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29 January 2017

Some recurring untruths in trans history: Hirschfeld as trans


“The story’s told/ With facts and lies”. Leonard Cohen. Nevermind – theme song to True Detective.

This is a new series analysing repeated untruths, canards, lies and misinformation with regard to trans history.

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Tim Armstrong in his Modernism, Technology, and the Body: A Cultural Study, 1998, page 167, writes of Magnus Hirschfeld “Himself homosexual (Like Haire) and transvestite, he was less dogmatic than Krafft-Ebing had been”. Of course Armstrong gives no citation or quote to support this.

Where does this canard come from, that Hirschfeld was trans. Yes, he was gay. We know of his two lovers, Karl Giese and Li Shiu Tong. But there is actually no gossip dating to Hirschfeld’s lifetime that suggests that he was trans. Christopher Isherwood lived in Hirschfeld’s institute and has no such gossip in his autobiography Christopher and his Kind: A Memoir, 1929-1939, published 1976.  And of course if there had been any such rumours, the Nazis would have delighted in repeating them.

Can we find this idea in a book or author that should know? There is Vern Bullough. Only a few months apart Bullough published two books that discuss Hirschfeld and crossdressing: Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993: 207-213, and Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research, Basic Books, 1994: 62-75. Given the vagaries of publishing we cannot know which was written first. In Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, Bullough starts his 6-page essay with “A physician, Hirschfeld was a self-avowed homosexual and reformer of sex laws, as well as a pioneer in the study of sexuality”. In Science in the Bedroom, Bullough starts his 14-page essay with “Undoubtedly influenced by his own homosexuality and transvestism ….”.  Again there is no footnote or any other citation for the claim that Hirschfeld was trans.

So did Bullough add the claim that Hircshfeld was trans in Science in the Bedroom, or did he have second thoughts and remove it in Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender? Nobody seems to have discussed this issue.

The other source is Find a Grave. Its Magnus Hirschfeld page says: “As a Jew living in a historically anti-Semitic country, and as a gay man and transvestite living at a time when homosexuality was still believed to be a form of mental illness, he knew the importance of being organized and having a voice …”. Of its nature, Find a Grave does not do citations.

Then of course there is the fact of Hirschfeld’s bushy moustache. Which is always there – not shaved off and grown back.   Now Edward D Wood had a trick at parties of disappearing and reappearing en femme, sometimes even shaving off his moustache to do so, but Hirschfeld's was a much more significant growth, and there is no record of it ever not being there.

Here is a photograph from Ralf Dose. Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement, 2014. Review  

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