December 19, 2014

Magnus Hirschfeld's Theory of Transgender Intermediaries

The German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld presented a very radical theory of transgender and crossdreaming back in 1910, a theory that can enrich our understanding of sex and gender today.

Magnus Hirschfeld with friends. Hirschfeld with glasses, right.
In my previous post, I presented the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and his arguments against the tendency to pathologize transgender identities and sexualities.

While many -- if not most -- of the other sex researchers of his day developed elaborate classification schemes of sexual desire and sexual behavior in order protect the realm of imagined normalcy against "deviants" (see Tosh 2015), Hirschfeld mapped sex and gender variation for the exact opposite reason.

Elenea Mancini puts it this way in her book Magnus Hirschfeld and the Quest for Sexual Freedom:

"Hirschfeld canvassed and classified the rich diversity of people he encountered, not for the mere sake of accruing scientific data or accentuating that which separated certain groups of people from others, but rather to uncover the fundamental similarities between all people irrespective of their sexual orientation, identity, or ethnic and racial provenance. He did not establish hierarchies of qualities such as physical traits and characteristics or sexual practices. This gave his work a distinctive flavor in that it became not only an ethnographic recording of difference, but implicitly, a celebration of that difference as well." (p. 35)

Theory of intermediaries

What Hirschfeld suggests is an early incarnation of the non-binary continuum theory, i.e. that there is no clear and distinct boundary between the male and the female, the masculine and the feminine. He calls this his "theory of intermediaries" (Zwischenstufenlehre, literally: "the theory about the steps in between").

This theory of intermediaries applies to the physiological as well the psychological, as Hirschfeld understands it. In other words: He refuses to separate body from mind, biology from psychology. Instead he considers the human being as a complex system of mind and matter.

As for the biology, he points to the fact that a woman may have a full beard and a man a milk producing tit.  He spends much time describing intersex people ("hermaphrodites" and "pseudo-hermaphrodites", p 220) There are, besides purely manly and womanly characteristics, he writes, "such that are neither manly nor womanly, or more correctly stated, not only manly, but also womanly." (p. 215)

In the same way there is much variation as regards psychological traits, temperament and abilities, Hirschfeld argues.

Hirschfeld actually develops a complex mathematical model where he adds the masculine (m) and feminine dimensions (f) to the four groups of (A) sexual parts, (B) other physical characteristics, (C) sex drive, and (D) other emotional characteristics, leading eventually to a number of some 43 million combinations:

"The number of actual and imaginable sexual varieties is almost unending; in each person there is a different mixture of manly and womanly substances, and as we cannot find two leaves alike on a tree, then it is highly unlikely that we will find two humans whose manly and womanly characteristics exactly match in kind and number." (p 228)

In other words: The perfectly feminine woman does not exist in the real world, and nor does the perfectly manly man.

They do exist as extremes in Hirschfeld's theoretical model, however, and it is this theoretical existence that leads to what we today would consider a rather bizarre mix of gender radicalism and conservatism in his thinking.

Radical and conservative at the same time

Yes, in spite of his radical stance as regards homosexual rights and the acceptance of transgender people, Hirschfeld is also a child of his times. In one way he is an essentialist, in the sense that he believes there exists clear sex specific traits --  a clearly defined "masculinity" and a clearly recognizable "femininity".

He argues, for instance, that a woman's body is "splendidly suited to conceive, preserve, and nourish the child." "So to," he writes, "in her sexual life is the woman the receiver, responder, the succubus, and the more passive partner, who, as the one who conceives, strives to be the opposite of the man, the incumbent and more active partner."

He then goes on to repeat all the stereotypes of his (and our) time: Women are more emotional, sensitive, impressionable and less concerned with the abstract and the creative and active side of the human psyche. (p. 216) Hirschfeld sometimes actually argues against the feminists of his time. (p 217)

Where Hirschfeld differs from his contemporaries, however, is in the belief that these female traits are not exclusively found in women. Male bodied persons may have them to. There are no absolute men or women, Hirschfeld argues:

"These kinds of absolute representatives of their sex, are, however, first of all only abstractions, invented extremes; in reality they have not as yet been observed, but rather we have been able to prove that in every man, even if only to a small degree, there is his origin from the woman, in every woman the corresponding remains of manly origins." (p 219)

A 1907 political cartoon depicting sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld, ‘Hero of the Day,’ drumming up support for the abolition of Paragraph 175 of the German penal code that criminalized homosexuality. The banner reads, ‘Away with Paragraph 175!’ The caption reads, ‘The foremost champion of the third sex!’ –US Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives

Opposites attract

It is fascinating to see how Hirschfeld juggles the various traits when explaining the attraction between opposites:

"With reference to the direction of the sex drive, in the case of men it indicates femininity when they feel attracted to women of manly appearance and character, to so-called 'energetic women', sometimes even to homosexuals, also to manly clothed as well as such ones who are considerably more mature, intellectual, and older than themselves. On the other hand, women may betray their manly mixture in a preference for the womanly kind of men, in general for such ones who in their traits and behavior and character correspond to the feminine type. [The Roman writers] Juvenal, even (Satire 6) and Martial (6, 67) report about women who can only love, 'shy enuchs with beardless faces.'" (p 222)

There is nothing wrong in this description, in and for itself. Hirschfeld is here describing what we today would call guydykes and girlfags, men and women who may be formally "straight", but who look for different shades of femininity and masculinity in the people they love. The problem is that he continues to link these expressions of femininity and masculinity to some kind of underlying natural order of the sexes.

This is, in fact, a problem we are still struggling with, when trying to understand the overall dynamic of sex, gender identity, sexuality and gender expression.

One major problem with Hirschfeld's theory of intermediaries is that he starts out from the opposite poles of what we can call extreme femininity and extreme masculinity. Admittedly these are ideas that do not exist in real life, but the very existence of these ideas lures the reader into believing that somehow these extremes are "better" than all the variation you find in between.

This is clearly the trap Ray Blanchard, J. Michael Bailey and others of the more Ultra-Darwinist creed have fallen into. They need to label crossdreamers and crossdressers ("autogynephiles") as deviant "paraphiliacs", for the simple reason that they do not live up to their ideals of evolutionary fitness: real men do not want to be women, as this would reduce their chances of procreating.

Hirschfeld, of course, does not accept this logic. He has the deepest respect for transgender people, and does not think of them as mentally ill. But he nevertheless believes that he needs these opposite poles in order to explain the diversity he finds.

Diversity as an evolutionary advantage

In spite of his rather traditional starting point -- the idea of the perfectly womanly woman and the perfectly manly man -- Hirschfeld ends up with a model of sex and gender that is strikingly modern -- and clearly related to the gender queer theories of people like Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein.

Hirschfeld's is a model that sees diversity as an evolutionary advantage. He is the father of evolutionary thinkers like Joan Roughgarden and her siblings, not of Ultra-Darwinists like Ray Blanchard:

"Whether people view the sexual intermediaries to be pathological without ado -- in my opinion, an indefensible standpoint for biologists of the Darwinian school -- or consider pathological only the more striking features of manliness in a woman and femininity in a man, the weaker grades as physiological -- in which case it would be difficult to consider drawing a line in the ranks of the imperceptible overlapping types -- or interpret all of these intermediaries as I do, as sexual varieties, and make the concepts of the pathological in the sexual life dependent upon other instances; for example, to what extent prerequisites of both sexual maturity and sexual freedom endure injuries -- all these are only secondary phenomena in the face of the fact that we have to treat the sexual intermediaries as a widespread and natural phenomenon." (p. 228)

In other words: Hirschfeld kills off the very model that has allowed psychiatrists to label homosexuals or transgender people "paraphilic" or mentally ill.

The third sex

In some presentations of Hirschfeld we find that he is considered a proponent of the "third sex" model. If we allow for a little simplification we might say that the third sex model argues that there is a third group of human beings besides men and women which constitutes a category of their own. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a pioneer in the research of homosexuality, had used this term when describing the Uranians (male homosexuals).

Strictly speaking, however, the Uranians did not represent an alternative to the feminine and the masculine. Indeed, Ulrichs, who himself was a gay man, thought of the Uranians as some kind of transgender: feminine souls trapped in men's bodies.

Hirschfeld never uses the term "third sex" in his scientific writings, although he might have in his more popular writings for political reasons. It should be clear from what I have written here and in my previous blog post, however, that there is nothing in his writings that should indicate that he believed in a third distinct category of sex and gender. That would undermine his main message: That there is a wide variety of "intermediaries" and that all of us -- to a larger or smaller extent -- are "hermaphrodites".

Indeed, in the end he also dismisses the idea that male homosexuals are "inverts", in the sense of always presenting a kind of female sexuality.

Hirschfeld  actually started out trying to identify clear homosexual traits (body shapes, interests and mannerisms), but failed to do so. I suspect this made his belief in real diversity even stronger (see Blank 2012):

"In reality there is no absolute correspondence between virility and activity and femininity and passivity. For now, we shall discuss the questions we will ponder later, whether or not in general the classification of homosexual men and women according to active and passive is valid. In any case, extensive practical experience teaches one thing: among those who tend toward active penetration, there are many who in their psyche more closely resemble women than men. Even here, all possible combinations occur, which demonstrates the truth still always outweighs probability." (Hirschfeld: The Homosexuality of Men and Women, quoted in Elena Mancini p 65)

Crossdressers at the Eldorado Club, Berlin 1933 (MailOnline). Before
Hitler's take-over Berlin had a very liberal and tolerant cultural scene.
I must admit that I find the whole idea of a third sex problematic, not at least because it is so often used to exclude transgender people from normalcy, at least in Western societies. "The third sex" becomes a box where you can put all those pesky gender variant people who do not fit the binary, saving the simplistic binary in the process.

Hirschfeld finds that there is a nearly endless number of "sexes".

Can we use the theory of intermediaries today?

Back in 2010 I wrote a blog post presenting an alternative model of crossdreaming and transgender lives, called The Cause of Crossdreaming. It was born out of my discussions with fellow crossdreamers, the reading of recent studies within the fields of biology, neurophysiology and the social sciences, and the dialog I had had with my Thai friend, the sexologist Natalie.

I had not read Hirschfeld at the time, but the story I presented has much in common with his theory of intermediaries. I argued that there is no strict binary as regards temperament, abilities, gender expressions and sexualities, as you will find that all men and women present mixes of such traits.

The main difference is that I did not find it necessary to demand the polarity of "a perfect masculine man" or "a perfect feminine woman" to present a mix of traits and abilities (although I did present these extremes in the text).

Hirschfeld's gender diversity is based on the existence of some kind of gender axis between
extreme masculinity and extreme femininity (left). Even though this perfect man or perfect woman
do not exist in reality, we all represents mixes of their extreme sets of traits and abilities.
Modern gender studies on the other hand argue that the perfect man and the perfect woman
are social constructs, and that you do not need this axis to explain the diversity seen (right).

We now know that there is no scientific basis for saying that these stereotypical traits and abilities express an underlying biology (see my blog post on the statistical differences between men and women).  Moreover, what is considered the perfect man and the perfect woman varies considerably over time and between cultures. It therefore becomes extremely hard to define what constitutes the extreme woman found at one end of the axis and the extreme man found at the other.

Hirschfeld is clearly unable to take the next logical leap: The desire of his patients to live up to to the gender stereotypes of the time may simply reflect a need to give a gender variant personality an expression that can be understood by contemporaries.

Crossdreamers and transgender people often try to live up to the stereotypes, as they hope this will lead to the social affirmation they crave and need. Alternatively, the crossdreaming and the crossdressing allow them to express personality traits that are forbidden for their assigned gender, but which in a more tolerant society would be accepted as a natural expression of their biological sex.

In other words: according to modern gender theory we would have to say that masculinity and femininity is a dimension different and often independent from the one of being male and female. For Hirschfeld femininity remains a trait linked to being female in one way or the other.

Inborn or culturally defined -- or both?

It is therefore tempting to remove Hirschfeld's perfect man and perfect woman from the model. This would leave us with a model that is very much in line with post-modern gender theory: There may be a wide variety of personality traits, but the extent to which we call them blue or pink, masculine or feminine is solely a result of social conditioning. The love and care of children are human traits, not restricted to women (- which should be obvious, when you think about it!).

It is this that leads many to dismiss any biological component to gender identity formation altogether. You do not need it to explain the world as you see it.

I would have agreed with this approach, hadn't it been for the very existence of transsexual people, and my own gender dysphoria. Yes, some transgender people make peace with their biological sex when allowed to live out their gender bending, but others do not. They find no peace until their gender identity is in line with their physical sex.

This tells me that the fact that feminine traits, expressions, temperaments and abilities are culturally defined, does not necessarily mean that there is no biological component to transgender conditions.

Hirschfeld is very clear about this. He says that even if there is "an internal or external influencing, inhibiting and encouraging will, access to education, practice, and suggestions", what he calls "sexual individuality" is inborn:

" is formed in advance by nature and is dormant in the individual long before it is awakened, forces its way into awareness, and develops. It is particularly subject to temporary, even periodic changes; develops consequently nevertheless, gradually increases; maintains itself at a certain level, then returns again, but maintains the same characteristic impressions in all essential for the entire lifetime." (p. 232)

There may perfectly well be an inborn drive towards expressing oneself as male, female or something else, even if the way that inborn drive is expressed is through culturally and historically defined symbols. My favorite parallel drive is hunger: Hunger is a biologically defined instinct. Your preference for sushi as opposed to pizza is (mainly) cultural. All young mammals play, human kids included, so there is clearly a biologically based drive to do so. The actual playing of human children, however, is (mostly) culturally defined.

Hirschfeld, however, does not -- as far as I can see -- make this distinction. But given his refusal to split the biological from the psychological and cultural, such a distinction would make sense.

What Hirschfeld can teach us

Hirschfeld's insistence on keeping biological instincts in the model presents an opportunity for us to look at the interaction between biological sex and cultural gender in a new way, a way that is more in line with recent neurophysiological and psychological research.

Many of these researchers insist that human behavior is the result of an interaction between body and mind -- indeed, that it is impossible to keep the two sides of what makes us human apart (see for instance Solms and Turnbull 2002).

Unfortunately the split between the natural sciences on the one hand and the social sciences on the other still makes such a debate difficult.

Yes, we have now come to a point where both social scientists and natural scientists move away from simplistic reductionist models (like in "the genes determine everything") to more complex systemic models (like in "gender is the end result of a complex interaction of many factors"), but the two traditions still find it hard to take the other one seriously. The social scientists find it hard to incorporate biology in their thinking. The natural scientists may accept the influence of social and cultural phenomena, but often lack the tools needed to understand them.

Hirschfeld provides a role model of the scientists that embraces both traditions. And his theory of intermediaries may -- in spite of its many weaknesses -- provide a platform for a renewed debate of what makes us feel male or female.

Hansi Sturm, was the winner of the Berlin Miss Eldorado transvestite pageant in 1926 (MailOnline)


Here is a paradox: Hirschfeld was a radical in his time, not only politically, but also as a scientist. As I have pointed out above, he is a radical even today, 100  years later.

His idea of sexual intermediaries was not a new one, however. The fact is that all the way up till the 19th century, sexual continuums was the default way of thinking. As  Thomas W. Laqueur has pointed out, the pre-modern world for the most part followed a one sex model. There was only one biological sex: the male one.

Women were men lacking in the element fire, which was why their sexual organs were inverted versions of the male ones. Add fire (i.e. blood) to a woman, and she might become a man. (The opposite was considered impossible, as a thing of great value  -- a man -- could not become a thing of less value -- a woman). The diversity of humanity was considered the end result of different mixes of the four elements in conjunction with astrological influences from the stars.

It wasn't until the late 19th century upper class men started developing scientific theories aimed at dividing a "healthy" sexuality from a perverted one, redefining men and women as members of something that in many ways resembles two different species. These theories could then be used to invalidate free thinking women ("hysteria"), people of color ("promiscuous and oversexualized"), homosexuals ("perverted inverts") and transgender people ("transvestic fetishists").

Before the 19th century people had rarely classified sexual desire according as "sick" or "healthy". They did consider some types of behavior sinful or a violation of legal requirements, yes, but this did not lead them to classify the person who committed the sin as a pervert or mentally ill. A man who behaved like a woman was a sinner or a law breaker. He might lack character, but he was not a "homosexual", "a fetishist" of a "paraphiliac".

In the end Hirschfeld's idea lost out to the binary logic of both evolutionary biology and modern psychiatry. The cultural forces defending the gender binary and the established order were simply too strong.

But this is now changing. Lately we have seen that many researchers in the natural sciences have become increasingly interested in the complexity of nature and how biology is shaped by its environmental and social surroundings. Genes are for instance no longer set in stone, determining the life of the individual. What the individual does and experiences may actually turn genes on and off.


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

Jemma Tosh: Perverse Psychology: The pathologization of sexual violence and transgenderism, New York 2015

Hanne Blank: Straight, the Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, Boston 2012

Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull: The Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience, London 2002

Thomas Laqueur: Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Harvard 1992


  1. Very interesting essay Jack. it makes perfect sense that the great variety we find in other areas of nature would apply to sex and gender. Even our binary model only works partially since many people stretch that definition to its limits. One could argue that if we just speak of identity and forget genitalia, that there is an expansive range in gender identity that has only been shrouded by attempts to subjogate people into conforming through social pressure. Left to their own devices many people would liberate themselves much more to be themselves. I have done just this very thing.

    All the best to you and yours during the holiday season


  2. And the same to you, Joanna!

    As for what happens in nature: I was surprised when I started looking into more radical studies of evolution and the sexuality of animals, and found that there is an amazing variation, nothing like the school book and TV documentary version of coy females and aggressive males.

    The very fact that I was surprised, though, says a lot. I normally like to think of myself as a relatively will informed citizen.

    More here...

  3. We seem to very much be on the same page about most Jack!

    Hirschfeld's axis between two extremes seems obviously Aristotelian to me -- I would even go so far as to bet that he idealizes the center, and not the two extremes. Particularly being himself a homosexual, it wouldn't surprise me if he figured he was somewhere near the center.

    Aristotle himself apparently dressed flamboyantly and spoke with a lisp. The lisp was adopted later as a sign of being an intellectual -- intellectuals often being perceived as effeminate, made the lisp an indication of feminine men, and later adopted into the homosexual identity.

    The reason that specific traits do not indicate specific biological features is because you cannot reduce phenotypes to genotypes. We use the same genes for colour discernment as dogs use for scent discernment. You cannot reduce the form of an animal to its genetics. The expression is a relationship between genotype type and environment, and not solely reducible to biology.

    That we cannot actually reduce and specific "feminine" or "masculine" traits to biology isn't a big deal, as we cannot actually reduce any specific traits to biology. It's more complete than that. It isn't nature vs nurture, it is both in relationship, and we have nothing without them both.

  4. @Elsa

    I find it interesting that Hirschfeld tried to prove that homosexual men were somewhat more feminine than straight men (in general). He failed to do so and admitted as much. But the fact that he was a gay man himself, with great sympathy for crossdreamers, tells me that he must have had similar feelings himself.

  5. Re: Darwinism, have you looked into 'kin selection'? Many social animals select for a non-breeding section of the population because it benefits the group as a whole (therefore gives a survival advantage to their kin)

    It's interesting that when the earlier societies (which often recognized two-spirit or third sex groups with a healing/shamanic/lore-keeping function) gave way to the homophobic middle ages, a special celibate class of monks and nuns were created to fulfil the same function.

    Something to think about, if you're into the evolutionary angle...

  6. @Volupta

    I believe Joan Rougharden has done some really interesting research in this direction.

    See these posts!


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