Illustration from Magnus Hirschfeld’s ‘Sexuelle Zwischenstufen: Das männliche Weib und der weibliche Mann’

At a workshop next Monday (25 April 2016), Dr Ina Linge and Professor David Spiegelhalter will lead a discussion about the historical documentation of human sexuality – from questionnaires to the diaries of cross-dressers. The event (part of a series titled Sex in Six Objects) is open to people aged 16 to 25.

Hirschfeld, himself gay and an occasional cross-dresser, stood up for sexual equality. 'Diagnosis' of homosexuality meant that it could be considered as a natural, and thus ‘normal’, variation of the sexual spectrum – and most importantly, no longer a crime.

Ina Linge

Homosexuality was illegal in both East and West Germany until the late 1960s. Yet as early as the turn of the 20th century a physician called Magnus Hirschfeld began to gather statistical information about Homosexualität und Bisexualität. His survey asked people, predominantly men, about their sexual preferences. It was sent to, among others, more than 5,700 German metalworkers and 3,000 male students in Berlin.

Another measure by which Hirschfeld sought to document sexual behaviour was his ‘psychobiological questionnaire’. He is said to have collected over 40,000 completed forms. By today’s standards, his questions were biased and often clichéd. The survey, for example, asked respondents to report on their play behaviour as children: “Did you prefer to play with boys or girls? Did you prefer boys’ games, such as throwing snow balls, play-fighting, hobby-horses, soldiers, etc, or did you prefer feminine child play, such as dolls, cooking, crocheting, knitting?”

Hirschfeld was an activist and champion of sexual rights. Psychoanalysts such as Freud, who defined the era in terms of a growing interest in sexuality, were not concerned with statistics. But Hirschfield was keen on numbers. His motto was per scientiam ad justitiam (justice through science). He sought to educate the public about the prevalence of a variety of human sexual expressions – and in 1904 he claimed that homosexuals made up more than two per cent of the population.

As a result of his studies, Hirschfeld faced legal prosecution. In 1903 he surveyed students at a Berlin university about their sexual orientation. At a rally, he was accused of impudence, molestation and seduction – and later forced to pay a large fine as retribution to a number of students for offence caused by his questionnaire.  Undaunted, in 1919 he founded an Institute of Sexology which, until it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933, was a hub for research and activism.

At a workshop for young people taking place next Monday (25 April 2016), Dr Ina Linge, AHRC Cultural Engagement Fellow at the Department of German and Dutch, will talk briefly about Hirschfeld’s ‘psychobiological questionnaire’ and make a connection between what it reveals and life writing (diaries and autobiographies) dating from the same period. She will be joined by Professor David Spiegelhalter (Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics), author of Sex by Numbers: What Statistics Can Tell Us About Sexual Behaviour.

Linge and Spiegelhalter hope to prompt a discussion of the successes, and failures, of the documentation of human sexuality over the last 100 years. Linge has a background in literature (both German and English) and the history of science and medicine. This breadth of scholarship enables her to bring together life writing and the history of sexology in order to look at how the two intersect. Her research throws a light on the ways in which gender – and in particular sexual and gender ‘difference’ – was framed by those who felt that they did not conform to norms.  

“I’m interested in how ‘queer’ bodies appear in a variety of settings and spaces in these autobiographical texts,” says Linge. “One of the spaces that I’ve been looking at is the encounter with the medical or sexological practitioner and ‘difference’ under the medical gaze. Sexual sciences of the early 20th century were closely linked with the medical sciences and sought to understand the biological origin of sexuality. Yet, descriptions of physical bodies are often strikingly absent from queer life writings.”

The idea of an individual’s sexuality being ‘framed’ or ‘staged’ (placed within a wider context) is critical as it taps into the concept of ‘liveability’ which has been extensively written about by the contemporary gender theorist Judith Butler. She argues that when categories of recognition frame us too firmly, life becomes unliveable. But when there is an absence of framing, life also seems unliveable.

This double nature of framing is represented, for example, in the language used in queer life writings. A protagonist might struggle to find a language that explains their experiences as a Transvestit, a word Hirschfeld used to describe transgender people. Linge says: “Such an identity category can offer a powerful sense of community and belonging. But in order to be recognised as a ‘transvestite’ and dress in the desired clothes, one often had to undergo medical examination and run the risk of police persecution.”

Linge’s research draws attention to a range of autobiographical writing from the early 20th century. The author of A Man’s Maiden Years (published in 1907) was brought up as a girl who felt that her true nature was that of a man. The story was published under the pseudonym N O Body, a name signifying physical absence. A Man’s Maiden Years has a direct link with Hirschfeld: he wrote an afterword to the memoir and also helped the author to transition from female to male.

Hirschfeld argued that people are located on a scale somewhere between the opposing poles of man and woman, neither of which is reached completely in one person, and that all people, to varying degrees, contain both female and male characteristics.

He also believed that homosexuality was inborn. As such, it was considered a physical affliction that could be diagnosed by looking at the homosexual body. He argued that homosexuality had physical markers – such as wider hips - and that one day it would be possible “to diagnose the Uranian [member of a third sex] as soon as he enters the world”.

Linge says: “Of course, we would not accept this explanation today. But we shouldn't forget that Hirschfeld, himself gay and an occasional cross-dresser, stood up for sexual equality and the elimination of anti-homosexual laws. To be able to 'diagnose' homosexuality meant that it could then be considered as a natural, and thus ‘normal’, variation of the sexual spectrum – and most importantly, no longer a crime.”

For Hirschfeld, medical photography, a technology new to science, appeared as a powerful aid to the diagnosis of ‘sexuelle Zwischenstufen’ (sexual intermediate types). The photographs of medical examination that Hirschfeld includes in his many publications are meant to be viewed with a coolly medical gaze to discover the truth of nature.

In comparison, a text such as A Man’s Maiden Years might seem to avoid giving a clear description of the body, a body that photography would necessarily reveal. In his memoir, N O Body recounts the experience of being examined by a doctor who exclaims “You are as much as man as I am!” and then goes on to explain that only a ‘minor bit of surgery’ is needed.

“Yet although neither body nor surgery is directly described, as readers, we learn the details that really matter here. For the first time, a medical practitioner recognises the difference of the protagonist’s body and promises a solution. This medical framing, which offers the promise of a livable life, and its narrative framing, matter much more than any description of physical traits,” says Linge.

“Photography, too, is mediated by such narrative framing. In one example [see main image], Hirschfeld published a series of three photographs that read like a text from left to right. They show progression from demure woman to upright man with confident posture. The naked body alone would not tell this story. Both photography and life writing illustrate that the queer body can be truly understood only by looking at its staging and framing within a narrative structure.”

In 1933, Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexology was destroyed and his library, which included his collection of completed questionnaires and many examples of life writing, was publically burned. What followed was a time of devastating persecution of gay, lesbian and transgender people under the Nazi regime. Hirschfeld died in exile and his work for LGBT rights was silenced for many decades.

“Almost a century after Hirschfeld, the language we have at our disposal to describe gender and sexuality has diversified, with such words as ‘queer’, ‘pansexual’ and ‘cisgendered’. Even Facebook has added options for over 50 genders to choose from. This is reminiscent of the categories that rapidly multiplied at the turn of the century in the works of Magnus Hirschfeld and others, from the homosexual, to the ‘invert’, the ‘Uranian’, and other ‘sexual intermediate types’,” says Linge.

“We might claim that current understanding of gender and sexuality is more sophisticated and that we have achieved a level of equality unheard of in Hirschfeld’s time. But perhaps we also have to face the fact that it has taken us a century to return to the wealth and diversification of language about sexuality and gender. Hirschfeld’s work, and the life writings that sprung up around him, established a starting point for LGBT rights.”

For more information about the Sex in Six Objects series, and details of how to sign up, go to The series is aimed at people aged between 16 and 25. The workshops are free of charge.

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.