Trans History: The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft

In the foreground, a massive pile of burning books. In the background, members of the German Student Union giving the Heil Hitler Salute while Nazi officers look on.
(Burning of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft works considered “un-German” in Berlin, 1933.)

I first heard about Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft–and its subsequent destruction–in 2017. This was about three years after coming out publicly about being transgender. For those early years, I didn’t really feel that being a part of a trans community was necessary, mostly because I didn’t understand what it would be like to interact with other transgender people. Learning about the Institut was, by no means, the sole impetus for me reaching out to trans people and organizing potlucks or what-have-you, but it was a wake-up call to me, in some ways. When I learned about it, I imagine what could have been, and I realized that if I–a “seasoned” trans guy–only heard about it after three years of going public, then there were probably plenty of trans people out there who didn’t know about it either. There were also probably a lot of other things I didn’t know about transgender history.

That’s part of why I started this blog–I’d already talked at length about things like this to my friends (some knew about it; some didn’t), but it still didn’t feel like enough. Communities need shared history to exist and maintain themselves, so of course there’s no real unified transgender community: we haven’t been taught anything about trans people of the past. It’s not exactly something brought up in classrooms, even though there are many instances when talking about trans people would make a lot of sense (the Institut being one example). Transgender and gender nonconforming experiences are often left out of the narrative due to politics or a historian’s personal beliefs on gender. It is not surprising that, when studying the rise of the Nazi party, people do not learn about the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.

For some context, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was a private research organization, founded by the aforementioned Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin in July of 1919. Its research centered around the study of sexology and what we would today call “LGBTQIA+ rights”. The origins of the Institut are rooted in the more liberal climate of the Weimar Republic, prior to the rise of the Third Reich’s censorship of anything not deemed “proper” for the empire. During the first years of the Insitut, its archive was home to thousands of academic and artistic works, as well as clinical consultations for individuals who could not otherwise have access to healthcare due to their identity (Humboldt-Universität). A modern equivalent simply does not exist, but it would be some cross of a library, a school, a rental home, a temp agency, and a hospital. At its height, the Institut catered to individuals such as Adolf Brand, Walter Benjamin, Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Sergei Eisenstein, and Dörchen Richter, the first recorded person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Those are only the notable people involved with the Institut; on the whole, it was vital to the lives of transgender folks who could not otherwise receive healthcare, acquire jobs, or rent housing (Dose 2014).

In a great blow to the budding transgender community, the Institut’s collection was plundered in May of 1933, and upwards of 20000 works from the archive were burned by the German Student Union under the organization of the Nazi Party. The iconic image of the Nazi book burnings is, in fact, largely made up of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft’s archive. Shortly after this horrific event, the Institut was transformed into a Nazi office building. Extensive records of people involved with the Institut were seized and may have been used during the Night of the Long Knives to kill homosexual men in the Storm Detachment (AKA the Brownshirts). During later Allied bombings, the building itself was destroyed (Humboldt-Universität).

Many of the researchers who left before the Institut was sacked–Hirschfeld among them–took parts of the collection with them. Those pieces are scattered around the world in places like California State University Northridge, Humboldt-Universität, and a number of private collections, making them difficult to find and research. This is not to mention the international work that researchers and patrons of the Institut collaborated upon prior to the rise of the Nazi party. Hirschfeld, who had been on a tour for his works, never returned to Germany, but continued his work as best he could while settling in Switzerland (Wolff 1986). Although he wished to open a new Institut during the remainder of his life in France (Wolff 1986), Hirschfeld was unable to do so. Many of those who might have continued in his stead after his passing in 1935–such as Karl Giese–died before making any headway or–like Recha Tobias (Hirschfeld’s sister)–were killed during the Third Reich. West Germany determined under Paragraph 175 (the sweeping criminal regulation on homosexual relations that existed from 1871 to 1994) that the seizure of property by the Nazi party was legal, denying the community any sort of restitution after the fact (Steakley 1975).

It’s nearly impossible to look back at terrible events in history and not think “Where would we be if this hadn’t happened?” Would trans people have legal rights? Would our surgeries be more developed? Would we face less hatred? Would our community be stronger? The answer is almost always: Who knows? We only have this one reality, and we have to make the best of it. That’s why it’s so terrible that so few people are taught about the Institut. The Nazi party set out to destroy the evidence of anything that was outside of their small box of what was “right”, and for transgender people, they succeeded in major ways.

Resources like the Institut are targeted to this day. Particularly in today’s political climate, when the word “Transgender” can be banned from the CDC’s official documents by the Trump Administration (Sun, Eilperin 2017), censorship and gender are in constant struggle. Before this, even, the Reagan Administration did something similar with the AIDS crisis (Barnes 1989), leading many to die or be ostracized. Just this past month, there has been a movement against Mermaids Gender, a nonprofit organization designed to help trans people in the UK. Not only is the information about transness censored, the resources we desperately need are also assailed. Don’t even get me started on the trans military ban.

There are big ways and little ways to disrupt information about trans people. We can’t always fix them, but we can do our best to try to chip away at them. It’s why I started Trans Narrative in the first place: people–trans and cis alike–need to hear trans voices. We need to learn our histories so we can protect ourselves better in the future. We need to make sure that what the Nazi Party wanted–the erasure of trans people, for one–doesn’t succeed.

So if you’re cis, I wish you take all of this to heart. I hope you go off and research more about the Institut and about Paragraph 175, and about so much more. Trans people have been around for a while, and we’re not going anywhere. What can you do to help us?

And if you’re trans, I implore you to raise your voice. Let everyone hear us and be inspired to learn from us. It’s not our duty to teach people about what it’s like to be transgender, but we can put the seed there so they can do some digging, themselves. And listen to other trans folks, too. Find trans voices of color, disabled trans voices, native trans voices. To be a bit kitschy, there is no one trans narrative, so look out for all of them.

Works Cited

“Archive for Sexology.” Humboldt-Universität, www2.hu-berlin.de/.

Barnes, Mark. “Toward Ghastly Death: The Censorship of AIDS Education.” Columbia Law Review, 1989, http://www.jstor.org/.

Bauer, Heike. The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture. Temple University Press, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/.

“Burning of the Institut Für Sexualwissenschaft Works Considered ‘Un-German’” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Berlin, 10 May 1933, http://www.ushmm.org/.

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

“Nazi Book Burnings.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/.

Steakley, James D. The Early Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany.Arno Press, 1975.

Sun, Lena H., and Juliet Eilperin. “CDC Gets a List of Forbidden Words, Including ‘Diversity’ and ‘Transgender’.” The Washington Post, 2017, http://www.washingtonpost.com/. Wolff, Charlotte. Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology. Quartet Books, 1986, books.google.com/.

1 thought on “Trans History: The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s