, thus pioneering sex affirmation surgeries as we know them. Because of his expertise in his field, he was nicknamed “the Einstein of sex,” a title he responded to by stating, “Einstein is the Hirschfeld of physics.”

His focus was not exclusively on research though, even if that was his expertise. Hirschfeld was also a core member of many advocacy groups, including the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, one of the first recorded queer advocacy groups, and League for the Protection of Mothers, a feminist organization. He had many progressive ideas outside of his queer activism; he believed in easy access to abortions and birth control, and he supported pacifism during the First World War. He was a part of a large movement to repeal Paragraph 175, which made homosexuality illegal in Germany, though it was not fully repealed until long after his death in 1994. 

He started the petition to overturn this and got over 50,000 signatures including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, and Richard von Kraft-Ebbing. Magnus Hirschfeld was also known for co-writing and co-starring in the film “Anders als die Andern” (Different from the Others), one of the first films with homosexuals shown in a positive light.

Though he thought of himself as a citizen of the world, he lived in Germany for most of his life. Being both gay and Jewish, this was extremely dangerous. In 1920, Hirschfeld was attacked on the way home from a lecture and was left with a fractured skull and various other injuries. Despite the danger, he stayed in Germany as long as he could. It was only when the Institute was burned down that he was forced to exile in France. Hirschfeld did not fade into obscurity after that, despite fascists’ hopes that he would. Hirschfeld lived out the rest of his days alongside his two partners, Li Shiu Tong and Karl Giesse, and continued his research into the lives of the queer community. He attempted to recreate the Institute in France but was never able to capture what had once been.

Magnus Hirschfeld was by no means a perfect man; he was often wrong in his theories, and he could be ruthless in his politics, once going too far as to threaten to pull high ranking officials out of the closet. Many of the words he created were turned against the queer community, but we think it is important to realize this was not his fault. He only created words to describe experiences; the words were never made to be insults or slurs, and yet throughout time, they became so. Beyond all of this, he was a man of science. He believed knowledge and education were the true paths to equality, the words “Justice through science” inscribed in Latin on his tombstone, and he worked his whole life with that in mind. 

There were probably times when he wanted to stop what he was doing, and times it would have been infinitely safer to step back or be quieter, but Magnus never did either of those things. He was a man who worked until the day he died of a heart attack on his 67th birthday, and a man who never stopped learning.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

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