‘Bachelor, good company, seeks friendly exchange with single, like-minded older gentleman.’
Rough trade, drag kings, tea dances, sporty dykes, coded classified ads, campy nicknames, passing, outing, hustlers, beats and cruising at the YMCA – all accompanied by a wave of gay and lesbian activism. Eighties New York? No, Germany’s imperial capital at the dawn of the 20th century. Berlin’s Third Sex reveals an astonishingly diverse gay subculture years ahead of the Weimar era, with cross-dressing cabaret, all-night parties and erotic licence at every level of society. Magnus Hirschfeld’s 1904 report is a foundational text of modern gay identity, queer history captured by an insider, as it happened. Police, blackmailers and moral crusaders are never far, suicide is all too common, but Hirschfeld also invites us into the homes of same-sex couples to witness tranquil scenes of domesticity and devotion. Berlin’s Third Sex formed part of the vast ‘Metropolis Documents’ project, a visionary panorama of early 20th century urban life. This, the first part of the series to appear in English, is offered alongside an earlier Hirschfeld study of the ‘third sex’ (the author’s provisional term for gays and lesbians) as well as comprehensive notes and an informative afterword.
Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) was one of the world’s first gay activists. Both a writer and a doctor, he sought not only to define sexual variation – homosexuality in both men and women, as well as what we would now refer to as trans identity – but also to repeal laws that policed their expression in his native Germany. His insistence that homosexuality was in-born, and that consenting adults should be free to form attachments without harassment from the law, was almost a century ahead of Western public consensus. Hirschfeld published in relative freedom under the German Empire and ensuing Weimar Republic but emigrated before Hitler came to power. As the Nazis cast his research to the fire, Hirschfeld resigned himself to exile, eventually settling in Nice where he died on his 67th birthday. Among his works already published in English are Transvestites and The Homosexuality of Men and Women.
Else on Magnus
Privates on parade (extract at Strange Flowers)
Berlin's Third Sex (extract at Spurl Editions)
Excerpts: Berlin's Third Sex (extract at minor literature[s])
[Berlin’s Third Sex] depicts a flourishing gay subculture populated by cross-dressers, drag queens, sporty dykes, blackmailers and prostitutes, who establish contact with one another via intricately coded classified ads, adopt droll nicknames such as "Squeaky Lotte", "Rollmop Queen" and "Hiddigeigei", and generally live it up in bars and cabarets, in the Tiergarten, or at the Opera. The Rixdorf edition includes an informative afterword and helpful notes by the translator James. J. Conway.
— Anna Katharina Schaffner, Times Literary Supplement
Hirschfeld’s rhetorical strategy, which includes these appeals to sentiment, walks the line between emphasizing the similarities in behavior between homosexuals and heterosexuals (in other words, suggesting homosexuals are just like the [presumably heterosexual] reader), and relating anecdotes or characteristics that portray the former as uniquely, yet endearingly, different. That this approach has strong parallels with contemporary gay rights rhetoric suggests that there is a timeless appeal in finding reasons for empathy in order to demonstrate that ‘the other’ is just as human.
— Tyler Langendorfer, Music & Literature
Berlin's Third Sex offers a window into a moment in history during which we can observe the beginnings of modern LGBT identities taking shape. Hirschfeld's personal motto was: "per scientam ad justitam" — "justice through science." In this era of fake news and alternate realities in Washington, Hirschfeld's motto has a particular resonance.
— Irene Javors, The Gay & Lesbian Review
Far from dry or scientific, it’s a vital snapshot showing Berlin’s rich history of queer culture and nightlife ... Although he wrote it ostensibly as a plea for sympathy from the “normally sexed”, it remains fascinatingly relevant today for any reader interested in queer history or Berlin (night)life. Hirschfeld and his “informants” were in the middle of the action, and from reading, you feel like you are too...
— Joey Hansom, Siegessäule
... a fascinating insight into the lives of “Uranians” (a term Hirschfeld uses to emphasise that homosexual identity encompasses more than just gay sex) at the turn of the century, and this new English version by boutique publishing house Rixdorf Editions puts it all into context with copious footnotes and a thoughtful afterword by Australian translator James J. Conway.
—Rene Blixer, Exberliner
The work provides views into a German sub-culture during 1904. Well-written and full of inspiring views and a positive look at the culture, this work offers insight into a time LGBT stories are often cast in negative light. This is the first translation into English of this classic work.
— Alan Woo, Over the Rainbow Books
(Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table of the American Library Association)
from the afterword
Although he never outs himself, it must have been clear to readers of the time that Hirschfeld moved through this world not just as a sympathiser but as an initiate. There is an interplay of discretion and disclosure throughout Berlin’s Third Sex. Sometimes Hirschfeld names venues and organizations, in other places enough information is provided that a knowing contemporary would have been able to piece the facts together. In compliance with Hans Ostwald’s insistence that his writers consider the entire social construct, Hirschfeld depicts the lives of everyone from labourers, students and servants to the clergy, the military and the aristocracy, thus implicating the very pillars of Prussian propriety. Most inflammatory of all is the mention of a ‘gathering of obviously homosexual princes, counts and barons’. Here Hirschfeld unwittingly foreshadows one of the great scandals of the Wilhelmine era, the ‘Harden- Eulenburg Affair’, one in which he himself would have a key role.
For all the exoticism, variety and difference Hirschfeld details in Berlin’s Third Sex, one of the book’s most dominant modes is sentimentality. A first person account by one young man focuses on romantic yearning rather than libidinal urges. It’s long, it’s mawkish, it could have been written by any sensitive young adult about a juvenile crush of either sex – and that’s precisely the point. The sentimentality reaches its peak (or nadir, depending on your tastes) in a scene depicting an outcast gay son peering through the window of his family home at Christmas. But Hirschfeld also describes modest households where a son or daughter invites a same-sex lover into the family home, and it is this depiction of quietly unspectacular domesticity and familial acceptance which is perhaps most radical. Many readers, we can safely assume, would simply never have previously imagined the homosexual to have an emotional, non-sexual life, to have affections and romantic practices essentially indistinguishable from those of the heterosexual.
The crux of all this was that while dive bars, drag balls and late night beats would have seemed a world away to most bourgeois readers, here they were presented with the suggestion that homosexuality might very well cross their thresholds and alight on their settees, might already dwell among them in fact. Indeed Hirschfeld presents this as a direct question towards the end of the book, addressing the reader in the familiar, informal ‘du’ form.