Saturday, May 14, 2011

Happy Birthday, Magnus

Via Band of Thebes:
In 1896, Magnus Hirschfeld wrote and published a pamphlet on homosexual love called Sappho and Socrates. In 1897—or, 114 years ago—with the leaders of the gay journal Der Eigene, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, whose motto was “Justice through science.” Their first goal was to overturn the notorious 1871 German law Paragraph 175, criminalizing male homosexuality. Not only did they campaign openly and publicly, they urged prominent people to sign their petition to repeal the law. Among the 5,000 signatories supporting gay rights were Einstein, Tolstoy, Mann, Hesse, and Rilke. When the bill to repeal came before the Reichstag in 1898, it failed, and, infuriated by their hypocrisy, Hirschfeld contemplated outing various members of parliament who had voted against it. Undaunted by the defeat, the committee continued to get the bill reintroduced repeatedly over the next decades.

Thirty-four years before Kinsey, Hirschfeld collected detailed information about sexual behavior in surveys from 10,000 people and published the results in his 1914 book Homosexuality in Men and Women. Extending his push for gay rights into other media, in 1919 Hirschfeld wrote and acted in a movie called Different from the Others starring Conrad Veidt, whose character comes out to thwart his extortionist gay ex-lover but then loses his job and kills himself. That same year, the government gave Hirschfeld a former royal palace in Berlin to house his Institute for Sexual Research, which offered medical and psychological consultations, marriage counseling, contraception, sex education, and promoted women’s emancipation and rights for gay and transgender people. The institute’s ongoing success inevitably drew the attention of the Nazis. One of the Nazis' early actions, on May 6, 1933, was to ransack the archives and confiscate names and addresses. On May 10, the Nazis returned to hold a massive book burning in Opernplatz on Unter den Linden, destroying the invaluable collection of 20,000 volumes and 5,000 images depicting “deviants” and ideas that were “un-German.” Hirschfeld was on a lecture tour of the United States and never returned home. In Nice in 1935, on his sixty-seventh birthday, he had a heart attack and died, survived by his partner, colleague, former student, and heir, Li Shiu Tong, who lived until 1993.