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social sciences

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Hirschfeld, Magnus (1868-1935)  
 
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Since "in their primary disposition all human beings are with respect to their bodies and souls bisexual," the inexhaustible diversity of sexualities results not from qualitative, but from quantitative differences that are determined by the way the primary sexual disposition reacts to processes that hinder or advance its development.

Hirschfeld underlines that the later a particular sexual difference is developed, the more significant the influence the "residual" sex has on it. Whereas gradual deviations occur less frequently with regard to the primary sexual characteristics (such as the genitals), and more frequently with regard to the secondary ones (such as other physical characteristics), in the case of tertiary characteristics (such as sexual drive and psychological responses) deviations occur even more frequently, as is shown by the high incidence of sexual orientations at variance with the supposed norm.

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The Continuum of Nature

Hirschfeld chose as motto for his treatise Geschlechtsübergänge [Sexual Transitions] (1905) a quotation from the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: "Tout va par degrés dans la nature et rien par sauts" [In nature everything happens by degrees, nothing by leaps]. Applying this principle to sexuality, Hirschfeld concluded that all artificially separated sexual varieties prove to be transitions within the pervasive continuity of nature.

Contrary to the dichotomic, or either-or, scheme of sexual difference, the idea of sexual gradation allows in principle for infinite variations of sexual constitutions depending on the way the poles of the masculine and the feminine combine at each of the different levels of sexual description, which according to Hirschfeld include: (1) sexual organs, (2) other bodily sexual characteristics, (3) sexual drive, and (4) other psychological characteristics.

Since in this scheme sexual difference is not determined in relation to one single excluded alternative (male or female), but in relation to an open-ended system of as yet only partially realized combinations of the masculine and the feminine at the different descriptive layers, the sexuality of each and every individual is characterized by a unique complexity.

Sexual Identity and Narrativity

Having dispensed with the issue of fixed sexual identities, the doctrine of sexual intermediaries transforms the question of sexual (self-)identification into a continuous task that precludes final closure and in which categorizations can be, at most, provisional approximations that must be constantly adjusted.

Thus, the determination and expression of an individual's sexuality becomes a narrative of changing sexual differences as determined against the background of latencies and possibilities that underlie the sexual continuum of nature.

Even though Hirschfeld avoided thorough formulations concerning these theoretical consequences, his interest in the sexological aspect of biographies, along with his tireless efforts to refine his theory, make it apparent that he was guided by a concept of sexuality in which difference is not determined once and for all within a binary pattern, but is defined within the framework of potentially infinite sexual varieties, all differing from one another and undergoing change throughout the life of the individual.

Present Relevancy

Hirschfeld scholarship has systematically underrated and misrepresented his work. Hence, it is not surprising that he has been ignored in almost all substantial debates in gender, gay, lesbian, or queer studies. Indeed, most scholars working in these areas are barely aware that Geschlechtskunde [Sexual Science], the compendium of Hirschfeld's life work, foreshadows the most relevant insights that determine the scope of their own disciplines.

Indeed, Hirschfeld's "doctrine of sexual intermediaries" re-inscribes and re-interprets sexual difference more thoroughly than even the Freudian psychoanalytical literature and its post-modern derivatives. It anticipates the contention of contemporary gender and queer studies that the distribution of individuals into male and female is obsolete and naive.

Sexual Politics and the Nazi Reaction

To some extent, the misinterpretations of Hirschfeld's work are due to the fact that in his emancipatory program, he sought to win sympathy and understanding for sexual minorities from those who considered themselves perfectly "normal" according to the dimorphic scheme. Thus, he feared demonstrating to this ostensible majority that their basic assumption about their own "normality" was groundless.

Hirschfeld's reserve is hardly surprising if one considers that as a Jew and leader of a sexual minority, he constantly had to cope with hostility and prejudice. In retrospect, Hirschfeld's biography corroborates that his caution and reticence were justified.

In 1933, after he had been driven out of Germany, he was sitting in a Paris cinema when images of the plunder and destruction of his own Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin appeared in a news short. With this act of vandalism, the Nazis put an end to the German Sexualwissenschaft, a scientific project founded and developed mainly by Jews or by Christians of Jewish descent.

Hirschfeld died soon after the demise of his beloved Institute, but his work and his ideas have survived him. His program of achieving justice through science failed to yield the successes for which he so passionately yearned. Still, this prolific scholar and courageous campaigner deserves the respect of all who value science and justice.

J. Edgar Bauer

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    Bibliography
   

Bauer, J. Edgar: "Der Tod Adams. Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen zur Sexualemanzipation im Werk Magnus Hirschfelds." 100 Jahre Schwulenbewegung. Dokumentation einer Vortragsreihe in der Akademie der Künste. Manfred Herzer, ed. Berlin: Verlag rosa Winkel, 1998. 15-45.

_____. "Magnus Hirschfeld: per scientiam ad justitiam. Eine zweite Klarstellung." Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft 33/34 (December 2002): 68-90.

_____. "Über Hirschfelds Anspruch. Eine Klarstellung." Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft 29/30 (July 1999): 66-80.

Dannecker, Martin: "Vorwort." Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen. Auswahl aus den Jahrgängen 1899-1923. Herausgegeben im Namen des wissenschaftlich-humanitären Comitées von Magnus Hirschfeld. Neu ediert von Wolfgang Johann Schmidt. Volume I. Frankfurt am Main and Paris: Qumran, 1983. 5-15.

Haeberle, E.J. "Einleitung." Hirschfeld, Magnus: Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes. Nachdruck der Erstauflage von 1914. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1984. v-xxv.

_____, ed. Anfänge der Sexualwissenschaft. Historische Dokumente. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1983.

Herzer, Manfred. "Hirschfeld und das Unaussprechliche." Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft 31/32 (December 1999/March 2000): 47-50.

_____. "Hirschfelds Utopie, Hirschfelds Religion und das dritte Geschlecht der Romantik." Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft 28 (December 1998): 45-56.

_____. Magnus Hirschfeld. Leben und Werk eines jüdischen, schwulen und sozialistischen Sexologen. Zweite, überarbeitete Auflage. Hamburg: MännerschwarmSkript, 2001.

Keilson-Lauritz, Marita. Die Geschichte der eigenen Geschichte. Literatur und Literaturkritik in den Anfängen der Schwulenbewegung am Beispiel des Jahrbuchs für sexuelle Zwischenstufen und der Zeitschrift Der Eigene. Berlin: Verlag rosa Winkel, 1997.

Lauritsen, John, and David Thorstad. The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935). Rev. ed. Ojai, Calif.: Times Change Press, 1995.

Sigusch, Volkmar. "Albert Moll und Magnus Hirschfeld. Über ein problematisches Verhältnis vor dem Hintergrund unveröffentlichter Briefe Molls aus dem Jahr 1934." Zeitschrift für Sexualforschung 8 (1995): 122-59.

Steakley, James D. The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany. Salem, N. H.: Ayer, 1982.

_____. The Writings of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. A Bibliography. Toronto: Canadian Gay Archives Publication Series, No. 11 / Schriftenreihe der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, Nr. 2, 1985.

Wolff, Charlotte. Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology. London: Quartet Books, 1986.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Bauer, J. Edgar  
    Entry Title: Hirschfeld, Magnus  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated August 18, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/hirschfeld_m.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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