Between 6 and 10 May 1933, Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexology in Berlin was raided and destroyed by the Nazis. His medical case studies, library, archive and museum collection, which included invaluable information about trans, queer and intersex lives and histories, were removed from the Institute and burned publicly.
Hirschfeld, who was German-Jewish, gay and outspokenly liberal, had been the victim of physical assault at the hands of fascists in the 1920s. In 1930, he escaped the rise of Nazi power in Germany by going on a lecture tour and research trip around the world. He would never return to Berlin and saw the destruction of his life’s work when watching news coverage of the Nazi looting in a cinema in France. Hirschfeld died in exile on 14 May 1935. His sister, Recha Tobias, did not leave Germany and died in Terezin Ghetto on 28 September 1942.
Berlin-based journalist and writer Kuchenga reflects on the destruction of the Institute of Sexology and considers the violent erasures of trans lives and histories more broadly. She imagines what the world might have looked like had the Nazi’s not succeeded in burning Hirschfeld’s work.
HIRSCHFELD’S FOLLIES – KUCHENGA
“We are the witches it is no longer legal to burn alive.”
That is how I feel it is to be a trans woman these days.
If the hate gets virulent, I take flight.
When I landed at Berlin Tegel airport on Monday 2nd March 2020 the sky was the colour of the flames underneath a cauldron in the woods. The intensity of the orange told me the day had been filled with life, the pink on the horizon was misty and I was bringing in a blackness that was deeply alive.
Why did I come here? I had lost my anonymity and I wanted it back. A bus driver I had got to know in the biblical sense, lamented to me, once we had parted that he would struggle to meet another me. What did he mean? Others might call him trans attracted or trans amorous. I am guessing he has never heard such terms and I am sure he will not use those words to describe himself. “You girls are always on the move” he said. I too have noted this trend amongst the girls I have come to know over the years. Our pathway through our medical transition could be boosted by a geographical move. Doctors of yesteryear recommended it.
In the film ‘I Want What I Want’ (1972) the main character, Wendy, is warned by her doctor that her acceptance in society will be based on how successful she becomes in her cisgender assumed passability. The traditional medicalised path involves hoop jumping through doctors’ assessments of one’s worthiness. Hormone therapy and gender affirming surgeries can only be legally attained this way. If successful, then a stealth life of quiet gender expression and conformity awaited. Move somewhere nice and new – away from your former life – and in this new existence, tell no one. Was it always thus?
The Institute of Sexology in Charlottenburg, Berlin was an oasis that promised rebirth for trans people in Weimar Germany. So revolutionary was its work that with the ascension of the Nazi regime, its days were numbered. Nevertheless, it set the medicalisation of transness in motion. As well as offering medical pathways for trans people, Dr. Hirschfeld worked with the Berlin police for specific identification for trans people to avoid being arrested for cross dressing crimes. Perhaps it is difficult for us to comprehend because of the soi-disant gender neutrality of the current wave of sports luxe lounge wear. The expansion of nude shades along with the blue, black and grey in our normcore fashions irons out our sartorial idiosyncrasies and provides uninformity for people of all genders on how we present ourselves in the world. The way that men and women dressed in the time of Dr. Hirschfeld was so clearly demarcated that Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo and Vita Sackville West courting Virginia Wolfe in tweed suits that would suit the landscape around Balmoral were more sexually suggestive than we might currently appreciate. What has carried into our time is the notion that the way trans people present ourselves, in whatever clothes we feel comfortable, is an act of duplicity. Porn sites proliferate with videos of the ‘transsexual babysitter’ who tricks her employer whilst wearing a tartan mini kilt, knee high socks and a crop top. The popularisation of the word ‘trap’ in the gaming world has become a byword for a trans girl whose main mission is to ensnare a straight man into her clutches. Supposedly we forever sully his heterosexual reputation in the process. The power we have…
Nowadays, the move away from describing transness as a gender identity disorder and the attendant ‘born in the wrong body’ rhetoric is perhaps what a Foucauldian analysis calls for. Nevertheless, I struggle to ignore the reality that the hypervisibility and hypersexualisation of black trans women in particular, has murderous consequences. The convergence of violences is lethal – racialisation, phallocentricism and transmisogyny concurrently fuel an objectification that incites homicidal rage. The trans tipping point that Laverne Cox heralded from the cover of TIME magazine in 2014 has done so much to raise awareness and allyship. However, an anti-trans backlash has also been epic in its reach and impact. Year after year, it’s the darker skinned women and girls who find ourselves being the most murdered. Survivor’s guilt spoils any sense of peace and achievement I have eked out of my lucky existence. I ask myself “Who am I to be enjoying life as my slain sisters pile up around me?” I smell their deaths when I am trying to enjoy myself. Can I ever get used to a violence free life? Is this temporary? Will they eventually catch up with me too? Is it only a matter of time?
I now live in a city where colonial powers scrambled for Africa. They carved up land and resources and tried to use the bible to wipe so many of us out. Nevertheless, here I am. Marooned for a while longer. Successfully maintaining a writer’s life in the same city where the Nazis stormed into The Institute of Sexology and burnt over half of its library in the hope that we could be written out of history. They failed in their overarching aims, but the books burning did allow a lie to take root. Despite what transphobes bleat, trans people are not modern phenomena. We did not just come into existence because Dr. Hirschfeld willed it so. Writers like Raquel Willis and Cheryl Morgan do the necessary excavation work to unearth trans people from ancient times up until the present day. Decolonisation efforts have led to a reclamation and unveiling of trans identities around the world. The Muxe of Mexico, the Hijras of India, the Mahu of the Pacific Islands, the Sister Girls of Aboriginal Australia. We are writing ourselves back into history.
I ask myself what responsibility do I have as a Black Trans Woman writer. I think the question I am compelled to answer is always ‘What if…’ The dystopian answers to that question are plentiful. ‘The Man In The High Castle’ asked us to consider an existence where the Nazis had won the Second World War. The developers of Game of Thrones hoped to make a series called ‘Confederate’ exploring how we might have fared if the Southern States of America had been able to maintain chattel slavery with the Civil War ending in a stalemate. The shallow fascination with the possibilities of white supremacy that was even more successful in its genocidal ambitions reveals such a limited imagination. It’s tiresome. The inverse arouses me much more. ‘Hollywood’ on Netflix asks what might have been achieved if progress in equality and representation had been achieved at a more rapid pace. What else might have been possible?
Well… I wonder on what this world might have been if it were not for the Nazis. They destroyed so much. When I daydream, I imagine the women who discovered themselves anew through the Institute of Sexology going on to create a Moulin Rouge of our own: Hirschfeld’s Follies. A utopian safe space for trans girls and women, where joy and pleasure are unbridled. Gender euphoria is the order of the day. Perhaps the next Baz Luhrrman of Generation Z will get so excited that they’ll do anything they can to make it the most fantastical feel good movie of the twenty first century. It is just one of the stories that I came to Berlin to write. I came here to get our history back and write stories into a brightened future that help us to love ourselves and each other so much more. Come what may.
Kuchenga is a writer from North London. She is an avid reader of black women’s literature as a matter of survival.
She is the child of pan-Africanist parents who encouraged her to cultivate a well used personal library as a form of protection and an asset of immeasurable value.
Her personal mission as a black transsexual woman is to live a long healthy life and archive her writing and imagery for the use of the black girls in the future who are in pursuit of yet more evidence that they are worthy.
She has been published in many online magazines including Vogue, Stylist and Harper’s Bazaar.