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A Violent World of Difference

How have hatred and violence shaped queer modern identity and culture? An AHRC-funded project has drawn on the works of German-Jewish physician, sexologist and homosexual rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) to find out. ‘A Violent World of Difference: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Shaping of Queer Modernity’ is concerned with experiences of stigma and persecution, and the collective impact of these individual traumas.

L0010194 Suicide from asphyxia by choking, 19th century (credit: Wellcome Library, London)

Hirschfeld campaigned to legalise homosexuality, opened the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin and conducted the first statistical surveys of lesbian and homosexual suicide. He also appeared in 1919 silent picture ‘Anders als die Andern’ (‘Different From the Others’), believed to be the first film to depict homosexuality in a positive light.

He turned his attention to sexual politics after the suicide of one of his patients, explains principal investigator Heike Bauer, senior lecturer in English and gender studies at Birkbeck College, London. I wanted to know what this archive of texts and objects could tell us about peoples' everyday lives and what it actually felt like to live them.

One of his patients took his own life because he couldn't face a heterosexual marriage and he couldn't tell his parents, she reveals. I wondered why he also felt unable to tell Hirschfeld, given he knew him to be a sympathetic doctor. That led me to search for more accounts of homosexual suicide in Hirschfeld's work. I found that suicides of patients come up again and again.

These deaths carried a double stigma around 1900: homosexuality was criminalised then and suicide was a social taboo.Friends and family could face a real difficulty of feeling that their loved one's death was doubly unspeakable.

As a literary critic I am trained in reading between the lines, examining texts both for what is said and what remains unspoken. The shame and stigma of homosexuality and suicide made it difficult to speak about these issues. People couldn't discuss their experiences publicly, she adds. This is why it was so important for Hirschfeld to speak out about the problem of homosexual suicide.

Under increasing threat of Nazi persecution, Hirschfeld left Germany in 1930 and embarked on a worldwide lecturing tour. On his return to Europe two years later, he had to watch news of the destruction of his Institute in a cinema screen in Paris. They burned his books and paraded a bust of Hirschfeld through the streets of Berlin.

L0024860 Magnus Hirschfeld (r) with colleague at the World League for Sexual Reform conference, 1929 (credit: Wellcome Library, London)

Today, the main body of Hirschfeld's work is in Berlin. The project also took Bauer to locations from London's Wellcome Library to Tokyo, Harvard, and the Kinsey Institute in Indiana. She particularly enjoyed viewing a guestbook, held at the German Literature Archive in Marbach, from the very end of Hirschfeld's life – a time when his former colleagues were starting to inform on him. It shows the affection and friends he had at an incredibly difficult time and reminded me that he wasn't isolated from his family, she remembers. It poignantly ends with a picture of his death mask,

In the present day, LGBT critics and activists have worked hard to dismantle anti-queer stereotypes and attitudes. So it can seem odd and uncomfortable to focus in on the history of queer upset and suffering. There is also a worry that we shouldn't tell these stories because public discourse isn't ready for them.

Despite developments in contemporary society, she says, people are still being attacked and discriminated against for being queer, and recent research by Stonewall, for example, revealed that suicide rates have increased among young gay and lesbian people. By over-emphasising progress, reflects Bauer, we can silence that some queer people still feel that their lives are made unliveable.

This is a broad interdisciplinary challenge for sexual and gender studies, and it's very important that we engage with it, agrees Peter Hegarty, professor of psychology at the University of Surrey.

There is a risk if you say there is no difference. Because then you deny the problem and there is no rationale for the government to think of sexual and gender minorities as actually needing to help. Things get hetero-normative very fast. You need to acknowledge difficulty, but not allow that to turn into fatalism or essentialism.

Hegarty attended the ‘Violence in Queer and Trans Lives: A Dialogue between the Humanities and the Health Professions’ workshop, one of many events to arise from the project. It brought together experts from the humanities, psychology and psychiatry – fields which, as Hegarty notes, each utilise different types of research. While psychiatry deals with clinical populations, psychology evidences social factors such as stigma.

Bauer contributed to the annual LGBTQ History and Archives conference held at the London Metropolitan Archives, where she discussed with historians, archivists and activists issues of queer inheritance. Her own project events also included a panel discussion and public screening of ‘Anders als die Andern’ at Birkbeck Cinema during LGBT History Month, and the ‘Homophobia Rewritten: New Literary and Cultural Perspectives on Violence and Sexuality’ symposium.

Bundesarchiv Bild 102-14597, Berlin, Opernplatz, Bücherverbrennung; Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons (credit: Bundesarchiv)

Held at Birkbeck, ‘Homophobia Rewritten’ examined literary and cultural engagements with, and responses to, homophobia. One of the aims of the project was to bring my historical research into dialogue with a wide range of research on homophobia today, explains Bauer.

Dr Lesley A. Hall, senior archivist at the Wellcome Library explains: There is still a very great need for a subtle and nuanced analysis of the ways in which the insights of sexology entered into cultural discourse in the early 20th century. This research, is particularly important because, while there has already been quite a lot of work done on the relationship between male homosexuality, identities and medico-legal changes, there has really been a lot less done on female same-sex desire.

It is also important to emphasise the significance of Hirschfeld and the international networks in which he was a central figure, and the ways in which he was a significant influence beyond medicine and psychiatry.

Bauer believes that personal experiences of violence, and of witnessing violence against others, must continue to be acknowledged and integrated into queer history. Most queer historians have tried to focus on telling positive stories. It's important to get away from negative stereotypes that say being gay means inevitable misery, but I think now is a time when we can also start to talk about the difficulties of queer existence in the past.

Find out more on this intriguing research on the project website.

Notes to Editors

  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

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