Out on the Town Magnus Hirschfeld and Berlin’s Third Sex
Years before the Weimar Republic’s well-chronicled freedoms, the 1904 non-fiction study Berlin’s Third Sex depicted an astonishingly diverse subculture of sexual outlaws in the German capital. James J. Conway introduces a foundational text of queer identity that finds Magnus Hirschfeld — the “Einstein of Sex” — deploying both sentiment and science to move hearts and minds among a broad readership.
June 7, 2022
By the time Magnus Hirschfeld died in exile on May 14, 1935 — his sixty-seventh birthday — the German sexologist had already witnessed his own annihilation at least twice over. Presumed dead after a brutal attack by far-right thugs in early Weimar-era Munich, he got to read his own obituary in the newspaper while convalescing. And years later, shortly after the Nazi takeover of Germany, an exiled Hirschfeld viewed a newsreel of the first major book burning, which showed the SA not only casting decades of his research onto the pyre, but a bust of Hirschfeld himself.
Magnus Hirschfeld was born to a Jewish family in the Prussian spa town of Kolberg in 1868, but the man whose investigation of difference so incensed his countrymen came forth on a later birthday — May 14, 1897 — when Hirschfeld formed the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee at his medical practice in Berlin. Arising out of culturally conservative Wilhelmine Germany, this Committee was the world’s first gay activist group, from which Hirschfeld later emerged as one of history’s most important figures in the study of gender and sexuality.
The Committee’s charter called for public enlightenment, and its first major product was the 1899 Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (Yearbook for Sexual Intermediaries), which appeared in annual editions for a quarter of a century and totalled more than 11,000 pages. Academic in tone, it forthrightly claimed homosexuality to be in-born, tracked the development of a corresponding homosexual identity through the long stream of history, and mapped its contemporary forms. The first issue opened with an article by Hirschfeld himself, appended with a reader survey (“Were your parents or grandparents blood relations?”, “Can you point to a reason for your abnormal feelings?”, “Are your ears large, protruding, small, delicate?”). It also included a study of blackmailers, an article outing the nineteenth-century poet Platen, and a petition signed by hundreds of distinguished figures calling for the repeal of the German Criminal Code’s notorious Paragraph 175, which banned “unnatural fornication” between men.
Hirschfeld fought all his life to have Paragraph 175 struck off. It not only shadowed his own existence as a gay man; through his practice the doctor also saw its devastating impact on men who lived in fear and shame, prey to blackmailers. Who else, after all, would report a consensual sex act to the authorities? But as those names on the petition indicate, there was more support for abolition than one might expect. In 1898, August Bebel, head of Germany’s Social Democrats, became the first politician to speak out in favour of gay law reform; particularly striking was his insistence that gay men were to be found in large numbers at every social level.
No one knew this better than Hirschfeld himself, the antithesis of the cloistered academic. He went out into society, actively participated in the lives of the people he was writing about — not just gay men but a full spectrum of lesbians, bisexuals, trans men and women, cross-dressers of all persuasions — then went back, analysed, formulated, and reappeared before the public with his findings. Hirschfeld’s friend, writer Else Lasker-Schüler, referred to him as a “father confessor”, but his transgression in the eyes of credentialed colleagues and the conservative mainstream was to have breached the sanctity of the confessional, or the academy in this instance.
Hirschfeld’s laboratory was queer Berlin — its beats, balls, and bars. Unique among German urban centres, the capital entered the twentieth century as a metropolis. It had experienced phenomenal growth, multiplying twentyfold in a century; in global comparison, only London, New York, and Paris were larger. To both settled Berliners and newcomers the city offered not just material opportunity, but the promise of transformation, or revelation — the prospect of sympathetic company in which to bare one’s true self. It had supported a gay underground since at least the time of Frederick the Great, when Austrian author Johann Friedel indignantly reported on the city’s male brothels in his 1782 Briefe über die Galanterien von Berlin (Letters on the Libertinage of Berlin). In Hirschfeld’s day, the chief of Berlin’s police, Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem, eschewed open confrontation with the city’s sizeable sexual minority and instead maintained a policy of containment and observation — a key factor in the development of a confident, diverse subculture.
But Berlin’s rapid expansion had rendered the city a stranger to itself. Hans Ostwald, an ambitious writer a few years younger than Hirschfeld, sought to chart the furthest reaches of the modern city, and the result was one of the most expansive accounts of urban experience ever undertaken — the Großstadt-Dokumente (Metropolis Documents). Beginning in 1904 with Ostwald’s own Dunkle Winkel in Berlin (Dark Corners in Berlin), a study of vagrants, and ending four years later with the shiny nouveau riche revels of Edmund Edel’s Neu-Berlin, the fifty-one editions fed the voracious curiosity of the Bildungsbürgertum — the educated middle class. Viewed together, the Metropolis Documents resemble a compendious study of a distant colony, especially in the row of imposing cloth-bound thematic convolutes which collated five volumes each. But it was the alien customs of modern, urban life that the Metropolis Documents mapped, with a particular focus on the disadvantaged and marginalised — prostitutes, bohemians, single mothers, gamblers, spiritualists, alcoholics, and criminals — as well as civil servants, teachers, seamstresses, musicians, actors, athletes, and bankers. Three quarters of the titles were about Berlin (with brief digressions to Hamburg, Vienna, and St Petersburg). And when Ostwald sought to depict the lives of sexual outlaws in the German capital, he turned to Magnus Hirschfeld.
The resulting 1904 volume was by some distance the most successful of the Metropolis Documents. Today, few works emerge from the archives with the urgency of Hirschfeld’s Berlins Drittes Geschlecht (Berlin’s Third Sex). To be fair, it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere; it wasn’t even the first Hirschfeld text to address the “third sex” — at the dawn of the new century he had issued a pamphlet for a broad readership entitled “What People Should Know about the Third Sex”. The “third sex” was a label of convenience at a time when Hirschfeld’s studies were still blurring distinctions between gender and sexuality, conflating them with physiological characteristics. In his research into sexual attraction he would soon settle on the notion of a continuum — decades before Alfred Kinsey — noting that to be positioned at either extreme, heterosexual or homosexual, was the exception rather than the rule. Hirschfeld was hardly alone: a large number of German works at the time examined this “third sex”, in fiction and non-fiction, but with little consensus on what the category actually encompassed: lesbians and gay men? Trans men and women? Emancipated women, perhaps? Hirschfeld’s preferred label for gay and trans individuals — a distinction not always clear at the time — was “Urning” (uranian), but he evidently adopted the more modish term “third sex” to lure as broad a readership as possible.
Duly lured, readers of Berlin’s Third Sex were confronted with a whole fête galante of misfits, deviants, and sexual mutineers cavorting on the legal edgelands of society. There’s the “gathering of obviously homosexual princes, counts and barons” discussing Wagner, the women-only ball where a “dark-eyed Carmen sets a jockey aflame”, the drag act burlesquing Isadora Duncan, a café in the city’s north where Jewish lesbians play chess, gaggles of gay labourers meeting up to gossip before tending to their needlework, the Russian baron distributing alms to hustlers in the Tiergarten, a canal-side tavern where soldiers from the nearby barracks find gay men only too willing to pick up their tab, and the encrypted classified ads with which the lonesome and horny sought to make the vast metropolis just a little smaller.
There is suffering, yes, there is despair and self-harm and ostracism. But Berlin’s Third Sex also offers something you may not expect of Wilhelmine Berlin — fun. To encounter Hirschfeld’s report today is to experience an electric charge of recognition. With its all-night parties, pansexual drag, and campy stage personas, with its elaborate codes of communication, layers of irony, and pop culture references, it reads like a dress rehearsal, in starched collars, for modern Western queer life. And for Herr and Frau Heterosexual Reader of the time, all of these exotic, dissident elements placed the subculture of “inverts” at a comforting distance.
I knew a uranian lawyer who, on leaving his office near Potsdamer Platz of an evening, or taking leave of a gathering of his associates, would seek out a tavern at the southern end of Friedrichstadt, a dive bar where he would gamble, drink and carouse the night away with “Revolver Heini”, “Butcher Herrmann”, “Yankee Franzi”, “Mad Dog” and other Berlin apaches. The raw nature of these criminals exert an irresistible attraction.
There was a cunning alchemy to Hirschfeld’s slim volume. He took the base alloy of prurience and contempt and transformed it into the noble metal of enlightenment. As Hirschfeld moves from breathless encounters in windowless bars to loving same-sex partnerships in banal domestic settings, he flips the focus from exoticism to familiarity. The couples in Berlin’s Third Sex maintain an understandable discretion, but otherwise the fact of their gender is pressed to the margins until it almost disappears from significance. It was as though Hirschfeld had tempted audiences to a freak show only to reveal the bearded lady brushing her teeth. There is little evidence in the book of Hirschfeld’s extensive research into sexual practices, which appears to be a conscious authorial decision, one that aligned his potentially explosive work more closely with the popular literature of the day.
As Hirschfeld draws out the tragedy that shadowed many queer lives at the time, his deployment of pathos can seem overripe to present-day sensibilities. In one section about a gay Christmastime gathering, he relays the lugubrious musings of the attendees:
Many think about their shattered hopes, what they could have achieved if old prejudices had not hindered their progress, and others in respectable positions ponder the heavy lie they must live. Many think about their parents who are dead – or for whom they are dead – and all in deepest sorrow think of the woman they loved most of all and who loved them most of all – their mother.
But this markedly sentimental, slightly mannered tone made his account far more accessible to the average reader. It also reflected Hirschfeld’s emotional investment in the subject matter. The only other volume that the doctor penned for Ostwald’s series — Die Gurgel Berlins (Berlin’s Gullet, 1907) — offers an instructive contrast. It addressed the city’s alcohol problem, replacing the anecdotal evidence of Berlin’s Third Sex with empirical data and an overall sense of distance from the topic at hand (Hirschfeld himself was largely teetotal).
While much of Berlin’s Third Sex is concerned with expressions of same-sex attraction, it also addresses those living contrary to their assigned gender, such as the individual Hirschfeld refers to as “Miss X”: legally female, mannish enough to attract attention in public, and living entirely as a man at home. Hirschfeld saw that denial of their identity was leading (individuals we now call) trans men and women to depression, even suicide. One of Hirschfeld’s most powerful contributions here — even in advance of the clinical assistance he would later offer — was to acknowledge that trans people exist, and always have.
The conclusion to Berlin’s Third Sex, the mission statement of his crusade, crowns sentiment and science with simple justice: “I stress, to avoid any confusion, that these demands on behalf of homosexuals relate to nothing more than what adults in free agreement do with each other”; he goes on to explicitly condemn violence and infringements of the rights of third parties, including minors. In Berlin’s Third Sex, Hirschfeld not only offers a vital piece of queer history both panoramic and intimate: he places a pin in the map marking the spot where majority Western consensus would only arrive about a century later.
Around the time of Berlin’s Third Sex, a split in the early gay movement pitted Hirschfeld against splenetic activist Adolf Brand, who drew on the “individual anarchy” of Max Stirner (an early run-through of libertarianism) and — even further back — a model of erotic mentorship inspired by ancient Greece. In 1896, Brand had launched the world’s first gay journal, Der Eigene, which wasn’t so much the organ of a liberation movement as an invitation to a secret society comprised of a classically-educated, exclusively male elite.
In their feud, Brand set his own “Nordic” purity against Hirschfeld’s “Oriental” decadence, a motif which recurred when Hirschfeld’s profile as an authority on sexual minorities expanded. Hirschfeld’s questioning of long-cherished truths discomfited wider society, and bigots conflated his campaign with the outer and inner revolutions of Marx and Freud as a great Jewish conspiracy to undo all that the upright citizen held dear. The antisemitic abuse reached a provisional peak in 1907 when Hirschfeld was called as a key witness in the trials that constituted the “Harden-Eulenburg Affair”, which centred on homosexuality in the highest imperial circles. A caricature from this time shows Hirschfeld shouting and beating a drum; his offence in the eyes of the Wilhelmine mainstream was drawing attention to homosexuality, labelling it an identity rather than an activity, a destiny rather than a decision, and — like August Bebel — revealing that it was far more common than generally assumed. Society now stood unhappily disabused of the consoling fiction that sexual difference was a freakish anomaly, a vile act begat of weakness of character, carried out in some untroubling elsewhere. Magnus Hirschfeld became the lightning rod for an entire country’s anxieties about sexuality and gender. Undeterred, Hirschfeld took a closer look at gender dysphoria and the phenomenon of erotic cross-dressing in his 1910 book Die Transvestiten, which introduced the term “transvestite” to the world. The following year he joined forces with feminist Helene Stöcker to — successfully — prevent the scope of Paragraph 175 being expanded to include lesbians.
While he advocated for the acceptance of difference in the realms of sexuality and race, Hirschfeld had, at least for a time, less open views when it came to individuals thought to have “inferior” genetic stock. In 1913, Hirschfeld helped found the Medical Society for Sexology and Eugenics (Ärztliche Gesellschaft für Sexualwissenschaft und Eugenik), embracing the latter theory as a way to combat hereditary illness and as a tool for supposed social welfare. Hirschfield’s approach wasn’t as extreme as some of his fellow practitioners, who advocated for government-issued health certificates verifying a person’s “suitability” for parenthood — excluding alcoholics, for example, who might pass on their condition to future generations. For Hirschfeld, a better approach was a free exchange of medical history among engaged couples. More unfortunate and misguided was the doctor’s research into “degenerative signs” — bodily features, like facial asymmetry, that he believed could be used to detect hereditary ills, with an aim to discourage passing these onto the next generation. Later, as the Nazis championed eugenics, Hirschfeld finally recognised the potential and actual dangers of the theory, arguing forcibly against it.
By contrast, his consultations at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research), which Hirschfeld operated in Berlin throughout the Weimar Republic, advanced well beyond theory. Here he gave sexual minorities a vocabulary, helping to remove stigma and taboo as well as offering entirely practical interventions to patients like Lili Elbe, the “Danish Girl” — pioneering surgery, hormone treatment, even hair removal. Hirschfeld didn’t believe in a gay liberation without recognition of trans men and women (even if he didn’t use those terms), and none of this was to be accomplished at the expense of feminism. Hirschfeld was utterly tireless in this activism, taking any route — petitions, academic papers, books, international lectures, even feature films — that might lead to public enlightenment.
As Elena Mancini reveals in Magnus Hirschfeld and the Quest for Sexual Freedom (2010), there is a strain of expansive idealism apparent throughout Hirschfeld’s life away from his headline, hot-button concerns; at just sixteen, for instance, he wrote an essay proposing the “Dream of a World Language”. At the dawn of the twentieth century, he was a member of Berlin’s anarcho-utopian Neue Gemeinschaft (New Community), along with Hans Ostwald and Else Lasker-Schüler, as well as Gustav Landauer, Erich Mühsam, and Martin Buber. The group typified a deep yet rarely acknowledged strain of radical thinking in Wilhelmine Germany. These visionaries were exiles from the Zukunftsstaat (Future State), a concept which carried the suggestion that, like Shangri-La, the ideal society was a location you could reach if only you had the right coordinates. Best known for his examination of sexual difference, Hirschfeld ultimately espoused a unity through plurality, an abolition of hierarchies in diametrical opposition to social Darwinism.
So by the time fascism had arrived as a political force in Germany it wasn’t just Hirschfeld’s Jewishness or his defence of sexual difference that placed him in danger; he had in fact formulated a conception of human relations antithetical to Nazism in almost every regard. Fortunately Hirschfeld was already abroad when Hitler assumed power in 1933; he never returned but lived long enough to see the Nazis tighten Paragraph 175. It was only definitively struck from the statutes in 1994, after reunification — almost sixty years after Magnus Hirschfeld’s death.
As I was preparing my translation of Berlin’s Third Sex for print in 2017, Germany’s parliament voted in favour of marriage equality. This would no doubt have pleased a time-traveling Magnus Hirschfeld. As a world citizen, however, he would also note that to be gay in the present day can mean being prime minister or being stoned to death in the town square, contingent purely on the accident of birthplace. As reactionary forces seek to claw back hard-won civil advances around the globe, Hirschfeld’s achievements only become clearer, his message of radical acceptance more urgent, his embrace of variance more inspiring.
James J. Conway was born in Sydney and now lives in Berlin where he is a translator from German to English, both commercial and literary. In the latter capacity he has translated and published eight books for Rixdorf Editions, most recently Three Prose Works by Else Lasker-Schüler. He has written for publications such as the Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as his own repository of alternative cultural history, Strange Flowers.