In the past decade, the lives and healthcare of transgender individuals have been increasingly dragged into the forum of public debate. Despite the progress made by the wider queer community towards legal and social equality, the rights of trans people seem to be stagnating. In a recent example, a court ruling in the United Kingdom reversed access to widely successful puberty-blocking treatment for transgender youth. In light of these developments, it may be wise to revisit a forgotten yet remarkedly progressive part of queer history and remind ourselves how easily social progress can be reversed.
Weimar Germany has often been associated with a golden age of liberalism and sexual expression – think Cabaret and streets lined with gay bars – but less publicised is the extent of support and care available to trans Germans, largely centred around the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin. The institute was founded in 1919 by the Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and throughout the following decade rose to prominence as a world-leader in queer research and healthcare (though queer is an anachronistic term). Gender nonconforming (GNC) individuals used the contemporary identifiers “transsexual” and “transvestite”, the difference being that the former expressed a desire to physically transition and would therefore definitely be referred to as transgender in modern terminology. However, as a physical transition is not a requirement for being transgender, it’s difficult to ascertain whether individual “transvestites” identified as cross-dressers or transgender individuals.
Facilities at the institute were surprisingly similar to modern gender identity clinics. Hirschfeld was a pioneer of adaptation therapy, a technique he had coined in 1914 which supported queer individuals to live “according to their nature”; for trans patients, this ranged from counselling and access to a like-minded social circle to what we would now call gender reassignment surgeries and hormone therapy. Although the Institute was not exclusively designed for trans healthcare, it appears that these services were popular. In 1924 for example, of the roughly twenty new patients that were listed each week, one third were seeking “sexual transitions”. Hirschfeld also convinced local authorities to introduce a Transvestitenschein (‘transvestite pass’) which allowed GNC patients to dress according to their gender identity in public without being arrested. Before this, there were no explicit laws against being transgender, however cross-dressing was considered an act of public nuisance, largely due to the prevailing association of crossdressing with homosexuality and gay male prostitutes.
It is interesting to explore the ways that working-class individuals accessed the institute, despite the economic barrier presented by a private, paid clinic. All of the Institute’s domestic staff were GNC and had been unable to find employment because of their identities. Significantly, it was one of the domestic staff, Dora “Dorchen” Richter, who underwent the first complete male-to-female reassignment surgery, including a successful experimental vaginoplasty. For low-income trans individuals, the Institute could be a place of physical transition but also a stable place of employment and a community of working women to live alongside.
However, this atmosphere of sexual liberation was not as evident outside of Berlin, nor was the Institute without its critics. Contemporary physicians were quick to condemn Hirschfeld’s practices, believing that therapy and medical intervention should only be used to “cure” queer patients, not reinforce their supposed perversions.
Historians studying sexuality in Interwar Germany have tended to focus on medical records by sexologists, or on the evidence of legal and social persecution both before and after the Nazi Party came to power. However, this approach runs the risk of reducing queer history to either the study of pathology or criminality. Instead, researcher Rainer Herrn advocates for increasing attention to contemporary media produced by GNC individuals themselves: not only does this centre their voices over those of physicians, but it highlights how a collective trans community was beginning to take shape across Berlin, and possibly the country as a whole.
There were several homosexual and lesbian publications circulating in German metropolitan areas during the 1920s, but the first magazine aimed at GNC readers did not appear until 1930. Titled Das 3 Geschlecht (The Third Sex), it was published by the homosexual activist Friedrich Radszuweit and ran for five issues until his publishing house was destroyed by Nazi supporters in 1933. Although the way in which content was presented was controlled by the editors, the photographs and letters were largely submitted by the GNC audience, which no doubt greatly aided in forming a sense of community and shared identity. The scope of this content was wide: there were tips on passing as ‘stealth’; images celebrating a moment of successful gender presentation; and mundane writings about grocery shopping and creative pieces, such as Kate Lippert’s poem Celebration Hour. One particularly poignant letter from a rural transgender woman, referred to at the time as a transvestite – who likely could not publicly present themselves as they wished – describes how they had cut out images from a previous issue to carry around with them. Thus, Das 3 Geschlecht highlights the ways in which trans people were beginning to form communities that were simultaneously public yet anonymous. These were spaces where they could explore their identities around others who did not know them personally and find comfort in representations of those who had successful public lives when presenting as the opposite sex – as actresses, sailors and sportsmen to name but a few.
Yet there was a degree of classism and homophobia among GNC groups which arguably prevented a stronger trans community and movement from forming. Heterosexual, middle-class trans women, whose economic resources allowed them to successfully “pass” in public, believed the only way to gain social acceptance was to integrate into respectable bourgeois society. They disavowed homosexual trans individuals and those who could not – or did not want to – conform to traditional gender roles. This attitude is evident even in Das 3 Geschlecht, as the editors directly compared images of transvestites who supposedly did not pass with images of one who supposedly passed well (Figure 1.). Arguably, the only difference is that the latter dressed in a more acceptably bourgeois manner. Even when not deliberately combative, we find classism laced throughout the publication. In her article, “In the Land of Desire”, Emmy M stated “it is not hard to find a place where one can live undetected as a woman for a few weeks”. Clearly, she had not considered the financial strain that taking time away from work and purchasing appropriate clothing would place on working-class trans individuals.
Any progress in sexual reform achieved in Weimar Germany came to an abrupt halt with the ascension of Adolf Hitler in 1933 and the increasingly strict censorship that characterised the Nazi regime. Material deemed “un-German” was banned and often destroyed in large book-burning ceremonies. The Institute was one of the first targets of the practice, with the majority of its collections being destroyed on 10th May 1933. The few records that were kept by the Nazis were later used to identify homosexuals for arrest and incarceration. Hundreds of volumes dedicated to sexology and years of patient records and correspondence were lost. What remains of Hirschfeld’s collections are now spread globally and thus difficult to acquire, whilst the man himself was unable to garner enough support to rebuild the Institute outside of Germany. He died in exile in France in 1935.
It is difficult to ascertain whether persecution of GNC persons increased under the Nazi regime. Likely some male-to-female trans individuals were categorised as homosexuals – completely undermining Hirschfeld’s attempts to separate gender expression and sexuality – and caught up in the numerous purges of gay men. Yet there is also evidence that Transvestitenschein continued to be handed out well into the 1930s, which contradicts the argument that there was total and organised legal persecution. Ultimately, more exploration needs to be done into the lives of queer people in Nazi Germany beyond the more visible legal persecution of homosexual males: for the German-speaking reader, a comprehensive outline of such research is available in Homosexuelle im Nationalsozialismus (Schwartz, 2014). What is certain, however, is that the erasure of the Institute and various queer publications in Weimar Germany set the advances in healthcare and acceptance of trans individuals back generations, the reverberations of which can arguably still be felt today.
Written by Connor Wimblett
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Various. “Letters: our treatment of trans teenagers.” The Guardian. 13th December 2020. Accessed 12th February 2021. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/13/observer-letters-uk-treatment-of-transgender-teenagers