On 6 December, I will take part in Lines of Dissent: The Twelfth LGBTQ History and Archives Conference at the London Metropolitan Archives. Co-organised with the Raphael Samuels Centre and open to everyone – you can get tickets here – the event aims to open up the archives’ queer holdings via a series of talks and workshops that examine how ideas about LGBTQ families are formed, and how such ideas in turn inform (what we think we) know about issues of inheritance and genealogy.
I am particularly interested in the historical look back at wills and related materials that document queer relationships in the past. For this material offers unique glimpses at the everyday lives of individuals whose bodies and desires did not conform to the social norms of their day, and who were often criminalised for it, but who nevertheless made use of available legal processes such as the writing of wills in a bid to secure the future of their loved ones.
Magnus Hirschfeld’s testament is an example of a queer will, written at a time when homosexuality was illegal and Hirschfeld’s own life and work were about to fall victim to the rise of Nazism. While Hirschfeld was close to some of his relatives – Ernest Maas, grandson of Hirschfeld’s uncle Julius Mann, was visiting him when he died in Nice in 1935 – Hirschfeld’s will clearly lists Karl Giese and Li Shiu Tong as his main benefactors. Giese had been Hirschfeld’s partner for many years, assisting him at the Institute of Sexual Science and taking on more responsibilities when Hirschfeld’s left Berlin to undertake a world lecturing tour in a bid to avoid Nazi persecution. Hirschfeld met Li Shiu Tong – known as Tao Li – during his travels in Shanghai, and their relationship continued until Hirschfeld’s death.
In the will, Hirschfeld describes both men as his ‘students’, using language which may have homosocial connotations, but is ‘mainstream’ enough not to put his lovers in danger of persecution. That the two men were his lovers is well documented in other surviving evidence from the time. The will thus mainly reveals what kinds of provisions Hirschfeld made for Giese and Tao Li, and it also indicates the obligations he placed on them to look after his sexological legacy.
Queer Lines of Dissent
The workshop I will lead at Lines of Dissent turns to wills to examine less familiar stories from the queer past. In contrast to Hirschfeld will, which can easily be understood with the help of surviving contextual materials, we will explore documents whose authors are not necessarily well known. Considering how to read such documents, we will examine what this material can tell us about queer lives in the past: how queer wills inserted themselves into societies that marginalised, criminalised and ostracised their existence.
25 November 2015