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icymist's Journal
icymist's Journal
June 20, 2022

A Lost Piece of Trans History

“A final moment of reluctance overcame me,” Hans Hannah Berg wrote, “as I stepped across the threshold of the house.” Dressed in a custom black dress, white gloves, and fine pearls, Hans Hannah looked impeccable. She cut a fine figure walking down the street, announced by a hint of perfume and the gentle jangling of bangles. But Hans Hannah was anxious: this was her first outing as a woman.

Hans Hannah wrote about the occasion for the inaugural issue of The Third Sex (Das 3. Geschlecht), likely the world’s first magazine devoted to trans issues. First published in Berlin in 1930, The Third Sex circulated in the final years of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s democratic experiment between the wars. After the Nazis seized power, they destroyed the publishing house, and the magazine was largely forgotten. As a result, most accounts today name fifties America as the birthplace of trans periodicals. The recent republication of The Third Sex by the Bibliothek rosa Winkel revives lost voices from Germany’s queer past and recovers a remarkable piece of trans history.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, Germany was closely associated with homosexuality. The English spoke of the “German custom,” the French referred to the vice allemande, and Italians called gay men and women “Berlinese.” Queer people existed across Europe, of course, but German thinkers actively studied non-heteronormative sexualities and openly debated the rights of queer people, inaugurating the field of sexology. In the first decade of the twentieth century, more than a thousand works on homosexuality were published in German. Researchers from England to Japan cited German sexologists as experts and often published their own works in Germany before their home countries.

June 19, 2022

Third Gender: A Short History

Social convention says there are two types of people: male and female. And you know who’s who based on their genitalia. But in fact, various cultures have long recognized members who buck the biological binary. The ancients wrote of people who were neither men nor women; individuals have been swapping genders for centuries; and intellectuals have fiercely debated the connection between the body and the self. Today, there are many populations with alternative identities, such as hijras in South Asia, kathoeys in Thailand, and muxes in Mexico. Yet these groups haven’t had it easy, often facing discrimination and violence. Only recently has the fight for legal recognition — and respect — of "third gender" begun to bear fruit, thanks to pioneering activists and policymakers. The world, it seems, is slowly embracing an adage once restricted to liberal universities: Gender is a construct, and people should be able to define it for themselves.
June 18, 2022

The first Institute for Sexual Science (1919-1933)

In 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), sexologist and sexual-reformer, saw a long-cherished dream come true: on July 6, he opened the “Institute for Sexual Science” in Berlin-Tiergarten – the first of its kind in the world. Politically, the Institute’s emergence is to be viewed within the context of the progressive reform movements during the Weimar period; scientificially, the bio-medical explanations of human sexuality at the time formed the framework. The Institute’s foundation was the first attempt at establishing sexual science.

The Institute soon became a sought-after address for local and foreign scientists, academics and politicians. For Berlin residents, it became known as an institution providing counselling and treatment for “physical and psychological sexual disorders” as well as, in particular, for “sexual transitions”, Hirschfeld’s term for homosexuals, transvestites and hermaphrodites. Many a writer paid the Institute a visit – Christopher Isherwood and Alfred Döblin, for example, incorporated their impressions into their literary works.

More than 40 people worked at the Institute in many different fields: research, sexual counselling, treatment of venereal diseases and public sex education. The Institute housed the main offices of both the Scientific Humanitarian Committee – the first homosexual organisation – and the World League for Sexual Reform.

From the outset, the Institute was defamed and denounced as “Jewish”, “Social-Democratic” and “offensive for public morals”. It was plundered and shut down by the Nazis in 1933. In exile, Magnus Hirschfeld witnessed in a Parisian cinema the burning of his works on Berlin’s Opera Square by Fascist students. Following an unsuccessful attempt to set up an institute for sexual science in Paris, Hirschfeld died in Nice, France, on May 14, 1935, his birthday. The Institute’s buildings in Berlin were destroyed by bombing in 1943. Since then, the site has been overgrown with gras.
June 18, 2022

The Forgotten History of the World's First Trans Clinic

Late one night on the cusp of the 20th century, Magnus Hirschfeld, a young doctor, found a soldier on the doorstep of his practice in Germany. Distraught and agitated, the man had come to confess himself an Urning—a word used to refer to homosexual men. It explained the cover of darkness; to speak of such things was dangerous business. The infamous “Paragraph 175” in the German criminal code made homosexuality illegal; a man so accused could be stripped of his ranks and titles and thrown in jail.

Hirschfeld understood the soldier’s plight—he was himself both homosexual and Jewish—and did his best to comfort his patient. But the soldier had already made up his mind. It was the eve of his wedding, an event he could not face. Shortly after, he shot himself.

The soldier bequeathed his private papers to Hirschfeld, along with a letter: “The thought that you could contribute to [a future] when the German fatherland will think of us in more just terms,” he wrote, “sweetens the hour of death.” Hirschfeld would be forever haunted by this needless loss; the soldier had called himself a “curse,” fit only to die, because the expectations of heterosexual norms, reinforced by marriage and law, made no room for his kind. These heartbreaking stories, Hirschfeld wrote in The Sexual History of the World War, “bring before us the whole tragedy [in Germany]; what fatherland did they have, and for what freedom were they fighting?” In the aftermath of this lonely death, Hirschfeld left his medical practice and began a crusade for justice that would alter the course of queer history.

Over time their stories have resurfaced in popular culture. In 2015, for instance, the institute was a major plot point in the second season of the television show Transparent, and one of Hirschfeld’s patients, Lili Elbe, was the protagonist of the film The Danish Girl. Notably, the doctor’s name never appears in the novel that inspired the movie, and despite these few exceptions the history of Hirschfeld’s clinic has been effectively erased. So effectively, in fact, that although the Nazi newsreels still exist, and the pictures of the burning library are often reproduced, few know they feature the world’s first trans clinic. Even that iconic image has been decontextualized, a nameless tragedy.


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