Tag Archives: queer history

Join me for the


The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture (Temple UP, 2017)


Saturday, 2 December 2017, 5.30pm
Keynes Library
Birkbeck School of Arts
43 Gordon Square
London WC1 0PD

The launch will be preceded at 4.30pm by a public talk 
by Ashkan Sepahvand, curator of the exhibition Odarodle, which casts a postcolonial perspective on exhibiting sex at the Schwules Museum* Berlin. 

Free. Reserve a place here.



(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.


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.


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.


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.

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!


5 January 2014.




Oscar Wilde’s (Prison) Friends

Oscar Wilde was born on 16 October 1854. On the 160th anniversary of his birth, mainstream and social media began to circulate a photograph of the man who is thought to be the ‘little dark-eyed chap’ whom Wilde befriended in Reading goal.

It is not known whether or not the man in the picture, Harry Bushnell, really was Wilde’s close friend in prison, let alone if he was Wilde’s lover. But the spotlight on their relationship suggests that Wilde’s tragic fate continues to have an affective hold in the twenty-first century.

Hirschfeld’s Wilde

Wilde died in November 1900 aged 46, not long after he was released from Reading gaol where he had served a sentence of two years hard labor following his conviction for homosexual conduct in 1895. The writings of Magnus Hirschfeld reveal that Wilde’s imprisonment and premature death had considerable impact on homosexual men at the time.

Hirschfeld himself wrote about Wilde’s tragic fate to illustrate what he called the ‘hell’ experienced by those homosexual women and men who were socially ostracised and persecuted. He also described an encounter with a group of young male Cambridge students who shortly after Wilde’s death had gathered together to read aloud ‘ The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, further marking their allegiance to Wilde by attaching his prisoner’s number, J.3.3., to their shirts.

Hirschfeld’s moving account of the event indicates the emotional impact of Wilde’s fate on those who identified in some way with him. But it also provides hope amidst the sadness of the  occasion: Hirschfeld lingers on the image of a queer community that continues to flourish despite – and to some extent because of – death and persecution.

Wilde Affect

The current attention to Harry Bushnell carries some of the same emotional weight. Sensational revelatory impulse notwithstanding, it suggests an investment in making bearable Wilde’s suffering by imaging possibilities of intimacy in the harsh conditions of Reading gaol. Of course it would be tempting to dismiss outright such claims as hopelessly naive and sentimental. Yet imagining Wilde being loved, desired and cared for at that point in time when his life was being so cruelly denied is also a form of resistance to the attempted negotiation of his influence: it serves as a poignant reminder of Wilde’s role in the formation of affirmative modern queer subcultures.

24 October 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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