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The gay Jewish German man who pioneered trans clinics

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Published: 14 May 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

The first gender affirmation surgeries took place in 1920s, at a facility headed by a gay Jewish man. The forgotten history of the institute offers both hope and a cautionary tale

THIS STORY BEGINS late one night in Berlin, on the cusp of the 20th century. Magnus Hirschfeld, a young doctor recently finished with his military service, found a German soldier on his doorstep. Distraught and agitated, the young man had come to confess himself an urning, a word used in Germany to refer to homosexual men. It explained the cover of darkness; to speak of such things was dangerous business.

Hirschfeld understood the soldier’s plight; he was, himself, both homosexual and Jewish. He had toured Europe, watched the unfolding trial against Oscar Wilde.

Hirschfeld did his best to comfort the man, but upon leaving his doctor, the soldier shot himself. It was the eve of his wedding, an event he could not face.

The soldier bequeathed his private papers to Hirschfeld, along with a letter: “the thought that you could contribute to [a future] when the German fatherland will think of us in more just terms,” he wrote, “sweetens the hour of death.”

Hirschfeld would be forever haunted by this needless loss; the soldier had called himself a “curse,” fit only to die, because the expectations of heterosexual norms, reinforced by marriage and law, made no room for his kind.

These heartbreaking stories, Hirschfeld wrote, “bring before us the whole tragedy [in Germany]; what fatherland did they have, and for what freedom were they fighting?”

In the aftermath of this lonely death, Hirschfeld left his practice to specialize in sexual health, and began a crusade for justice that would alter the course of queer history.

FULL STORY The forgotten history of the world’s first trans clinic (Scientific American)

Photo: Magnus Hirschfeld, right, and his protege and partner Li Shiu Tong, left, at the Fourth Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform, 1932 (Wellcome Images Wikimedia)

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