The Trump administration continues its assault on transgender rights.
In July 2017, Trump sought to bar transgender people from serving in the military. Then, this past October, The New York Times obtained a memo indicating that the administration was considering narrowly defining gender “as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.” Anyone wishing to challenge their officially-assigned sex would have to have the matter resolved by genetic testing.
Those opposed to recognizing gender identity sometimes call it a form of “radical gender ideology” or “political correctness” gone too far.
But recognition of transgender identity is no recent phenomenon: Some doctors acknowledged gender nonconforming people far earlier than most might realize. Perhaps the most important pioneer was German physician Magnus Hirschfeld, who was born 150 years ago, in 1868. As a historian of gender and sexuality in Germany, I’m struck by how he paved the way for the legal recognition of gender nonconforming people.
Hirschfeld’s ‘sexual intermediaries’
In recent years, the medical and psychological professions have come to a consensus that sex assignment at birth is inadequate for understanding individuals’ sexual and gender identity – and that failure to recognize this fact can have a devastating impact.
Magnus Hirschfeld was the first doctor to openly research and advocate for people whose gender did not correspond with their sex assignment at birth.
He’s often remembered today as an advocate of gay rights, and in the early 20th century, his activism played a major role in nearly overturning Germany’s law criminalizing male same-sex relations.
But Hirschfeld’s vision extended much further than homosexuality. He defined his specialty as “sexual intermediaries,” which included everyone who did not fit into an “ideal type” of heterosexual, cis-gendered men and women.
According to Hirschfeld, sexual intermediaries included many categories. One type was cis-gendered people who were gay, lesbian or bisexual. Another consisted of transvestites: people who comfortably identified as their assigned sex but who preferred to dress in the clothing assigned to the other sex. Yet others were “trans” in a more radical direction, like those who wanted to live fully as their non-assigned sex or longed for sex-change surgery.
A relentless advocate
As a gay man, Hirschfeld was aware of the legal and social dangers sexual intermediaries faced.
Since sexual intermediaries often turned to their doctors for help, Hirschfeld worked to educate the medical community. He published medical journals including the “Yearbook on Sexual Intermediaries” and the “Journal of Sexual Science.” In 1919, he founded the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin to promote further research.