Excerpts: Berlin’s Third Sex by Magnus Hirschfeld (trans. James J. Conway)

Excerpt from the Afterword by James J. Conway:

On 8 May 1868, Hungarian writer Karl Maria Kertbeny coined the word ‘homosexual’ in a letter to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first gay activist in Germany, and indeed the world. A few days later, on 14 May, Magnus Hirschfeld was born in what was then known as Kolberg, a spa town on the Prussian Baltic coast (now Kołobrzeg in present-day Poland). The temporal proximity of these two unrelated events is remarkable. For Hirschfeld, sexual difference and the words used to describe it were, as the Germans say, ‘laid in his cradle’. The investigation of sexual minorities, the development of a modern gay identity, the creation of a vocabulary to express its forms and activities, the struggle against social and legislative discrimination – these were to be the defining motifs of Magnus Hirschfeld’s adult life.

In Berlin it is far from unheard of for parents to come to an accommodation with the uranian* natures, even the homosexual lives, of their children.

Recently I attended the burial of an old doctor in a cemetery on the outskirts of Berlin. At the open grave stood the only son of the deceased, to the right the aged mother, on the other side the 20-year-old friend, all three in deepest mourning. The father was over 70 years old when he became aware of his son’s uranian nature and, close to despair, he sought out several alienists who could offer advice but no assistance. Then he immersed himself in literature on the topic and increasingly came to recognise that his son, whom he loved more than anything, had been homosexual from birth. At his residence, he had no objection to the son taking in his friend, indeed the good parents transferred all their love to the young man, who came from the most humble background. They exerted an obvious positive influence on each other; while each would have had difficulty getting ahead on his own, as a pair they managed splendidly, because the wisdom and kindness of the one found its complement in the energy and thrift of the other.

On his deathbed the old doctor bade farewell to his wife and his ‘two lads’, and the sight of these three individuals, united in tears and mourning to the sound of Mendelssohn’s ‘It Is Surely God’s Will’, made a much deeper impression on the soul than the eulogy of the shrill young priest, praising the deeds of the deceased to whom he was a complete stranger.


In one of the large halls in which the uranians stage their balls, barely a week passes without a similar evening ball for female uranians, many of whom dress in men’s clothing. The largest gathering of homosexual women is an annual costume party arranged by a lady of Berlin. This party is not open to the public, rather it is usually restricted to those acquainted with the ladies of the committee. One participant, Miss R., sketched the following depiction for me:

After eight on a fine winter’s evening, coach after coach pulls up in front of one of Berlin’s finest hotels, from which emerge women and men in costumes of every land and epoch. Here you see a stylish fraternity member arriving with impressive duelling scars, there a slim Rococo cavalier gallantly helping a lady alight from her coach. The large, brightly lit rooms become ever more crowded; here comes a fat Capuchin monk, accepting the salutations of respectful gypsies, pierrots, sailors, clowns, bakers, peasants, spruce officers, gentlemen and ladies in riding outfits, Boers, Japanese gentlemen and dainty geishas. A dark-eyed Carmen sets a jockey aflame, a fiery Italian strikes up an intimate friendship with a snowman. The cheerful gaggle of those in the most colourful, dazzling costumes presents an unusually becoming tableau. the partygoers first fortify themselves at the flower-laden tables. the host, in a smart velvet jacket, welcomes the gathering in a brief, pithy address. Then the tables are cleared away. The ‘Waves 
of the Danube’ waltz starts up, and the couples swing through the night in circles accompanied 
by cheerful dance tunes. From the adjoining halls comes the sound of bright laughter, the clinking of glasses and blithe song, but nowhere – no matter where you look – are the bounds of an elegant costume party transgressed. Not a single false note brings disharmony to the general merriment, until the last of the guests steps out into the wan dawn light of a cold February morning from a venue where, for just a few hours, they were able to find sympathetic company with which to live the dream of their innermost feelings. Anyone who had the opportunity of attending such a party would spend the rest of his life in honest conviction defending uranian women so wrongly condemned, because it would be apparent that good and bad people are to be found everywhere, that the natural homosexual inclination is no less apt to mark a person out as either good or evil than the heterosexual.

Just as well attended as the balls, ‘gentlemen’s evenings’ are theatrical events that are occasionally staged by uranians, for uranians. Usually the entire cast of artistes are ‘intermediaries’; especially popular are the homosexual parodies of renowned literary works, and there is no little jollity when the angels perform as Marthe Schwertlein, when ‘Harper Jule’ plays Salome, or when Schwanhilde plays Mary Stuart, Queen Elizabeth and the nurse all in one.


Some time ago in a Berlin teachers’ newspaper a teacher stated that in light of the findings of scientific research one must, for better or for worse, address the issue of how homosexuals could be incorporated into society ‘in a way that accords with the goals of that society’.

But has this question not long been answered?

Where in Berlin is the culture enthusiast who has not delighted in the dramatic talents of a uranian tragedienne, a music lover who has not enjoyed the voice of a uranian lieder singer!

Think of the cook who prepares your meal, the hairdresser who attends to you, the seamstress who makes your wife’s clothes and the flower seller who decorates your apartment – are you certain there is not a uranian among them?
 Plunge into the masterpieces of world literature, scrutinise the heroes of history, walk in the footsteps of the great solitary thinkers, and you are certain to encounter homosexuals from time to time, one who might be dear to you and who achieved greatness despite – some even claim because of – this special quality.

Do you know for sure that among those closest to you, whom you love most tenderly, those you adore above all, whether among your best friends, your sisters and brothers – that not one is a uranian?

*Uranian from notes: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), the pioneer of gay identity and activism. Ulrichs coined the term ‘uranian’ (Urning) in the 1860s; it is a matter of dispute whether he inspired Britain’s late 19th century/early 20th century Uranian poets to their label, or if theirs was a coincidental usage. Although Hirschfeld doesn’t mention the fact here, Ulrichs also introduced the term ‘homosexual’ (Homosexuell) to German.

Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) was one of the world’s first gay activists. Both a writer and a doctor, he sought not only to define sexual variation – homosexuality in both men and women, as well as what we would now refer to as trans identity – but also to repeal laws that policed their expression in his native Germany. His insistence that homosexuality was in-born, and that consenting adults should be free to form attachments without harassment from the law, was almost a century ahead of Western public consensus. Hirschfeld published in relative freedom under the German Empire and ensuing Weimar Republic but emigrated before Hitler came to power. As the Nazis cast his research to the fire, Hirschfeld resigned himself to exile, eventually settling in Nice where he died on his 67th birthday. Among his works already published in English are Transvestites and The Homosexuality of Men and Women.

James J. Conway is an Australian-born writer and translator based in Berlin, and the creator of Strange Flowers, an online repository of alternative cultural history. In 2017 he founded Rixdorf Editions, launching the small press with his own translations of historic texts by Franziska zu Reventlow and Magnus Hirschfeld.

Berlin’s Third Sex is published by Rixdorf Editions. Author and translator bio courtesy of the same.

Image: still from Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), 1919 (story co-written by Magnus Hirschfeld)