A Violent World of Difference: One Year On.

A year ago I started this blog as a way of publicising the work I’d be completing as part of an AHRC-funded project entitled A Violent World of Difference: Magnus Hirschfeld and Queer Modernity.  I set out to discuss any issues that would come up in the course of my research but also to put together a record of the activities I planned to organise as part of the Fellowship.

As it turned out, the blog proved to be more expansive but also more productive than I had anticipated. It now covers topics that range from my encounter with casual racism during the difficult time when my dog went missing in the woods to discussions of queer soldiers during World War I and an account of Oscar Wilde’s (Prison) Friends. All of these entries are in some way connected to my Hirschfeld project. Some of them explore, for instance, how stereotypes are perpetuated and the damage this causes. Others consider possibilities of resistance, not least because Hirschfeld’s work is most famous today for its innovative and radical aspects including his homosexual rights activism and groundbreaking conception of what he called ‘transvestism’.

Below I outline some of the findings of my project to date. This is not a final or fully comprehensive account. A book will follow in due course. And I’m also planning to continue the blog with occasional posts on issues relating to the history of sexuality and anti-queer violence. The examples I discuss below give a sense of what my project is about. They have been especially important for the direction of my research as they changed my understanding of Hirschfeld’s work and the issues that define the modern history of same-sex sexuality more broadly.

A Deadly History

Over the course of the last year I found many examples that indicate that the history of modern homosexuality can, or should, not be understood as a simple progress narrative. This insight is of course not new. Many existing histories of same-sex sexuality have focused on the importance of affirmative cultural production and representation for the emergence of lesbian and gay identities and subcultures from the latter nineteenth-century onward. However, my research shows that direct experiences of violence, and the witnessing of
violence against others, equally shaped a collective sense of modern queer existence.

Magnus Hirschfeld’s own sexual reforms politics were partly motivated by the suicide of one of his patients, a young man who left him a series of letters in which he described as unbearably shameful his desire for other men. The death prompted Hirschfeld to undertake what became one of the earliest statistical surveys of homosexual suicide, conducted during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The material he collected offers specific insights into the reasons given – mostly fear and shame – by the women and men who killed themselves. It furthermore indicates the traumatic impact of these deaths, as Hirschfeld records his on emotional responses to the suicides as well as documenting how other women and men reacted to them. While it may ultimately be impossible to determine why some people kill themselves, this archive nevertheless demonstrates that there is a collective shape to queer suicide: that social isolation as much as the active persecution of bodies and desires that do not fit specific norms plays a role in why some people end their lives.

A Violent Omission

A main aspect of my research on the ‘missing’ and neglected parts of Hirschfeld’s archive thus deals with the shaping of queer subcultures. Another key finding has been that the history of the emerging homosexual rights movement in Europe cannot be understood as separate from the history of European colonialism. Scholars have paid considerable critical attention to the intersections between race, sexuality and colonialism across time. Yet we know surprisingly little about the impact of colonialism on early sexual rights politics and the work of sexologists such as Hirschfeld.

By paying close attention to what it meant that Hirschfeld came of age, professionally and politically, during the period of Germany’s ‘official’ reign as a colonial power, which lasted from 1889 to 1919, I have been able to gain a better understanding of the violent conditions that shaped whose bodies and lives became part of the homosexual rights movement, and on what terms. This research re-contextualises the development of Hirschfeld’s own understanding of racism. He famously completed one of the first modern studies racism, which was published posthumously in 1938. The study was no doubt prompted by Hirschfeld’s own persecution by the Nazis. Yet I found that Racism can also be read as the belated product of Hirschfeld’s experiences of German colonialism, further supporting my argument that emergence of the modern homosexual rights movement is entangled with the traumatic realties of colonialism and racial oppression.

Precious Critical Time

I recently went to an AHRC Leadership conference where someone described the new Fellowship scheme as a double deal: a combination of the previous fellowship award, which primarily provided research time, and a network grant, which aims to facilitate research collaboration by providing the means for organising and hosting a series of meetings between experts.

My own experience certainly supports this description. The AHRC Fellowship has enabled me to
focus on completing research for a book by providing time away from my usual teaching and admin duties and by making it possible for me to visit some of the key Hirschfeld archives, which are spread around the world. But the award has also enabled me to organise a series of events ranging from a public film screening to an academic symposium and a specialist workshop for humanities scholars and health professionals (see my Events page for further details).

I’m looking forward to developing these links and exploring new research that is beginning to emerge from this project. Watch this space for more information!


5 January 2014.





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