The great hunt for the world's first LGBTQ archive

Before Nazism, a German institute cemented itself as gay liberation’s epicenter. For 40 years, activists have been searching for its legendary collection.

In the early 1990s, a Canadian student named Adam Smith opened a dumpster in the basement of his apartment building in Vancouver, Canada, and discovered a stack of old leather suitcases. In one of them was a plaster “death mask” cast from the face of a man with a thick mustache. In others were journals, papers, and photographs. Smith deduced the trove belonged to an elderly Chinese resident of his building who’d recently passed away. Unable to bear seeing them tossed, he moved them into his apartment and posted a short note on a forum on the then-young internet with the names he’d come across. “WANTED: anyone familiar with Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld or Li Shiu Tong.” He was wondering, he wrote, “if they are of any significance or interest.” A decade later, he’d learn the answer.

In the 1930s, the world knew Hirschfeld as the “Einstein of sex.” The famed German Jewish physician and sexologist ran the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Science), a library, research center, and clinic in Berlin. In it, he oversaw the first modern gender confirmation surgeries, conducted large-scale studies on homosexuality, and lobbied the government for LGBTQ rights. His library held thousands of books on same-sex relationships, erotica, and gender. Then the Nazis came to power, and the institute was looted, its library burned, and Hirschfeld, who’d been on a world lecture tour, exiled to France.

When Hirschfeld died there, just two years later, he left his belongings in part to Li, a young Chinese medical student who had been his assistant and boyfriend.

To Smith, Li was a quiet neighbor seen only in passing in the elevators of their shared building. One night, a decade after Li’s death, a German researcher named Ralf Dose was poking around online message boards when he came across Smith’s old posting. Since the 1980s, Dose, who is the secretary general and co-founder of the Magnus Hirschfeld Society, has been hunting the surviving scraps from Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science. It took more sleuthing to track down Smith, and though he’d since moved to Toronto, he had never thrown out the suitcase of Li’s belongings. In 2003, Dose flew from Germany to collect it.

Piecing together a global archive

For the past 40 years, Dose and other volunteer researchers have hunted Hirschfeld’s archive across the globe, tracing names of his associates and their descendants, scouring libraries, archives, and antiquarian bookstores. So far, they have found 35 items from the institute’s original 10,000 volumes, and 25 more from Hirschfeld’s other collections. Occasionally, these come directly to the society: voicemails left on the society’s answering machine by descendants of Hirschfeld’s siblings, emails from inheritors of books with the institute’s distinctive stamp, surprise visitors with long-lost donations. But more often, it is left to insatiable researchers like Dose, following a trail of microscopic clues.

There’s no shortage of memorable moments in this line of detective work, says Dose, an affable 72-year-old with a shock of white hair who has dedicated his life to unearthing the roots of the gay liberation movement: There was the meeting with the refined elderly daughter of a physician who worked with Hirschfeld, who, after coffee and cake, presented Dose with a box of antique Japanese sex toys. “My father got that from Magnus Hirschfeld,” he recalls her saying. “I like them very much but I cannot put them out on the piano, people would talk.” There was the fortuitous meeting with the institute’s housekeeper, who described her tenure as the happiest time of her life, and regaled them with tales of getting a massive Indonesian stone phallus statue through German customs.

In 1897, Hirschfeld helped found the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, partially in outraged response to the trial of author Oscar Wilde, two years earlier in England, on 25 charges of “gross indecency” related to his homosexual relationships. It’s now thought to be the first-ever advocacy group for LGBTQ rights. In the years after World War I, the relatively progressive Weimar Republic laid a foundation for Berlin’s liberated gay scene, replete with raucous cabarets, high-level advocates, and increased freedom. According to Hirschfeld, there were 43,046,721 different types of human sexuality. “Love is as varied as people are,” he once said.

The world’s first sex institute

In 1919, Hirschfeld opened the Institute for Sexual Science, the first of its kind in the world, in a lavish villa on the edge of Tiergarten Park in Berlin. Its library held the largest collection of books on sexuality at the time, lectures were hosted in a grand hall, and visitors could peruse a sex museum filled with a global collection of artifacts. In the clinic, doctors were performing early male-to-female surgeries on trans women.

As the Nazis rose to power, Hirschfeld was on a multi-year world tour. In New York, in 1930, he mingled with poet Langston Hughes, civil rights lawyer Clarence Darrow, and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. With a public persona tied to gay rights and his Jewish heritage, Hirschfeld couldn’t go home. In 1932, he relocated to Switzerland, and then to France, where he saw, on a newsreel, his institute being looted by a group of Nazi youth and, days later, a massive book burning of his library’s holdings overseen by Nazi paramilitary officers.

“When Magnus Hirschfeld had to leave Germany, he was convinced progress would have been made in a few years,” Dose says now. “He was full of hope there was an international movement to further the cause of sexual minorities. And then everything was stopped…Not only here, but in other countries as well.” Hirschfeld died of a heart attack on his 67th birthday while in France in 1935. His closest successor wouldn’t emerge until more than a decade later, with Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research in America.

Mass killings of LGBTQ people

Under Nazi rule, LGBTQ people, along with Jews, Roma, political dissidents, and others deemed undesirable, were sent to extermination camps. It took a long time for Germany’s gay rights movement to regain the footing and momentum it had held in in the 1930s. An antiquated section of the penal code, paragraph 175, made homosexuality punishable by imprisonment. Hirschfeld had lobbied for its removal—collecting signatures from notable figures like Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann—but even after World War II, the West German government pursued 100,000 cases using this 19th century law. (It wasn’t deleted from the books until 1994.)

When the gay rights movement emerged again, in the ‘70s, it was student-run, not filled with the bourgeois and professionals of Hirschfeld’s day. Among them was a small group, including Dose, who brought forth the Magnus Hirschfeld Society.

In 1982, Germany was preparing to mark 50 years since the Nazi takeover, and young gay rights activists including Dose hoped to shed light on LGBTQ persecution and activism. He and others were eager to learn about their predecessors in the 1920s, figures like Hirschfeld who’d made great strides in liberation before being exiled or killed by the Nazis.

With the help of the Jewish community in Berlin, Dose and his friends launched a lecture series to mark 50 years since the destruction of the Institute for Sexual Science. Then they grew curious about the library’s holdings. “Everyone told us there was nothing left,” says Dose. “The institute was raided, then bombed, and the people are dead. Everything was lost. But, on the other hand, no one had searched for it.”

Reconstructing the past

They began to gather leads: They knew Hirschfeld had been traveling with a large collection on his world tour and ended up in France. They knew that someone had negotiated with the Nazis on his behalf to purchase 20 boxes of materials from the library before it was burned. He’d hoped to reopen his institute in Paris, but the material ended up in storage, likely in Nice or Paris. When he died, his personal items were left to two heirs—among them, Li Shiu Tong.

This year, a grant from the newly formed German Lost Art Foundation, which seeks to recover looted art and cultural heritage from World War II, will allow two researchers to construct a catalog of what the Institute for Sexual Science held, what’s been found, and what is still missing. Some of it is guesswork: they can be fairly certain that the leading sexology research of the day would have been owned by the institute, from medical texts to novels. But the Nazis’ seized holdings had first been distributed to other libraries, and then redistributed by British and American forces, scattering the books across Europe’s cultural centers.

The titles they’ve uncovered so far include the 1904 The women's clothing and its natural development (found in Berlin), a 1920 copy of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality by Sigmund Freud (found in Prague), and Vita homosexualis, a 1902 collection by gay activist August Fleischmann (found in a Polish bookstore with a note saying it had been slated for destruction in 1933). This catalog will be distributed to museums and collections across the world, with the hopes that they use it to interrogate their own holdings for the trademark stamp of the Institute for Sexual Science.

On Dose’s wish list is an alluring collection of lost material that he’s found mentioned in diaries and catalogs. One collection was of particular interest to the Nazis: the institute’s patient files. These records detailed visits to the physicians who worked within the institute, from gynecology exams to gender reassignment counseling to treatments for venereal diseases.

It’s possible that someone at the institute saw the writing on the wall as the Nazis rose to power and knew that thousands would be in danger if their names fell into the wrong hands. In one diary entry Dose found, a young worker described being asked to haul a cart of papers to a hiding spot. En route, the writer recalled, the cart tipped over in front of a Nazi officer who helped them regroup, unaware of the contraband it held. According to lore, those files were smuggled to Moscow by communist party members of the institute. No trace of them has been found.

Another item on Dose’s wish list: the “psycho-biological questionnaire.” Each person who visited the institute was asked to fill out this form, detailing their sexual preferences, lifestyle, and personality. Only one filled-in copy has been found, in the Berlin State Library, but an estimated 40,000 were once held at the institute for research purposes.

Beyond gay liberation

As he pieced together these findings, Dose realized how much broader Hirschfeld’s focus was than gay liberation. “For us he was a hero of the gay movement—one of the few ancestors we knew about,” he says. But as lost holdings surfaced, it became clear that the institute’s work dipped into reproductive rights, sexual health, women’s rights, and, later, transgender rights. “And so,” he says, “the scope of our research broadened and the scope of our ideas of the institute broadened very much.”

The Magnus Hirschfeld Society had once hoped that the German government would help rebuild the Institute for Sexual Science, but the political will never materialized. For decades, politicians didn’t want to be associated with the topic, Dose says. Not until the 1990s did the LGBTQ movement regain the power it once held under Hirschfeld.

“There was a whole gay and lesbian infrastructure in Germany—bars, clubs, the institute and organizations—that was destroyed. People were sent to prison and concentration camps. We wanted some compensation from German authorities,” Dose says. When that wasn’t forthcoming, “we reconstructed it ourselves.”

Today, their small library attracts researchers, students, and others interested in LBGTQ history, but it’s a far cry from the buzzing international research hub Hirschfeld had built. A half dozen volunteers donate their time to keep it running and the society receives a small stipend from the Berlin government to help pay the rent. It’s open just four hours per week.

The society hopes to soon merge with Berlin’s lesbian and feminist library and archives to form an umbrella queer archive with broad research access and communal spaces. They’re looking for 10 million euros to reconstruct a building and hire a professional staff.

The hunt for Hirschfeld’s lost papers, for now, remains a passion project of volunteers. Two years ago, on vacation in the south of France, Dose carved out time to visit a few ethnographic collections, bringing with him photos of artifacts that likely went with Hirschfeld into exile. He popped into antiquarian bookstores in search of German-language books. He didn’t find anything, but on the same trip, he met up with Hirschfeld’s great niece, who grew up in Australia, and was visiting France for work. She asked Dose to take her to visit the tomb of her great uncle.

At the time Hirschfeld was buried, the cemetery in Nice overlooked the sea. Now, it is surrounded by buildings and an airport. Hirschfeld’s flat headstone, inlaid with his portrait, was covered in pebbles left by visitors in the Jewish mourning tradition.

They lingered at the grave, glad to see it was being tended to. Dose would return to Germany without new materials for the archive, but he knew more would turn up through the blend of sleuthing and luck that has slowly filled the Magnus Hirschfeld Society’s shelves over the past 40 years. “We’ve learned to be patient,” Dose says. “Wait for things, and they will come.”

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