The (love) Life of Magnus Hirschfeld
“Love is as varied as people are.” – Magnus Hirschfeld
During this time of year, we celebrate friends and family in the Queer Community, triumph in progress made, and acknowledge the challenges that lay ahead. This is a time to make plans, and also to recognize the sacrifices made by those who came before us. When remembering all the individuals who have played such consequential roles in the growth and protection of LGBTQIA+ rights, it’s impossible to leave out the name Magnus Hirschfeld.
Born in 1868, Magnus Hirschfeld was a Jewish physician who studied and advocated for who we now refer to as the LGBTQIA+ Community. Himself a gay man, Hirschfeld was deeply empathic and alarmed by the mental health struggles that plagued many of his patients who suffered from living in the closet. Beginning in the late 1800s, Hirschfeld studied sexuality across cultures, not just his own German European home. He published his findings through scientific papers, pamphlets, books, and even a silent film; notably, the 1917 book The Homosexuality of Men and Women and the silent film Anders als die Andern (‘Different from the Others’). Hirschfeld led the early scientific and cultural charge on normalizing and accepting homosexuality in the western world through his founding of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897, a committee carrying the motto of “Justice through science.” One of the focus points of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee was to petition a repeal of the German law of Paragraph 175, which made homosexuality illegal. This petition had over 6,000 signatures from prominent Germans at the time, including Martin Buber and Albert Einstein. Sadly, Paragraph 175 was not fully repealed until 1994.
In 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Institute of Sexual Research in Berlin. The Institute became a safe space for the LGTBQIA+ community, particularly transgender people. At the institute, these folks were able to access gender-affirming care, the first of its kind in the modern world. Magnus ensured that these transgender people had jobs at the Institute, as many of them struggled finding work in the outside world. Hirschfeld went so far as to create a joyous and celebratory space within the walls of the Institute. They even threw costume parties.
With the rise of Nazi power, in 1933 the Institute for Sexual Research and all its contents (including hundreds of thousands of documents) were burned. At the time, Magnus Hirschfeld was out of the country on a speaking tour and never returned, for fear of his life.
Hirschfeld died two years later, on his 67th birthday, well before he could witness with his own eyes the progress his life’s work would someday amount to. To the day he passed, Hirschfeld never stopped advocating, studying, and fighting for the right of LGBTQIA+ individuals to be whoever, and love whomever, they choose. If that’s not something to celebrate, then we don’t know what is.