By Noel Halifax
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Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement

This article is over 7 years, 7 months old
Issue 392

Magnus Hirschfeld was central to the German gay rights movement at the turn of the 20th century. From the 1890s to the 1930s he was a member of numerous committees, societies, campaigns and institutes that together can be said to be the first major gay rights movement that involved thousands of people, and usually with him as the spokesperson and leader.

His greatest achievement was the setting up of the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin after the German revolution in 1919. This became the centre of his activities and the whole gay rights and sexual rights movements till it was sacked and destroyed by the Nazis in 1933.

Hirschfeld was the public face of campaigns for sexual freedom, sex education, birth control and all that the Weimar Republic and the hectic city of Berlin in the 1920s was famous for. He came from Jewish stock and was gay, though Hirschfeld never publicly came out. His public image was that of the doctor and scientist arguing that homophobia was based on ignorance.

It is right that he should be the topic of serious study and you would think that author Ralf Dose, as the co-founder and director of the Magnus Hirschfeld Museum in Berlin, would be the best person to do it.

It is possible that he could but this, in effect an extended pamphlet, is not it. Once you have taken away the 30-page bibliography and index at the back, and the two introductions at the front covering 15 pages, you have a book with 70 pages for 18.95 GBP.

Dose appears to know everything about Hirschfeld but understands none of it. With this book you get the detailed lists of not just his activities but his family’s, lovers and friends and their history. It is a history with the politics bleached out.

Hirschfeld’s ideas changed very little from the 1880s to his death in exile in France in 1935, and can be summed up in the motto he devised for his Institute, “Through Science Toward Justice”.

He was not a revolutionary, and though he was pushed to the left by events, was at heart a conservative thinker. He was a member of the SPD – the German Labour party.

In 1897 he founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (SHC) to campaign for the legalisation of homosexuality, study sexuality in its many diverse forms, and educate people. This became the main gay rights campaigning organisation.

The campaign to legalise homosexuality was taken up by the SDP leader August Babel. It never won, but it provided a clear line as to who supported gay reform and who was opposed to it
The SPD was central to the campaigns and later, with the split during the First World War and the creation of the Communist Party, it was again the left that campaigned for reforms and the right that opposed or, in the case of the SPD, dragged its feet.

After the German revolution of 1919 Hirschfeld was able to set up his Institute to promote his ideas on gender, sexuality and put his reform agenda into practice.

He believed that gender was not a dichotomy but a spectrum; as well as the two sexes there was a third sex – homosexuality – which was natural, could not be changed, was not a choice and should be understood and accepted.

This is a time before any knowledge of genes, so he never argued for a gay gene. Hirschfeld’s ideas were a mixture of progressive and conservative notions, but solidly based in the empirical tradition borrowed from biology.

His politics remained reformist, although he welcomed the Russian and German revolutions and the support that he got from the Communist Party for his plans for sex education, birth control and gay reforms.

In the heady days of Berlin in the 1920s he found that, within the reform committee he had set up – the SHC – many were being pulled further to the left than he wanted and, in fact, he lost control of it to the communist Richard Linsert.

In 1928, with the fatal “third period” Stalinism of the Communist Party, the SHC split. Linsert argued against any cooperation with the SPD and Hirschfeld resigned in protest. In 1930 Hirschfeld was no longer in control of the reform movement he had set up.

It is ironic that one group that did take up his ideas of a third sex and the naturalness of homosexuality – the Nazis.

It used Hirschfeld’s ideas to justify the extermination of gays, because homosexuals could never be “re-educated out of their perversion”.

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