A chapter of the LGBT liberation struggle

December 20, 2018

Isabelle Bartter uncovers an unremembered era of LGBT struggle with lessons for today. This article is drawn from a speech on Marxism and the struggle for queer and trans liberation at the New York City Marxism Conference in November.

MOST OF us have seen the photos of the Nazi Youth burning books in Berlin during the reign of fascism in Germany. It’s one of the most iconic photos from the Nazi era.

Maybe you’ve read the Teen Vogue article describing what some of those books were. For those who haven’t, this article is about the rise and fall of the Institute for Sexual Science and its founder Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld.

The common conception of gay liberation is that it really took off worldwide for the first time after the Stonewall uprising in New York City in 1969. This isn’t the case.

Knowing some history of a little-remembered period decades before Stonewall is helpful to understand the scope of LGBT liberation struggles — and, importantly for today, the stakes for our movement when the right is on the rise.


IN 1897, Hirschfeld and some colleagues founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (SHC), which had as its main objective the repeal of Paragraph 175 of the 1871 German Penal Code that criminalized male homosexual conduct.

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (at right) attends a party at the Institute for Sexual Science
Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (at right) attends a party at the Institute for Sexual Science

The SHC also printed pamphlets with titles like “What Must Our Nation Know About the Third Sex?” The committee spread this sex education information by leaving pamphlets in public places and on public transportation, even in public restrooms. Members went so far as to send out surveys to universities and factories to try to figure out what percentage of the population was gay. It was bold stuff for the turn of a previous century.

Hirschfeld went on to found the Institute for Sexual Science in 1919. The institute hired and housed a majority trans maintenance staff, something echoed later in the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries House in New York City founded in 1970.

These early sexologists, as they called themselves, were on the cutting edge of theory and medical practice, even by today’s standards. Hirschfeld argued that sexual desire and gender identity should be thought of as separate — for example, in the book Die Transvestiten, published in 1912.

He and other doctors at the institute counseled all types of patients, from queer people struggling with their identity to straight married people looking for couples counseling. Importantly, they also pioneered gender affirming surgery and hormone replacement therapy, which they provided in exchange for work at the institute in some cases.

In 1925, a U.S. doctor named William Robinson who visited the institute wrote an article that asked:

Is an urge which exists in a man from his early childhood and which leads him to commit suicide if he is unable to satisfy it just a whim or a vice? (For not a few transvestites have committed suicide on account of their inability to “live their life.”) Is it not rather something inborn, something which is stronger than themselves, stronger than their “will-power,” stronger than their fear of disgrace and of punishment? A peculiarity — Dr. Hirschfeld refuses to use “abnormality,” employing the word “variant” instead — that is so powerful it needs to be treated differently than by brutal prison sentences.

Russia’s Bolsheviks were also influenced by Hirschfeld. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Bolshevik physicians visited the institute and participated in the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Europe. Bolsheviks joined the World League for Sexual Reform, attending its large congresses in Berlin in 1921, Copenhagen in 1928 and Vienna in 1930.

The Bolsheviks’ position on homosexuality, as Grigorii Bakkis put it, was:

The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October Revolution. This revolution is important not only as a political phenomenon which secures the political role of the working class. But also for the revolutions which evolving from it reach out into all areas of life...

[Soviet legislation] declares absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one’s interests are encroached upon. Concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against morality — Soviet legislation treats these exactly as so-called “natural” intercourse.”


FOR FOUR decades, a sexual and gender liberation movement was bubbling up in Europe. But in 1933, with Adolf Hitler appointed chancellor and the Nazis taking power, the Institute for Sexual Science came under attack.

In May, a mob of Nazis invaded the institute and looted more than 20,000 books from its shelves. The books were burned by the Nazi Youth. The institute was destroyed, and Hirschfeld was driven into exile in France.

At the turn of the 20th century in Berlin, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was issuing identification documents to cross-dressers to prevent police harassment. More than 50 years later in New York City, laws against cross-dressing were part of what sparked the Stonewall riots. We may never understand what ground was lost in that half century.

This is an illustration of what is at stake for queer and trans liberation if fascism is allowed to spread unopposed.

The gains made by those working for LGBT rights and equality in the era before the Second World War were erased by the Nazi Party in Germany, by McCarthyism and the Hays Code in the U.S., by the Stalinist regime in Russia and countless other reactionary forces throughout the world.

Societies that were widely permissive and open became home to some of the worst examples of homophobia and transphobia known in history. This took its most abhorrent form with the tens of thousands of LGBT people experimented on and killed in the Nazi concentration camps.

To prevent history from repeating itself, we must build a strong and principled left capable of fighting all forms of oppression, beating back the global fascist threat and confronting all forms of homophobia and transphobia, whether their source is mainstream political forces or TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and other supposed “leftists.”

In What Is to Be Done, the Russian revolution Lenin writes that socialists must “respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, from a socialist point of view and no other.” Unfortunately, this position isn’t universal even on the left. It is our job to organize for it.

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