Magnus Hirschfeld: The Founder

A black and white photo of Li Shiu Tong and Magnus Hirschfeld sitting on a couch in an ornate room at the fourth conference of the World League for Sexual Reform.

A black and white photo of Li Shiu Tong and Magnus Hirschfeld sitting on a couch in an ornate room at the fourth conference of the World League for Sexual Reform.

Content warning for Nazis, Holocaust, eugenics

"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

It only makes sense to follow the story of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft with the story of one of its founders: Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was a gay Jewish man born in Germany in 1868. He lived, worked, and fought through the rise of Adolf Hitler, and his life brings a unique perspective to our World War II series.

While the Institute was one of his most prestigious achievements, it is not his only one. Hirschfeld spent much of his life as a doctor studying queer people and their stories, believing knowledge would be the bridge to equality. He was the first person on record to run a scientific survey of queer people, and though some of his information has since been disproved or modified, he was years ahead of his time.

Hirschfeld didn't believe in a binary set of genders or sexualities, instead understanding a wide range of identities; he recorded up to sixty-four in his research. His work was not purely theoretical either. He performed the first successful modern gender confirmation surgery, pioneering the surgeries we use today. He was nicknamed "the Einstein of sex" for his work, a title he responded to by saying, "Einstein is the Hirschfeld of physics."

His focus was not exclusively on research though, though that was his expertise. Hirschfeld was also a core member of several 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 larger movement to repeal Paragraph 175, the statute which made homosexuality illegal in Germany. It was not fully repealed until 1994, long after his death.

He started a petition to overturn Paragraph 175 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 gay people 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 fled to France. Hirschfeld did not fade into obscurity after that, despite fascists’ hopes. 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 recapture what had once been.

Magnus Hirschfeld was by no means a perfect man; he was often wrong in his theories and ruthless in his politics, once threatening to out high ranking officials. He was a eugenicist who believed intellectually and developmentally disabled people were a threat to society. Many of the words he created were later used against the queer community, though it is important to realize this is not his fault.

There were likely times when he considered stopping his work. Certainly, there were times when it would have been infinitely safer to step back or stay quiet, but Hirschfeld never did. 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. He believed knowledge and education were the true paths to equality, and the phrase "Justice through science" is inscribed on his tombstone in Latin. He worked his whole life with that in mind.

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

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Tatchell, P. (2015, May 26.) Magnus Hirschfeld: The Einstein of sex who braved Nazi genocide to wage LGBT crusade. International Business Times. Retrieved from