The Nazi Regime Set the Trans Rights Movement Back Decades. Here’s How.
After World War I, a relatively open LGBTQ culture flourished in Germany. Though there were anti-sodomy laws in place, the police didn’t really bother to enforce them, so queer people were relatively free to live and socialize in public.
But it was more than just a good time. LGBTQ-friendly science in fields like medicine and psychology blossomed, too. Researchers didn’t simply shun queer sexuality as they had before. Now they were actually interested in studying it.
There were the inevitable attempts to “cure” homosexuality, of course, with bizarre surgical procedures that included castration and testicle transplants. But there were bright spots, too.
One of those bright spots was a doctor named Magnus Hirschfeld, a groundbreaking sexologist. Stonewall Society writes that Hirschfeld was Jewish, gay, liked wearing women’s clothing (and created the word “transvestitism”) and was a foot fetishist to boot. Hirschfeld saw sexuality as a natural phenomenon worthy of academic research, as opposed to a shameful thing.
During his lifetime, Hirschfeld wrote and collected a ton of texts about queer sexuality, including many works about trans identity. Hirschfeld’s colleagues practiced gender reassignment surgery.
Because of this, Hirschfeld was repeatedly attacked during his lifetime, too.
As the Nazis came into power, Hirschfeld was attacked over and over again. His skull was broken in one incident. He was eventually forced into exile.
But Hirschfeld’s research came under attack, too. In 1933, Hitler’s brownshirts broke into Hershfeld’s institute, burning his collected literature. Many of these were rare books, difficult (if not impossible) to replace.
When Hirschfeld was out of Germany on tour, the Nazi student group marched on the Institute. Over 20,000 books were set aflame, as well as medical diagrams and photographs crucial to understanding sex reassignment surgery. Hirschfeld and his colleagues were Jewish, but it wasn’t just that. Hitler also publicly raged against the “vice” of homosexuality and the “degenerate” lives of transsexuals.
When students learn about World War II in school, they hear about the Nazi book burnings, but many are not taught that some of those books contained medical research dealing with LGBTQ care by some of the leading minds on the subject. It’s very possible that the state of trans rights (and understanding) would be further along if not for the Nazi regime of the 1920s–40s.
Were you aware of the Nazi regime’s efforts to set back trans rights?
This article was originally published on January 19, 2021. It has since been updated.