Any well-informed person will soon notice that the streets and pleasure spots of Berlin boast not just men and women in the accepted sense, but frequently also those who differ not just in their behaviour, but often their appearance as well, such that alongside the masculine and feminine one can almost speak of a third sex.
Over the years, Hirschfeld refined his terminology as his understanding deepened. He is credited with inventing the term transvestite in 1910, as well as creating and defining a range of categories that he referred to as “sexual intermediaries.” Hirschfeld , who was openly gay, sought not to pathologize the people he interviewed, but instead to foster a greater understanding of his own community. “Nothing is more attractive, and worthier of knowing and experiencing than people,” he wrote in “Transvestites: The Erotic Drive To Cross Dress.”
As fascism gained ground across Germany, Hirschfeld’s community quickly became a focal point for bigotry and violence, and Hirschfeld’s public profile made him a target. In 1920, he was beaten nearly to death by a group of Nazi youth; that same year, Hitler himself called Hirschfeld “Jewish swine.” The Institute’s events and speaking engagements were frequently marred by “heckling, stink bombs, and so on,” according to Simon LeVay’s 1996 book Queer Science. Meanwhile, as Hirschfeld’s celebrity increased abroad, he began to tour the world as an advocate and public intellectual; he became known as “the Einstein of sex.”
When Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the Institute was one of the first places his supporters singled out. On May 6, a mob of Nazi students raided the institute, seizing books and medical records and attacking patients and staff. Dora Ritcher, who worked there as a maid, was never seen again, and is presumed to have been killed. Seized records were burned at a public rally days later. Hirschfeld, who was on tour in Paris, watched on a newsreel in horror as his life’s work was reduced to ashes. Though he tried to rebuild the institute abroad, his health rapidly declined, and in 1935, two years after the Institute was ransacked, he died of cardiac arrest.
THE MODERN BACKLASH
On April 23, Caitlyn Jenner announced that she was running for Governor of California as a Republican. In an interview with TMZ a week later, the former Olympian announced her support for barring trans girls from competing in girls’ sports, calling it a “question of fairness.” However, Jenner’s claims that trans women have an unfair advantage in sports have been widely disputed by the scientific community. “Are trans athletes winning everything? — [it’s] simple. That’s not the case,” Dr. Eric Vilain explained in an interview with NPR. “Every sport requires different talents and anatomies for success. So I think we should focus on celebrating this diversity rather than focusing on relative notions of fairness.”
Jenner’s comments and the political movement they represent are a reminder that despite a century of progress since Magnus Hirschfeld was first attacked in the street, much of the world is still hostile to the LGBT+ community. Gender-affirming care is often inaccessible to those who might need it, while conversion therapy is still legal in 23 states. Queer and trans people are still more likely to face violence and homelessness than straight people. More than 50 years after the first uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, where LGBT people rose up in protest against police violence, Vice reported that New York City police officers arrived at Pride celebrations this year in riot gear.