Tag Archives: colonialism

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.




29 July 2014. Hirschfeld’s Queer Soldiers, Colonialism and World War I

The commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I have turned fresh attention to this devastating event, which is commonly understood as one of the defining moments of the twentieth-century.

Scholarship on WW1 is changing. Kate McLoughlin’s recent Authoring War, for instance, which examines a long history of war writing, looks across national boundaries to identify shared themes and concerns which characterise how writers recorded war. Other scholarshiScreen Shot 2014-07-29 at 13.05.27p follows in the footsteps of feminist critics such as Sharon Ouditt (whose Fighting Forces explores women’s experiences during WWI) or Joanna Bourke (whose An Intimate History of Killing shows that war produces a pleasure in killing which helps to sustain the violent effort) specifically to turn attention to those people, events and contexts which for a long time remained sidelined in analyses of “The Great War”.

The AHRC-funded project “Whose Remembrance?” , for example, examines the contributions of people from the former colonies to WWI and WWII. It is prompted by the realisation that despite the vast numbers –  “in the region of one and a half million Indians served in the First World War of whom 80,000 lost their lives.  Over 15,000 men from the Caribbean served with the allied forces” – the experiences of these soldiers are neither fully understood nor remembered.

The recent scholarship provides a context for my own analysis of Magnus Hirschfeld‘s Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 13.51.24contribution to WWI criticism. In 1915 he published a pamphlet, Warum Hassen uns die Völker? [why do peoples/nations hate us], which analyses the causes of war. Its uncharacteristically jingoistic tone has puzzled Hirschfeld scholars, who have tended to read the text’s nationalism as indicative of the extreme patriotism that underpinned the German war effort in the early years.

However, Hirschfeld’s nationalistic attitudes here were also more specifically connected to his attempts to support those people who were deemed unfit soldiers because of their gender or sexuality. Elena Mancini, in her study of Hirschfeld and The Quest for Sexual Freedom, has pointed out that he came to the aid of thousands of homosexual men and women, heterosexual women, and cross-dressers and other people whose gender identity challenged heteronormative ideals but who wanted to join the army. He helped them to “pass” as soldiers; and he also defended soldiers accused of homosexuality.

Hirschfeld’s “most difficult text” thus provides important insights into the contributions of homosexuals, trans* people and women to WWI, even as it testifies to the existence of a difficult history of queer allegiances with extreme nationalism and war.

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Yet it it equally important to understand that this “national queer history” is part of the colonial upheavals that so violently transformed the modern world. My own research has revealed that Hirschfeld’s initial response to WWI was shaped directly by his support of German colonialism. Warum Hassen uns die Völker?, which is couched in the languages of capitalism and psychoanalysis, argues that the war was started because England and other imperial powers were “jealous” of the economic success of the German colonial venture. In a key passage, Hirschfeld positively equates German colonialism with a new “importance in the world”, arguing that WWI was started to deny Germany its new wealth.

Warum Hassen uns die Völker? illustrates that colonialism, which is often neglected in the German historiography of sexuality, significantly shaped how Hirschfeld apprehended the war. The text allows glimpses at the impact on Hirschfeld of both the German war propaganda and the role of colonialism in public culture at the time.  While Hirschfeld would soon revise his views on war and in due course became a staunch critic of racism, it is noteworthy that he never fully addressed colonial suffering and its legacies of injustice.

In my project I explore this often “overlooked” history: the intersections between colonialism and the emerging homosexual rights movement as well as the contributions of queer soldiers to WWI. These neglected archives poignantly illustrate that scholarly recovery work is often fraught, subject to uncovering new injustices even as it seeks to address existing ones.

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