Tag Archives: suicide

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?

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.

17 January 2014: Free Film Screening of First Homosexual Movie during LGBT History Month

More exciting project event news!

On Thursday, 13 February 2014 at 6pm there will be a screening of the film Anders als die Andern/Different from the Others (dir. Richard Oswald, 1919) in the Birbeck Cinema, 43-46 Gordon Square, WC1 0PD, London.

Featuring a guest appearance by Magnus Hirschfeld,  Anders als die Andern is the first film in the history of cinema to deal explicitly with homosexuality. It tells the story of Paul Körner (Conradt Veidt), a gay pianist who is being blackmailed because of his homosexuality. When the blackmail threatens his budding relationship with a young musician, Körner seeks legal help but finds that Paragraph 175 of the German Code – which criminalizes homosexuality – turns him into the accused.

Conrad Veidt in Anders als die Andern

Conrad Veidt in Anders als die Andern

Anders als die Andern shows the precariousness of queer life in Weimar Germany and documents first attempts at resistance. It will be shown with English intertitles.

Heldo during LGBT History Month, the event aims to remember and reassess the difficult history of homosexual persecution. The screening will be introduced by Heike Bauer and is followed by a panel discussion featuring Silke Arnold-de Simine, Justin Bengry, Daniel Monk and Chrysanthi Nigianni.

Programme:
6.00pm: Drinks Reception

6.30pm: Film Screening

7.30pm: Panel Discussion

Free. All welcome, but please register to secure your place by clicking here

This event is funded by the AHRC and BiGS.