Out on the Town
Magnus Hirschfeld and Berlin’s Third Sex
Years before the Weimar Republic’s well-chronicled freedoms, the 1904 non-fiction study Berlin’s Third Sex depicted an astonishingly diverse subculture of sexual outlaws in the German capital. James J. Conway introduces a foundational text of queer identity that finds Magnus Hirschfeld — the “Einstein of Sex” — deploying both sentiment and science to move hearts and minds among a broad readership.
by James Conway
This is the continuation of a wider essay. To read the first part, click here
There is suffering, yes, there is despair and self-harm and ostracism. But Berlin’s Third Sex also offers something you may not expect of Wilhelmine Berlin — fun. To encounter Hirschfeld’s report today is to experience an electric charge of recognition. With its all-night parties, pansexual drag, and campy stage personas, with its elaborate codes of communication, layers of irony, and pop culture references, it reads like a dress rehearsal, in starched collars, for modern Western queer life. And for Herr and Frau Heterosexual Reader of the time, all of these exotic, dissident elements placed the subculture of “inverts” at a comforting distance.
I knew a uranian lawyer who, on leaving his office near Potsdamer Platz of an evening, or taking leave of a gathering of his associates, would seek out a tavern at the southern end of Friedrichstadt, a dive bar where he would gamble, drink and carouse the night away with “Revolver Heini”, “Butcher Herrmann”, “Yankee Franzi”, “Mad Dog” and other Berlin apaches. The raw nature of these criminals exert an irresistible attraction.
As Hirschfeld draws out the tragedy that shadowed many queer lives at the time, his deployment of pathos can seem overripe to present-day sensibilities. In one section about a gay Christmastime gathering, he relays the lugubrious musings of the attendees:
Many think about their shattered hopes, what they could have achieved if old prejudices had not hindered their progress, and others in respectable positions ponder the heavy lie they must live. Many think about their parents who are dead – or for whom they are dead – and all in deepest sorrow think of the woman they loved most of all and who loved them most of all – their mother.
But this markedly sentimental, slightly mannered tone made his account far more accessible to the average reader. It also reflected Hirschfeld’s emotional investment in the subject matter. The only other volume that the doctor penned for Ostwald’s series — Die Gurgel Berlins (Berlin’s Gullet, 1907) — offers an instructive contrast. It addressed the city’s alcohol problem, replacing the anecdotal evidence of Berlin’s Third Sex with empirical data and an overall sense of distance from the topic at hand (Hirschfeld himself was largely teetotal).
While much of Berlin’s Third Sex is concerned with expressions of same-sex attraction, it also addresses those living contrary to their assigned gender, such as the individual Hirschfeld refers to as “Miss X”: legally female, mannish enough to attract attention in public, and living entirely as a man at home. Hirschfeld saw that denial of their identity was leading (individuals we now call) trans men and women to depression, even suicide. One of Hirschfeld’s most powerful contributions here — even in advance of the clinical assistance he would later offer — was to acknowledge that trans people exist, and always have.
The conclusion to Berlin’s Third Sex, the mission statement of his crusade, crowns sentiment and science with simple justice: “I stress, to avoid any confusion, that these demands on behalf of homosexuals relate to nothing more than what adults in free agreement do with each other”; he goes on to explicitly condemn violence and infringements of the rights of third parties, including minors. In Berlin’s Third Sex, Hirschfeld not only offers a vital piece of queer history both panoramic and intimate: he places a pin in the map marking the spot where majority Western consensus would only arrive about a century later.
Around the time of Berlin’s Third Sex, a split in the early gay movement pitted Hirschfeld against splenetic activist Adolf Brand, who drew on the “individual anarchy” of Max Stirner (an early run-through of libertarianism) and — even further back — a model of erotic mentorship inspired by ancient Greece. In 1896, Brand had launched the world’s first gay journal, Der Eigene, which wasn’t so much the organ of a liberation movement as an invitation to a secret society comprised of a classically-educated, exclusively male elite.
In their feud, Brand set his own “Nordic” purity against Hirschfeld’s “Oriental” decadence, a motif which recurred when Hirschfeld’s profile as an authority on sexual minorities expanded. Hirschfeld’s questioning of long-cherished truths discomfited wider society, and bigots conflated his campaign with the outer and inner revolutions of Marx and Freud as a great Jewish conspiracy to undo all that the upright citizen held dear. The antisemitic abuse reached a provisional peak in 1907 when Hirschfeld was called as a key witness in the trials that constituted the “Harden-Eulenburg Affair”, which centred on homosexuality in the highest imperial circles. A caricature from this time shows Hirschfeld shouting and beating a drum; his offence in the eyes of the Wilhelmine mainstream was drawing attention to homosexuality, labelling it an identity rather than an activity, a destiny rather than a decision, and — like August Bebel — revealing that it was far more common than generally assumed. Society now stood unhappily disabused of the consoling fiction that sexual difference was a freakish anomaly, a vile act begat of weakness of character, carried out in some untroubling elsewhere. Magnus Hirschfeld became the lightning rod for an entire country’s anxieties about sexuality and gender. Undeterred, Hirschfeld took a closer look at gender dysphoria and the phenomenon of erotic cross-dressing in his 1910 book Die Transvestiten, which introduced the term “transvestite” to the world. The following year he joined forces with feminist Helene Stöcker to — successfully — prevent the scope of Paragraph 175 being expanded to include lesbians.
By contrast, his consultations at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research), which Hirschfeld operated in Berlin throughout the Weimar Republic, advanced well beyond theory. Here he gave sexual minorities a vocabulary, helping to remove stigma and taboo as well as offering entirely practical interventions to patients like Lili Elbe, the “Danish Girl” — pioneering surgery, hormone treatment, even hair removal. Hirschfeld didn’t believe in a gay liberation without recognition of trans men and women (even if he didn’t use those terms), and none of this was to be accomplished at the expense of feminism. Hirschfeld was utterly tireless in this activism, taking any route — petitions, academic papers, books, international lectures, even feature films — that might lead to public enlightenment.
As Elena Mancini reveals in Magnus Hirschfeld and the Quest for Sexual Freedom (2010), there is a strain of expansive idealism apparent throughout Hirschfeld’s life away from his headline, hot-button concerns; at just sixteen, for instance, he wrote an essay proposing the “Dream of a World Language”. At the dawn of the twentieth century, he was a member of Berlin’s anarcho-utopian Neue Gemeinschaft (New Community), along with Hans Ostwald and Else Lasker-Schüler, as well as Gustav Landauer, Erich Mühsam, and Martin Buber. The group typified a deep yet rarely acknowledged strain of radical thinking in Wilhelmine Germany. These visionaries were exiles from the Zukunftsstaat (Future State), a concept which carried the suggestion that, like Shangri-La, the ideal society was a location you could reach if only you had the right coordinates. Best known for his examination of sexual difference, Hirschfeld ultimately espoused a unity through plurality, an abolition of hierarchies in diametrical opposition to social Darwinism.
So by the time fascism had arrived as a political force in Germany it wasn’t just Hirschfeld’s Jewishness or his defence of sexual difference that placed him in danger; he had in fact formulated a conception of human relations antithetical to Nazism in almost every regard. Fortunately Hirschfeld was already abroad when Hitler assumed power in 1933; he never returned but lived long enough to see the Nazis tighten Paragraph 175. It was only definitively struck from the statutes in 1994, after reunification — almost sixty years after Magnus Hirschfeld’s death.
As I was preparing my translation of Berlin’s Third Sex for print in 2017, Germany’s parliament voted in favour of marriage equality. This would no doubt have pleased a time-traveling Magnus Hirschfeld. As a world citizen, however, he would also note that to be gay in the present day can mean being prime minister or being stoned to death in the town square, contingent purely on the accident of birthplace. As reactionary forces seek to claw back hard-won civil advances around the globe, Hirschfeld’s achievements only become clearer, his message of radical acceptance more urgent, his embrace of variance more inspiring.
James J. Conway was born in Sydney and now lives in Berlin where he is a translator from German to English, both commercial and literary. In the latter capacity he has translated and published eight books for Rixdorf Editions, most recently Three Prose Works by Else Lasker-Schüler. He has written for publications such as the Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as his own repository of alternative cultural history, Strange Flowers.
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