Sunday, January 15, 2017

Magnus Hirschfeld. The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement. By Ralf Dose.

Born in 1868, Magnus Hirschfeld was so far ahead of his time regarding LGBTQ issues that our 21st Century Western Culture has only caught-up with him in the last decade. His view was that “homosexuality is a natural variant of human sexuality” (Dose, p. 42). Further, he was certain that sexual identity was biological, and “appealed to the findings of genetic research” (Dose, p. 43). It was not only being freely gay or lesbian that Hirschfeld supported. He also supported liberation concerning transgender identity. He invented the term “transvestite” (Dose, p. 46), and supported research into hormone therapy for sexual reassignment (Dose, p. 73). He advanced these views during a time when most of Western Civilization thought of LGBTQ people as (at best) socially degenerate or (at worst) sinful. But Hirschfeld was a medical doctor, whose motto was “through science to justice” (Dose, p. 42).

Dr Hirschfeld’s wide-ranging work included not just research, but also counseling, publishing, political activism against sodomy laws and the founding of an Institute for Sexual Science. The Institute provided classes, counseling and lectures, on sexual topics that spoke to the needs of both LGBTQ and heterosexual visitors. In addition, it sponsored parties and gatherings that fostered LGBTQ community (Dose, pp 97-103). Concerning activism, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, whose purpose was to work for “the abolishment of Paragraph 175 of the German civil code pertaining to homosexuals” (Dose, p. 73). If all of the above were not enough to define Magnus Hirschfeld as far in advance of his time, he also networked with other peace and social justice advocates around an extensive number of issues he supported: birth control, abortion rights, women’s suffrage, pacifism, prostitution reform, anti-censorship efforts, and divorce/marriage reform (Dose, pp 46-48).

There are few books in English on Magnus Hirschfeld. Of those, a minority have informational or literary merit. Ralph Dose’s offering is one of the few worth reading. Co-founder and Director of the Magnus Hirschfeld Society in Berlin, Professor Dose is a writer and lecturer on topics of sex education, LGBTQ issues/politics and the history  of sex research. His book is succinct, at little more than 100 pages. But Dose wastes no space. He moves crisply though the chapters, entitled in the following order: “His Life,” “His Work,” “His Impact & Influence,” and “Epilogue: Magnus Hirschfeld in North America.”

While Dose is undoubtedly a fan, whose work and interests mirror those of his subject, this book is no hagiography. Throughout, Professor Dose is critical of the doctor’s performance as an expert witness (Dose, p. 45), his “high-handedness” with aligned political organizations (Dose, p. 48), his disastrous testicular transplant experiments (Dose, p. 74), and his advocacy of eugenics (Dose, p. 78). Dose presents Hirschfeld as a great and flawed pioneer; and pioneers rarely place every footstep on solid ground.

As the Nazis ascended to prominence, Hirschfeld (an outspoken gay, Jewish, leftist activist with unconventional theories), became an endangered species. He survived one near fatal beating when his assailants thought he was dead. Then, on May 6, 1933, The Institute for Sexual Science was ransacked by a mob of “National Socialist physical education students” (Dose, p. 65). Hirschfeld was out of the country, concluding a worldwide lecture tour. He never returned to Germany and died in Nice, in 1935.

Magnus Hirschfeld. The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement will acquaint a reader with the life, work and ideas of a surprisingly forward-thinking individual. In spite of its dreary endgame, the doctor’s life is an inspiring example. It reveals that, despite being born into unenlightened, unsupportive circumstances, one has the capacity to grow and act in a manner that is far in advance of one’s environment.

Dose, Ralf. Magnus Hirschfeld. The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014.