Hirschfeld and early rights activism

German doctor studied gender and sexuality and coined ‘transsexual’ term in 1920s

The ongoing campaign against trans rights often depicts trans activism as something new and dangerous, overturning convention and years of settled science. In fact, the scientific study of trans people is over a century old, and is inextricably linked to study of gender and sexuality. The term transsexual was coined by the German doctor and researcher Magnus Hirschfeld in 1923.

In his medical practice, Hirschfeld became deeply affected by the suffering of his patients, many of whom self-harmed or even killed themselves. He used anonymous questionnaires to collect statistical evidence that Germany’s anti-homosexual legislation was so repressive that it encouraged suicidal thoughts in almost all gay people, with a quarter actually attempting suicide. When a soldier that he was treating killed himself in 1896, Hirschfeld founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific Humanitarian Committee), the world’s first LGBT rights group. He also published a pseudonymous pamphlet, Socrates and Sappho, in which a gay man took his life rather than be forced into marriage.

The Komitee began a campaign to repeal Paragraph 175, the law that criminalised homosexuality, arguing that it opened gay men to blackmail. Their petition gained 6,000 signatures from German intellectuals including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, but the associated legislation failed to clear the Reichstag. Through this effort, Hirschfeld met the feminist Helene Stöcker. Both were convinced that the struggles for women's, gay and trans liberation were intertwined and joined forces to repeal laws banning women working in the public sector from having children. Hirschfeld published Berlins Drittes Geschlect (Berlin's Third Gender) in 1904, exploring the transgender community in the German capital.

Blackmailed or outed

Meanwhile, efforts to repeal Paragraph 175 continued. Between 1906 and 1907 six German military officers killed themselves and dozens more were court-martialled after being blackmailed or outed as gay. A series of scandals and libel trails ensued when prominent members of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s entourage were drawn into the accusations. Hirschfeld was an expert witness in one trial, in which he gave his professional opinion that Gen Kuno von Moltke was gay. Hirschfeld hoped that identifying a member of the military and aristocratic elite would help his campaign, although in this he was disappointed. Hirschfeld, as a gay Jew, came under attack from the German nationalist movement, and had to retract his evidence at a later trial.


After the first World War, Hirschfeld felt optimistic about the tolerant atmosphere of the Weimar Republic. In 1919, he co-wrote the film Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), in which a gay violinist is driven to suicide after being blackmailed. Hirschfeld played a fictionalised version of himself, giving speeches which reassured the audience that homosexuality was natural. That year he also opened the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin, which aimed to bring together scientific study, a safe space for marginalised groups and social activism.

Gender-affirmation surgery

Despite occasional struggles (Hirschfeld was attacked and left for dead on a Berlin street in 1920), the Institut was revolutionary. Hirschfeld issued "transvestite passes" to several trans people to prevent them being harassed by the police. Thousands of doctors and researchers used the Institut's library every year – it offered sexual health clinics and marriage guidance, organised feminist campaigns, and provided living space for LGBT people. Famous guests included WH Auden, Walter Benjamin and Sergei Eisenstein, while several transgender people also worked and lived in the building. Even more revolutionary was the Institut's gender-affirmation surgery. The first recorded patient was Dörchen Richter, but there were several others throughout the 1920s, including Lili Elbe, on whom the film The Danish Girl was based.

However, the collapse of Weimar democracy spelled disaster for the Institut. Legislation to repeal Paragraph 175 seemed set to pass in 1929, but increasingly right-wing governments changed the atmosphere dramatically and instead began enforcing law rigorously and attacking the Insitut. Hirschfeld lost faith in German liberalism and spent much time campaigning abroad. He was on tour when Hitler came to power in January 1933 and never returned to Germany. In May 1933, a Nazi-linked student group stormed the Institut building and assaulted staff, and the SA paramilitary group ransacked its library and archives. Indeed, the bulk of the volumes destroyed in the famous image of Nazi book-burning in the Opernplatz came from the Insitut.

Dr Stuart Mathieson is a postdoctoral fellow working in Dublin City University school of history and geography