Hirschfeld exhibit will educate, illuminate

  • by Michael Helquist
  • Wednesday August 17, 2016
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Magnus Hirschfeld, shown on the cover of <i>Voilà</i><br> magazine in 1933, is one of the items in the exhibit<br>at the GLBT History Museum. Photo: Courtesy Collection of Gerard Koskovich
Magnus Hirschfeld, shown on the cover of Voilà
magazine in 1933, is one of the items in the exhibit
at the GLBT History Museum. Photo: Courtesy Collection of Gerard Koskovich

A revelatory exhibit of the extraordinary gay pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld is set to appear at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco's Castro district. It promises to illuminate our sexual past as it charts our sense of gender and sexual identities today. On view will be rare artifacts that survived the infamous book-burning of 1933, when Nazis destroyed the library and archives of Hirschfeld's sex institute in Berlin. Also featured will be accounts of the world's first homosexual emancipation organization that Hirschfeld founded in 1897, a historic film about Hirschfeld's impact and work, and a book he signed three weeks before his death in exile. For anyone unfamiliar with Hirschfeld, this exhibit will reveal his profound influence as an advocate for sexual and gender diversity, social justice, and human rights.

I've been intrigued with Hirschfeld for more than a dozen years. I once planned to include him in a historical novel in which the protagonist sought sex-change surgery in Germany. In 2002 my partner-now-husband, Dale Danley, and I traveled to Berlin to meet Ralf Dose, a prominent Hirschfeld scholar and co-founder of the Magnus Hirschfeld Gesellschaft, an association that researches and publicizes Hirschfeld's work. Dose gave us a tour of his organization and accompanied us to the outdoor sculpture and plaque in the Tiergarten that memorializes Hirschfeld. We discussed his ongoing study, the books he planned to write, and my own research into Hirschfeld's tour of the United States in 1930-1931.

Several years ago, Gerard Koskovich, the curator of the new GLBT History Museum exhibit, enthralled me with his collection of Hirschfeld books, vintage periodicals, and ephemera. He pulled out French magazines from the 1930s with Hirschfeld and his lover featured on the covers and the several Hirschfeld books he had collected. I purchased what I could manage and left his Mission district home carrying treasures. My bookshelf now holds a half-dozen Hirschfeld volumes that reflect the breadth of his interests, including Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist, Sexual History of the World War, Sexual Anomalies, and Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress .

Hirschfeld's ambition was, in his words, nothing less than to "map out and unify the science of sex." For 25 years he conducted research in sexual biology, pathology, sociology, and ethnology. In 1919 he purchased a fine Berlin building to become the site of his Institute for Sexual Science, a world-renowned center that provided health services including birth control and gender-confirmation surgeries, public talks about sexual problems, and consultations on medical-legal court cases. The institute also housed a vast library of 20,000 volumes, 35,000 photographs, and an array of exotic sexual instruments from around the world. Visiting Hirschfeld's center was like an immersion in sexual variations and practices.

I'm eager now to view "Through Knowledge to Justice: The Sexual World of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935)" curated by Koskovich. He is one of the top Hirschfeld scholars in the United States with decades of experience as a public historian, antiquities collector, and rare book dealer. He has long been dedicated to ensuring that the life and contributions of Hirschfeld become better understood and appreciated.

Koskovich notes that Hirschfeld's sex research was "prescient." "With its emphasis on 'sexual intermediacy' " the notion that sexuality and gender are not fixed in binary categories of heterosexual-homosexual and male-female " Hirschfeld's work also appears as an ancestor to contemporary concepts of genderqueer identities, the continuum of sexual orientation, and sexual fluidity," he said. Koskovich points to the hit Amazon TV series Transparent as an example. It devotes several flashbacks to Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Science.

The exhibit is especially timely this year in San Francisco, coming at the 85th anniversary of Hirschfeld's only visit to the city in 1931. He was rightly regarded one of the foremost sexologists in the world at the time, and his status prompted Adolph Hitler's Nazi thugs to put him on a hit list of dangerous, undesirable degenerates. He fled Germany and sought refuge in a three-month lecture tour across the United States. After a stop in Los Angeles where he met Albert Einstein, Hirschfeld visited San Francisco as a celebrity with newspaper and radio interviews. He lectured on "Homosexuality, Its Causes and Implications" before the Commonwealth Club and the San Francisco Medical Society. He also addressed a German-American assembly at California Hall. He included a visit to San Quentin Prison where he discussed the inmates' "sexual starvation" with Tom Mooney, the unjustly incarcerated labor activist. He added that he observed hundreds of homosexuals "one third of them black" who worked separately in the prison laundry. Days later he departed on an ocean liner bound for Asia.

As excellent as "Through Knowledge to Justice" promises to be, visitors might imagine how much more depth of analysis and breadth of exhibits might be possible if the GLBT History Museum commanded a larger, more expansive space. Such a possibility is in the works. Don't hesitate to contribute to the capital campaign. In the meantime, the new exhibit is essential for a fuller understanding of our often-hidden LGBTQ history.


"Through Knowledge to Justice" runs August 19 through November 23 at the GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th Street, San Francisco. The museum is open Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission $5; $3 for California students; free for members. An opening reception takes place Friday, August 19, from 7 to 9 p.m.; admission $5.

Michael Helquist is a San Francisco-based writer, historian, and activist. The American Library Association named his biography, Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions, a 2016 Stonewall Honor Book.