Hirschfeld was born to Jewish parents in the Prussian city of Kolberg (now in Poland) on the Baltic Sea. He studied modern languages in various German cities and eventually took his degree in Berlin in 1892.
In 1896, he wrote Sappho and Socrates, a pamphlet on homosexual love. The following year he joined leaders of the gay journal, Der Eigene (The Self-Possessed), to establish the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. Their first order of business was to work toward the overturn of Paragraph 175, the 1871 German law that criminalized male homosexuality. They collected more than 5,000 signatures on their petition to repeal the law, including such notables as Albert Einstein, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Rainer Maria Rilke. When their efforts failed in an unsuccessful vote before the Reichstag in 1898, Hirschfeld was so infuriated by the hypocrisy of certain members of parliament that he threatened to out some of those who had voted against it. The committee pressed on, working tirelessly to have their bill reintroduced repeatedly over the following decades. Unfortunately, they were never successful.
The Scientific Humanitarian Committee’s motto, "Through Science to Justice", describes an encompassing sexological platform that moves from acknowledgment of biological facts of human sexuality to a vision of a culture capable of coping with endless sexual diversity. Hirschfeld was convinced that scientific understanding of sexuality would lead to tolerance and acceptance of sexual minorities. Thirty-four years before Kinsey, Hirschfeld collected detailed information about sexual behavior in surveys from 10,000 people, and he published the results in his book, Homosexuality in Men and Women (1914).
During the height of the Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld co-wrote, co-funded and acted in a movie called Anders als die Anderen (Different from the Others, 1919), a silent film whose main character comes out to thwart his extortionist gay ex-lover, but subsequently loses his job and commits suicide. The project was intended as a polemic against Paragraph 175. The film's basic plot was used again in the 1961 British film, Victim, starring Dirk Bogarde (see entry in sidebar).
The Institute and its work also increasingly came to the notice of the Nazi party. At one point, following a lecture Hirschfeld gave in Munich, he was set upon by a group of Brown Shirts, who fractured his skull and left him for dead in the street. They were bent on eradicating the triple evils of socialists, homosexuals and Jews – and Hirschfeld was all three.
Then things got worse. Unfortunately, on the heels of Hitler’s ruthless elimination of a powerful band of hyper-masculine homosexuals (including many of Hitler’s friends) known as the “Night of the Long Knives”, the Nazis ransacked the institute’s archives on May 6, 1933, confiscating names and addresses. Four days later the Nazis held a massive book burning in Berlin’s Opernplatz, destroying the institute’s collection of 20,000 volumes and 5,000 images on the basis that they depicted “deviants” and “ideas that were un-German.” The institute’s buildings were confiscated and sold to the state. At the time Hirschfeld was on a lecture tour in Paris and never returned home. Hirschfeld learned of the ruinous acts while watching newsreels in a Paris cinema, seated next to his Chinese lover, Li Shiu Tong, who was also Hirschfeld’s life-long traveling companion and fellow researcher.
Barnhard Schapiro (left), a Latvian Jew, was the medical director of the Institute for Sexology at the time it was closed and plundered by the Nazis in 1933. Li Shiu Tong (right) was Hirschfeld’s young Chinese lover.
In France, on his sixty-seventh birthday in 1935, Hirschfeld died from a heart attack, and his remains were buried in a cemetery in Nice. Hirschfeld was survived by Li Shiu Tong, his young partner, colleague, former student, and heir, who lived until 1993. Li was eighty-six years old at the time of his own death in Vancouver. While Hirschfeld was on a round-the-world lecture tour, the two met in Shanghai, and despite the difference in age (Li 24, Hirschfeld 63), the attraction was immediate, and Li joined Hirschfeld’s tour as his “interpreter”. Li, the handsome son of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, inherited Hirschfeld’s personal letters and effects.
That Which Is Hidden (1939) a novel by Robert Hichens, is based on the relationship between Hirschfeld and Li. The novel opens with the protagonist visiting the tomb of a famed Austrian sex expert, Dr. R. Ellendorf, in a cemetery in Nice. At the tomb, he meets the late doctor's protégé, a Chinese student named Kho Ling. The character of Ling refers to the memory of his mentor at numerous points in the novel.
In 1982, a group of German researchers and activists founded the Magnus Hirschfeld Society in Berlin, in anticipation of the then-approaching 50th anniversary of the destruction of Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Research. Ten years later, the society established a Berlin-based center for research on the history of sexology.