Tag Archives: queer history

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.