Berlin’s Third Gender: targeted in the first Nazi book burning.

LGBTQ targeted in book burning

oday is the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, a series of events in 1969 that has shaped the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. The significance of that moment in history is undeniable. Stonewall brought a heightened level of awareness of and participation in LGBTQ+ activism. In fact, it’s the reason June is Pride month.

Especially on this day it’s important to remember that, as professor of queer literary studies Octavio González points out, Stonewall is a “development in a longer arc of queer-rights advocacy, research, and activism.”[1]  And that arc begins with the world’s first gay activist group, established in 1897 by Magnus Hirschfeld, author of the foundational text of queer identity Berlin’s Third Gender.[2]

LGBTQ targeted in book burning

Who’s Magnus Hirschfeld? He was a German physician and sexologist, best known for being an outspoken advocate for sexual minorities. Hirschfeld saw sexual orientation as a naturally occurring trait, one deserving of scientific inquiry and political emancipation rather than societal hostility.[7]

His motto was per scientiam ad justitiam (through science to justice), which epitomizes his conviction that scientific understanding of sexuality would result in tolerance and acceptance of sexual minorities.[8]

As noted above, Hirschfeld established the world’s first gay activist group, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. The organization’s primary goal was overturning Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, which targeted homosexual men. As a gay man, this section of Germany’s penal code dogged Hirschfeld’s own existence.

Through his medical practice, he also saw the devastating impact it had on men who lived in fear and shame, prey to blackmailers. The organization’s charter also called for public enlightenment about sexual minorities.

LGBTQ targeted in book burning

The Yearbook for Sexual Intermediaries, published in 1899, was the first text produced toward that end by Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. It appeared in annual editions for a quarter of a century, and totaled 11,000 pages. The Yearbook is academic in nature, and forthrightly maintains that homosexuality is in-born. It also tracks the development of a corresponding homosexual identity throughout history.

LGBTQ targeted in book burning

In 1904, Hirschfeld published the essay titled The Third Gender and it’s the first published work on the subject from an insider’s perspective.[9] The phrase “the third gender” is a label of convenience utilized in ancient Rome, coming from a time when he was still examining the distinction between gender and sexuality.[10]

In his research on sexual attraction, Hirschfeld landed on the idea of a continuum – decades before Alfred Kinsey entered the picture.[11] He specified that being at either end of the heterosexual/homosexual spectrum was the exception rather than the rule. Hirschfeld also noted that these proportions were likely to change over the course of one’s lifetime.[12]

Much of The Third Gender revolves around expressions of same-sex attraction, but it also addresses those living in conflict with their assigned gender (who would come to be identified as trans). Hirschfeld realized that denying their identity was driving these individuals to depression or even suicide. At the time, a term describing their circumstances didn’t exist. In fact, it was Hirschfeld who coined the term transsexualism, giving a name and therefore credence to their situation. His most powerful contribution to the transexual community, however, (even above the clinical assistance he offered) was acknowledging that trans men and women exist… and always have.

In contrast to the Yearbook for Sexual intermediaries’ academic tone, there’s little evidence of Hirschfeld’s extensive research into sexual practices in The Third Gender. The focus is reversed, from exoticism to familiarity, with same-sex subjects presented in commonplace domestic settings. It’s also markedly sentimental, which makes it more accessible to the average reader.[13] For example:

This Book is Banned_Scarlet AlphabetI was once treating a noble lady who had been living with a friend for a number of years for a serious nervous condition. Neither before nor since have I seen such a loving merging of a healthy person into a sick person in my practice as in this case, neither among spouses nor even among mothers who feared for their children. The healthy friend was not a pleasant fellow citizen, she had a lot of ruthless and headstrong attitudes, but anyone who saw this truly touching love and care, this unremitting effort day and night, held much too good for her for the sake of this strong and beautiful feeling. She was really bonded to her friend, if you touched a painful limb of the patient, she winced reflexively, every discomfort of the sufferer was reflected on her face.  [14]

This Book is Banned_Scarlet AlphabetSome think of their dashed hopes, what could they have achieved if old prejudices had not stood in the way of their careers, and others in respected positions remember the lie of life that weighs heavily on them! Many think of their parents who are dead or for whom they are dead, and all of them with heartfelt melancholy of the woman who loved them more than anything and whom they loved more than anything—their mother. [15]

1919 saw Hirschfeld open the world’s first institute for sexual science, which he located in Berlin. It is there that he established a vocabulary for sexual minorities, which helps to remove the stigma and taboo they’d been experiencing. It’s also here that he offered practical interventions like hair removal, hormone treatment, and pioneering gender affirmation surgery.[16]

After more than a decade, Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Sciences housed an extensive library on sexuality, it included rare books, as well as diagrams and protocols for transition surgery.

LGBTQ targeted in book burning

It was on May 6, 1933 that the Nazis came for the institute. Troops swarmed the building, and carried off all its books, which they piled in the street along with a bronze bust of Hirschfeld. The bonfire engulfed more than 20,000 books, filled with research that not only helped establish a historical context for non-conforming people but also delineated procedures that addressed their physical needs.[17]  

Needless to say, the collection was irreplaceable. And as a result of the burning, the acknowledgement and therefore acceptance of sexual minorities was significantly hindered across the globe.

And it isn’t only the LGBTQ+ community that’s effected. Hobbling opportunities to understand one another is detrimental to all of us.  That’s why it is more important than ever to not just talk about the banning of books, but to take action.

What kind of action? Check out a banned book from the library – yes, that actually helps. And, public input is important, so contact your local school board members, library trustees, and state legislators. Better yet, attend the next school board or library board meeting and speak out against book bans. It’s also a pretty good way to commemorate Stonewall’s anniversary.

Page Capper copy

#StonewallAnniversary     #Berlin’sThirdGender     #MagnusHirschfeld
#LGBTQ+ authors        #Pride Month


[1] “On the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, Wellesley Professor Discusses Its Legacy and Impact.” Wellesley College.

[2] Conway, James J. “Out on the Town: Magnus Hirschfeld and Berlin’s Third Sex.” June 7, 2022. The Public Domain Review.

[3] Kasey Meehan, Jonathan Friedman. “Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression in Schools.” April 20, 2023. PEN America.

[4] Hillel Italie. “’Gender Queer’ tops library group’s list of challenged books.” AP News.

[5] Padgett, Donald. “Burn LGBTQ+ Books for Children, Group of Mothers Demands Local Library.” July 11, 2022. The Advocate.

[6] Bauer, Heike. “Burning Sexual Subjects: Books, Homophobia and the Nazi Destruction of the Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin.” In Book Destruction, ed. Gill Partington and Adam Smyth (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 17-33.

[7] Melville, Raymond. “Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld.” Stonewall Society.

[8] Bauer, Edgar J. “Hirschfelt, Magnus.” GLBTQ Historical Society.

[9] Conway, James J. “Out on the Town: Magnus Hirschfeld and Berlin’s Third Sex.” June 7, 2022. The Public Domain Review.

[10] Hirschfeld, Magnus. The Third Gender. 7th edition. Edited by Hans Ostwald. Berlin: Hermann Seemann, Pg 6.

[11] Conway, James J. “Out on the Town: Magnus Hirschfeld and Berlin’s Third Sex.” June 7, 2022. The Public Domain Review.

[12] “Hirschfeld, Magnus” in Encyclopedia of Gender and Society (vol 1) edited by Jodi O’Brien. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2009. Pg 424.

[13] Conway, James J. “Out on the Town: Magnus Hirschfeld and Berlin’s Third Sex.” June 7, 2022. The Public Domain Review.

[14] Hirschfeld, Magnus. The Third Gender. 7th edition. Edited by Hans Ostwald. Berlin: Hermann Seemann, Pg 14.

[15] Hirschfeld, Magnus. The Third Gender. 7th edition. Edited by Hans Ostwald. Berlin: Hermann Seemann, Pg 19.

[16] Conway, James J. “Out on the Town: Magnus Hirschfeld and Berlin’s Third Sex.” June 7, 2022. The Public Domain Review.

[17] Schillace, Brandy. “The Forgotten History of the World’s First Trans Clinic.” May 10, 2021. Scientific American.


“6 May 1933: Looting of the Institute of Sexology.” Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.”

Magnus Hirschfeld. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Yearbook for sexual intermediates with special reference to homosexuality. Edited by Magnus Hirschfeld. Leipzig: Publisher of Max Spohr 1.1899-13.1912.

Conway, James J. “Out on the Town: Magnus Hirschfeld and Berlin’s Third Sex.” June 7, 2022. The Public Domain Review.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.

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