[D]ecades ago, wandering a ramshackle German flea market, an old book caught my eye. Emblazoned in gold on its brick red cover was the beckoning title Sexualkatastrophen. In its inevitably German way, the title (in English, obviously, Sexual Catastrophes) said it all and that alone was worth the few dollars price. Little did I know I had purchased a 1926 first edition of a collection of sexual studies including several written by the father of modern LGBTQ liberation, Magnus Hirschfeld.
Like his other works on the subject, his contributions to Sexualkatastrophen present scientific biographies of individual trans (he invented the term “transvestite” in 1910 that would evolve into today’s transgender and its variants), gay and lesbian subjects. Reading it at the time, I was struck by Hirschfeld’s candid and natural embrace of sexuality that helped confirm my own sense of being of another identity that was as valid as any other. And, as it still does today, the book made clear how we are so predisposed to ignorance and denial that our whole social structure continues to suffer as a result.
May 14 marks the 150th anniversary of Hirschfeld’s birth in 1868. The significance of the occasion is recognized in his native Germany where 2018-2019 has been declared “Hirschfeld Anniversary Year.” In July, the German Federal Post Office will issue a postage stamp in his honor. Throughout the jubilee, arts events, seminars, exhibits, conferences and concerts will celebrate the “Einstein of Sex” or, as he was affectionately known within his gay Weimar circle, Tante Magnesia (“Aunt Magnesia”).
Hirschfeld’s work in the field of sex was groundbreaking and visionary. Basing his theory of sexuality and gender on the “born this way” principle, he argued the case for fluidity and that all sexual expressions and their characteristics were part of a spectrum from masculine to feminine. He believed that homosexuality was, in fact, a third sex and practiced universally. As early as the 1890s he advocated the legalization of abortion and the decriminalization of homosexuality. In 1919, he helped produce a film, Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others). It depicts the plight of a gay man subjected to blackmail (it still exists today only as a restored reconstruction). His work, he hoped, would help fight prejudice and provide justice through knowledge for those “hostages of morality,” the victims of an invented system that condemned their natural deviations from the norm as deviance.
But given the politics of the times, whether in conservative Imperial Germany or, later, under the Nazi
regime, particularly as a Jewish gay liberal, Hirschfeld was considered revolutionary in its most subversive sense. A year after his film’s release, it was banned. The Nazis burned his books and his Institute for Sexual Science was ransacked and razed. Hirshfeld managed to escape to Switzerland and, later France, where he died in 1935.
In Germany today, his legacy was the complete repeal in 1994 of the infamous Paragraph 175, the anti-gay law in the German penal code and the founding of the Magnus Hirschfeld Federal Foundation.
Hirschfeld Anniversary Year should be recognized here as well. It seems, after all, we are still, a century later, fighting for the same cause.
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