Life of gay German Jewish sexologist honored in S.F.

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Adolph Hitler once called Magnus Hirschfeld "the world's most dangerous Jew."

After all, the openly gay socialist sexologist, who founded a famed Berlin institute that studied sexual behavior and sold sex aids in its gift shop, embodied the Nazis' most-despised attributes.

"Nazi anti-Semitism was very much focused on the dangers of Jewish sexuality," notes Professor David Biale of Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union. He will speak on "Magnus Hirschfeld: Sexology and the Jews," Sunday, June 8 at San Francisco's New Main Library.

"A Jew who made sexuality as important as Hirschfeld did and also was a homosexual personified everything negative [Nazis] thought about both Jews and homosexuals," Biale adds.

Biale will deliver his lecture as part of an extensive celebration of Hirschfeld's life and legacy taking place in San Francisco through August.

Sponsored by organizations including the Goethe-Institut, Harvey Milk Institute and Holocaust Center of Northern California, the festivities coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the founding of Hirschfeld's Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, believed to be the first organization devoted to the legal rights of homosexuals and other sexual minorities.

Among his activities as a gay activist, Hirschfeld, who was a medical doctor, organized a campaign against a clause in the German law code prohibiting homosexuality.

"In a sense, he was the founder of gay liberation as a kind of political, legal movement," Biale says. "He's a very important figure in gay history."

A forerunner of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich and Alfred Kinsey, Hirschfeld also holds a vital position in the history of the study of human sexuality.

In 1919, just a few years after designing Germany's extensive program for health and social welfare, Hirschfeld established his Institute and Museum of Sexology. A former mansion was divided into consulting offices, study rooms, laboratories and a large museum hall devoted to every aspect of human sexuality, especially the "Derangements of the Sexual Instinct."

Visitors to the site included composer George Gershwin, playwright Ben Hecht, French author Andre Gide and American writer Anita Loos, some of whom left accounts of the strange exhibits and vast array of erotic artifacts and aphrodisiacs found in one of Berlin's most curious attractions.

The institute was one of the first cultural organizations liquidated by the Nazis, who destroyed the building and its contents.

Later this summer, during the local celebration of Hirschfeld's life, Bay Area residents will be able to get a close-up view of his institute: A theatrical presentation written and directed by Mel Gordon, a professor of dramatic art at U.C. Berkeley, will recreate the institute and museum at a venue south of Market Street. Events will also include a range of lectures and films.

In studying the panoply of sexual expression, Hirschfeld "really put himself on the line to say, `This is a subject that needs research,'" says Jim Van Buskirk, program manager for the Gay and Lesbian Center at the New Main Library, a co-sponsor of the Hirschfeld events.

"Rather than coming at it from a legal or moral point of view, he came at it from a scientific perspective."

So groundbreaking were Hirschfeld's studies and theories on human sexuality that in the '20s, German magazines dubbed him "the man who invented sex."

Hirschfeld's institute was demolished by the Nazis in May 1933. In fact, famous 1930s film clips showing Nazi book burnings in Berlin include footage of Hirchfeld's enormous pornography library going up in flames.

Abroad at the time his work was destroyed, the sexologist lived the next two years in exile, chronicling sexual practices around the world and writing about the links between racial hatred to sexual repression before dying in Nice in 1935.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.