History | Berlin’s Einstein of Sex

One night in 2004, a German researcher named Ralf Dose was up late drunk Googling when he stumbled upon a post that nearly gave him a heart attack.

The post began:

“I’m looking for information concerning the psychologist and founder of the Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, and his assistant Li Shiu Tong.”

This query would seem rather pedestrian to the untrained eye but Ralf had already spent years scouring the web for traces of Hirschfeld — the most famous gay Jewish sexologist the world had never heard of — as well as his former lover, Li Shiu Tong.

The post went on to describe, vaguely yet tantalizingly, “papers and items” that “appear to be written by Hirschfeld.” The last sentence read: “I’m curious to know if they are of any significance or interest.”

If Ralf’s physical state at that moment was any indication, the items were indeed “of interest.” He began perspiring at the thought of seeing Hirschfeld’s sexology books or the enormous phallus the doctor had allegedly lugged back from Indonesia. However, the post had been written in 1994 — the year the Internet was born! — which made Ralf a bit pessimistic that he would actually be able to find said items.

It seems important to note here that Hirschfeld was a pretty big deal in his time. Before Harvey Milk, before Stonewall, before Kinsey, Hirschfeld’s radical ideas changed the way Germans thought about sexuality.  And then, just as his ideas were beginning to take hold, they were overshadowed by the ghastly events leading to the Second World War.  It was still shocking to find remnants of Hirschfeld’s life in far flung places, even though Ralf knew the doctor traveled a lot after being expelled from Germany in the 1930’s.

Feeling more sober already, Ralf Googled around for the email address of the person who’d posted. The man, who lived in Toronto, replied almost immediately to Ralf’s email with a photo of Hirschfeld’s suitcase. “At this point, I had another heart attack,” Ralf said. Among the contents were a mask that had been formed from Hirschfeld’s face after his death, photographs and copies of rare journals.

Hirschfeld’s suitcase. Photo credit Adam Smith.

The items had been tossed away by Li Shiu Tong, Hirschfeld’s ex-lover. Maybe. It wasn’t clear. The only thing that seemed clear was that Ralf should find out where Li’s family lived in Canada.

After requesting and receiving Li’s will in the mail (Canadian bureaucrats being the more accommodating sort), Ralf knew he had to fly to Canada to find Li’s family and see if they knew anything about more documents Hirschfeld may have left behind.

Being from the non-profit world, he didn’t have the cash, but he did have connections in Berlin that might want to help. He told Dr. Sermann Simon of the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin that some of Hirschfeld’s belongings were still in Canada. “Simon kindly suggested that I book a flight immediately and send him the bill,” Ralf said.

 Hirschfeld and Li Shiu Tong

Hirschfeld lived in 1920’s Berlin, when the German capital was a city of cabaret and Bauhaus architecture, smoky salons and freshly-maimed WWI veterans.

He was a complicated man: in favor of the legalization of prostitution, ambivalent about abortion, atheistic, non-monogamous. He was, like many successful civil rights leaders, fiercely devoted to equality but also wary of alienating anyone with fiery, antagonistic rhetoric.

Instead, he would devote a considerable chunk of his life trying to prove the biological basis of homosexuality. Hirschfeld, who was a practicing physician, believed intuitively that if the public had a better understanding of the science of homosexuality — that it occurred in nature, and wasn’t a choice — they wouldn’t be so hostile to homosexuals.

While Berlin had a progressive, if tumultuous, social climate, the German penal code known as Paragraph 175 banned homosexual intercourse and kept gay relations in the shadows. Hirschfeld organized the first Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which campaigned for the social and legal inclusion of homosexuality as well as a repeal of the anti-gay law.

The gay community in Germany wasn’t initially receptive to Hirschfeld’s “gay science.” Some thought that emphasizing their difference from straight people would cause the public to see gays as mentally disabled. Despite this, Hirschfeld petitioned the government for the repeal of the law with a bill that collected over 5,000 signatures, including Albert Einstein’s.

But Hirschfeld wasn’t just an agitator for gay civil rights; he was also a practicing physician focused on the gay, bi and trans community of 1920’s Berlin.  Hirschfeld, naturally, didn’t believe in reparative therapy for gays, but he did use the word “cure” in relation to the homosexual condition. However, his ‘cure’ for homosexuality was to bring patients to “like-minded people of high standards,” Ralf explained. In other words, if you were gay, the cure for your ills was to meet cool people who weren’t bigoted.  Hirschfeld was able to point to what we now see as glaringly obvious: gay people weren’t “sick”; society was.

He was also ahead of his time when it came to what we now call the “spectrum” theory of human sexuality. In one of the numerous papers he would publish, Hirschfeld enumerated on a wide range of possible sexual and social predispositions, devising 64 possible types, ranging from feminine heterosexual male to masculine homosexual.

That said, not all of Hirschfeld’s ideas would pan out. For one, he believed that hormones secreted by the testicles caused male homosexuality.  He also, unfortunately, sort of bought into Eugenics, or the belief that people who have messed-up genes shouldn’t procreate (although he didn’t believe in sterilization or euthanasia).

Some of his nuttier ideas turned out to be true, though. For instance, his observation that lesbian women have a greater difference in length between their ring finger and index finger than straight women was verified by researchers in California in 2000.

One of the gay bars in 1920’s Berlin. (c) Bundesarchive

In 1919, Hirschfeld founded what can only be described as a conservative’s worst nightmare: the Institute for Sexual Research. Doctors at the Institute performed the first sex-change operation in the world. They also exempted folks from military service due to their sexual “predisposition,” officially changed the genders of “pseudo-hemaphrodites,” and consulted the court in cases of a wide range of “offenders,” including those accused of having illegal gay sex.

The six beds on the top floor of the Institute functioned as a kind of gay hostel, with Hirschfeld’s staff taking out-of-town patients to gay bars and showing them just how fabulous a gay life in Berlin could be.

Ralf, now in his 60’s, founded the Magnus Hirschfeld Society in 1982 when funds were being dutifully allocated to various programs to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Nazi’s rise to power. In the beginning, the society didn’t know many of the details about the work Hirschfeld had done; everything from Hirschfeld’s voluminous collection of books on human sexuality (thought to number in the tens of thousands) to the Institute’s completed intake forms were looted and burned by storm troopers.

Slowly, they began piecing things together. They started publicizing lectures about Hirschfeld’s life and talking to everyone who came. After one lecture, they met a transexual living in Berlin who had been one of Hirschfeld’s first patients. Dr. Liefeld, a gynecologist in New York who also contacted the society, had been to Hirschfeld’s congresses and remembered him well.

The society estimates that thousands of people visited the Institute before it was looted and destroyed by the Nazi. Still, it wasn’t easy to find first-person accounts. When pressed for more details about Hirschfeld one interviewee replied, “I was too busy chasing young boys.  If I had known  that later researchers would have been interested in the old doctors I saw in Berlin, I would have paid better attention.”


Raid on the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute for Sexual Science May 6, 1933 (c) Magnus Hirschfeld Gesellschaft.

In May, 1933, Brownshirts ransacked the Institute, burning or destroying many of Hirschfeld’s books and documents.  By this point, Hirschfeld (thankfully) had left Germany on a speaking tour that took him around the world. In San Francisco, he was hailed as “The Einstein of Sex” and in New York thousands of people heard him speak.

Despite the crowds, very few of the English papers wrote about him. Those who did write about Hirschfeld focused on his ideas about eugenics and how scientists will one day be able to reform marriage by matching partners based on their genes and common interests. They didn’t mention Hirschfeld’s views on homosexuality.

Still, there’s no doubt that Hirschfeld left an imprint on the gay community in the U.S. Henry Gerber, attached to the Allied Army of Occupation following World War I, had visited Hirschfeld’s Institute in the 1920’s and absorbed many of Hirschfeld’s ideas. Upon his return to the United States, Gerber was inspired to form the Chicago-based Society for Human Rights in 1924, the first known gay rights organization in the U.S.

Ralf flew to Toronto to collect Hirschfeld’s suitcase and then to Vancouver to meet with the family of Hirschfeld’s former lover, Li.  After showing Ralf around Chinatown, Li’s family invited him to look at Hirschfeld’s books. He wanted to find out more about Li’s last years, but the family wouldn’t tell him much. Mr. Li, his younger brother, put it thusly: “My brother was a strange man — he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke and he didn’t like women.” Ralf answered, “I’m a bit strange, too — but I drink.”

The family made an offer for the books that was too high, perhaps realizing that anyone who would fly halfway around the world to look at a deceased person’s belongings would have the cash to secure them.

But Ralf was working on his own. The Society had never had very much money, even to pay rent on their diminutive apartment in Berlin.

Ralf found out that Li Shiu Tong had lived alone in an apartment on Barclay Street, between downtown and boystown. The family said that Li had played tennis, “though I couldn’t find his tennis partner.” Ralf called every cemetery in Vancouver before he found Li’s grave. On his last day in gray Canada, he laid flowers on Li Shiu Tong’s headstone in Forest Lawn Memorial Park “to honor a true friend.”

When Ralf began searching for Hirschfeld’s heritage, it was common belief that few — if any — of Hirschfeld’s personal belongings or items from his Institute for Sexual Science had survived the war. After 30 years of research, Ralf knows this to be untrue.

His exploration has taken him around the world.  In his search to secure the legacy of the magnanimous Magnus, he has stumbled across items both arcane and titillating (like Hirschfeld’s Japanese dildo collection). His mission? To rescue Hirschfeld from obscurity and restore his place in the cannon, right alongside Milk and Kinsey.

And why wouldn’t Hirschfeld belong there? His work changed the conversation about homosexuality and helped pave the way for today’s transgender movement. Though he struggled greatly against hostile social, political and cultural forces, he remained committed to the idea that all of humanity has a stake in sexual freedom.

It’s a message we’re still fighting for today.


Steven Blum is a writer and editor in Berlin. He has written for Tablet magazine, The Jewish Transcript, The Stranger, Blackbook Magazine and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

You can also hear Blum in Shtetl on the Shortwave’s special Berlin episode: Gypsy, Jewish & Gay where he shares his experiences in the gay dating scene in Berlin.  Follow him on Twitter @stevenblum.