Weimerica: The Birth and Relocation of LGBTQ+

Weimerica: The Birth and Relocation of LGBTQ+

Now that we are over half way done with the most culturally disturbing month in our calendars, we find it appropriate to educate our audience on the birthplace of the LBGTQ+ movement. 

The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) was a private sexology research institute in Germany from 1919 to 1933. The Institute was a non-profit foundation situated in Tiergarten, Berlin. It was the first sexology research center in the world. Founded by Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish German physician and sexologist, the institute focused on gender and sexuality research, including topics related to gay, transgender, and intersex individuals. The institute played a major role in escalating the morally decaying populace in what was the former Weimar Republic. 

The institute was financed by the Magnus-Hirschfeld-Foundation. The building, located in the Tiergarten district, was purchased by Hirschfeld from the government of the Free State of Prussia following World War I. Fixtures at the institute included a museum for sexual artifacts, medical exam rooms, and a lecture hall. By 1930 it would perform the first modern gender-affirmation surgeries in the world.

Magnus Hirschfeld introduced the term “transsexual” in his 1923 essay “Die Intersexuelle Konstitution.” This clinical category, which his colleague Harry Benjamin later expanded upon in the United States, took about thirty years to gain wider recognition. Hirschfeld also coined the term “transvestite” in 1910, occasionally using the phrases “extreme transvestites” or “total transvestites” to refer to transsexual individuals.

Magnus Hirschfeld faced significant persecution from the far-right in Germany, including the Nazi Party. He endured multiple physical attacks, such as the severe injury he sustained during an incident in Munich on October 4, 1920. A nationalist paper, Deutschnationale Jugendzeitung, even expressed regret that Hirschfeld had not died. In another incident in Vienna, he was shot at. By 1929, the relentless targeting by Nazis made it increasingly challenging for Hirschfeld to maintain public appearances.

On 20 July 1932, the Chancellor Franz von Papen carried out a coup that deposed the Braun government in Prussia, and appointed himself the Reich commissioner for the state. A conservative Catholic who had long been a vocal critic of homosexuality, Papen ordered the Prussian police to start enforcing Paragraph 175 and to crack down in general on "sexual immorality" in Prussia. The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft remained open, but under Papen's rule, the police began to harass people associated with it. On 30 January 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor. Less than four months after the Nazis took power, Hirschfeld's Institute was sacked, while Hirschfeld was abroad. On the morning of 6 May, a group of university students belonging to the National Socialist German Students' League stormed the institution, shouting "Brenne Hirschfeld!" ('Burn Hirschfeld!') and began to beat up its staff and smash up the premises. In the afternoon, the SA came to the institute, carrying out a more systematic attack, removing all volumes from the library and storing them for a book-burning event which was to be held four days later. In the evening, the Berlin Police arrived at the institution and announced that it was closed forever. The destruction unfolded in German newsreels and marked one of the earliest and largest Nazi book burnings. Nazi youth, students, and soldiers participated in the burning, while voiceovers proclaimed that the German state was disposing of “intellectual garbage from the past.”

With the Nazi regime's unequivocal rise to power coinciding with the completion of his work on his tour book, he decided to go into exile in France. On his 65th birthday, 14 May 1933, Hirschfeld arrived in Paris, where he lived in a luxury apartment building. On his 67th birthday, 14 May 1935, Hirschfeld died of a heart attack in his apartment. 

Hirschfeld's radical ideas changed the way Germans thought about sexuality and started a chain reaction across the West. American Henry Gerber, attached to the Allied Army of Occupation following World War I, became impressed by Hirschfeld and absorbed many of the doctor's ideas. Upon his return to the United States, Gerber was inspired to form the short-lived Chicago-based Society for Human Rights in 1924, the first known gay rights organization in the nation. In turn, a partner of one of the former members of the Society communicated the existence of the society to Los Angeles resident Harry Hay in 1929; Hay would go on to help establish the Mattachine Society in 1950, the first national homosexual rights organization to operate for many years in the United States.