Tag Archives: history

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.

New book! Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World

I’m very happy to announce this collection of essays, which will be published in October.

Orders placed before 1 October will get money off with this promo code: T20P.

2363_reg

Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World, edited by Heike Bauer.

Sexuality Studies Series, edited by Janice Irvince and Regina Kuenzel.
Temple University Press.
284 pp
paper: 978-1-43991-249-2
cloth: 978-1-43991-248-5
ebook 978-1-43991-250-8

CONTENTS

Introduction: Translation and the Global Histories of Sexuality
• Heike Bauer 1

Part I. Conceptualizations

1 Translation as Lexical Invention: An Intellectual History
of Frigiditas and Anaphrodisia • Peter Cryle 19

2 Translation as Transposition: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch,
Darwinian Thought, and the Concept of Love in German
Sexual Modernity • Birgit Lang 37

3 Representing the “Third Sex”: Cultural Translations
of the Sexological Encounter in Early Twentieth-Century
Germany • Katie Sutton 53

4 Data of Desire: Translating (Homo)Sexology in Republican China
• Howard Chiang 72

Part II. Formations

5 British Sexual Science beyond the Medical: Cross-Disciplinary,
Cross-Historical, and Cross-Cultural Translations
• Kate Fisher and Jana Funke 95

6 Translating Sexology in Late-Tsarist and Early-Soviet Russia:
Politics, Literature, and the Science of Sex
• Brian James Baer 115

7 Translating Sexology, Writing the Nation: Sexual Discourse and
Practice in Hebrew and Arabic in the 1930s • Liat Kozma 135

8 Translation and Two “Chinese Sexologies”: Double Plum and
Sex Histories • Leon Antonio Rocha 154

Part III. Dis/Identifications

9 Novel Translations of the Scientific Subject: Clorinda Matto
de Turner, Margarita Práxedes Muñoz, and the Gendered
Shaping of Discourses of Desire in Nineteenth-Century Peru
• Jennifer Fraser 179

10 The Translation of Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate
Sex in Early Twentieth-Century Japan • Michiko Suzuki 197

11 Translation and the Construction of a “Uranian” Identity:
Edward Prime-Stevenson’s [Xavier Mayne’s] The Intersexes
(1908) • James P. Wilper 216

12 Suicidal Subjects: Translation and the Affective Foundations
of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Sexology • Heike Bauer 233

*****

Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World can be pre-ordered from Temple University Press http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/2363_reg.html

6 May 1933: Thinking through History (before the General Election)

On this day in 1933, a group of Nazi students stormed the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. Leaving a trail of destruction, they removed most of the Institute’s library and a bust of its founder, Magnus Hirschfeld. A few days later, on 10 May, these materials would be set alight on Berlin’s Opernplatz – the opera square –  an event that marks the beginning of the infamous Nazi book burnings (for more information click here).

“Bundesarchiv Bild 102-14597, Berlin, Opernplatz, Bücherverbrennung” Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons.

In his diary – or what he calls in German his Testament, a word used to refer both to a person’s will and their legacy – Hirschfeld writes about the deep distress he felt when his lifework was set alight on a Scheiterhaufen. The English translation ‘pyre’ does not fully capture the strong associations of the German term with the early modern witch hunts. Yet Hirschfeld clearly drew on this difficult history to articulate his own experience of persecution and terror.

It is not uncommon that discussions of collective oppression and injury turn to ‘history’ to make oversimplified comparisons between distinct kinds of experience and circumstance. While we should be critical of such approaches – it is important, for instance, to recognise the distinct histories of antisemitism and homophobia that informed the Nazi attack on the Institute – remembering certain moments in history at certain points in the present nevertheless has its uses.

Eighty-two years after the events of May 1933, Hirschfeld’s tragic fate has itself come to stand for past injustice including in relation to the horrific acts perpetrated by the Nazi regime, and how they are remembered. It took until December 2003, for instance, before the German government agreed to a memorial dedicated to the homosexual victims of the Holocaust.

Thinking with and through this history remains an urgent task – especially perhaps today, on the eve of the UK general election when right-wing voices are heard so loudly across the country. This is not to draw a correlation between events of 1933 in Germany and British politics in 2015. But remembering the destruction of Hirschfeld and his Institute nevertheless serves as a poignant reminder that lives are easily turned into targets whose very existence is attacked and denied because their apparent ‘difference’ or ‘otherness’ from an imaginary norm is proclaimed problematic for the nation.