Germany’s Institute of Sex Research (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft) isn’t a well-known name in American queer and trans circles. Founded in 1919 between German-Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and psychiatrist Arthur Kronfeld, the Institute was dedicated to the pursuit of gender and sexuality studies. In its heyday, the building featured a research library, an archive of sexology studies, marriage and sexual counseling services, and, most notably of all, medical care services for transgender patients. Despite right-wing outrage against the Institute for being “offensive for public morals,” as the Magnus Hirschfeld Society puts it, the Institute thrived, thanks to its advocacy for public sexual education, treatment of sexually transmitted infections, and transition-related health care for trans men and women.
Things began to change when the Nazi Party gained power. By 1933, the Nazis initiated a vicious campaign against “homophiles,” banning LGBTQ organizations and shutting down gay nightclubs in Berlin. Shortly after, the Institute’s Kurt Hiller was captured and hauled away to the concentration camp system. And by May 1933, the Nazi Party ransacked the Institute and burned its 20,000 books and writings on sexuality studies, destroying years’ worth of queer and trans studies. In many ways, it was the beginning of a long and bloody road that would end with the persecution and murder of LGBTQ people during the Holocaust.
In an interview segment on his book, Gay Berlin, author Robert Beachy discussed the political ramifications of the Institute in a bit more detail. According to Beachy, Magnus Hirschfeld realized that sex hormones — such as estrogen or testosterone — could change an individual’s behavior or allow for gender transitioning. He pioneered work on gender-affirming surgery, introduced hormone replacement therapy, and created the word “transvestite” — which, at the time, was a medical diagnosis for individuals who felt a strong drive to present in another gender’s clothing. Thanks to his sexology studies, Hirschfeld was able to bring about “transvestite passes” to Berlin’s police, in which police officers would allow cross-dressing people to formally cross-dress in public without police harassment. He also normalized the idea of transitioning, servicing trans patients and hosting many within the Institute’s staff.
Magnus Hirschfeld is still recognized as a forefather of sexuality studies, well into the contemporary era. But because the Institute’s research was ground to a halt, the Western world lives in the shadow of Nazism’s influence on sexuality studies. The ongoing research and theorization that was available at the Institute during its lifetime is lost to today’s queer and trans communities. And while sociological and psychological studies in support of LGBTQ rights have been more plentiful than ever in the contemporary era, one has to wonder whether trans and queer acceptance would have happened faster if the Institute’s research were not burned to the ground.
Much has been said about Donald Trump’s rise to power over the past few months, but the administration’s potential long-term devastating effects on the LGBTQ community have yet to be fully understood. Trump, who is as politically unpredictable as he is administratively inept, came under fire for his devastating Muslim ban, which Dr. Jamil Khader argues, holds the “emergent structure of Western authoritarian capitalism.” Muslim LGBTQ citizens already felt the brunt of that order, especially after it was redrafted in early March. And in February, President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s protections for transgender students. The ruling caused a domino effect, which led the Supreme Court to pass on 17-year-old transgender student Gavin Grimm’s case against gender discrimination at his Virginia high school, effectively wiping out an appeals court ruling that would allow Grimm to use the men’s room. With the Trump administration labeling transgender rights as a “states’ rights” issue, the White House is sending a clear message: schools can discriminate against trans students if they want to.
Of course, policy begets action. Shortly after Trump’s first Muslim ban was executed, ICE agents began targeting queer and trans American immigrants. One trans woman was arrested by ICE at the El Paso Courthouse, right after receiving a protective order during a domestic violence case. County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal suspects that ICE received a tip from the woman’s abuser.
Violence has been visited on transgender people, too: particularly trans women of color. In February, shortly after the Trump administration pulled back trans federal protections, two trans women of color were found brutally murdered in New Orleans: rocketing the trans death count for 2017 up to seven — five in February alone. Activists suspect 2017’s deaths will quickly outpace 2016’s toll of 24 reported cases, which already caused LGBTQ Nation to call 2016 “the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans.” Not to mention, as undocumented trans people are targeted and deported throughout 2017, ICE’s behavior would be a virtual death sentence for many trans and nonbinary immigrants due to the life-saving necessity of trans health care availability.
The Trump administration has already made an enemy out of queer and trans lives. Look no further than Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s former executive chairman, who published anti-LGBTQ articles regularly for years. Bannon clearly commands significant power in the administration; he even acquired a seat on the National Security Council. Other authoritarian measures could follow. Trump has threatened to pull federal funding from UC Berkeley due to the university’s canceling of ex-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’s appearance amid student protests. The president has also threatened to “send in the Feds” to Chicago due to violent crime in the city; plus, a draft acquired from the Associated Press reveals that the Trump administration considered using as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to forcibly remove undocumented immigrants from Arizona, California, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana (the administration has denied the report). It’s clear that Trump is open to using brute force to maintain oppression against marginalized Americans. And figures, such as Steve Bannon, are likely to put their bigotry to good use with the power they hold in the White House.
But how do we understand the Trump administration’s behavior? Certainly, President Trump is an outlier president: he’s a populist candidate whose administration is founded both on powerful executive orders and egotistical ineptitude. But even though Trump is throwing out the presidential rulebook, LGBTQ activists may gain insights into dealing with Trump by looking back at the different but still relevant experience of government repression faced by the Institute of Sex Research in the Weimar Republic. Early measures — forced closures of gay nightclubs, a crackdown on LGBTQ organizations, Kurt Hiller’s arrest — foreshadowed later tactics that were used against the academic queer and trans communities. In the US today there is not a parallel rank-and-file burning of public institutions, and the Trump administration isn’t rounding up LGBTQ citizens in concentration camps, but the administration is certainly leaving queer and trans rights in red states to the whims of conservative governments. Further measures could be taken that disregard LGBTQ rights altogether.
How could Trump do it? Defunding academic institutions amidst GOP pressure, issuing a strong anti-trans interpretation of Title IX federal trans protection policies, vetoing progressive legislation and supporting anti-trans health care bills could all serve as central tactics for the administration. Or, the Trump administration could simply let rights be taken away on a local level. This already seems to be the case in Oklahoma, where a Republican Senate bill could wipe out LGBTQ protections from the state. As of yet, the bill seems to fall perfectly in line with Trump’s “states’ rights” comments. It certainly looks like there are dire times ahead for LGBTQ people in the US.
However, there is another thing Americans can learn from the Institute of Sex Research. Even though the Institute was effectively destroyed by the Nazi Party, its legacy continues to live on today. The drive to understand gay and transgender life that Hirschfeld cultivated gained a life of its own outside of Germany, and the Institute became part of a larger history of political resistance that culminated in the emergence of the Stonewall riots in 1969, when gay, lesbian, transgender, queer and genderqueer people fought back against New York City police raids. The Institute was burned, but its voice lived on.
This can happen in Trump’s America, too. Transgender activists, theorists, scientists and thinkers can make themselves heard far and wide, spreading their research across the country and internationally as they aggressively fight for the rights of trans people. Activists can push for trans bathroom protections in state and municipal governments, as well as their local school boards. Writers can help shine a spotlight on grassroots activism, promoting organizations and movements that resist Trump. And people who are able to can donate to queer and trans-affirming institutions, using money as a resource to support at-risk LGBTQ people.
In short, resistance is not only possible, it is inevitable — and it is already happening. While the federal government may not be on our side, the roaring engine of queer and trans activism cannot be suppressed by an authoritarian government for long. Even the Nazi Party crumbled after years of power; Trump’s administration will, too. Until then, we must continue to work hard, fight back and look out for one another.