GenderGP is, at its core, dedicated to providing affirming care for trans and nonbinary people. We believe that our patients are who they say they are and that they deserve access to the treatments they need. This approach is seen as new, unknown and untested ground, just as many see gender variance as new and ‘experimental’, but if we look back over history we can see that being trans is anything but.
Let’s take a trip to Berlin, 1930. There’s a building on the corner of Beethovenstraße, imposing, with its four storeys and sweeping arms, but somehow inviting. Come on in, it seems to say, All are welcome here. Here is the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, rendered in English as ‘Institute for Sexual Science’. Inside are people of all genders living, working, and receiving affirming treatments, from hormone therapies to surgeries. The space is at once a facility for those wishing to medically transition and a refuge for those persecuted by Germany’s anti-homosexual paragraph 175. It might not look out of place in present day Britain. In fact, we might be shocked at how easily the patients could access the treatments they needed; how kindly they were received; how they had a chance ‘to be human at least for a moment’.
So how did a system that puts our NHS treatment of trans people to shame come about a century ago? The answer lies with a man named Magnus Hirschfeld. Photos from the institute’s heyday show a smiling older man with big round glasses and a bristling moustache, surrounded by people. But thirty years before, when he first qualified as a doctor, Hirschfeld had already witnessed the sting of prejudice. A young gay Jewish man working as a military doctor, he was surrounded by people who were suffering, even dying because they were forced to hide their true identities. On his return to civilian life he committed to studying sexuality and gender identity, and finding ways to help the people his society was failing.
While Hirschfeld offered shelter, employment, and medical treatment to ‘sexual intermediaries’ – as he called LGBTQ+ people, including himself and his partner – he also publicly campaigned for better recognition and rights. He developed a theory of gender and sexuality that even now outpaces most modern ideas about trans identity. He knew that trans women were not just gay men, and that wanting to dress in feminine clothing wasn’t a sexual disorder but an expression of their essential identity. His ideas of sexuality and gender went beyond gay/straight and male/female, allowing for sexual orientation by degrees (twenty years before the Kinsey scale was first published) and gender identity on a spectrum or with no fixed point whatsoever. What we would now call nonbinary or genderfluid people had a place in Hirschfeld’s world, even as they struggle for basic recognition in ours.
Nor is this acceptance of fluidity a product of modernity, as some ‘traditionalists’ might have it. Hirschfeld was inspired by Plato’s Symposium, written over two millennia before, in which Plato’s mentor Socrates proposes an origin of love. Originally, says Socrates, humans were fused together with their soulmates into plural beings: four legs, four eyes, two mouths, and so on. At the creation of the world we were split into individuals, and love is our innate longing to find our other half. Plato had no problem with men whose other half was another man, or women who sought women, or, for that matter, people whose innate souls were different to the bodies they were born into. Hirschfeld once said that “Love is as varied as people are,” to which I might add that if Plato can get it c. 370 BCE then we certainly have no excuse.
Progress is good, broadly speaking, but the problem with the idea of progress is the sense that we’re always moving forwards. We like to think that we’re more advanced because we’re further along. But technological advancement isn’t an analogue for true social progress.
That’s not to say that the past should always be used as a road map for sexuality and gender identity. Elements of our present day society undoubtedly impact our understanding of identity in ways that Hirschfeld could barely have imagined. The Internet, for instance, has allowed marginalised communities to communicate with each other and express themselves where previously they might have suffered in silence, it has also given them a radically evolving LGBTQ+ vocabulary, enabling them to find the language to verbalise their experiences.
The internet has given us at GenderGP the opportunity to build the world’s first online gender identity clinic. And, just as Hirschfeld’s institute drew global interest for its radical commitment to compassionate understanding and affirmative care, so we are now able to provide support to trans people all around the world, breaking down barriers and reinventing trans healthcare for the 21st century. Technology has given us access to more ways of communicating, new medicines, and better surgical techniques. Rather than withholding these from people who are already marginalised, our vision is to make them available and accessible to those who need them most.
Although Hirschfeld and others have paved the way, our approach is still considered ‘new’. We are the disrupters, challenging the norm, but think what we could achieve if we all applied Hirschfeld’s worldview today. If, instead of inventing spurious claims about ‘new’ phenomena or ‘experimental’ treatments, we listened to people when they came to us and gave them what they needed. If, instead of trying to erase LGBTQ+ people in the name of ‘tradition’ we recognised that we are the tradition that they are trying to destroy. I can’t imagine anyone who walked into that building on the corner of Beethovenstraße was told they were wrong, or they were lying, or they were mentally ill, or they had to prove themselves. So how have we ended up this way?
Hirschfeld’s story ends with a tragedy, and a warning for the future. On May 10th, 1933, the institute was surrounded by members and supporters of the Nazi party. Whipped into a frenzy with talk of protecting their youth and their culture, they raided the building and burned its library of some 20,000 books. The fire permanently destroyed centuries of trans history, and the image of the inferno became one of the most widely shared of the Nazi book-burnings. In fact, the same photo still appears in textbooks in US schools today, although what was being burned and exactly why has been conveniently omitted. It is our responsibility to remember Hirschfeld’s work, and ensure that we accept our patients for who they are. And it is our responsibility to make it known that not only are we here now, but we were there then. By keeping trans histories alive, we keep them from the flames.
Image: Magnus Hirschfeld (second from right) at a party at the Institute for Sexual Science | Credit: Undiscovered