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The Homosexuality of Men and Women

by Magnus Hirschfeld

Dedicated to Paul J. Nash

Translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash Prometheus Books. 1209 pages, $200.

Reviewed by William A. Percy and John Lauritsen The Gay & Lesbian Review, November-December 2002

"The Magnum Opus of Magnus Hirschfeld"

The gay movement has never known anyone quite like Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a small, pudgy, Jewish, cross-dressing Berlin physician. A first-class scholar of the old (rigorous) school, he co-founded the world's first homosexual rights organization, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäre Komitee) in 1897. For over three decades he was the leading spokesman for homosexual emancipation, and a leader of the World League for Sexual Reform.

It is unfortunate that many gay scholars are not aware of works written before Stonewall or in languages other than English. In the last third of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th, Berlin was in many ways the world center of scholarship, certainly in gay studies and in medicine, outdistancing even its closest rival Vienna. The 23 volumes of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee's Yearbook (1899-1923) contain seminal and authoritative articles on literature, ancient and modern history, biography, jurisprudence, anthropology, the homosexual rights movement, and such sex-related phenomena as transvestism.

Hirschfeld's magnum opus is the longest, and arguably the best book written about gay men and lesbians by a single individual. After the Nazis' "cleansing" of many books, the 1914 German original of this great work could be found only in a few large research libraries until 1984, when it was reprinted by de Gruyter, with an informative introduction by Erwin J. Haeberle. Prometheus Books has now published a new English translation by Michael Lombardi-Nash, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for his translations of the works of [K]arl Heinrich Ulrichs and Hirschfeld's study on transvestitism. This volume also contains a new introduction by the venerable historian of sex, Vern Bullough, who subsidized the publication.

Hirschfeld's predecessor, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, began the movement to decriminalize sodomy (sex between males defined as widernatürliche Unzucht or unnatural lewdness) when Bismarck prepared to extend the Prussian ordinance against sodomy to the German Reich in the Constitution of 1871. (Under the Code Napoléon, sodomy was not a crime in the German Confederation at that time.) Ulrichs, a civil servant in Hanover, took up the cudgels, and for the next thirty years fought a lonely battle against the repressive laws. (His contemporary, Károly Mária Kertbeny, who invented the term "homosexual" in 1869, confined his efforts to writing.) First he informed his family that he was going to make a public campaign. Then he spoke out against the laws at a 1867 conference of judges and lawyers, who promptly shouted him down. But Ulrichs refused to retreat and published thirteen pamphlets over the years (all translated by Lombardi-Nash some years ago). He died in Italy, poor and unknown, in 1895.

Ulrichs believed that Urnings -- his term for gay men -- represented a kind of intermediate sex; they had "female souls trapped in male bodies." Magnus Hirschfeld would carry the idea even further with his category of "sexual intergrades" (sexuelle Zwischenstufen), under which he grouped male and female homosexuals, transvestites, and "pseudo- hermaphrodites." Hirschfeld's sexual intergrades fell between normal men and normal women -- physically as well as psychologically. As might be expected, men who favored the Ancient Greek model of male love were outraged by Hirschfeld's obsessive focus on effeminate males and mannish females. Elisar von Kupffer commented in his 1900 anthology of romantic male friendship, Lieblingminne und Freundesliebe in der Weltlitteratur, that the geniuses and heroes of Greece could "hardly be recognized in their Uranian petticoats."

Hirschfeld seems to have learned from such criticism, since by 1914 his notions of the "third sex" and "sexual intergrades" had pretty much fallen by the wayside, though he never relinquished the idea that human beings are born with discrete and unchangeable sexual orientations (heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual).

The Homosexuality of Men and Women is divided into two parts. The first has a clinical character, with penetrating analyses of the sexological theories then in existence. From his interviews with more than 10,000 homosexual men and women, Hirschfeld describes the practices and characteristics of gay men and lesbians. Nothing in gay literature is quite like the hundreds of anecdotes and case studies with which he illustrates his generalizations. For example, he observed two Urnings in criminal court, re-united after weeks of being imprisoned separately, who achieved mutual orgasm simply by touching. No one in the courtroom noticed except Hirschfeld, who asked them afterwards if this is what had happened. They said that it had.

After chapters on the diagnosis of homosexuality and the childhood and adolescence of Uranian boys and girls, Hirschfeld devotes several chapters to "differential diagnoses," which distinguish between genuine homosexuality and such things as friendship, pseudohomosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexual horror, hermaphroditism, gynandromorphia, and transvestism. (With regard to "pseudohomosexuality," one of Hirschfeld's opponents, Benedict Friedlaender, commented scathingly, "It is inconceivable what is pseudo about it.")

In the chapter called "Classification of Homosexuals according to Their Direction of Taste in Choice of Partner and Forms of Sexual Activity" Hirschfeld makes the serious error of lumping together the sexual practices of male and female homosexuals. Even so, assuming that his discussion is mainly about males, he gives us a good idea what gay men did in his time. Manual sex or mutual masturbation was the most common form of intercourse, practised exclusively by approximately 40% of his cases. Next was oral sex, also by about 40%. Less common was femoral (thighs) intercourse, our "Princeton Rub," preferred or practised exclusively by about 12%. Least common was anal intercourse, favored by the remaining 8%. Hirschfeld describes all of these practices in detail. For anal intercourse men in his day used olive oil as a lubricant, and sometimes used condoms.

Hirschfeld then analyzes theories on the origin and nature of homosexuality. His own opinion was that homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual orientations were inborn and unmodifiable. He was unable to accept the bisexuality theories of Benedict Friedlaender, who believed that all men were born with the capacity for same-sex love, and that a completely straight man was a stunted being (Kümmerling), whose psyche had been artificially crippled by theological morality.

Part Two treats homosexuality from the standpoints of sociology, history, anthropology, zoology and law. Although Hirschfeld assumes authorship for the book as a whole, it is clear that the chapters here are written by or in close collaboration with the specialists he acknowledges in the Introduction.

The 80-page chapter on "Homosexuality in Classical Antiquity" is superb. The main collaborative author here is probably the classical scholar Paul Brandt (who sometimes wrote as "Hans Licht"). Even Brandt's later 3-volume work, Sittengeschichte Griechenlands (1925-28), translated into English in 1932 as Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, fails to include much of the raw material found in Hirschfeld. After a brief survey of Egypt, Assyria and other cultures of the Near East, the chapter concentrates on Ancient Greece. Especially acute are analyses of the Plato dialogues and the Timarchea (a speech misinterpreted by homophobes, who falsely claim that the Greeks proscribed sex between males).

An excellent chapter, "The Legal and Social Victimization, Persecution, and Prosecution of Homosexual Man and Women," was either written by or under the direction of Eugen Wilhelm, a jurist who wrote for the Yearbook under the pseudonym of Numa Praetorius. After examining the Jewish and Christian scriptures and the writings of Philo Judaeus, Hirschfeld declares: "With regard to homosexuality, there cannot be any doubt that the historical bases of our present laws and interpretations are rooted in Judeo-Christianity." He disposes of the claim, based on a prejudicial interpretation of a passage from Tacitus, that the ancient Germanic peoples punished sex between males. To the contrary (quoting a Norwegian writer): "In the case of the North Germanic peoples, penal laws against the practice of man-manly love were introduced first by the Christians."

A chapter on the victimization of homosexuals by blackmailers and con artists is definitive. The final chapters deal with the struggle to restore the standing of gay men and lesbians, with an authoritative history of the early homosexual emancipation movement.

Hirschfeld sometimes made mistakes, and some of his ideas and information are mainly of historic interest. Nevertheless, this work is indispensable and unsurpassed in many areas. It belongs in every large library and in the private collection of every aspiring gay or lesbian scholar.

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Translator's note: The original German version for this translation was the 1920, second edition published by Louis Marcus Books in Berlin.

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