Tag Archives: Magnus Hirschfeld

(Not) Remembered Dead and Alive: Inside Reading Gaol

On Saturday I visited ‘Inside: Artists and Writers in Prison‘, an exhibition cum art installation in Reading Gaol. Curated by Artangel it features the work of contemporary  artists and writers. Some of them have experienced prison themselves, either as detainees- such as the Chinese artists and activist, Ai Weiwei,who was held without formal charge for 81 days – or as the children of prisoners, as in the case of novelist Gillian Slovo whose parents were frequently arrested for their involvement in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Wilde in Gaol

What first brought the exhibition to my attention was that it includes the cell of Oscar Wilde, who famously spent two years of his life in Reading Gaol. From 1895 to 1897 he served a sentence of hard labour, following a conviction of ‘indecent conduct’ with other men. Wilde’s case is well known, not least because the furore around his trial prompted the first public debates about homosexuality in England. But the shockwaves caused by his arrest, sentencing, and untimely death in 1900 – Wilde’s health never recovered from the physical toll of his sentence – are somewhat less well documented.

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Marlene Dumas’s Oscar Wilde (2016). ©HeikeBauer

In my work on the Berlin-based Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, I frequently found references to Wilde’s trial, which typically focused on legal issues. Hirschfeld, who had relationships with men and publicly campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, cited Wilde’s fate as an example of the cruelty of a law that condemned men simply on grounds of their sexuality. In one account, however, he mentioned how he once encountered a group of young male students who had decided to remember Wilde by symbolically pinning his prisoner number to their shirts and reciting his ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ together.

Hirschfeld’s encounter with these students reveals the emotional cost of Wilde’s persecution on men who identified with him. But it also demonstrates resistance in the face of attack, and the importance of literature and the arts in gathering collective strength. ‘Inside’ presents readings of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ each Sunday. Unlike the private gathering observed by Hirschfeld, they are public performances, featuring famous figures from across the arts whose connections to Wilde emphasise cultural, rather than necessarily queer allegiances across time.

Emotional Links

The exhibition’s engagement with the impact of homosexual persecution specifically, in contrast, is both overt and more subtle. It includes an appearance by Hirschfeld, who in 1919 played a supporting role in the silent movie Anders als die Andern [Different from the Others]. Directed by Richard Oswald and released in mainstream German cinemas, the film is sometimes described as ‘the first homosexual movie’ because of its sympathetic portrayal of the plight of a pianist who ends up taking his own life when, after suffering  attacks first of a blackmailer and then the law, it becomes clear that he would not be able to live freely as a homosexual man.

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Still from Anders als die Andern (1919). Hirschfeld is on the right. ©HeikeBauer

‘Inside’ shows the movie on a television screen in one of the cells in A Block, a part of the prison that had housed, amongst others, prisoners condemned to death. In the exhibition, many of the cells here focus on homosexuality including, for instance Marlene Dumas’ portrait of Wilde next to a photograph of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Nan Godin’s responses to Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, a film inspired by Genet’s own time in prison, which explores tough but tender male same-sex eroticism in a carceral context

Within this context, just as at the time of its production, Anders als die Andern serves an instructive function: it shows how the life of an decent, cultured man could be made unlivable simply because he desired other men. However, showing the film alongside Dumas’ and Godin’s work – which in different ways engages with base notes of sexual obsession including in relation to the lives of petty criminals and social outcasts – problematises such an idealised image of homosexual victimhood. It brings into view that people who make (it into) history are mostly those with certain privileges, education included.

Of course we should remember them. But we must also remain alert to the gaps in our knowledge about past lives, gaps that reflect long histories of social, racial and gender injustice and erasure.

Who is WoodFord of Soton?

The graffiti surrounding the television screening Anders als die Andern serves as a reminder that the lives of most of the men who spent their time in this cell are unknown. Who, for example, is WoodFord of Soton, whose handwriting remains inked onto the prison wall? Who are Saz & Gee, their names linked together by the swirl of the ampersand?


Unlike Wilde – or even the fictional pianist whose story is told in the film – the historical imprint of most of the inmates of Reading Gaol does not go deeper than the thin layer of ink graffitied onto their prison cells. Indeed, in the case of the nineteenth-century women inmates whose existence is documented in a collection of prison mugshots displayed in B Wing, even such superficial evidence of their own words has long been erased by the coats of cheap white paint that now cover the prison walls.

Perhaps it is this knowledge that gives A Wing a particularly haunting quality. Erasure in the form of death features prominently here via an installation by Doris Salcedo of cell-sized, upturned tables memorialising the anonymous men executed in the prison. The tables grow fragile leaves of grass, a feature reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s 1855 collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass. Much revised throughout his life, Whitman’s poems are an affirmation of democracy, (homoerotic) pleasure and male friendship. They became hugely influential in the emerging homosexual subcultures of the later nineteenth-century including Wilde’s circles.

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Detail from Doris Salcedo, Plagiara Muta [Silent Prayer]. ©HeikeBauer

Yet the leaves of grass we find ‘Inside’ are no hopeful allusions to natural beauty and a book of life whose pages are yet to be filled. They are reminders of the dead whose life has been extinguished in Reading Gaol, and of those whose lives have vanished into obscurity. It is their lives, as much as the lives of Wilde and other famous prison inmates around world, that continue to raise questions about the role of prisons in society.

‘Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Gaol’ is open until 4 December 2016.

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.

Public talk on the sometimes deadly modern history of homosexuality

After a fantastic History of the Body conference at the IHR last Saturday, I’m now looking forward to discussing my research as part of the ‘Be Birkbeck‘ series on identity.

The talk is free, but you need to register to secure a place: bebirkbeck@bbk.ac.uk

‘Dead Wilde: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Violent Shaping of Modern Queer Culture’

Speaker: Heike Bauer

Venue: Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square, WC1

Time: Weds, 27 May 2015. 6.30-8.30pm

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How did the death of Oscar Wilde impact on the women and men who identified with ‘the love that dare not speak its name’? This talk explores an archive of little known writings on homosexual death and suicide by the influential sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935).

Hirschfeld is best known today for his sexual rights activism, foundational studies of transvestism and opening of the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin. But he was also a chronicler of the effects of hate and violence against lesbians and homosexual men. His writings contain many accounts of homophobic attack from around the world including observations on the trial and death of Oscar Wilde. These accounts suggest that such attacks had a wide-ranging impact, affecting not ‘just’ the victim but also the women and men who identified in some way with her or him.

The talk explores this unique record of queer life and death, 1900-1930. It demonstrates that violence, as well as affirmative cultural politics, shaped the emergence of modern sexual identity. The talk will also address the critical challenges of this archive: how to engage with the negative, and often violent, aspects of queer history without reinforcing pernicious stereotypes about miserable lesbian and gay existence?

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.

Talk on Magnus Hirschfeld, Oscar Wilde and how death shaped modern queer culture

I’m looking forward to discussing some of my research on death and modern queer culture at Birkbeck this May. The talk is free and open to all. You can book your place by emailing bebirkbeck@bbk.ac.uk. Further details below.

Heike Bauer – Dead Wilde: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Violent Shaping of Modern Queer Culture
Wednesday 27 May 2015 | 6.30 – 8.30pm | Keynes Library, Room 114, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1 0PD

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This lecture is part of the Be Birkbeck lecture series.

How did the death of Oscar Wilde impact on the women and men who identified with ‘the love that dare not speak its name’? This talk explores an archive of little known writings on homosexual death and suicide by the influential sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935). Hirschfeld is best known today for his sexual rights activism, foundational studies of transvestism and opening of the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin. But he was also a chronicler of the effects of hate and violence against lesbians and homosexual men. His writings contain many accounts of homophobic attack from around the world including observations on the trial and death of Oscar Wilde. These accounts suggest that such attacks had a wide-ranging impact, affecting not ‘just’ the victim but also the women and men who identified in some way with her or him.

The talk explores this unique record of queer life and death, 1900-1930. It demonstrates that violence, as well as affirmative cultural politics, shaped the emergence of modern sexual identity. The talk will also address the critical challenges of this archive: how to engage with the negative, and often violent, aspects of queer history without reinforcing pernicious stereotypes about miserable lesbian and gay existence?

Heike Bauer is a Senior Lecturer in English and Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on the history of sexuality, nineteenth and twentieth century literary culture, and on translation. Her books include English Literary Sexology, 1860-1930 (Palgrave, 2009), the 3-volume edited anthology Women and Cross-Dressing, 1800-1939 (Routledge, 2006), and the edited collections Queer 1950s: Rethinking Sexuality in the Postwar Years (Palgrave, 2012, with Matt Cook) and Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World (forthcoming with Temple University Press in 2015). She recently co-edited with Churnjeet Mahn a special issue on “Transnational Lesbian Cultures”, Journal of Lesbian Studies 18.3 (2014), and is currently completing the AHRC-funded study A Violent World of Difference: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Shaping of Queer Modernity. Click here for the project blog, or follow her on Twitter: @Heike_Bauer

This event is free and open to all, but booking is essential.

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!

h.bauer@bbk.ac.uk

5 January 2014.

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A Queer Will: Exploring Queer Inheritance at the London Metropolitan Archives

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.

Hirschfeld’s Testament

Magnus Hirschfeld’s testament is an example of a queer will, written at Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 11.03.13a 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 Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 11.33.54Shiu 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