Tag Archives: archive

Suicide and Queer History

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The campaign, which originates in the United States, aims to raise awareness specifically about suicide prevention. However, it also speaks to broader efforts of activists who seek to de-stigmatize mental health issues and campaign against the taboo and silence that has historically surrounded them.

Suicide History

That suicide has a social dimension was first explored over the course of the nineteenth-century when a new band of psychiatrists and social researchers began to ask questions about what caused a person to take their own life. Writing in the 1840s Karl Marx, for instance, considered suicide part of the wider social struggle. In contrast, by the time Émile Durkheim published his study of Le Suicide (1897), the subject had already lost some of its revolutionary interest as scientists began to study it from a more clinical and social research perspectives.

One of the researchers who resisted the move towards a more apolitical science – even as he claimed that science would bring truth – was Magnus Hirschfeld. By his own account, the trained doctor was prompted to switch from general medical practice to sexology after the death of one of his patients, a young man who shot himself on the eve of his marriage and left Hirschfeld a note in which he explained that he was unable to speak about – and live with – his desire for other men.

The exact nature of the event is critically disputed, but what is clear is that Hirschfeld considered suicide a real, and potentially deadly, concern for women and men whose bodies and desires did not fit narrow social norms and expectations. Working at a time when the homosexual rights movement started to garner more widespread support, and when same-sex cultures were thriving in many urban centres, Hirschfeld realised that despite the social gains, could people feel their lives were unlivable because of same-sex attraction. In a bid to raise awareness and work towards what we would now call suicide prevention, Hirschfeld collected statistical data about homosexual women and men who killed themselves. He disseminated some of the insights gained via cultural activities such as a collaboration on Anders als die Andern [different from the others] (1919), a silent movie which problematizes the criminalization of homosexuality. The film’s main character kills himself as a result of the acts of a blackmailer.

Conrad Veidt in Anders als die Andern (1919)

Conrad Veidt in Anders als die Andern (1919)

Ultimately, it might be impossible to explain why someone takes their life while someone else lives in circumstance that appear akin. But Hirschfeld’s suicide archive nevertheless suggests that a sense of unlivability can develop not only from persecution, but also from a sense that one’s desires and bodies are unspeakable, shameful and ostracized.

A Queer Concern

From out vantage point today, in an age of discursive explosions around difficult events and a new digital culture that has normalised the public expression of feelings, it can be easy to forget the pernicious nature of the ‘hidden’ silences in public discourse. If Hirschfeld’s archive poses certain critical difficulties, not least because of the danger that the accounts of despair and misery might feed pernicious anti-queer stereotyping, there is nevertheless still much to be learned from – and about – the history of queer suicide.

For better or worse suicide and queer existence have a shared history. Understanding what this might mean is part of the ongoing task of challenging the silencing of lives and feelings that are deemed difficult, embarrassing – or simply different from social norms and expectations.

For a fuller discussion see my chapter ‘Suicidal Subjects: Translation and the Affective Foundations of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Sexology, in Heike Bauer (ed.), Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World (Temple University Press, 2015), pp. 233-252.

22 Jan. 2014: This Archive is Empty

Research is a serendipitous business, and sometimes mystery prevails.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 09.47.12I learnt a while ago that there is a mystery around the later years of Li Shiu Tong, known as Tao Li, Magnus Hirschfeld’s partner. The two men had met in Shanghai in the early 1930s when Tao Li was 24 and Hirschfeld 63 years old. Tao Li subsequently accompanied Hirschfeld on the remainder of his world journey; and he stayed in Europe until Hirschfeld’s death in 1935.

Hirschfeld bequeathed the younger man his personal effects including diaries, photographs, books and other papers that had survived the Nazi attack on his Institute in Berlin. Historians know that Tao Li took care of these belongings, for there are records of his crating up the materials and moving them with him on his postwar journeys. The last of these records is from the late 1950s. After this time Tao Li drops off the critical radar.

The Hirschfeld belongings eventually re-materialize in Vancouver in 1993, where they are found after Tao Li’s death, dumped in suitcases near the rubbish bins of an apartment block. A tenant finds them, realises that they may be important and posts a notice on the Internet which comes to the attention of Hirschfeld scholars in Berlin. The director of the Berlin-based Magnus Hirschfeld Society, Ralf Dose, flies out to Canada to collect the items.

My own encounter with this archive began with a notice I found recently in the 2007 newsletter of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota. The article announces that the Collection had purchased the Magnus Hirschfeld Li Family Estate. I immediately searched the collection for further details, but to no avail.

On contacting the – as it turns out – extremely helpful archivist I was told that the materials have once more gone missing. For when the Tretter Collection opened the boxes sent to them by the Hirschfeld Society, they found that the content had been removed during the journey.

I think it is fair to say that these missing materials do impede the development of my project, partly because my focus lies on violence and Hirschfeld’s Anglophone reception. Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 10.53.45 Furthermore, Hirschfeld’s legacy is already significant, comprising more than fifty major books and articles plus countless photographs, other writings and even a series of films. Unlike many other historical figures, then, the legacy of his life and work, while fragmented, exists in more than mere fragments. But a missing archive nevertheless captures the imagination, not least because it symbolises the fantasy of scholarly completeness. So do contact me if you have any news about the whereabouts of this material: h.bauer@bbk.ac.uk