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. Sarah Jaffray tells us more.

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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).

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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
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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.

Muse

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.

Filmmaker

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.

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

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Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Elissavet Ntoulia.

Working in a museum that explores the human condition, you develop the skill of spotting connections between elements that at first glance seem to randomly coexist. Sometimes inspiration comes from as trivial a thing as the choice of furniture: a long table in our Reading Room, for example, situated at the centre of a section exploring the themes of Alchemy and Food. Other sections explore only a single theme, like Body or Pain. So why have Alchemy and Food been paired together?

Possible answers are connected to human curiosity for experimentation and the quest to understand the body’s relationship with nature and the wider universe. Continue reading

Instagram takeover

Next week Wellcome Images are taking over our Instagram account to showcase a selection of this year’s winning images. As if one visual feast isn’t enough, we’ll be taking over the 52museums account at the same time. Hannah Brown and Russell Dornan tell us more.

Wellcome Images

The Wellcome Image Awards explore science and medicine through a combination of traditional artistic media and cutting-edge scientific imaging techniques. The 15th Wellcome Image Awards will be presented on 15 March 2016.

“The power of a visual image to communicate a message is incredible.”

Dr Alice Roberts, Wellcome Image Awards Judge

Next week Wellcome Images will be taking over Wellcome Collection’s Instagram account. We will be posting two of this year’s winning images each day from 7-11 March. Follow #2016WIA while we bring you the stories behind a selection of 2016’s winning images.

From hand-drawn illustrations to super-resolution microscopy, these award winning images bring to life a world of science often hidden to the naked eye. Continue reading

To see a world in a grain of sand

Today is the last day of our ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple‘ exhibition. Open since November, the show was inspired by 17th century murals from a private meditation chamber for Tibet’s Dalai Lamas in Lhasa’s Lukhang Temple and explored Tibetan Buddhist yogic and meditational practice and their connections to physical and mental wellbeing. As we say goodbye to this much-loved exhibition, Sarah Jellenc explores the common ground between ancient Tibetan practices and Romanticism.

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‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’ at Wellcome Collection.

Making my way through ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple, expecting to be confronted on every side by the exotic and unfamiliar, I was struck by the thematic continuity between the content of the exhibition and my own studies in English Romanticism. As I learned more about the ancient Dzogchen practices of Tibet, I recognised its concern with the nature of the mind and its relationship to the body and to the world. It became clear that both the yogis depicted in the Lukhang murals and my beloved Romantic poets were committed to connecting the dots between art and science, mind and body, the finite and the infinite.

What does it mean that people from wildly different contexts with radically different world views, separated by space and time, were asking the same questions and reaching some of the same conclusions? Continue reading

How often have you been bothered by any of the following problems?

Wellcome Collection explores what it means to be human through medicine, art and science. So when our Web Editor, Russell Dornan, saw someone doing the same in the form of a photography piece last year, he wanted to translate that in some way online. After meeting with the artist, Yuxin Jiang, they collaborated on this blog post in attempt to do just that.

Russell

In September 2015 I went along to the University of Westminster’s degree show of its MA in Photographic Studies course to see my friend’s work featured in it. The exhibition, The Pensive Image, was hosted in the Ambika P3 gallery in London and included students from all over the world. One of the pieces that really grabbed my attention was the work by Yuxin: I found it compelling and layered; immediately visually interesting, but something that took a few minutes of exploring to begin to understand.

I saw the strong affinity Yuxin’s work had with Wellcome Collection and wondered if there was some way to explore it online. After making contact and meeting up, we discussed how to showcase the piece in a blog post. A blog post, of course, is a linear medium without the ability to show nuanced relationships between individual images. The challenge was for me to present it in a way that ensured Yuxin still felt confident about the message and the integrity of her work, while respecting the differences between an online experience and a physical one. Continue reading

Medicine in literature

At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human, covering subjects that might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. The Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics. With its shortlist being announced 14 March, we take a look at the judges’ top books that deal with medicine.

The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award, open to new works of fiction or nonfiction. To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. This can cover many genres of writing – including crime, romance, popular science, sci fi and history.

The aim of the Wellcome Book Prize is to encourage public involvement and encourage debate about the issues that the shortlisted books raise and to bring new writers and readers to the subjects of medicine and health. The Prize is run by a team within Wellcome Collection.

If you’re interested in reading the kinds of books described above, but aren’t sure where to start (or are looking for your next read), the Wellcome Book Prize judges have told us about their favourite books dealing with medicine. Continue reading