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A pioneering gender-affirming health institute opened in 1919 in Berlin

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to talk now about a little-known but very important part of queer history - Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Research. Hirschfeld was a gay Jewish doctor living in Berlin in the early 1900s.

BRANDY SCHILLACE: Many of Hirschfeld's patients were also homosexual. And one of his patients, unfortunately, ended his life on the eve of his wedding because he couldn't face marrying a woman but also couldn't face telling his parents that he was homosexual. So that was something Hirschfeld himself referred to as a catalyst for him and kind of galvanized him into action.

CHANG: That is medical historian Brandy Schillace, who wrote about all of this for Scientific American. Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Research in 1919, pioneering research and treatment for transgender people, including modern gender-affirming surgeries. When we talked, I asked Schillace to describe what the institute was like when it first opened.

SCHILLACE: There was counseling, and there were classes, but it was also a beautiful space. And people talked about the inside of it as just being kind of magisterial and yet homey at the same time, so that it was a place that really mixed the two different fields of interest, right? On one hand, it felt like a familiar home, a place for you to be. And on the other hand, it was a scientific establishment.

CHANG: And when it came to the scientific advancements made there, can you talk more about what the institute achieved?

SCHILLACE: Absolutely. So one of their greatest achievements is actually their attempts to educate everyday people to understand that homosexuality and gender-nonconforming people - so that - today, we would call that transgender. At the time, they didn't have that word. But people who wanted to live as the opposite sex or who perhaps didn't even have a specific sexual understanding of themselves, that that was actually normal and that, in fact, it had a history. But the other side of what they did is they were trying to figure out how to help those who wanted to transition. What would help those people live healthier, happier lives? They didn't have what we have today, but they did have a burgeoning understanding of hormones. And they understood that some parts of the body could be augmented and changed surgically.

CHANG: Well, your research not only details the medical advancements during that time but also the way the general public talked about or viewed LGBTQ issues during the day. What did you find out about public opinion back then?

SCHILLACE: You know, you might think that at the time, there would be a great deal of resistance and only a few people that were accepting. In fact, I find that there were a lot of people willing to accept this. And it was much more understood that the doctors who were speaking on behalf of these patients had a lot of authority. Unfortunately, homosexuality was still technically illegal under Paragraph 175 in the German rules and laws, but you could actually get a pass, a kind of license for what they considered cross-dressing. And that was something - if you had one of those, then you could be recognized as your female self if you had been assigned male at birth, or vice versa, and could go about your life with that license. And that was considered - you know, your identity was secured. And Hirschfeld...

CHANG: Wow, this was an actual physical license you carried with you.

SCHILLACE: An actual license, yes.

CHANG: Wow.

SCHILLACE: And Hirschfeld was largely responsible for that. His group really pushed for that. And he often served as the physician who would examine the person and therefore sign the license. So you might think that there would be not a lot of acceptance. And yet frequently, there was. And one of the things that was quite sad for me to read was it did seem to depend on where in the social hierarchy you were. There were many cases of working-class people accepting their homosexual children, but those who had something to lose and were social climbing or, you know, involved in government, they were the ones who found it much more difficult to accept their children who had homosexual tendencies.

CHANG: Interesting. Well, despite any tolerance in public attitudes, in 1933, the Nazis came for the institute, burned the building, including tens of thousands of books that the building housed. Can you just put that in perspective for us? In other words, what kind of knowledge was lost because of that destruction?

SCHILLACE: So many different things. So one of the sad things, they didn't burn the whole building. They decided to use part of the building. They burned only the library. So they basically took all of the books and papers, and these contained protocols for surgery, you know, extensive reports on people's lives. They were tracking, you know, how did people respond to different things - really, really a scientific understanding of transgender issues. They piled them in the center of the square, and they set it on fire. And believe it or not, many of your listeners probably know about this footage. They've probably seen pictures of Nazi book burnings, and it's when they were burning the library of the institute. But it's been so effectively erased, most people don't realize that's what they're seeing. it's actually the moment at which they destroyed this material.

CHANG: I can absolutely picture those photos in my mind.

SCHILLACE: Mmm hmm.

CHANG: Well, here in the U.S., you know, we have seen a wave of new anti-trans legislation proposed in recent years. The ACLU is currently tracking something, like, over 300 anti-LGBTQ laws in the U.S. Let me ask you - for you personally, how does it feel to be researching this queer history from - what? - over a hundred years ago and see virtually the same battles happening today?

SCHILLACE: It's really troubling. First, when I began reading about Hirschfeld and his institute and the public response, I thought they were so ahead of their time. And then I thought, that's not the right way to put it. We just haven't moved very far. And that's really the tragedy, to think what might have been achieved if they had continued as they began. So instead, we're seeing so much backlash. So much ground has been lost already, and they're threatening to lose more. You know, essentially, the Nazi ideal had been based on this kind of white, cisgender heterosexual masculinity, and they considered that superior, and they considered anyone who deviated from that as worthy of eradication. And so when you see this kind of language returning, it's almost like watching it again and thinking, this is where you're starting. Where will this end? What violence is coming? So it's deeply disturbing for me because I feel sometimes as though what I'm doing isn't history. It feels like journalism.

CHANG: So that segues into my final question. Why do you think it is vitally important to know this kind of history for everyone, not just for queer people?

SCHILLACE: Oh, because it's a human story, you know? This is about all of us. As Hirschfeld himself said at one point, there's as many kinds of love as there are kinds of people. That ought to be honored, not hatred, not fear. Because fear ultimately leads to violence because people attack the things they don't understand. So the more knowledge we have and the more we realize that LGBTQ people have been around since there were people, all the way back into history, this is not a trend. It's not a fad. It's not going to destroy anything. It's been with us always. It's just being human.

CHANG: Precisely. That is Brandy Schillace, author and medical historian. Thank you so, so much for joining us.

SCHILLACE: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.