Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld is a pioneer; he dedicated his life to the humanization of homosexuals and was the first to use the term transsexuality.
Between 1871 and 1994, paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code made homosexuality punishable by imprisonment. It was between World War I and World War II more specifically, that Germany saw the rise of fascism that culminated in Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933. However, while this part of history is more readily known, less often is the parallel liberal movement that so exasperated the extreme right discussed. At that time in Europe, many doctors were beginning to explore the possibility that, medically, one cannot ignore what happens in the brain, that the mind is a valid source of information about the patient’s torments.
Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld was one of those pioneers; he dedicated his life to the humanization of homosexuals and was the first to use the term transsexuality. Throughout his life, through science, he worked to normalize, educate, and protect practices that were then considered abnormal or even disgusting. He collected the testimonies of the transgender people he met and worked actively for their social acceptance.
His experience in the army as a doctor on the front lines during the First World War gave him first-hand experience of the mistreatment of homosexual soldiers. He also had the opportunity to work with women who dressed as men so they could participate in combat. Himself Jewish and gay, he also received these people in his office and witnessed their suffering.
It was after he returned from the war, in 1919, that he created Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Science – the first institute of this type in the world. The institute was open to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. It offered group therapy, and information on sexually transmitted diseases (at the time, syphilis cognitively affects and kills those affected). Patients could sleep there if necessary or consult a well-stocked library. Taking advantage of the Institute’s prestige, he negotiated with the police to grant passes to those who were called transvestites in those days. He published several books and even participated in the production of the film Different from Others, in which he played himself interviewing homosexual soldiers.
Dr. Hirschfeld supervised Dr. Ludwig Levy-Lenz, who performed one of the first MTF surgeries on Lili Elbe. In 1933, the Institute was destroyed by the Nazis, the books burned, and the three doctors ended their lives in exile.
The history of sex reassignment surgery is a fascinating one. It begins with inspiring men and women who defy prejudice and twist the law to do what they believe is right. Early cases of MTF or FTM surgery can be difficult to trace as it often took place clandestinely and was sometimes covered up to protect the people involved. The history of sex change surgeons is the story of the liberation of morals.