November 11, 2014

Magnus Hirschfeld's Understanding of Transgender People

It will probably come as a surprise when I say that the best book on transgender people  was published in 1910. It was written by the German scientist Magnus Hirschfeld, one of the pioneers of sexology. In this and the following blog post I will present his theory and explain why Hirschfeld's thinking remains very relevant.

The book, named Die Transvestiten, covered a wide variety of gender variant people. Hirschfeld used the word "transvestite" in the way we use "transgender" today -- as an umbrella term embracing both transsexuals, crossdressers, drag queens and other people transgressing the strict sex and gender binaries.

Transgender sexualities

Unlike many later researchers and activists he did not shy away from the sexual aspect of these various transgender expression, and freely talked about the erotic desires of his various patients and contacts, including erotic cross-gender fantasies.

Die Transvestiten contains a lot of historical examples of different forms of gender variance, including 17 elaborate presentations of crossdressing individuals, many of whom would have been classified as transsexual today. There is even a case of a woman wearing men's clothes daily, a female to male crossdreamer travelling the world, working in traditional male occupations.

Hirschfeld was the first theoretician who argued that crossdressing can exist independently of sexual orientation. Indeed, he noted that most of his cases were heterosexual (relative to birth sex). Hirschfeld claimed that among the "transvestites" he had encountered, 35% were homosexual, 35% heterosexual, and the rest asexual or bisexual.  (Mancini, p. 67)

The rainbow as something natural  

There is little here of the need to pathologize sexual variation and different gender expressions found among other sexologists of his (and our) time. Indeed, he is very critical of any theory that tries to set up an absolute divide between men and women, the masculine and the feminine, and then goes on to label those who do not live up to such divides as deviants.

He writes:

"The separation of humanity into male and female halves belongs to the doctrines and guiding principles that have crossed over into the flesh and blood of every person. Those who occupy themselves uniting opposites such as energy and matter, God and nature, one and all, body and soul, also unmistakably hold fast to the dualism of the sexes and, in fact, the masculine and the feminine are, in themselves, effective realities the duality of which admits no doubt." (p 17)

"But it is a mistake if one imagines that both are two fully separate entities, one from the other; to the contrary, the constantly present merging of both into one, the unending condition of mixing variables that begins with the man's semen and the woman's egg, each creating masculine-feminine, hermaphroditic organizations, this monism of the sexes is the core for the genesis and substance of the personality." (p. 17)

17 case studies

On the basis of the 17 case studies and other life histories he discusses possible explanations for transgender conditions, presenting the dominant scientific theories of the day. And this is where it gets really interesting, because most of the theories he discusses are more or less the same we find discussed today, more than 100 years later.  There has been practically no substantial progress in our understanding of crossdreamers, crossdressers and transsexuals.

He writes:

"Is it [the transgender condition] perhaps only a matter of a form of homosexuality? In front of us we have a phenomenon that belongs in the area of what Havelock Ellis called autoeroticism, that Hermann Rohleder has described as auto-monosexualism, or related to narcissism, as Naecke maintains? Do we have here a special form of masochism? Does the condition fall within the heading clothing fetishism; does it touch upon delusion mania, a 'retardation' of the judgment of the personality, which we in psychiatry call paranoia; or, rather, do we have here an independent complex before us, which cannot be ordered according to recognized models at this time?" (p 147)

He then discusses the various theories and explanations, one by one.


He immediately dismisses homosexuality as an explanation, since in most of his cases the "transvestites" are attracted to persons of the same sex as the one they have been assigned at birth:

"To be true, some of them had homosexual episodes, which is not unusual for heterosexuals, but they were so transient and superficial that truly inborn homosexuality -- and only congenital homosexuality can be true -- is not a question here." (p 147)

He points out that in the same way not all homosexuals are effeminate, not all effeminate men are homosexual. (p 147):

"Since effeminate homosexuals occasionally dress in women's clothing, many people conclude that those who have the tendency to cross-dress in this manner always have to be homosexual. This conclusion, however, has turned out to be a false one; just as not all homosexuals are effeminate, not all effeminate men are homosexuals. Even if a researcher could prove that a transvestite did have one experience of same-sex intercourse, which only very rarely occur, then, according to our discussion above, it still has to be decided whether this is a secondary episodic result of the primary feeling of being a woman and the drive to cross-dress or whether the latter had developed as a result of a natural Uranian [homosexual] inclination." (p 247)

He was right, of course, but it is depressing to see that it took such a long time before both "experts" and the general population stopped believing in the "invert" theory -- i.e. that all homosexual men had a kind of female sexuality and identity and that lesbians had to be "mannish".

Most people will still go into the trap of believing that all "feminine" or "effeminate" male bodied persons must be attracted to men.  Ray Blanchard has based his whole theory of "autogynephilia" on this misunderstanding. There are two types of transsexual women, Blanchard argues, feminine gay men and masculine non-homosexual men, and they have nothing in common beyond their desire to live as women. (Yes, he calls them men.)

Hirschfeld was homosexual himself. He had  studied the gay culture of Germany in detail. He therefore knew the relevant subcultures well enough to be able to track different types of "effeminacy". Still, he did not distinguish between the feminine gender expressions of the homosexual "Uranians" and his non-homosexual "Transvestiten".
Josef Meißauer asked Hirschfeld for help. Hirschfeld wanted to show the
Baviarian police that Meißauer  could safely be allowed to wear women's
clothing. (

Automonosexuality and "autogynephilia"

It may come as a surprise to those who know the autogynephilia theory, that Hirschfeld dismissed it as early as in 1910. After all, Ray Blanchard did not present his theory until 1989.

Still, Dr. Hermann Rohleder had presented a theory that was very similar in 1907, in a book called The Human Sex Drive and Sex Life (Vorlesungen Über Geschlechtstrieb Und Gesamtes Geschlechtsleben Des Menschen. Band II; Das Perverse Geschlechtsleben Des Menchen). Rohleder was the kind of man that believed masturbation was a sexual perversion damaging to the nervous system. He had little patience with sexual diversity.

Rohleder's automonosexuality theory was actually not based on the observation of trangsender people, but of men who admired their own male body in the mirror. Rohleder did, however, describe this kind of self-love as a mental disease and a kind of narcissism (i.e. as an egotistic and self-obsessed admiration of one's own attributes).

Hirschfeld had clearly discussed whether the transgender conditions he faced could be caused by this kind of auto-erotic "self-love", i.e. that they were turned on by the idea of themselves as their target sex.

Hirschfeld makes this comment:

"...since in the case of many transvestites it appears as if they love the woman not only on the outside, but also in themselves, and merely cross-dressing, as we saw it, is enough to arouse erotic feelings for some of them, Dr. H. Rohleder's (...) 'auto-monosexuality', too, came up in explaining our cases.

"With regards to this we would like to stress that in these cases, what Rohleder considers as typical for auto-monosexuality, namely, that the individuals themselves love themselves in their imagination, in their dreams, and mirror images just as they are, and not in the form of the other sex, does not apply.

"That these persons are not satisfied with their contradictory depictions, but that in all of our cases there is present an expressed need to approach a second object, which through cross-dressing immediately undergoes an intensification, is especially in opposition to this description. Therefore, in these cases there is nothing that Rohleder labels as a characteristic of auto-monosexuality: 'that the drive is directed toward themselves only and alone... that the individuals in question, themselves and certainly alone, and the point of departure and end goal of the sexual drive.' (p 155f)

In other words: The crossdressers/crossdreamers observed by Hirschfeld are not self-obsessed narcissists.

A sidenote: In his paper "Origins of the concept of autogynephilia"  Ray Blanchard does not mention Rohleder's auto-monism theory. Instead he says that Hirschfeld inspired his autogynephilia-theory. He has clearly read another version of The Transvestites than I have. Blanchard has practically nothing in common with Hirschfeld. I guess he has read Hirschfeld's discussion of Rohleder and later forgotten that Hirschfeld dismissed the auto-monosexuality theory in the way he did.

Hirschfeld also dismisses any similarities between his own "transvestites" and Havelock Ellis' "auto-eroticism" and other forms of narcissistic disorders. When one read Hirschfeld's cases, it is easy to see why. These transgender people do feel attraction to other people. They are not more narcissistic than most people.


Hirschfeld admits than when one looks at the transvestites from the outside, the tendency to cross-dressing does remind one of clothing fetishism. A sexual fetish is normally understood as a fixation with objects, body parts, or situations not conventionally viewed as being sexual in nature, as in "she was turned on by silk stockings".

Hirschfeld does not buy this explanation, however:

"The transvestites themselves, who understandably carefully think through their rare condition, starting, naturally, with their inner feelings, are surely as dissatisfied with this explanation as with the tracing back of their feminine drive to homosexuality.Those, particularly whose basic education allowed them an unbiased judgement, felt they were incorrectly labelled as fetishists. They said that their urge to cross-dress could more easily be understood as a kind of masochism, a form of sexual humiliation. I consider both assumptions to be in error. Neither fetishism nor masochism, in spite of many points of contact, fail to solve the problem, even as little as homosexuality and auto-monosexuality could." ["fail to" must be a translation error].

Hirschfeld argues that the sexual interests of fetishists are concentrated on a specific part of the body of a woman or a specific piece of female clothing:

"An attraction to a 'part', which extends to a a woman from 'top to toe', is a contradiction in itself, an impossibility. Furthermore, we also see in fetishists, but not in transvestites, that the object of their tendency in the first place is loved in itself in relation to a second person, in more pathological cases also detached from the latter (for example, a tuft of hair cut off, a stolen handkerchief), but in no way mainly loved as a part of themselves.... In short, fetishists lack the expressed urge to put on the form of the beloved object, to identify with it, as it were, to change themselves into it." (p 159)
Richard Wagner, composer and crossdreamer

After a long analysis of the German composer Richard Wagner's crossdreaming and crossdressing Hirschfeld gives us a clue as to his understanding of what causes this phenomenon:

"We, too, are of the opinion that Wagner's particular inclination justifies assuming that there is a feminine characteristic in his psyche, which, however, in no way deserves mockery and scorn. To the contrary, for psychologists not arrested by the superfluous, it gives evidence of the unusually rich and subtle complexity of his inner life, the continued study of which would be a difficult as well as a rewarding task for any modern psychoanalyst."


Hirschfeld points out that in a few of his cases we see signs of masochism, also in early childhood. Masochism can be understood as the giving or receiving of pleasure—sometimes sexual—from acts involving the infliction or reception of pain or humiliation.

"In many of our adult transvestites, too, there are many kinds of things that make a masochistic impression. So, we find that they mention the penetration of earrings or the tight lacing of corsets as especially pleasurable. Also, the wish of some of them to take the most ancillary position possible as chambermaids and housemaids, the preference for very 'energetic' manly women. They said, as [case] Number 13 did, 'I expect the woman to take the initiative.' Particularly the universal urge to be the supine partner during intercourse points to sexual passivity. To some of them, however, the woman's role itself was felt to be, in the main, sexually humiliating." (p 171)

Hirschfeld reports sexual fantasies similar to those found in some contemporary crossdreamer erotica, including the fantasy of being feminized. Like so many contemporary crossdreamers, Hirschfeld's cases had absorbed many of the more sexist ideas of the day, including the idea that being a woman was being inferior, and therefore humiliating.

To illustrate this, Hirschfeld points to a British book from the 1880's: Gynecocracy: A Narrative of the Adventures and Psychological Experiences of Julian Robinson (afterwards Viscount Ladywood) Under Petticoat-Rule, Written by Himself, a book that presents the kind of forced feminization and humiliation fantasies that were so popular among some MTF crossdreamers all the way up to the 1980s.

Although Hirschfeld does not dismiss that there may be real masochists among the "transvestites", he firmly believes that such desires for humiliation are caused by a desire for "effemination" and not the other way round:
Victorian crossdresser

"Thus the inclination toward being the succubus ["the bottom" to use today's terminology] during the sex act. the desire to possess an energetic woman and to be attacked by her, finally, also the pleasure of the initially uncomfortable and painful attributes of femininity, such as the piercing of the earlobes, wearing tightly laced corsets, shoes into which the feet must be forced and whose heals seem to one 'like mountains'. Exactly in these cases, the physical discomfort is more than compensated for by the emotional comfort of feeling and performing what is feminine." (p. 179)

Compulsions and procreation

Some contemporary crossdreamers explain their fantasies and their crossdressing as an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

There is no doubt in my mind that crossdreaming can become compulsive. Hirschfeld agrees:

"Transvestism stands closest to the large group of symptoms that in modern psychiatry is described as compulsions. There is no basis for any doubt that a similar obsessive character dwells, as much as possible and in every single detail, in the peculiar impulse to assume the form of the other sex as, for example, in the pathological impulse to move (dromomania), the mania for collecting, the mania for playing, the mania for buying, dipsomania, pyromania, kleptomania, and similar phenomena, which, in other respects, are very different form each other, irrespective of the kind of impulse." (p 198)

Hirschfeld doubts the usefulness of this diagnosis, however, as he finds that the term has become a catchword for a wide variety of representations of disease, hard to define and much too general.

In the case of love, it is hard to distinguish between what is compulsive and what is normal, given that love and sexual desire very often seems compulsive in nature, also among non-transgender people. Many of his fellow researchers tried to solve this problem, by adding another dimension that has to be present for sex to be considered normal, namely procreation.

However, Hirschfeld dismisses the idea that all healthy, "natural physiological" love is that which "serves the procreation of the species".  For Hirschfeld, the activists for homosexual rights, love is just as well a goal in itself...

"in that above all it serves self-preservation since it binds a person to life, which essentially loses value without conscious and unconscious erotic attraction, because it would become void, shallow, and indifferent." (p. 201)

He argues that it would be better to focus on "the peculiar, the bizarre, the strange" in the "contents of the imagination", and use that information to find its origin, its roots, "to ascertain the subconscious psychical elements upon which it touches, what determined, what fixated the peculiar driver?"

Again, he considers a common explanation, in this case the compulsion, to be nothing but an expression of something else -- something underlying.

Clothing as a form of expression of mental conditions

It is this that leads Hirschfeld to argue that crossdressing is "conspicuous, intentional indications of an inner striving". He cites Emanuel Herman, who wrote that:

"Clothing is the unconscious language of the spirit and clearly expresses itself all the more when the tongue is condemned to silence."

In other words: Crossdressing is an expression of the subconscious psyche.

Hirschfeld again:

"When we -- to use an example nearest at hand -- heard of children whose naive instinct made them rebel when someone first tried to get them wear trousers, then there can be no doubt, according to our explanations, that these are already manifestations of femininity that resist the male attire, which is against their psyche, something they feel does not suit them, something strange and to be resisted. We saw how in all of our cases this antipathy against being clothed as a male, and conversely the sympathy for the female cross-dressing of the individual personality, increased more at the time of sexual maturity and then more and more resolutely struggled to be transformed into action."

And please note here that the cases Hirschfeld refers to are not the stereotypical "effeminate gay boys" of Blanchard and Zucker. As Hirschfeld repeatedly points out, most of his male bodied crossdreamers are attracted to women.

For Hirschfeld crossdressing is not an expression of a misdirected sexuality, but "an unconscious projection of the soul":

"...,then it might become clear that in the psyche of these men there is present a feminine admixture -- and in the feminine counterpart a masculine one -- which presses on to project itself. This alterosexual quota truly must be considerable since, as we have discussed, it wants to withstand and does withstand great resistance and inhibitions, not the least of which is the contrast between body and soul." (p 214)

In the next post I will take a look at Magnus Hirschfeld's own explanation for transgender conditions. He developed a non-binary, holistic, theory called the theory of intermediaries, that in many ways remains a fruitful basis for a discussion of crossdreaming, transgender lives and transsexualism.

Parts of Hirschfeld's book has been made available online in the following extract of Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle's book The Transgender Studies Reader. (Go to page 28)

Magnus Hirschfeld: Transvestites: The Erotic Drive To Cross Dress   1910/1991Translated by M. A. Lombardi-Nash

Elena Mancini: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Quest for Sexual Freedom: A History of the First International Sexual Freedom Movement,   2010


  1. Thanks for writing this piece on Hirschfeld. When the Nazi's destroyed his library and institute it just about set the cause back to the stone age. I can't help but wonder what he would have written if he had been able to continue his work.

  2. Thank you, Jamie!

    The Nazi aggression against was more than hatred of a Jew and a socialist. It was the channeling of the fear of the German middle class, the fear of poverty, the fear of chaos and the fear of the unknown. Hitler and his companions knew how to channel that fear for their own purposes.

    It seems to me that Vladimir Putin is trying to do something similar in Russia right now. He gives his insecure voters a common enemy based on all the prejudices he can find. Again the enemy is the "deviants" and "the immoral". In this way he manages to divert their attention from the fact that he is the main criminal.

    I see something similar in the atmosphere of fear in the US in the late 1940s and the 1950s. The cold war led to McCarthyism and mass hysteria. Freudian psychologists of the time contributed to this by arguing that homosexuals and transgender people were perverted deviants suffering from castration anxieties (or whatever) and who could therefore not be trusted.

    And I am afraid it was this period that laid the foundation for much of the internalized transphobia and self-loathing we find in crossdreamer circles these day.

    Fortunately, the spirit of Hirschfeld did survive. In spite of what the HBS transsexual separatists may say, Hirschfeld's student Harry Benjamin, also believed in "intermediaries", as did Alfred Kinsey (in his own way). These days the interaction between social, personal and biological factors and the resulting diversity is taken for granted by most serious researchers in the field.

  3. Jack,

    As usual, thoroughly well thought-out and researched. Thank you for this important article that shines the spotlight on the precursor of Harry Benjamin. Sadly after the death of both we seemed to have gone in the wrong direction. Most people have not read his work in detail and it certainly merits it.

  4. A very interesting piece, Jack. I have of course heard of Hirschfeld but have not read him myself; seems like I probably should.


  5. A very interesting piece, Jack. I have of course heard of Hirschfeld but have not read him myself; seems like I probably should.


  6. He was far beyond his time and he never got the credits for his work that he deserved!

  7. Excellent article. I really enjoyed it :) I look forward to more of your excellently written articles, Jack.


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  9. Thanks a lot for that. That is extremely informative, and interesting. I'm going to have to look more into Hirschfeld.


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