Queer Icon: Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935)

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By Kyle Parker

Magnus Hirschfeld
(1868-1935)

While the dead are gone, their legacies remain in the cemeteries, gravestones, and obituaries left behind.

Magnus Hirschfeld was an early sexual rights activist, scientist, and writer of the 19th and 20th century. Born in Poland, Hirschfeld moved to Berlin, Germany to continue his studies. While there, he started writing about same-sex attraction among men, noting that their mental health was usually worse than that of their heterosexual counterparts. He concluded that this was due to society’s negative and intolerant view on same-sex attraction. He noted that these men had higher rates of suicide than other people, which still plagues the queer community today.

Hirschfeld is said to have helped to coin the term “homosexual” to help normalize same-sex attraction. Additionally, he wrote on early gender identity and equality in the sexes. As his teachings became more popular, Hirschfeld founded the Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft (translated: Institute for Sexual Research). The institute became a place to learn more about sexuality and gender identity as well as a safe haven for those within the LGBTQ+ umbrella, notably trans women. As the Nazi regime gained power, Hirschfeld (a Jewish man) recognized the rising threat and left Germany to conduct a world tour in which he spoke on his findings regarding sexuality. He kept the Institute open for the benefit of those who remained. It wasn't long, however, before a Nazi-led student group stormed the Institute, beating the people who called it home and destroying all of the scientific books and documents within. Upon hearing of the horror the Nazis bestowed upon the Institute, Hirschfeld, along with his partner, Li Shiu Tong (who was also interested in sexual identity studies) traveled to Nice, France, he stayed until the end of his life.

While in France, Hirschfeld began exploring the concept of race and how it played a part in how people treat one another. Hirschfeld wrote to white people, condemning racism, stating that it would be the downfall of society. While most of his teachings were based in sexual understanding, his final book, aptly named Racism, was about racism and the evils it presented.

Here, Magnus Hirschfeld is a ghostlike visage in a graveyard, symbolizing those who were lost in the horrors of the Nazi regime, as well as the thoughts and ideas on sexuality that he presented throughout his life. Instead of thinking of those ideas as dead and gone, one might consider the reminders of queer past and where we came from.