Varieties of Love

Get to know Magnus Hirschfeld, the first gay rights advocate. Working across disciplines he gave us a fuller, more fleshed out picture of the complexities of biological and social humanity.


Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the more heroic sexologists to feature in our Transvengers webcomic.

Magnus Hirschfeld was a pioneer of gay rights. He was also a social advocate, a doctor, a sexologist, the ‘father of sociology’, an artistic muse and failed writer. (Well, he couldn’t be good at everything.) His mission for gay rights was bolstered by his meticulous, scientific documentation which, as he claimed, could bring justice through science. It was Hirschfeld’s passion for art, however, that made the humanity of his project so profound.

The emotional qualities of poetry, theatre, literature, music and eventually film deeply influenced his work. Although he was a scientist, he explained that: “the natural sciences have always left aside the most important aspect of life, which is love…and I decided to make this the mainspring of my medical research”. The arts were a vehicle that Hirschfeld used to expand his science into an argument about the freedom of love.

Becoming an advocate

Hirschfeld’s father was a doctor and social activist; his brothers both went into medicine. Hirschfeld, meanwhile, pursued a career in literature. After years of disappointment, Hirschfeld turned to the family business and set up a medical practice in the heart of an artistically thriving Berlin. At the time, Berlin was also the centre of sexual liberation and exploration. Some have even credited the city as being the place where gay rights activism was born.

Cartoon of Hirschfeld with banner protesting Paragraph 175. The banner reads

Cartoon of Hirschfeld with banner protesting Paragraph 175. The banner reads “Away with Paragraph 175!” The caption reads, “The foremost champion of the third sex!”. (Image credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives)

Although Hirschfeld was gay, his development into a gay rights activist was not about his own quest for freedom. Instead he used his relative position of power as an openly gay, middle class, social rights activist doctor to fight for those who lived precariously in the face of the dreaded Paragraph 175: the law that made male homosexuality illegal. The law was as much about imprisoning men for their sexual expression as it was about humiliating them, ruining their standing in society. It was the societal norms that the law sought to enforce. Although it seems easy to reject the fear of losing one’s social standing today, in late 19th century Germany, people’s identity, their livelihood and their entire existence was tied to their standing in society.

Hirschfeld was moved to become an advocate when one of his patients committed suicide the night before getting married. The young man confessed to Hirschfeld, his doctor, that he would end his life as a heterosexual rather than risk being exposed as gay. He was not alone: scores of men were pushed into taking their own life in the face of Paragraph 175. This was the turning point. This was when Hirschfeld found his voice as a doctor and began to pursue sexology.

Hirschfeld was moved to prove that being gay was not a deviation, but a normal, biological outcome that should not adversely impact one’s way of life. He proclaimed: “Although sex is only one part of a complex personality, being unable to express your true sexual self makes it difficult to live”. Through the documentation of the ‘manifold varieties of love’, Hirschfeld sought to legitimise sexual diversity.

The Naturalist

Writer Émile Zola coined the term naturalism to explain his creation of the ‘new scientific’ novel. Zola, like many of his contemporaries, sought to explain how context impacted people’s lives, toyed with their existences and ultimately controlled their choices. The 19th century, the century of Freud and Marx, was defined by the naturalist mind-set: people change only if their environment changes (hence the strong emergence of social activism in this era).

L0025695 Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld; Sexualpathologie

Sexualpathologie (page from Hirschfeld’s early studies on sexual variation).

As a man of his time Hirschfeld believed that humans could only change their circumstance if their environment was changed. Therefore, his project of meticulous scientific documentation would be used to alter the environment (sometimes problematically). Through science there was liberation.

Norwegian playwright Henrich Ibsen, famous for plays such as 'A Doll's House' and 'Hedda Gabler'.

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, famous for plays such as ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘Hedda Gabler’.

By documenting sexual variety Hirschfeld was attempting to say that sexual variation was already a major part of our society: there are millions of gay men, transvestites, transgender people, lesbians (and thousands of sexual manifestations); through documentation Hirschfeld was usualising the (perceived) outsiders’ existence, liberating them from the margins of society.

Through naturalist literature and theatre, artist-contemporaries of Hirschfeld sought to shock people into the lived experience of others. One of Hirschfeld’s closest friends was naturalist poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose famous play A Doll’s House was not just about women’s liberation (something Hirschfeld was also passionate about), but about liberation from stifling social mores.

The most famous dialog about liberation comes from its main character Nora, who struggles throughout the play to express what she seeks to be freed from. Nora leaves her husband, Torvald, in the final act of the play:

“I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are — or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.”

The drama of theatre reflects the power of human emotion. Hirschfeld’s studies prove the diversity of human experience, but Ibsen’s work succinctly articulates the human desire for liberation through the shared, lived experience of theatre. It gives face to the ‘truth’ of science. Surrounding himself with such writers complimented and justified Hirschfeld’s scientific work.

The Power of Poetry

Oscar Wilde’s infamous trial was worldwide news. (Image courtesy of the British Library)

Poetry provided another way to convey the intensity of feelings in a concise manner. An elevated art in the late 19th century, it is no surprise Hirschfeld also drew inspiration from poetry and the persecution of Oscar Wilde. The same year Hirschfeld was moved to action by the suicide of one of his patients, Wilde was famously imprisoned for “the love that dare not speak its name“.

Hirschfeld’s first overt act of gay activism came in the form of an anonymous 1896 leaflet entitled Sappho and Socrates: How can one explain the love of men and women for people of their own sex. The leaflet, in expressly scientific terms, explains the congenital development of homosexuality in order to argue that sexuality is a product of nature. (It should be noted that he problematically discusses it in terms of ‘deviation’ in this early work – this is a topic widely discussed). His use of Socrates and Sappho was strategic. Socrates, the god-like, gay philosopher, was respected in Hirschfeld’s time, but persecuted in his own, assigned to death for his quest for truth.

Sappho, another ancient figure, was mythologised in 19th century society as a romantic artist, a poet, a lesbian, palatable to Victorian taste. The scientific contents of Hirschfeld’s leaflet are lent humanity by their association with the Greek Classical age, an age known for its acceptance of homosexuality and elevation of philosophy and poetry. Both great thinkers were forced to commit suicide as a result of their unrelenting passions.

The leaflet is remarkably important because Hirschfeld is the first to seriously examine suicide triggered by societal, sexual oppression. It was the passion of two respected creative thinkers that brings humanity into Hirschfeld’s scientific argument.


The work of Hirschfeld gained influence through the founding of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1897 and the Institute for Sexual Science in 1919. He was well respected by his scientific peers in Germany. Freud said of his work: “I have always expressed the view that the life and work of Dr Magnus Hirschfeld against cruel and unjustifiable interference of the law in sexual human life deserves general recognition and support”.

Magnus Hirschfeld and friends (Hirschfeld is the moustached figure at the far left).

Magnus Hirschfeld and friends. Hirschfeld is the moustached figure at the far right. (Image from Advocate.com)

He spoke about sexology around the world and his books were best sellers (Berlin’s Third Sex was reprinted at least six times between 1904 and 1914). By the end of World War I and the start of the incredibly liberal Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld’s notions of sexual freedom were even accepted in circles of society that had once rejected them (although not erased from the books, Paragraph 175 was hardly enforced).

A new generation of artists and thinkers were aware of his contributions and to many he became their muse. Well-established (straight) artists like Ernst Ludvig Kirchner were not afraid to explore themes of homosexuality in their artworks. Young writers like Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden flocked to Hirschfeld’s Institute and took inspiration from his archives and interviews.

Hirschfeld became the touchstone of liberation for the age. He even inspired the first gay anthem:

Das Lila Lied (The Lavender Song): “We see a world of romance and of pleasure, All they can see is sheer banality, Lavender nights are our greatest treasure where we can be just who we want to be”. See the full English lyrics here.

With Hirschfeld’s focus on the arts integral to his understanding of love, the drive for passion made him the centrepiece of avant-garde Berlin.


Perhaps the most moving artistic achievement related to Hirschfeld’s body of work is his only foray into filmmaking: Anders als die Andern (Different from Others). Made in 1919 as a gay advocacy film, it features Hirschfeld as a sympathetic sexologist to a young man seeking a cure for his homosexuality.

See minute 3:11. Hirschfeld’s dialog is a bit dated, but tells of his mission as an advocate: “Love for one’s own sex can be just as pure and noble as that for the opposite sex. This orientation is found among many respectable people in all levels of society”.

In the film we see the very first portrayal of a gay couple in ‘real’ love; not cliché, not titillation, but real people. There is one caveat: although the couple appear no different than their heterosexual counterparts, the shadow of fear hangs over their relationship. There was a growing tolerance for sexual variety, but people still felt the spectre of shame for being ‘different’. The film addresses that suicide in the gay population was still a very real consequence of environment. Rather than writing, film, the most fashionable art form in 1919 Berlin, was able to humanise the continued struggle for equality.

The film was mostly destroyed in the first Nazis book burning campaign in 1933, which also sacked Hirschfeld’s Institute. It has recently been restored by the Outfest Legacy Project. Watch this moving video about the film’s restoration here.

Art Completes Science

Hirschfeld was not a perfect figure (he was a eugenicist), but his work remains important. As the first gay rights advocate and vocal human rights advocate, he deserves to be well-known. The environment for some people has changed since Hirschfeld’s time, but for others the fear persists.

Although the science-fact backs up what we know of manifold varieties of love, without artistic expression and creative thought, it is hard for people to humanise the science. Through combining art and science, Hirschfeld’s argument became more compelling, ten times more inspiring. Working across disciplines he gave us a fuller, more fleshed out picture of the complexities of biological and social humanity.

Sarah Jaffray is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.


Queer Territory: Claude Cahun and a land without labels

In the first of our posts for LGBT History Month, Sarah Jaffray looks at how the artist Claude Cahun explored the parodies of gender.

In her 1930 auto-biography Disavowals artist-writer Claude Cahun addressed the question of her identity, explaining: “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation.” Long before the articulation of Queer Theory in Judith Butler’s seminal Gender Trouble (1990), Cahun and her partner (both in art and life) Marcel Moore explored the masquerade of gendered existence. They worked decades before anyone was ready to accept that gender is a social construction.  Continue reading


A drop in the ocean: Sarah Carpenter

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from Sarah Carpenter, an artist who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition earlier this year.


‘Torn’ from my ‘Emerging’ series.

‘Torn’ from my ‘Emerging’ series.

Having suffered for many years with depression, anxiety and eating disorders, I have found refuge in my art and cannot begin to explain how much it means to me to be able to produce my work.

Having spent a long time with so many things on my mind, my recovery has cleared space in my mind and life for more creativity. I now use art to proactively utilise my energy and in turn keep up the momentum of my recovery. It allows “me time” to do something that I enjoy and am passionate about as a way of self-soothing.

Through therapy from my eating disorder I began to realise how little I recognised and dealt with my emotions. My artwork has allowed me to really engage instead. On a very basic level, producing my work gives me a positive outlet for my frustrations, emotions and problems. I’m able to escape as I “switch off” and focus on the process of making the work. This process allows time to pass and emotions to calm, meaning I can deal with things from a much calmer place.

A strong aspect of my problem is an innate need to challenge myself and do better. Making my work helps me realise the interpretive nature of art and keeping this in sight allows me to be more positive and reward myself again. My illness can make me feel the need to gain control. Producing my work allows me to channel this in a much more constructive and positive manner.

I feel lucky to be able to communicate through my work. In my experience, the arts are a great facilitator for opening up lines of communication.

'Wallpaper' from my 'Emerging' series.

‘Wallpaper’ from my ‘Emerging’ series.

In the past, my artwork has not only facilitated non-verbal communication, it has given me the confidence to talk about my mental health. This all helped towards reducing stigma surrounding eating disorders which made asking for help initially so difficult for me.

I hope that through making my artwork, people who have similar experiences may take comfort in this kind of sharing, that it may help the battle to break down stigmas.

The work

Process to me is just as important as the final outcome. My piece, The Small Things (below), lets an audience in on my deeply personal daily practice of finding sanctuary through repetition.

I work predominantly as a graphic designer and digital photographer, therefore I wanted to share how a return to materials and hand craft can be used as a way to unwind and disconnect from our otherwise predominantly digital life. There is something very comforting about a return to traditional and simple roots. Using textile and fabric is a very satisfying practice for me as it adds another layer in the form of a multi-sensory and tactile experience.

The mark making itself is a process that creates rhythm and movement, which is a comfort to me as my background is in dance. This repetition can also lead me into a more mindful state.

Sanctuary & asylum

I recognise sanctuary and asylum as states of mind, emotions and feelings, as opposed to a physical place. It is an attitude and it is a lifestyle. We can find it within ourselves, but only if given the space, time and tools to do so.


From my ‘Antique Postcard’ series.

There is a lot of focus on the type of spaces that should be provided in order for people to find sanctuary and asylum, but I feel that the most important facilitation starts with society’s attitude towards the ideas of “asylum” and “sanctuary”. These words have negative connotations and, as a society, we actually seem to frown upon the notion of asylum. People who seek help and support are seen as weak; not resilient or strong.

Some of the strongest people that I have met have been the ones who fight internal battles, become in touch with their own emotions and try to become better people by reconnecting and challenging their own thoughts; the people who seek sanctuary.


‘Global Connectivity’, mixed media.

Allowing yourself the time and space, finding sanctuary and changing your thoughts and behaviours is not easy. As a society, we need to facilitate this, rethink the lifestyles that we have created where we ignore our own needs, show no self-compassion, do not give importance to taking time for ourselves and finding sanctuary and where actively seeking asylum is so very difficult to do.

Sarah is an artist, photographer and designer with a strong interest in combining traditional craft with digital practices. Follow Sarah on Twitter and Instagram.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.


A drop in the ocean: Artist Taxi Driver

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from the Artist Taxi Driver, an artist and social protestor who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition.

The Artist Taxi Driver is the persona of artist and prominent political and social protestor Mark McGowan, whose YouTube channel “chunkymark” has attracted over 50,000 subscribers. In his videos, McGowan films himself and occasional invited interviewees in his taxi discussing political and social issues. Past interviewees have included Frankie Boyle, John McDonnell, Mhairi Black, Noam Chomsky, Caroline Lucas, Charlotte Church, David Graeber and Russell Brand. Continue reading


A drop in the ocean: In the old asylums

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from David Beales, an artist and writer who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition. In his own words, David confronts the issue of prejudice against the mentally ill by using informative illustration and captions to raise awareness of the problems confronting the mentally ill in the community.


Industrial Therapy

Industrial Therapy | Patients could make a few extra pounds a week by working in the industrial therapy department. Some preferred this to sitting idly on the ward.

Though there were overcrowded dormitories in the old asylums and patients were caught in a poverty trap, usually inmates for life, it was not all grim. The food may have been overcooked, but it was at least regular and on time. In one hospital I remember (and they tended to be similar) there were films in the hall on Wednesday afternoons: pre-war black and white films, ghostly projections on a large, old roll down screen, with the dated dialogue and classical music soundtrack adding to the eerie effect.

A percussion band performed on the hall stage on Thursdays. A woman played what sounded a bit like slowed down stride music, a melodic improvisation on an upright piano, while the members of the band played triangle, clappers and tambourines. Patients from the locked geriatric and senile dementia wards, some ambulant, a few in wheelchairs, were led or pushed by nurses to the hall to sit on tubular steel and Formica chairs in the hall and spend some time away from the ward.

There was a games night when the tables and chairs were brought out in the main hall so that patients could play draughts, chess, snakes and ladders, or dominoes. In another hospital there was bingo night where patients could win a loose cigarette or a bar of chocolate for a line; a bag of five loose cigarettes for a house.

The hospitals interacted too. There were evening skittles matches against teams from other hospitals and in the summer there were cricket matches or a summer fete on the cricket pitch; at one time there were prizes for painting, drawing, cakes, jam and tapestry. There were yearly trips to the seaside. Coaches were hired and patients were each given 50p spending money by a member of staff who doled out the coins from a bag as he walked up and down the aisle of the coach.

Guy Ward

Guy Ward | There was little privacy in the dormitory, often there were no curtains around the beds.

There was camaraderie in the Guy ward dormitory, where the introductory conversations, and paranoid inquisitions that accompanied Terry Burns’ referral to that ward, subsided and metamorphosed into impromptu group therapy sessions. These were mainly for Terry’s benefit as he confronted his anxieties. The few of us who could hold a conversation patiently let him talk; we were his audience and confidantes. His anger burnt out as he found some stability and was able to drink without becoming aggressive, and confront and conquer his prejudices to find some stability and contentment before drinking on medication brought despair again.

Though patients in the old asylums often lived in terrible conditions, they left the psychiatric units with more beds and staff. The staff, when they could rely on the psychiatric hospitals to take chronically ill patients, consequently had more time to help patients suffering from anorexia, agoraphobia and post manic phase depression.

A patient who was admitted because they suffered from agoraphobia would be encouraged by a nurse to take a few steps outside the ward. When the patient had managed to take more steps down the drive leading to the ward, they were encouraged to walk to the phone box under a covered walkway a make a phone call. As they gained confidence they were encouraged to walk to the shops with the nurse so they could do some shopping. The rewards were also practical, preparing the patient for their return to the community.

I saw a patient suffering from anorexia nervosa kept in isolation, except for a nurse posted outside her side room door while she slowly reached a target weight. She was rewarded with a trip to the day room. When she reached the next target weight she was, like the agoraphobic patient, rewarded with a trip to the shops.


A Day Room | In 1980 patients recieved £7 a week. Pensioners were given just £2 pounds a week or in some cases nothing as it was thought that the hospital took care of their needs.

Patients suffering from bi-polar disorder could rest and recover after a manic episode on the wards. The elderly bereaved, often men who had relied on their wives and had to learn living skills, used to be able do this in occupational therapy departments. These treatments may still be available, but for fewer patients than in the past. There were day hospitals, day units and occupational therapy departments for day patients, inextricably closed along with the large hospitals.

Day patients seem to be a thing of the past. Instead, patients in the community are left unmonitored in the community, sometimes in squalor, sometimes even sleeping rough or ending up in prison.

Before the hospitals were closed, the psychiatric units could operate a walk-in open door policy on week days. Patients could see the day hospital nurse and if they thought you were ill you might see a duty doctor on the same day. Now there are more patients but fewer beds. Now there are waiting lists.

Patients now may have to wait months before they can see a psychiatrist, and then find that there are no day resources in the area, no beds free and little the doctor can do besides prescribe tablets and refer the patient to cognitive behavioural therapy. This may be a course of half a dozen one-hour sessions with a therapist; hardly enough time for in-depth psychoanalysis.

Film above made for the Bethlem Gallery: David speaks to Michaela Ross about his work.

It is easier to identify the problems than to solve them. The recent announcement that there will be no increase in the amount of money the government can give the NHS means that there will be no reinstatement of day resources for the mentally ill.

Some patients have for a while, years in fact, attended user led initiatives. Art workshops like Centrepieces at Hall Place in Bexleyheath and Cool Tan Arts in Southwark. Or the Dragon Café, where patients meet at the crypt of St George the Martyr in Borough High Street, also in Southwark. It was started by Sarah Wheeler, to whom the book that accompanies Wellcome Collection’s exhibition, Mike Jay’s Bedlam: This Way Madness Lies, is dedicated.

Pictures from another art workshop, the Italian La Tinaia collective formed in 1975 in a disused hospital farmhouse by healthcare professionals, can be seen in the exhibition and book. Hopefully these will inspire others to start similar projects. They do not have to be art focussed. Drop-ins would help and why not ask community centres and churches if they can help? After all, someone got permission to use the crypt of St George’s church in Southwark to use the premises.

Day resources can provide sanctuary, refuge, asylum and respite from a world that seems to increasingly care less about the plight of the care in the community patient as time marches on.

David writes about these and other subjects in his book The Road to the Asylum about the mental health service, bohemian South London in the seventies and the casualties of society who often ended up in the old asylums.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.


The art of medicine

Wellcome Collection explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future as a way to understand what it means to be human. In this post, Muriel Bailly explores the connections between medicine and art, discussing how their relationship can lead to a richer understanding of both. 

“Wherever the art of Medicine is loved,
there is also a love of Humanity.”
– Hippocrates

All too often, we hear that medicine is the stuff of science while art belongs to the humanities; that the two are different, if not opposite. Only a few months ago, the then-Secretary of Education Nicky Morgan encouraged young students to focus on science, as art subjects lead to unemployment. But would scientists and artists themselves agree with this common distinction between their disciplines? Continue reading


The multiple lives of States of Mind

On until 16 October, ‘States of Mind‘ explores our understanding of the conscious experience from different perspectives. The book supporting the exhibition is a collection of literature, science and art delving into the mysteries of human consciousness. The book’s editor Anna Faherty reflects on the brief and varied lives one’s creations may lead upon being released it to the world. 

Museums and galleries are curious places to work, for many reasons. One is that they provide an opportunity to observe how the target audience for something you helped create behave and what they say in the exhibition space. Surreptitious spying, or eavesdropping, on museum visitors has practical value in terms of gathering information and insight that may help improve future exhibitions, but it can also be a deeply personal experience.

It’s hard not to be emotionally affected when you observe strangers interacting with, enjoying, being confused or affronted by something you developed. Seeing that thing take on a new life, often in unexpected ways, as the experiences of visitors shape their own interaction with the exhibition, and the interactions of others, can be even more affecting. Continue reading