New Anti-Trans Legislation Has Ties to a Dark Past

Nazis burned down Berlin’s LGBT center, run by the “Einstein of Sex”

By Alex Remnick
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When Caitlyn Jenner came out as a trans woman in 2015, it was front-page news. Jenner, who lived publicly as a man for decades, gained fame at the 1976 Olympic Games, winning a gold in the decathlon. For many Americans, Jenner was the first openly transgender celebrity — and possibly the first openly transgender person — they had encountered. In the years since, other celebrities, including Elliot Page, Sam Smith and Demi Lovato, have come out as trans or nonbinary. This cultural shift has corresponded to a demographic shift, as more young people are identifying as transgender.

Increased visibility and acceptance has come with a backlash. Lawmakers across the country have introduced anti-trans legislation, seeking to bar transgender students from participating in sports, and to limit access by minors to medical care like puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy. While some legislators say they are acting in the interest of children, study after study has shown that, in the words of a report by the Williams Institute, U.C.L.A. School of Law, “gender-affirming care improves health outcomes for transgender people, including youth.”

The new restrictive bills are the latest example in a dark cycle reaching back decades. Whenever progress is made in the field of transgender studies and health, an opposition movement rises up to combat it. One example of this reactionary cycle took place during the early years of Nazi Germany, when one riot set the queer and transgender movement back decades.


Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (the Institute for Sexual Research in English) was established in Berlin in 1919 by Magnus Hirschfeld and Arthur Kronfeld in Berlin. Hirschfeld was already a pioneer in the burgeoning field of trans health, as well as an outspoken advocate for queer Germans. In 1906, at the recommendation of Hirschfeld, Karl M. Baer became the first transgender person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. The institute was one of the few places in Berlin to employ gender nonconforming people, including Dora Richter, the first trans woman on record to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

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Magnus Hirschfeld co-founded the Institute for Sexual Research in 1919. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Library of Congress)

Hirschfeld spent much of his life researching and writing about gender issues and sexuality, gathering information through extensive interviews with members of Berlin’s queer subculture. In his 1904 book “Berlin’s Third Sex,” he wrote:

Any well-informed person will soon notice that the streets and pleasure spots of Berlin boast not just men and women in the accepted sense, but frequently also those who differ not just in their behaviour, but often their appearance as well, such that alongside the masculine and feminine one can almost speak of a third sex.

Over the years, Hirschfeld refined his terminology as his understanding deepened. He is credited with inventing the term transvestite in 1910, as well as creating and defining a range of categories that he referred to as “sexual intermediaries.” Hirschfeld , who was openly gay, sought not to pathologize the people he interviewed, but instead to foster a greater understanding of his own community. “Nothing is more attractive, and worthier of knowing and experiencing than people,” he wrote in “Transvestites: The Erotic Drive To Cross Dress.”

As fascism gained ground across Germany, Hirschfeld’s community quickly became a focal point for bigotry and violence, and Hirschfeld’s public profile made him a target. In 1920, he was beaten nearly to death by a group of Nazi youth; that same year, Hitler himself called Hirschfeld “Jewish swine.” The Institute’s events and speaking engagements were frequently marred by “heckling, stink bombs, and so on,” according to Simon LeVay’s 1996 book Queer Science. Meanwhile, as Hirschfeld’s celebrity increased abroad, he began to tour the world as an advocate and public intellectual; he became known as “the Einstein of sex.”

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German students and Nazis SA raid Hirschfeld’s library. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

When Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the Institute was one of the first places his supporters singled out. On May 6, a mob of Nazi students raided the institute, seizing books and medical records and attacking patients and staff. Dora Ritcher, who worked there as a maid, was never seen again, and is presumed to have been killed. Seized records were burned at a public rally days later. Hirschfeld, who was on tour in Paris, watched on a newsreel in horror as his life’s work was reduced to ashes. Though he tried to rebuild the institute abroad, his health rapidly declined, and in 1935, two years after the Institute was ransacked, he died of cardiac arrest.

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German rioters discard books and other materials stolen from the Institute for Sexual Research (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)


On April 23, Caitlyn Jenner announced that she was running for Governor of California as a Republican. In an interview with TMZ a week later, the former Olympian announced her support for barring trans girls from competing in girls’ sports, calling it a “question of fairness.” However, Jenner’s claims that trans women have an unfair advantage in sports have been widely disputed by the scientific community. “Are trans athletes winning everything? — [it’s] simple. That’s not the case,” Dr. Eric Vilain explained in an interview with NPR. “Every sport requires different talents and anatomies for success. So I think we should focus on celebrating this diversity rather than focusing on relative notions of fairness.”

Jenner’s comments and the political movement they represent are a reminder that despite a century of progress since Magnus Hirschfeld was first attacked in the street, much of the world is still hostile to the LGBT+ community. Gender-affirming care is often inaccessible to those who might need it, while conversion therapy is still legal in 23 states. Queer and trans people are still more likely to face violence and homelessness than straight people. More than 50 years after the first uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, where LGBT people rose up in protest against police violence, Vice reported that New York City police officers arrived at Pride celebrations this year in riot gear.

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