Almost Forgotten Voices: The Transvestite Magazine of Weimar Berlin

The Third Sex.jpg

You can follow Thomas Gurinskas on his book review blog @snapbookreviews on Tumblr.

*I will be using the older term “transvestite” throughout this piece as that is the terminology that was used during the historical moment I am discussing. I will use modern terminology when discussing the modern day.

“From 1919 until February 1933, somewhere between twenty-five and thirty separate homosexual German-language journal titles appeared in Berlin, some weekly or monthly and others less frequently. These supplemented, of course, Berlin’s first homosexual periodicals: Adolf Brand’s Der Eigene and Hirschfeld’s Jahrbuch. By contrast, there were practically no such journals published anywhere else in the world until after 1942.” (Robert Beachy, Gay Berlin)

One such periodical was Friedrich Radszuweit’s Das 3. Geschlecht, or The Third Sex, a magazine for and partially authored by transvestites. It first appeared in 1930 and ran for five issues; Radszuweit’s press was destroyed in 1933 when the Nazi’s rose to power. The magazine, only available in German, was republished in a compilation volume by Rainer Herrn and Männerschwarm Verlag in 2016.

The immediate precursor to Das 3. Geschlecht was another magazine from Radszuweit called Die Freundin or The Girlfriend. It was targeted towards both lesbians and transvestites with a column called “The Transvestite” and the later “World of the Transvestite” or “Die Welt der Transvestiten.” The magazine Garçonne included a column called “The Transvestite” or “Der Transvestit.” Periodicals such as these, for a good amount of time before censorship was tightened, could be found on newsstands next to other “normal” periodicals. These magazines, geared towards gay men, lesbians, and transvestites alike, allowed for the creation of communities and helped people find safe places to seek medical treatment, get clothing, etc.

While Friedrich Radszuweit was not an entirely sunshine and daisies kind of person—he was very much profit-motivated among other things—that doesn’t make his contributions in the creation of his magazines any less real. Radszuweit died in April 1932 and his lover, Martin Butzko-Radszuweit (who he adopted as his son), took over the press. He was in charge until the publishing house was destroyed by Nazis.

Martin Radszuweit was the publisher of the press for the fifth and final issue of Das 3. Geschlecht. The fifth is the only issue that has been, in some shape, translated into English. The fifth issue was translated by the author of this article as a scholarly project and it is, as yet, unavailable to the public.

While it’s true that not all the contributors to issue five of Das 3. Geschlecht were transvestites, a significant number were. None of these people have proved to be traceable through online research. It is unlikely that names they are writing under would be on their legal documentation in any significant way, making them even harder to locate. These people, Frida Petras, Käte Lippert, Elvira Karsten, and the many other transvestite contributors don’t have much of a historical record. The queer community gravitates, not unreasonably, to people with large or at least decent sized historical records, like Oscar Wilde, Marsha P. Johnson, Sappho, or Harvey Milk. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a post from this project's Tumblr got me thinking beyond that. It begins, “Shoutout to the queer people who are forgotten.”

To me, this magazine feels like discovering some of those previously forgotten queer people. People who lived their everyday lives in the social moment of early 1930s Germany, thinking about things like grocery shopping, writing poetry, etc.

Frida Petras writes in her response to the questions asked in “Two Questions and the Answers,” “The grocery shopping is entirely my thing, and I’m already known in all the shops, but only as a lady.”

And presented below is a stanza from Käte Lippert’s poem, “Celebration Hour”:

“When twilight falls into my room,

I always feel the happiest

Of all the hours of the day,

When all the everyday burdens

And all balance, all the hustle

Of life quietly falls away from me.”

There is one article, “A Transvestite as Queen,” which discusses the theory that Queen Elizabeth the First was a male transvestite (AMAB and living as a woman). It’s a theory that has lasted to this day in conspiracy theory circles, and it’s interesting to see the 1932 interpretation of it. It sheds some light into the exploration of queer people in history, into the people exploring “What historical figure might have been queer like me?” in much the way we do today.

Both of these women were transvestites. Uncovering these small moments that came so close to being lost feels indescribably important. These are voices that have not been heard for such a long time and now they've been given new life.

For as wonderful a historical artifact as Das 3. Geschlecht is, it is a product of its time and thus is infused with the beliefs and science of the time. However, you can’t approach the history of anything without butting up against things like that. In the case of the 5th issue of Das 3. Geschlecht, the very first piece in the magazine is a pseudoscience article about “sexual intermediaries.” While the idea that the levels of female and male can vary from person to person, the science behind it is inaccurate. Making trans issues a science problem has led to no small amount of problems for the community at large.

In the very first piece in the 5th issue an E. Raven writes in his “Transvestitism in Sexual Intermediary Theory,”

“In contrast to the male transvestites one finds homosexual attitudes in the female transvestites more strongly represented than the heterosexual, and very few cases are known where married women show pronounced transvestite disposition and lead completely or temporarily the life of a man.”

In this quote we see “male transvestite” being used the way we would say “trans woman” today, and “female transvestite” where we would use “trans man.” The homosexual attitudes in question would be a “female transvestite” in a relationship with a woman or a “male transvestite” in a relationship with a man. This is a far cry from the language we use today, but seeing the language presented in its historical context does a lot to show how transgender bodies were seen at the time.

Aside from a glimpse at the science surrounding trans issue at the time, we also see social issues in the form of respectability politics and classism. There is an emphasis in more than one piece about dressing inconspicuously or dressing to blend in; essentially, to pass, to be stealth, to not draw attention to oneself as a transvestite.

Respectability politics are touched on in Laurie Marhoefer’s Sex in the Weimar Republic:

“Authors in the lesbian and transvestite press urged their comrades to behave respectably and to avoid overt challenges to the norms of gender and sexuality and to decorum in general. Transvestite authors rejected [sex workers], emphasized the patriotic service of transvestites in the Great War, and implored their compatriots not to wear gaudy jewellery. For many transvestites, the key goal was to conform in public.”

And we can see that belief exemplified in a piece by a Grete M. in Das 3. Geschlecht, “Thoughts on Transvestitism.” Where Grete says that she sees “many transvestites of female and male birth who move in the clothes of the opposite sex, only a very small portion appear discreet, unobtrusive, and aesthetically pleasing,” and that they should “limit their appearance in public (in particular during day, in open societies etc.)” unless they can pass well.

Something else worthy of note, when it comes to the biases presented, is classism. Certainly, transvestites with greater means had greater access to things that helped them pass. It is also referenced in Grete’s piece that not everyone has the ability to dress as they desire. The last letter in “Two Questions and the Answers!” comes from a Fritzi Held. Due to being unemployed and, one would guess, looking for a job, she cannot dress in women’s clothing as desires.

This class discrepancy also shows itself in Emmy M’s piece “In the Land of Desire,” in which she discusses her three-week-long vacation where she dresses and lives as a woman, which she can’t do at home. She too espouses the idea that transvestites have a duty to dress well, but she also says this:

“From my own experience, I can here, to all transvestites, speak and advise, spend your vacations according to your mental attitude as a woman in freedom and spontaneity. This time is a liberation from the bonds that our fellow humans force upon us. In my opinion, it is not hard to find a place where one can live undetected as a woman for a few weeks.”

The three final essays in Das 3. Geschlecht from the section “Transvestites About Themselves,” including “Thoughts on Transvestitism,” by Grete M, “In the Land of Desire,” by Emmy M, and “Transvestite’s Happiness,” by Elvira Karsten all come from those who were able to afford and receive a formal education. They are distinctly well off in a way that allows them the privilege of saying things like “spend your vacations according to your mental attitude as a woman,” and “In my opinion, it is not hard to find a place where one can live undetected as a woman for a few weeks.” Both of those things imply the ability to take significant time off from work and go on vacation, which many working class people do not have access to. While this certainly does not mean that the demographic reading Das 3. Geschlecht was exclusively upper and upper middle class, it is something to consider.

All in all, Das 3. Geschlecht offers a delightful and sometimes infuriating glimpse into queer life, particularly trans life, during the end years of the Weimar Era.

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

Bauer, Heike. The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture. Temple University Press, 2017.

Beachy, Robert. Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. Knopf, 2015.

Das 3. Geschlecht: Reprint Der 1930-1932 erschienenen Zeitschrift für Transvestiten, compiled by Rainer Herrn, Männerschwarm Verlag, Hamburg, 2016.

Marhoefer, Laurie. Sex and the Weimar Republic. University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Whisnant, Clayton J. Queer Identities and Politics in German: A History, 1880-1945. Harrington Park Press, 2016.