Respectable Revolutionaries

Jen Bell considers the central lesson of Weimer Germany’s queer scene: we have nothing to gain from the old order, so let us lead you into the new world.

In Berlin on 1st July 1919, doctors, scientists and politicians were invited to the launch of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexology). In the inaugural speech, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the Institute and of the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, or WhK), declared the Institute to be “the first and only one of its kind in Germany and the world”, and true to the WhK’s motto ‘Justice Through Science’, he openly declared its synthesis of rational science and radical politics to be “the child of the [1918] revolution”.

Operating throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the WhK was truly ahead of its time. It became internationally famous, and through it, so did Hirschfeld’s work. The Institute kept an extensive library and archive of queer research, and offered marriage counselling, sex counselling, contraceptive treatment, and early iterations of gender-affirming care. Some early patient-pioneers, such as Dora Richter, were given employment by the Institute which, besides its clinical work, educated the public on the ‘third sex’, and advocated for their rights through pamphlets, literature and film. Hirschfeld himself co-starred in and co-wrote the world’s first pro-gay film, Anders Als Die Aldern (Different From the Others), released on 30th June 1919.

Anders Als Die Aldern (1919), starring Conrad Veidt as Paul Körner and Dr Magnus Hirschfeld as himself.

In Anders, famous violinist Paul Körner falls in love with his fan Kurt Sivers, but is forced to hide his sexuality for fear of Paragraph 175, Germany’s anti-sodomy law. Hirschfeld plays the understanding doctor who tells Körner that his love is innate and natural, not a moral failing. Tragically, Körner is outed by a blackmailer, and the loss of reputation, stigma and shame drive him to suicide. When Sivers tries the same, Hirschfeld stops him, delivering a rallying call for queer liberation: “keep living… Restore the honour of this man and bring justice to him, and all those who came before him, and all those to come after him. Justice through knowledge!”

The plot of Anders reflected the reality of Paragraph 175 for many real or alleged homosexuals in Germany who were in some cases forced to pay hundreds of thousands of Deutschmarks to blackmailers to avoid facing the courts. Hirschfeld was intimately aware of the injustice and stigma facing his community. A patient of his died of suicide a year prior to the founding of the WhK in 1897.

Hirschfeld dedicated his entire career to repealing the anti-sodomy law. Though he himself was highly visible, and the WhK adeptly used the media for promotion and lobbying parliamentarians, it ultimately failed in its primary purpose to decriminalise homosexuality in Germany. At the height of the WhK’s influence in the early to mid-1920s, vice-chair Kurt Hiller, a communist, wrote polemics against Paragraph 175 such as Die Shmach Des Jahrhunderts (The Crime of the Century) in 1922, and attempted to build coalitions with other queer organisations such as the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen and the Deutscher Freundschaftsverband. Meanwhile Hirschfeld, a member of the more moderate Social Democratic Party, attempted to court the opinion of centrists and conservatives. The WhK had certainly spurred on the revolution in the world of science. But like the November revolution that created the Weimar Republic out of compromise, the queer revolution in the political sphere had stalled. Hirschfeld was no Spartacist. 

Like many patchwork radical movements throughout history, the queers of Weimar Germany fell prey to the trap of respectability politics. Hirschfeld’s life and work as a gay Jewish man in inter-war Germany is remarkable. In a world before Stonewall, he was internationally lauded as the ‘Einstein of sex’. But his entire career, and the WhK by extension, is at its core conflicted. Though motivated by radical aspiration, its clinging to the cissexist and heterosexist rules of engagement in the name of ‘civility’ was exemplified in Hirschfeld’s desperate appeal to the deputies of the conservative BVP on January 29th, 1925: “Right Honourable Deputies, … we hope that your psychological discernment and your love of mankind will lead you to rally to our cause”. Queers cannot live on hope alone, and in the minds of our purported superiors, common sense and tolerance rarely prevail.

The queer community has always had the ‘good gays’ who try to make compromises with the employer class, discarding and punching down on its more oppressed members in the process. One of these attempted bargains in 1925 was to introduce Paragraph 297, which included harsher sentences for male sex workers.  By 1927 the WhK, whose membership peaked at around 500 members, was considering becoming a full-fledged political party for homosexuals, floating Hirschfeld as a candidate. Hirschfeld himself was despondent, assessing that “all the efforts to create a ‘mass organisation’ for homosexuals have, in the final analysis, failed… With the exception of a few minor groups, homosexuals have almost no feelings of solidarity”. Such an assessment shows the contradiction of the WhK’s methods of aspiring to build a mass organisation of queers, while in practice, operating as a sect of ‘respectable’ queers, ‘permitted’ to engage with the elites, and entreat them on queers’ behalf. By clinging to the ideas of the old world while reaching for the new, both fell from our grasp. We all lost.

It has been 90 years since the Institute was destroyed by the Nazi-infested German Student Union. It was a crushing blow, not just for queers, but all of humankind. I will spare the reader the details. Much has been written elsewhere. With decades of research burned, we can only generate a partial picture of the Institute’s achievements. The threads of the story we do have are woven into the history of queer struggle.

In modern Scotland, old threads re-emerge. Pride Month has been and gone. The employer class have stuffed their rainbow flags back in the closet for another year. Yet for the queer community, our fight continues for lives of freedom, agency and dignity. While the Scottish Government prepares to challenge the UK Government’s Section 35 veto of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill – nominally in the defence of Scottish democracy – another narrative runs parallel to it. While the queer community, and trans people in particular, are often portrayed as omnipresent threats to society , our well-meaning allies often portray us as ‘damsels in distress’, the most marginalised and vulnerable in society. This framing is a reflection of the shallow puddle of centrist and right-wing thought that regards those on the outside of society as having fallen there by accident of nature. They are viewed as an ‘outgroup’, and it is the responsibility of the elite ‘ingroup’ to paternalistically protect them. So long as this arrangement continues, cisgender and heterosexual privilege is upheld in the political theatre, and members of the queer community are minor characters at best, if they are seen or heard at all. 

It is true that the queer community is minoritised and marginalised. The institutions of capital have never served us, and the statistics are truly grim. One in eight of us has experienced discrimination in healthcare. Only half of us feel we can be open about who we are to all of our family of origin, and only a third of us feel we can be open at our work. Two-thirds of us have experienced hate crime. One in five of us has experienced homelessness. It is clear we have nothing to gain from the platitudes of liberal identity politics.

Hirschfeld only had to look around him to see the communities of care and solidarity that queers have always built for ourselves. In a letter the anarchist Emma Goldman wrote to Hirschfeld in 1923, she remarks on how she found her friends of “Uranian or bisexual disposition… far above average in terms of intelligence, ability, sensitivity, and personal charm”. We have always had to be. When many queers have been locked out of dynastic wealth, shunned by the nuclear family, alienated in our schooling, left fallen by the wayside of the corporate and property ladders, we have spearheaded new systems that serve us in their place – through our clubs, our societies, our magazines, our art, our mutual aid. We have always been the first to be targeted by reactionaries because the power of our mere existence threatens everything they stand for, and we are always among the first to be encouraged towards ‘respectability’ by those who claim to represent us. 

When queers know our worth and power, we can look beyond the offer of mere ‘representation’, and build mass organisations of genuine power for true liberation. This is the core function of the left. Too often we queers are building structures that are nestled away within the organisations of the left, when we should be flocking on every branch. The left is capable of self-awareness, of understanding how people shape structures and vice versa. It is all well and good to have queers in the room. How many of them are shop stewards, branch chairs, branch secretaries, regional secretaries, general secretaries, councillors, MSPs? Having a few queers as props, to be displayed then shelved, is a disservice to the entire left. Those with privilege, who have been afforded skills, resources and connections, can choose to step aside, and step in behind all of us. They can choose to be led by the most marginalised in our society. Who else can envision the new world we desire?

Jen Bell is Co-Convener of the Scottish Green Trade Union Group and Co Convener of the Rainbow Greens.