Magnus Hirschfeld and the Struggle for Transformation, Not Tolerance

by Andrew Grossman

14 July 2014


Standing Inches Before Eternity

Given the ubiquity of Christian prejudice, there was nothing remarkably new in Paragraph 175, whose parochialism descended in a direct line from Constantinian law, the Theodosian Code, and England’s 1533 Buggery Act, which prescribed death by hanging (a punishment commuted to possible life imprisonment in 1861). Yet the 19th century did witness a transitory, mostly forgotten moment that attempted radical sexual reform based on post-Enlightenment freethinking. In its attempt to weaken theocracy and undo the ancient regime’s crimes of superstition, the revised Napoleonic Code of 1810 granted legal recognition to adult same-sex male couples (while ignoring lesbianism and criminalizing pedophilia).

It reveals much about American culture that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight on matters of sex but not on matters of economics, medicine, international affairs, military inventions, and so on.

Following Napoleon’s anticlerical zeal, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Brazil, Portugal, and Spain all decriminalized homosexuality at certain points during the 19th century, as did the Ottoman Empire during the Tanzimat era (1839-1876), a period of modernization and growing constitutionality. Likewise, after 1917, antireligious Bolsheviks repealed Tsarist law’s Article 995 (an anti-sodomy statute) and even sent delegates to Hirschfeld’s Institute, as if to affirm his maxim “justice through science”. 

Notably, even in pre-unification Prussia, definitions of sex and gender were more fluid—or at least less draconian—than one might expect. According to Bose, Prussian provincial laws allowed hermaphrodites or those born with unformed genitalia to choose their own gender identities at 18. The new German Civil Code of 1900, enforcing the necessary cohesions of the new nation-state and indirectly informed by Paragraph 175, mandated that midwives or gynecologists immediately decide ambiguous sexes at birth, presumably leading to impromptu castrations or surgeries. (Bose, 70) The state-mandated butchery certainly supports Reich’s notion that the State’s forceful interference with (not mere repression of) the libido is the ultimate way to shape egos and lodge believers in the ordered quagmire of tradition.   

As the modern-nation state intensified its means of forced cohesion, ascendant medical science gave increasing attention to erotic outliers as objects of inquiry. As Hirschfeld observed in The Homosexuality of Men and Women, “just within the decade from 1898 to 1908, more than one thousand shorter and longer original essays, brochures, and monographs on this subject [of homosexuality] have been published in Germany and Austria.” (Bose, 23) Hirschfeld, however, wanted liberation, not sterile inquiry. Between 1899 and 1923, Hirschfeld published his own “Yearbook for Sexual Intermediacy” and financed at his own expense the world’s first sexological organization, the Institute for Sexual Science, which gangs of Nazi youth would happily demolish in 1933.

Until the end of Weimar years, Hirschfeld was the world’s leading expert on sexual emancipation, in all its legal, ethical, and medical forms. As he remarked in the 1913 preface to The Homosexuality of Men and Women, “They came to me in every situation while I was occupied as a physician and researcher, as an expert witness in court, and as chair of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee”—the activist, anti-175 organization Hirschfeld founded in 1897. “I visited them in prisons and stood by their deathbeds,” he recounted, “I saw hundreds of them in the hands of blackmailers, many on the witness stands, and also many before they prepared to commit suicide; but I saw just as many also under more favorable circumstances, at their evening gatherings, when they put aside the masks worn during the day, for numerous consultations about in events in life, theirs, suffering, and concerns at their social functions and festivities.”

Hirschfeld also produced and co-wrote cinema’s first political gay film, Anders Als Die Andern (Different from the Others, 1919), whose story of a wealthy gay man blackmailed by his lover argues that Paragraph 175 unintentionally promotes criminal plots. (The statues of Paragraph 175 were commonly used as tools of both blackmail and political defamation.) He was also called as an expert witness in the Harden-Eulenberg affair (mentioned but not discussed by Bose), a series of then-scandalous trials (1907-1909) that disclosed the homosexuality of high-ranking members in Wilhelm II’s ministry. By the ‘20s, an emboldened Hirschfeld and his Institute had embarked on a “broader canon of sexual reform—reform of marriage and divorce laws, laws governing abortion, procurement, prostitution, and pornography,” and he joined forces with women’s movements to advocate for government-sponsored birth control. (Bose, 42)

His notoriety in the ‘10s and ‘20s led to celebrity overseas. Billed as “Europe’s Greatest Sex Authority”, he lectured at the Sorbonne and appeared at Chicago’s “Dill Pickle Club”, a bohemian retreat frequented by the likes of Djuna Barnes and William Carlos Williams. During the Weimar Republic, as Bose notes, the Institute’s exotic sexological library became a popular tourist attraction, and its guest rooms welcomed Walter Benjamin, Christopher Isherwood, and Ernst Bloch.

Of course, Hirschfeld also courted violent controversy in more reactionary quarters. A local Bavarian paper published this stern warning in 1921: “The Apostle of Sodomy, the spinach specialist Hirschfeld, has called for a swine convention in Berlin this September… This old Galician bastard has been pushing for public acceptance of sodomy as though it were for the public good… That damned swine won’t show up here again, because he can intuit that the next time his skull might be crushed.” (Bose, 35) He was indeed subjected to numerous homophobic assaults; he once received so harsh a beating after a Munich lecture that he was left for dead and later was able to read his own obituary.

Though Hirschfeld was an avid Darwinist and abjured his Jewish heritage, the Nazis predictably linked his erotic subversions to the bestial or parasitical dangers posed by empowered Jewry. Typical was a comment by Hans Biebow, notorious as the executor of the Lodz Ghetto: “Professor Magnus Hirschfeld…even his physical appearance is certainly the most repulsive of all Jewish monsters.” (Bose, 13) But the animus was not limited to obvious villains; as Bose’s introduction emphasizes, none of Hirschfeld’s major works—The Natural Laws of Love, The Homosexuality of Men and Women, Transvestites, Sexual Pathology (in three volumes) or Sexology (in five volumes)—were translated into English during his lifetime. Only his 1938 tract Racism was published in English—but only in English (a rather unfortunate comment).

Although the 21st century’s legal discourse has (more or less) replaced the medicalized discourse of the late 19th and 20th centuries, the conditional granting of sexual “rights” by State hierarchies only surrenders the libido—or eros itself—to national interests. Unfortunately, rights are most readily won through nationalistic appeals, such as marriage equality, which engages the predominant political-economic model of the nuclear family to channel queer pollutions and close anal offenses. Even televised talking heads, yellow journalists, and prime ministers now realize gay marriage only bolsters the forces of conservatism, which, under the capitalist model, must colonize and sterilize impending oppositions.

At the same time, most oppressed classes are uninterested in complete insurrection and new constitutions. The most successful revolutions are half- or quarter-revolutions, which are no revolutions at all. As Hook says, “Antigone disobeyed the law without wishing to destroy the rule of Creon in behalf of another political order,” (ibid, 108) and probably most abused sons would let live their overbearing fathers if they’d just grow blind in one eye.

It was no great coup for gays and lesbians to win the right to militarize themselves and die in Dick Cheney’s private wars. But one cannot claim the right to exist as a voyeuristic, cross-dressing, crack-smoking, morbidly obese anarchist; one deserves rights only as a short-haired, tax-paying, cubicle-dwelling loyalist who fights and dies when commanded by his betters. And if one dies married, surely there is no greater honor. 

I once listened to a presentation by a gay man who, in the early 2000s, had undergone ex-gay brainwashing at the hands of Christian lunatics, only to discover their sexual philosophy had nationalistic prerequisites. Arriving at the reeducation camp, he underwent a body search to ferret out any contraband—that is, materials that might culturally interfere with his erotic straightening.

After a few moments, the reeducation master confiscated his CDs of baroque music. “But Bach was a Christian!” he protested. The master was unfazed by the irony. Anything redolent of European effeteness—from listening to the harpsichord to enjoying espresso—was deemed perilous and antithetical to American masculinity. Believing heteronormativity and cultural literacy mutually exclusive, the Christian master had little choice but to impound Bach’s soulless counterpoint.

Suffering from a noxious mixture of vain certainty and witlessness, such dogmatists are immune to honest dialectic because they can’t admit to the ignorance that necessarily prefigures illumination. How can you argue with someone who’s yet to engage the Enlightenment, let alone critique its Panglossianism? Such people are not simply irrational—convinced of their own infallibility, they cannot understand their own humanity. Corrupted by the idea of original sin, they fear fallibility even more than homosexuality, but invented an ingenious way to negate that fear: because all children of Eden are a priori fallen (and fallible), all is forgiven, and fallibility becomes meaningless.

Conservatism will be conquered by a contrary aesthetics, not by logic. Conservatism, like religion, is an aesthetic code masquerading as political ideology—it is grounded in moral indignation, delusions of purity and impurity, and unexamined feelings of truth. At fundamentalism’s core is a “personal” sensation so beautiful that it obviates the distinction between alienation and transcendence—what Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, called an “oceanic feeling”, not a dogma of belief but a subjective sense of standing inches before eternity. But this perception, this “personal relationship” with the beyond, is so riotously subjective that it soon slips into narcissism and paranoia. Conservatives see the smallest infringement on their subjective fancies as an outrageous affront and interpret their inevitable loss of political power as unprecedented “persecution”. But only for them is a loss of power unprecedented.

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