Our Namesake

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (May 14, 1868 - May 14, 1935) was a prominent German physician, sexologist, and gay rights advocate, who developed the theory of a third, "intermediate sex" between men and women known today as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. He studied a broad range of sexual and gender minorities, expanding on the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.

In 1897, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee to defend the rights of homosexuals and to repeal Paragraph 175, the section of the German penal code that, since 1871, had criminalized homosexuality. The motto of the Committee, "Justice through science," reflected Hirschfeld's belief that a better scientific understanding of homosexuality would eliminate hostility toward homosexuals. He was a brave and tireless campaigner and a well-known public figure of his time, most identified in the public mind with the campaign against Paragraph 175, both quoted and caricatured in the press as a vociferous expert on sexual manners, receiving the epithet "the Einstein of Sex." He saw himself as a campaigner and a scientist, investigating and cataloging many varieties of sexuality, not just homosexuality. He coined the word "transvestism," for example.

Although he preferred to project himself as an objective researcher and scientist, Hirschfeld himself was gay, and participated in the gay subculture of Germany. For these activities he gained the epithet "Tante Magnesia" - "Auntie Magnesia."

Needless to say, Hirschfeld's work was controversial at the time, and it still is. Critics have claimed that some of his financial support came from closeted but prominent German homosexuals whom he blackmailed. Others complain that his belief that homosexuality was hormonal opened the door for others who were seeking a cure for homosexuality. Though he was immensely popular in some circles, in others he was reviled intensely. Gatherings at which he spoke came under attack from anti-gay groups, and in one instance, in 1921, his skull was fractured and he was left lying in the street.

In 1919, under the more liberal atmosphere of the newly founded Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld opened the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin. His Institut housed his immense library on sex and provided educational services and medical consultations. People from around Europe visited the Institut to gain a clearer understanding of their sexuality. Christopher Isherwood writes about his visit to the Institut in his book "Christopher and His Kind." The Institut also housed the Museum of Sex, an educational resource for the public which it is reported that school classes visited. The Institut is depicted in Rosa von Praunheim's film "The Einstein of Sex."

When the Nazis took power, one of their first actions, on May 6, 1933, was to destroy the Institut and burn the library. (The pictures you see of Nazi book-burnings are usually pictures of Hirschfeld's books ablaze.) Fortuitously, Hirschfeld had left Germany on a world speaking tour in 1930. He never returned, dying in exile in Nice in 1935.