Magnus Hirschfeld and the Struggle for Transformation, Not Tolerance

Sexual rights in America remain both provisional and cynical; we know everyone should have them, but we are beholden to cowardly, outmoded, theocratic institutions that are fearful of egalitarianism.

Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement

Publisher: Monthly Review
Length: 144 pages
Author: Ralf Does
Price: $23.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-02

For those whose knowledge of the gay rights movement begins with Stonewall—or worse, with the fight for marriage equality—Ralf Dose’s short but well-researched monograph Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement (originally published in German as Magnus Hirschfeld: German, Jew, Citizen of the World, 2005) comes at a propitious moment, when the State grudgingly hallows the LGBTQ community with the dubious privilege of matrimony.

I use the term “community” as a lame convenience; since the time of Hirschfeld himself, the LGBTQ movement, always fractious, has often rejected the false coherences compelled by community or institutions. Marriage proposes, at once, the ultimate coherence, the ultimate temptation, and the ultimate corruption. As much as we desire the legal fiction of “rights”, we cannot romanticize an exclusionary institution historically predicated on the barter of women for patrilineal dowries, parcels of land, or collections of goats. That marriage is conferred by the arbitrary powers of magistrates, sheriffs, adjutant mayors, sea captains, and Internet clerics should reveal its historical tenuousness, its officious debasement of the myriad possibilities of human love.

This is not the 18th century: we no longer believe rights (that is, privileges) descend from God or arise from Nature. The pragmatist Jeremy Bentham rightly called the notion of natural rights “utter nonsense”—we should instead speak of utilitarian “advantages”. Obviously, non-revolutionary minorities are never in a position to grant themselves advantages; at best, minority classes receive the belated munificence of their own persecutors. The oxymoron of “natural rights” was a necessary pretense of French philosophers and American legalists who had to dilute and demote religion without negating its authoritarian convenience. When the guillotine blades fell, God suddenly believed in republicanism, not divine right, and a plurality of rights were distributed unnaturally by egotists smug with fleeting power.

Even Jefferson, as the American pragmatist and noted Jeffersonian Sidney Hook observed, remained skeptical of natural law. “‘Those who wrote treatises of natural law can only declare what their own moral sense and reason dictate in the several cases they state,” Jefferson insisted. (Sidney Hook, Paradoxes of Freedom, Buffalo: New York, Prometheus Books, 1987, 6). Alleged natural law and its attendant “freedom” are not only relativistic but casuistic. In 1961, Hook remarked, “‘Freedom’ has always been a fighting word. Today it is an honorific word. Fortunately, it has not yet fallen the short distance which separates the honorific from the soporific.” (2). Half a century later, with the Civil Rights Acts behind us and legal inequality still before us, sleepiness has long set in, our outrage supplanted by uncomprehending boredom.

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” said Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and the nightmare, our collective enslavement to the past, oppresses bourgeois and proletariat, reactionary and liberal alike. Yet true freedom frightens reactionaries more than their own hypocrisies do. Treating as Mosaic tablets the ten freedoms stressed by our slaveholding ancestors, conservatives find comfort in the exterior limitations placed on freedoms dutifully inherited. “Controlled” freedoms received historically or religiously are aesthetically more pleasing than self-created, potentially anarchic ones. Of course, freedom as a generalized or abstracted notion is nonexistent; freedoms exist only as experiential, performative pluralities. One is never generally free; insofar as freedom is a matter for the courts, one must be told when, where, and how one is free, and preferably by wigged authorities nestled in the grave.

Presently, the prospect of sexual rights in America remains both provisional and cynical; we know everyone should have them, but we also know, rather mordantly, that we are beholden to cowardly, outmoded, theocratic institutions that are fearful of egalitarianism. In our cynicism, we wait for generational upheavals to lay gradual waste to the bigotry. The average age of Rush Limbaugh’s audience is approximately 67—just 15 or so years and they’ll all be dead. When death overtakes the elders, we’ll sprinkle champagne on their graves and go about our merry ways. Generational fatigue becomes our only liberation. Perhaps in a few centuries we can even progress to the ancient, naked ways of Thebes.

Condemned to this “provisional cynicism”, this angry impatience, we wait for the masses to discard useless hypotheses of disciplinary divinities, for the sluggish wheel of history to turn yesterday’s crime into tomorrow’s banality. As courts try to disentangle themselves from the Constitutional straitjacket, the answer is always the same: “The Founding Lawyers couldn’t have imagined such a thing as non-heterosexual marriage.”

But how many among us, when arriving at the age of self-consciousness, ever signed up to be the stooges of Adams, Hamilton, or some other 18th century bureaucrat? By the gauge of world history, our Founding Lawyers were awfully minor philosophers. Imagine if William James, John Dewey, or even Emerson had created our founding documents! But their ideas came a century too late, and we’ve instead deified, of all people, the likes of Alexander Hamilton—a banker.

Out of political necessity, organized religion becomes slightly more polite in its hysterias. The unassailable adjective “faith-based” has replaced the rightly vilified noun “religion”, and bigotry begins to smile a bit. We’d also best suppress those toxic memories of salivating Jerry Falwell, who, according to The Village Voice, once claimed that the average homosexual man consumes 17 pounds of excrement annually. But the hysteria, though tempered, hasn’t entirely subsided. Within my favorite zealous argument is a paradoxical fear for the species itself: though homosexuality is intrinsically revulsive, it’s also terribly tempting, and should it receive legitimation, birth rates will surely plunge as straights rush to enlist in Lucifer’s rear guard.

Stretching interminably, our wait turns into sourest comedy. Tender religious fanatics, their sexual panics growing unfashionable, now complain of their own, precious “persecution”. They’ve been “shut out of the discussion”, as if their feculent propaganda and monothematic hysteria ever constituted one half of an actual discussion. Against all odds, the farce becomes celebratory, as seemingly every mainstream media outlet features images of jubilant same-sex couples—apparently without a hint of bitterness—embracing on the Capitol steps of whichever state has deigned to abate American blasphemy laws. The Law, the great historical persecutor, is now our friend and savior—we just had to bide out time and not go mad in the interim.

Indeed, queers are at fault for their own exasperation. “Didn’t you know,” say the centrists, “that our Founding Lawyers would eventually get around to you? So don’t do anything to queer the deal. And be patient with your persecutors, who are far more delicate than you imagined. If you’re young enough, you might even still be alive by the time they relent.”

This cynicism has been the default position of the past decade or so, when de rigueur centrism has displaced the agitations of the two prior generations, from the anti-imperialist Gay Liberation Front to the vengeful ACT UP. Crusading did not always require the catalyst of an uprising or plague, however—it required only reason. Magnus Hirschfeld, usually considered the father of modern gay liberation, was not a clockwatching cynic but an adamant reformer. Unlike Wilhelm Reich or Walt Whitman, Hirschfeld was more pragmatist than idealist, yet he also believed that freedom resides in true democracy and consciousness-raising, not submission to municipal interests or state-sanctioned eros. Of course, he was not the first European sexologist to take up the cause of queer liberation.

He was preceded by gay rights pioneer Karl Ulrichs, whose series of pamphlets, “Researches on the Riddle of Love between Men” (1864-1880) advanced the quaint notion of “Urianianism”, a neoclassical allusion to Plato’s Symposium, in which Aphrodite (daughter of Uranus) favors rarefied, valorous homosexual love over the prosaic heterosexual sort. With the rise of 19th century medical science, some taxonomists posited homosexuality as only one pseudoscientific sexual category among many, as did Karl-Maria Kertbeny, who in 1869 coined the term “homosexual” (and “heterosexual”, for that matter) as a nonjudgmental alternative to “sodomite”.

Nevertheless, the era’s understanding of same-sex desire was rooted in passé, essentialized notions of gender confusion. Urianianism supposedly sprang from female psyches trapped in male bodies (or vice versa), an idea taken up by the German neurologist Westphal, whose 1870 article “Die Konträre Sexualempfindung” identified “contrary sexual feeling” as an irresistible pathological condition. In the 1880s, Krafft-Ebing would follow suit in Psychopathia Sexualis, as would Havelock Ellis and Freud near the turn of the century.

Though Hirschfeld assumed in-born traits—he used the term “inversion” to denote same-sex love arising from gender-inverted object choices—his notion of “sexual intermediacy” assumed that no individual was absolutely masculine or feminine. Admittedly, Hirschfeld was a product of his era and envisioned gender conventionally: masculinity was “active, creative, and adventuresome” and femininity “passive, receptive, [and] expectant.” (Bose, 69) For Hirschfeld, however, the existence of a “total” masculine or feminine type is infinitely improbable; presaging some aspects of postmodernism, Hirschfeld believed masculinity and femininity are idealized and thus nonexistent poles between which we all must slide, to varying degrees. It therefore becomes irrational to persecute those who fail to conform to gendered expectations, since everyone naturally falls short of ideals both chimerical and narrowly historicized.

By the end of the 19th century, Hirschfeld had parted with German psychiatry and its insistence on equating anomaly with pathology. He also abandoned Ulrich’s tendency to meekly plead for acceptance of homosexuality—the same regressive, irresolute tendency that now informs our post-revolutionary, post-AIDS civil rights ethos. Using the slogan “justice through science”, Hirschfeld instead exploited post-Enlightenment rationality to argue directly against Paragraph 175, which had criminalized homosexuality in 1871, the year modern Germany was incorporated. Hirschfeld began a failed petition to repeal Paragraph 175 as early as 1898; he would mount a second unsuccessful petition in 1930, by which time Freud would add his name.

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