1868 – 1935 • Magnus Hirschfeld

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Magnus Hirschfeld

1868 – 1935

LGBTI+ activism was not born with the Stonewall Riots in 1969. One of the most striking figures before Stonewall is that of Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935). This German Jewish physician became both a leading theorist of sexuality and a major advocate for the rights of sexual and gender minorities in the early twentieth century. Already in 1897, Hirschfeld started the first LGBT rights organization in history, garnering support from a number of famous cultural figures such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Leo Tolstoy. Hirschfeld maintained that sexual orientation was innate and not a deliberate choice, and believed that scientific understanding would promote tolerance of sexual minorities.

He championed the idea of naturally occurring sexual variation in the human population. In 1910, he published a book entitled The Transvestites. This word, which he launched, is at the root of our current terminology of ‘transgender’ and ‘trans*’. In 1919, Hirschfeld also participated in the production of the first film to call for the decriminalization and acceptance of homosexuality. In the same year, he opened the first sexology institute in the world, later to be destroyed by Nazi demonstrators. The Nazi persecution drove him out of Germany and Hirschfeld eventually died in France.

His memory is honored through the Federal Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld, which was set up in 2011 by the Federal Republic of Germany. It supports educational, research and activist projects that promote thinking in terms of sexual and gender diversity.

Magnus Hirschfeld
Magnus Hirschfeld (at right with glasses and bushy mustache, holding the hand of his lover, Karl Giese) at a costume party at the Institute of Sexual Research (1920) ⓒ Magnus-Hirschfeld-Foundation ⓒ Fonds Suzan Daniel

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