“Through Science to Justice”: The Story of Magnus Hirschfeld, a Gay Jewish Trailblazer

May 6, 2024

By Sy Silverman-Gitin

On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, as we face increased antisemitism and continued attacks on LGBTQ+ rights today, we draw strength from our ancestors, those who survived as well as those we lost. That list includes Magnus Hirschfeld—a gay Jewish doctor who innovated gender-affirming care in Germany in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, whose work was destroyed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. While he pioneered the field of sexology and LGBTQ+ research, we acknowledge the racist and sexist opinions he sometimes expressed. Though Dr. Hirschfeld leaves behind a complex legacy, his courage and spirit live on, inspiring critical life-saving and life-giving innovations. May Dr. Hirschfeld’s memory continue to be a blessing and inspire us with the courage to build a better world.

Magnus Hirschfeld was a Jewish German doctor and sexology expert in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although he never publicly declared his sexuality, his relationships with his partners, Karl Giese and later Li Shiu Tong, were an open secret. 

Hirschfeld was a trailblazer in many ways; he started the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1896, which lobbied for the repeal of the German penal code that criminalized homosexuality. He published papers and books arguing that queerness was an innate and natural part of human diversity, not an illness or aberration. He even co-wrote and acted in a film Anders als die Andern (‘Different From the Others‘) that had one of the first LGBTQ characters ever written for film. Perhaps his most important accomplishment was founding and running the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (‘Institute of Sexual Research’). 

The Institute was a beacon of scientific research, sexual education, gender-affirming medical treatment, and LGBTQ community throughout Europe and beyond. Hirschfeld brought together doctors who pioneered the first gender-affirming medical interventions, including surgery and hormone therapy. Trans people came from all over to access this life-saving treatment and be able to live as their authentic selves.

With tragic irony, the Nazi party formed the same year the Institute opened. As an outspoken liberal Jewish gay man, Hirschfeld and his work were frequently targeted. Just months after Hitler became Chancellor, (14 years after the Institute opened, and exactly 91 years ago this Holocaust Remembrance Day) the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi’s paramilitary wing, sacked the Institute. Four days later, every volume from the immense Institute library publicly burned in what would become the most well-known Nazi book-burning (although few now know it was the Institute library being burned). Hirschfeld, who was abroad at the time of the sacking, would die two years later in exile in France, his life’s work in ashes.

It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the loss of the Institute and its archives. It is impossible not to think about what kind of world we might be living in today if that research had survived and continued. It is impossible not to think of all of the queer and trans people who have died because they could not access the care they needed or because of the belief that who they are is wrong or unnatural. 

And yet, we are still here. We are still fighting. We have rebuilt our communities and our stores of knowledge. And just over 90 years later, I am extremely proud to be part of an extensive network of queer and trans scientists conducting research to better the health of our community. We may have been delayed, but never stopped. In the words of Magnus Hirschfeld, “through science to justice.”

Sy Silverman-Gitin (Sy/they) is a queer, trans, disabled, and Jewish public health researcher in New Jersey.

We’re grateful to have the legacy of Dr. Hirschfeld to inspire us, while we also challenge his regressive beliefs.

If you want to learn more about Dr. Hirschfeld’s story, we recommend this interview with Laurie Marhoefer, author of Racism and the Making of Gay Rights.