In spring 1931, Li Shui Tong met Magnus Hirschfeld when the latter was giving a public lecture in Shanghai. Li was a medical student with a deep–and vested–interest in the exciting new field of sexology. Hirschfeld’s work and ideas would go on to shape modern ideas about “homosexuality” in clear and often problematic ways. The theory of homosexuality that Hirschfeld built in the early decades of his research was built on ideas about biological race, empire, and a white male subjectivity. His work shaped the way people talked about sexuality for decades after his death. The white European, and male-centricness of sexology, gay rights, and gay rights movements came as a result of Hirschfeld’s fusion of his early work with a theory about “the races,” and the imperialist presumptions of his early work that assumed a white, cis male body to be the standard around which rights needed to be procured and sexuality needed to be understood. To examine Li and Hirschfeld’s story is to grapple with the contingency of history. Individual choices matter, and outcomes are the result of the confluence of events, disasters, and decisions. As historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke argued, “the world is a magnificently interconnected place. Change a single prior condition, and any historical outcome could have turned out differently.” 

Transcript for: How the Homophile Movement Could Have Been Intersectional and Antiracist, But Wasn’t: Magnus Hirschfeld and Li Shui Tong’s Love and Loss Story

Written by Averill Earls, PhD, based on Laurie Marhoefer’s book, Racism and the Making of Gay Rights

Recorded by Averill Earls and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Averill: In spring 1931, Li Shui Tong [Lee Jow Tong] met Magnus Hirschfeld when the latter was giving a public lecture in Shanghai. Li was a medical student with a deep–and vested–interest in the exciting new field of sexology. Hirschfeld was an internationally-recognized sexologist from Germany who’d taken himself on a world speaking tour to escape some drama going on back home. At 24, Li had his whole life ahead of him. At 63, Hirschfeld was afraid of death and the end of his legacy. The two were an unlikely pair, but from their first meeting, Hirschfeld saw a student who would never betray him, and Li saw a mentor who could launch his career as a sexologist. According to Hirschfeld, Li “gave himself” to the older man, and promised to look after him and protect him on the remainder of the world tour. Li’s assorted unpublished writings don’t include a reflection on this alleged moment, but he did join Hirschfeld on the tour, and served as secretary, friend, travel agent, and, eventually, lover to the doctor. They were close, and mostly together, until Hirschfeld’s death in 1935. When Li’s father gave his son permission to leave medical school and join Hirschfeld’s journey, he imagined that under Hirschfeld’s mentorship Li would become the “Hirschfeld of China.”

Elizabeth: The meeting and entangling of Li and Hirschfeld is significant in the history of sexology and gay rights. Whether you know it or not, Hirschfeld’s work and ideas would go on to shape modern ideas about “homosexuality” in clear and often problematic ways. As historian Laurie Marhoefer notes, “If you think homosexuality is an inborn quality that cannot be changed and has a biological root but is not an illness, and if you think gay people are a ‘sexual minority’ who are born that way and deserve legal protections just as racial minorities do, you owe those ideas to Hirschfeld and a handful of others.” Other scholars and philosophers and same-sex desiring people made similar arguments before and at the same time as Magnus Hirschfeld, but he made them popular and part of the public lexicon. His work shaped the way people talked about sexuality for decades after his death. The white, European, and male-centricness of sexology and gay rights movements came as a result of Hirschfeld’s early work that assumed a white, cis male body to be the standard around which rights needed to be procured and sexuality needed to be understood.

Averill: But it didn’t need to be that way. As Marhoefer argues in their book, Racism and the Making of Gay Rights, the relationship that blossomed between Li and Hirschfeld fundamentally reshaped the way that Hirschfeld thought about race, empire, and sex. If, as he and Li intended, Li had taken up Hirschfeld’s mantle and become a leader in European (and Chinese) sexology after Hirschfeld’s death, one could imagine quite a different trajectory for how folks conceptualized and advocated for gay rights. If Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP hadn’t destroyed the Institute for Sex Research (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft) following their electoral takeover of Germany, if Hirschfeld had lived longer, if Hirschfeld had agreed to go with Li to the United States in 1934 so that Li could finish his medical degree and they could all be safe from Nazis–there were so many crossroads, so many decisions that individuals made that shaped the possible outcomes for the next set of choices. Things could have been so different: and so to examine Li and Hirschfeld’s story is to grapple with the contingency of history. Individual choices matter, and outcomes are the result of the confluence of events, disasters, and decisions. As historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke argued, “the world is a magnificently interconnected place. Change a single prior condition, and any historical outcome could have turned out differently.” 

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Elizabeth: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Hanna, Karl, Iris, Lauren, Edward, Colin, Susan, Jessy, Denise, Maria, Karen, and Lisa! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to to learn more

Averill: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of historians and other scholars. Today’s episode in particular is basically a podcastification of Laurie Marhoefer’s wonderful book Racism and the Making of Gay Rights. I picked their book to assign in one of my classes this semester, and when I read the introduction I knew I had to make it — and at least one of their arguments — the focus of this episode. It’s also extremely readable, so I recommend you pick up a copy. I have really only scratched the surface of their very smart and deeply-researched arguments for Racism and the Making of Gay Rights – there’s plenty more to learn. I’m also indebted to the works of Heike Bauer and Howard Chiang, whose works on Hirschfeld and Chinese sexuality and sexology respectively added important context to this episode. And since we’re talking a lot today about gay rights and Germany, I want to make sure to point yall in the direction of our friend Jake Newsome’s book Pink Triangle Legacies – it’s a must-read.

Elizabeth: To understand how and why things could have been different, we first need to talk about how and why they weren’t. 

Averill: Magnus Hirschfeld developed his scientific defense of homosexuality during a broader international movement to study sex and sexuality. In Germany, psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, a work that categorized the disordered minds of sexual deviance. Karl Ulrichs, a lawyer who advocated for the decriminalization of sex between men, theorized earlier in the nineteenth century that same-sex desire was driven by an internal gender inversion. He referred to these individuals as ‘urnings,’ but his ideas were marginalized and dismissed after he self-identified as an ‘urning.’ While earlier editions of Psychopathia Sexualis were damning for queer individuals, Krafft-Ebing revised each edition based on feedback from readers who identified with the ‘disordered’ sexualities he described. These individuals played a role in reshaping Krafft-Ebing’s ideas about sexuality. Undoubtedly, Ulrichs was one of the people who urged Krafft-Ebing to reconsider how ‘urnings’ should be treated under the law. After Ulrichs’ death in Italy, where he lived in exile as his career was ruined after coming out as an ‘urning,’ Krafft-Ebing finally began to argue that the “sexual inverts” (i.e., urnings) did not deserve imprisonment for a mental illness they could not control. Hirschfeld positioned his own scientific research on homosexuality in dialogue with these German thinkers and their evolving perspectives.

Richard von Kraft-Ebing | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Magnus Hirschfeld went to medical school between 1887 and 1893 at Berlin University. His father and two older brothers were doctors, and he followed in their footsteps. Instruction at the university included almost no discussion of sexuality. Maybe he obtained a copy of Psychopathia Sexualis as a student, but it’s just as likely that he didn’t know where to look for that kind of literature. When he was older and reflected on those years of training, one event seared itself into Hirschfeld’s brain. He attended an evening lecture from Emanuel Mendel, who was one of the most popular psychiatrists in Berlin at the time. Mendel paraded three patients before a packed lecture hall – a ‘pederast,’ a child molester, and an exhibitionist – and described their sexual deviancy as stemming from mental illness and disorder. As a young man with a sexual desire for other men, the lecture probably felt particularly painful and personal for Hirschfeld. Here a great psychiatrist was comparing men like Hirschfeld to men who preyed on children and men who flashed their genitals at grannies in the park. Hirschfeld, and others, obviously felt that these things were not like the other, and he would quickly dedicate his life to challenging that line of thinking and redirecting the nature and results of scientific sexual inquiry. 

Averill: And of course it was personal. I think this is actually really important to understanding the hows and whys of this story. Hirschfeld cared most deeply about debunking and advocating for the sexuality that he himself most represented. For example, when he advocated for the decriminalization of “homosexuality,” he advocated for a particular kind of homosexuality. He wanted men to have discrete, unobtrusive sexual relationships – to conform, in effect, to a kind of homosexual respectability and invisibility that aligned with his class, morality, and racial beliefs. He wrote on a wide range of sexuality topics, and collected all kinds of artifacts for his Institute for Sex Research, but the foundation of his interest and motivations were personal. 

Elizabeth: Hirschfeld published his first piece on same-sex desire in 1896, a 35-page pamphlet titled Sappho and Socrates, or, How Can We Explain the Love of Men or Women for Persons of the Same Sex? Marhoefer suggests that Hirschfeld was likely developing his response to contemporary categorization and description of same-sex desire while he was a student, but Sappho and Socrates was spurred by the 1895 trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for “crimes of gross indecency.” Havelock Ellis and J. A. Symonds published the first German edition of their book, Sexual Inversion, in 1896, also in response to the Wilde trials. Hirschfeld, Ellis, and Symonds all had similar ideas about sexuality; they may have developed independently, but they were certainly also informed by an early discourse on sexuality, selfhood, and desire.  

Averill: According to Marhoefer, Hirschfeld argued explicitly and firmly:

“Same-sex desire was not a mental illness. It was caused by an inborn biological condition. That condition was not a disease. Indeed, it fit beautifully within the broader system of human sexuality. Same-sex-loving people were therefore an unjustly oppressed group. Europeans used to burn witches and heretics. That had been a cruel violation of scientific rationality and the rights of people. So, in the same way, were convictions for sodomy.”

By grounding his theory in convincing scientific language and data, Hirschfeld garnered legitimacy, even as he was breaking with the broader medical community, which insisted that same-sex desire was a pathological deviation. 

Elizabeth: According to Laurie Marhoefer, Sappho and Socrates was important for two reasons. First, it launched Hirschfeld’s career. While his theories are what garnered him attention, Hirschfeld’s fame would in turn amplify the message of a class of innate, non-pathological, biological same-sex desiring people around the world and shape gay rights movements for the entirety of the 20th century. Second, the content of the pamphlet was significant. Most of his theory was similar to other ideas in circulation at the time, but he was the first to argue that science proved there was a small minority of people who had a biological condition they were born with that made them sexually attracted to the same sex. He was the first to assert that homosexuality was non-pathological, not a psychosis, but simply a natural biological variation in humanity. 

Averill: What nature had done, Hirschfeld wrote in the 1902 reprint of Sappho and Socrates, was “created a class of people [Menschenklasse] that she did not intend for physical reproduction,” and by 1902 he thought that idea “has spread very far.” In truth, Hirschfeld’s ideas about homosexuality being biological and homosexuals being a distinct class of people (and thus a ‘sexual minority’) were fringe during his lifetime. But by the 1950s, his ideas were mainstreamed and shaped the gay rights movements around the world. Though Sappho and Socrates was full of theoretical holes, it was also chock-full of graphs and data, making it scientifically grounded and giving it staying power. So significantly, at a time when others were arguing that same-sex desire was a mental illness or a bad thing, Hirschfeld pushed back and added a different way of thinking into the mainstream. He resisted the dominant narrative around homosexuality, and his resistance was successful. That’s why, Marhoefer argues, he had the power to change the narrative again. At the end of his life, his theories and thinking changed again, thanks in large part to Li’s influence. If the IFs were realized, the modern gay rights movement could have looked very different. 

Elizabeth: In 1897, Hirschfeld gathered three other men in his apartment in Berlin to found the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, with its goal the humane and scientific reform of sodomy laws. Between the four of them they had a doctor, a lawyer, a publisher, and a former colonial official. Sounds like the start of a bad joke. But their talents and connections were essential to the work that the Committee would do over the next 30+ years.

Averill: For example, Hirschfeld needed empire: he collected stories about same-sex desire around the world through colonial networks, with statistics and data points contributed by the colonial officials of Germany and other European empires. Hirschfeld’s idea that “the sexual type conquers the racial type” — that sexuality was identical across “racial differences” — relied on the presumption that “Chinese men and white European men…were quite different in other respects.” The premise that “Homosexuality existed independent of environment, and in an identical form, even across racial differences” would become the crux of Hirschfeld’s scientific defense of homosexuality. For most of his life he was unable, or unwilling, to see the effects of empire on the people he studied. As a young man, Hirschfeld could not see empire as anything but a good thing – for his research, and for the opportunities it seemed to afford queer men. Marhoefer suggests that a disproportionate number of colonial officials were queer men and women, who saw colonies as spaces of “sexual freedom.” Until he traveled the world with Li, he didn’t seem to really grasp the effect of colonialism on the colonized. 

Elizabeth: Instead, Hirschfeld’s focus was on conditions at home. Together, the four men of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee put together a petition to abolish the sodomy law. They got the petition signed by Krafft-Ebing, and then August Bebel, who was leader of the Social Democratic Party and an old school chum of Hirschfeld’s. Bebel made a speech in support of the abolition. Though Bebel had his own political reasons for supporting the petition, his support legitimized their movement. 

Averill: Hirschfeld continued to do the work to legitimize their emancipationist movement with scientific evidence. Significantly, Hirschfeld carefully detached homosexuality from culture. He wrote that “Though societies respond differently to homosexuality, the sameness of the form in which homosexuality manifests itself and the sameness of homosexual life from the most primitive to the most cultured peoples and among all races and classes is so extraordinarily pronounced that it is completely impossible that homosexuality is caused by anything but a natural law that is deeply rooted in humanity.”

Elizabeth: Men like Ulrichs and Hirschfeld gathered evidence of same-sex desire from around the world to demonstrate that they were not “degenerate” or “decadent.” Building on Hirschfeld’s work, a German homosexual emacipationist magazine published an article in 1920 challenging the idea that same-sex desire was a result of overcivilization by pointing out that “same-sex orientation exists in all times…among all peoples, without exception – Australian aborigines, Indian tribes, African and American Negros, Mongolians and Malaysians, Turks and Eskimos.” But Hirschfeld’s theories were not widely accepted in the 19th century. 

Averill: Europeans generally associated same-sex desire with primitivity and uncivilization until the mid-19th century. At the turn of the twentieth, same-sex desire was associated with decadence and the aristocracy. In Britain, this was exemplified in the Cleveland Street Scandal. In 1889, the London Met discovered that there had been a male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street, where telegraph boys – usually teens who made money running telegraph messages around the city – sold sex to elite British gentlemen. Though the Victorian government did its best to cover it all up, newspapers that got wind of the scandal wrote about it as if everyone knew that decadence, wealth, and elitism was to blame for the homosexual corruption of youths. And though the connections between decadence and decline and homosexuality were most clearly articulated in the early 20th century, we can certainly also see similar tropes surrounding things like the French Revolution in 1789 and even earlier Enlightenment critiques of aristocracies and monarchies. 

Vice anglais, a French caricature of the Cleveland Street Scandal, Le Grelot, December 22, 1889.

Elizabeth: White European homosexual emancipationists also believed that “less civilized” places were more open to same-sex sex and transness. Most emancipationists didn’t circulate that perspective because they then ran the risk of re-associating homosexuality with uncivilization, and that was counterproductive to their political goals. Hirschfeld conversely asserted that homosexuality and transvestitism were equally distributed across the globe, and that local populations merely reacted differently to it, and thus forced folks into hiding or suicide. In The Homosexuality of Men and Women, Hirschfeld’s magnum opus, he describes three phases of local response to homosexuality. In stage one, the primitive ““naïve[ly]” tolerated homosexuality and even made use of it. Homosexuality might have a religious function for priests or magicians, or a pedagogic function, as in ancient Greece.” In the second phase, the heterosexual majority criminalize same-sex sex because they fear its effect on masculinity. And in the third phase, which Hirschfeld doesn’t really elaborate on, the non-superstitious tolerance of homosexuality would return.

Averill: But many also inserted themselves into colonial contexts to take advantage of what they saw as more permissive, primitive peoples. As Marhoefer points out, these (white European) authors presumed that though readers of their newspapers and sexological treatises might have differing opinions about homosexuality, both authors and readers would agree that the listed peoples were uncivilized, and that the author (and, presumably) readers were civilized. In many ways, Hirschfeld shared those assumptions about who was “civilized” and “uncivilized.”

Elizabeth: While Hirschfeld resisted the dominant ways of thinking about same-sex desire from very early in his career, it took decades for him to question his assumptions about empire and race. He grew up in an era when orientalism, homoeroticism, and North Africa were woven together in the German and European imagination. There were tons of German and European stories about love and sex in the exotic near east and southern Mediterranean. The literature was geared mostly toward queer white men, but not only. There was, for example, a 1932 Berlin lesbian magazine that leaned into the orientalist homoerotic tropes with a story about a woman finding herself – and a lover – in Morocco.

Averill: In fiction, colonial spaces were where white European women could have sexy affairs with beautiful brown women but then return to their lives, and where trans women could ‘find themselves’ in the permissive wild of India. Edward Said writes that to nineteenth-and twentieth-century Europeans, “the Orient was a place where one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe.”

Elizabeth: In reality, queer men (mostly – women had less mobility, and were typically not appointed to positions of power in colonies) availed themselves of the flesh in the colonies. Roger Casement was an agent of empire who took advantage of the sexual economies and cruising cultures wherever he was sent by the British Foreign Office. He did so without any notions that what he was doing was wrong. Later in life, he became an ardent anticolonialist – in part because of the horrors he saw Europeans inflict on the colonized, and in part because of his Irish nationalist politics. But even then he didn’t necessarily reflect on the problematics of his own cruising habits. He didn’t question the acceptability of using his colonizer positionality to exploit the economic need of men in the countries he visited. For Casement, as for Hirschfeld, there were often disconnects between the personal practice and the theoretical/philosophical. 

Averill: The men who gave Hirschfeld his ‘evidence’ of universal homosexuality were men like Roger Casement – middle class and elite Europeans with social, economic, or political mobility, who ultimately believed in the European racial pseudosciences and imperial hierarchies that facilitated their access to sex around the world. As Marhoefer argues, “it was power that made it possible for the governor of a colony to oblige a colonized man who worked for him to have sex.” Hirschfeld was happy to take the evidence without critical examination of how and why that evidence came into his possession. As Heike Bauer puts it, though he shared a “distaste for the imperial project” with other leftists, he was largely oblivious to the violence and injustice of empire. That is, until he traveled the world with Li Shiu Tong, and witnessed first-hand the experience of imperialism and racism.

Elizabeth: Hirschfeld orchestrated his “World Tour” in 1930 after he had a major falling-out with his colleagues at the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The three men he’d assembled to co-found the Committee were long gone and replaced by younger scientists, including one whom Hirschfeld believed would be his intellectual successor. That man, who was also one of Hirschfeld’s lovers, betrayed him, and the Committee leadership wrested control of the organization from Hirschfeld. With the national unrest and suffering caused by the Great Depression and the growing popularity of the NSDAP – and a rise in anti-semitism – Hirschfeld wrote to Harry Benjamin. Benjamin – the famous doctor who became known for his work with trans patients like Christine Jorgensen – arranged for Hirschfeld to give a talk for a medical society in the United States. Hirschfeld then used honorariums to fund an extended travel itinerary, giving talks literally all over the world. He got to Shanghai in 1931, and that’s where he met Li. 

Averill: Though Hirschfeld prided himself on being antiracist, his idea of ‘antiracism’ was actually quite narrow. He purported to oppose scientific racism in the sense of ranking “the races” over one another. He did still believe that there were biologically determined “races” of humanity, and that traits and dispositions and physicality were inborn differences determined by one’s race. Though he sometimes questioned the rigid racial categories of the scientific community, he put quite a lot of stock into the theoretical undergirdings of those frameworks. Hirschfeld sought, for example, a successor in China because he believed that loyalty was a racial trait of Chinese people.

Elizabeth: In October 1931, from India, he wrote in his journal: 

“One of the greatest gains of my trip was Tao Li, a young Chinese from a distinguished house, who has accompanied me for five months. His noble character, his intelligence, his stalwart loyalty and devoted-ness makes the journey far easier for me. At his father’s request he will study medicine and sexology in Germany. I think that in him I have found the long-sought student whom I can mold in my own image.”

Hirschfeld was also in search of a successor who would also be a lover; all his previous successors (including the young man who betrayed him and kicked him out of the Committee) had been lovers. According to Marhoefer, Hirschfeld correlated trustworthiness with physical intimacy. 

Averill: Back in Germany, in 1929, Hirschfeld had been betrayed by his lover/student, Richard Linsert. Linsert turned the other members of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee against Hirschfeld, and they forced him out. Hirschfeld was deeply disturbed by the development, and the months-long legal and personal battle he waged in trying to keep hold of the organization. In his lifetime, he’d found many “long-sought students” to potentially be his successor, only to be disappointed. Hirschfeld seemed to hope and believe that Li would carry on his work. 

Elizabeth: Hirschfeld pushed back against some of the other dominant racial beliefs that Europeans held about Chinese men – that they were effeminate, less masculine, and thus more homosexual. But he still believed that each race had specific ‘traits,’ and that loyalty was a racial trait of the Chinese.  After the betrayal of his German protege, Hirschfeld wanted a racially-proscribed fealty from his next protege. 

Averill: In Shanghai, Li agreed to become Hirchfeld’s traveling companion, student, and, effectively, secretary. From Hirschfeld’s writings, Marhoefer shows that the older man was quite infatuated with the younger man from very early on. Li was very good-looking, smart, and suave; because he’d been educated in European-style schools and often wore smart western-style clothing, Hirschfeld considered him cultured and a worthy potential protege. And though Li was early in his own study of medicine, he had plenty to teach Magnus Hirschfeld. 

Elizabeth: As historian Howard Chiang has demonstrated, Chinese sexology and medical study of sex and sexuality had a long history. Li Shizhen, a physician from the 16th century of the common era, authored Bencao gangmu, which posited a spectrum of human reproductive anomalies with five “non-males” and five “non-females”. That text was and continues to be one of the most cited Chinese medical texts. Though the language of “biological sex” only entered the Chinese lexicon in the 20th century, there were strong precedents that would have shaped Li’s early medical training. As a field, sexology had been on the rise in China since the 1920s, emerging both from Chinese intellectual discourses and the translation and engagement with European texts. Hirschfeld’s reputation preceded him in China, which is undoubtedly why Li’s father agreed to let the young man travel with Hirschfeld. As you’ll recall from the start of this episode, Li’s father hoped that Li would become the Hirschfeld of China. 

Averill: Li’s family was quite wealthy. He didn’t necessarily need Hirschfeld to pursue medicine or become a sexologist. He could have achieved all of that in China. But he wanted to study in Europe, and he wanted to learn from Hirschfeld. Perhaps, Marhoefer posits, Li was even attracted to Hirschfeld from the jump. The older man was a little stout and perpetually rumpled, but he was charming, charismatic, and funny. The pictures of the two of them together suggest that they enjoyed each other’s company, shared an intimacy that was not uncomfortable or forced, and that Li wanted to be there. Though Li never really wrote about his feelings for Hirschfeld, or their time together, he clearly felt a deep affection for the man. When Hirschfeld’s health was failing him in the early 1930s after their World Tour ended, Li wanted to move to America to finish medical school. He offered to pay to move both Hirschfeld and one of Hirschfeld’s other boyfriends to America with him; when Hirschfeld felt too unwell to travel, however, Li chose to stay in Europe and try to finish his way through school there. 

Elizabeth: Hirschfeld wrote often about “Chinese students” who shaped his thoughts and revised thoughts on various issues, including imperialism, race, and homosexuality. It seems quite clear that these alleged “chinese students” were actually just Li, with whom he shared train cars and ship cabins for the duration of the World Tour. When Li was refused entry at white-only clubs and restaurants, or denied entry into the Phillipines because of his ‘race,’ Hirschfeld was forced to see the effects of imperialism first hand. He’d already begun to develop anticolonial ideas after WWI, but it was time spent with Li that gave Hirschfeld a new perspective. He hadn’t been critical of empire when writing Sappho and Socrates, or The Homosexaultiy of Men and Women, or for most of his career. He had used empire to collect the data he needed to support his emancipatory claims for same-sex desiring people. But sometime in the 1920s, he began to reformulate his ideas about liberation as something in line with anticolonial sentiments. He framed homosexuals as a sexual “minority,” like an ethnic or religious minority, in need of protection from the hostile or unconcerned majority. By the time he was in India in 1931, his perspective on imperialism – be it German, British, or other – had shifted dramatically. 

Averill: According to 19th century Swiss hatter and author Heinrich Hossli, a modern same-sex desiring category or class of people – like that on which Hirschfeld centered his emancipatory efforts – was coalescing in Europe by the 1830s. Hirschfeld and his contemporaries likened the homosexual experience to that of Jews and witches, unjustly persecuted groups of people with clearly defined identifying characteristics.  In the post-WW1 period, invigorated by international debates about nation-based self-determination, homosexual emancipation analogies turned more frequently toward race, ethnicity, and nation. In Hirschfeld’s – and others’ – minds, homosexuals were a “people.” Hirschfeld developed journalist Kurt Hiller’s concept that homosexuals represented a “sexual minority”; Americans adopted the language and conceptualization of the oppression of same-sex desiring people in the post-WW2 homophile movement. 

Magnus Hirschfeld circa 1929

Elizabeth: Hiller was one of Hirschfeld’s colleagues at the Scientific Humanitarian Committee who spoke often between 1910 and the 1930s on the sodomy laws across Europe. Hirschfeld, Hiller, and other users of the “sexual minority” analogy increasingly compared sexuality to race. In a speech to the World League for Sexual Reform in 1928, Hiller said that “People were different, not only with respect to racial-somatic and characterological aspects, but also with respect to sexual aspects.” There were differences in “skin color, eye color, hair color, in skull form, face and body shape, in language, style, taste, temperament, talent, moral character, and moreover also in the direction of the drive for love.” Hiller, and other members of the German Scientific Humanitarian Committee, accepted race as fact. If they could accept that race was innate – or, in Hirschfeld’s words, biological – then they could assert that homosexuality was as well. 

Averill: In its earliest iteration, Hirschfeld’s ideas were limited to white folks, but by 1931 Hirschfeld agreed that India, China, Egypt, Philippines deserved their independence too. Marhoefer suggests that Hirschfeld’s shift in thinking was likely due to Li’s presence in his life.

Elizabeth: Hirschfeld’s anticolonial ideas came down to three main critiques. First, he believed that empire was unjust oppression. Second, imperialism would cause global war as people fought to free themselves from imperialism. And third, imperialism and empire were unnatural – just as repressive laws governing sexuality were unnatural, both disrupted the natural order. But he framed his anticolonial ideas in racist tropes, treatises, and stereotypes. He argued, for example, that white Europeans did not belong in the tropics as colonizers because their white bodies were not suited to the heat and humidity. Hirschfeld was like his contemporaries in this way; Kant, Canadian officials, and various other eugenicists repeated the tropes about which “races” “belonged” in which climates. 

Hirschfeld (center) with Bernhard Schapiro and Li Shiu Tong (also known as Tao Li), c. 1930

Averill: Hirschfeld’s transformation – flawed though it was – to an anticolonial outlook came late in his life. As Marhoefer points out, British homosexual emancipationist Edward Carpenter had made the same (slightly less flawed) arguments about toxic hypermasculinity causing both the oppression of homosexuals and the oppression of imperialism decades earlier, and Hirschfeld had certainly read Carpenter’s work. And yet it wasn’t until 1931, and the publication of World Journey – which chronicles his travels from Germany to the US to east and South Asia, to the Middle East, and then back to Europe – that Hirschfeld articulated these ideas in his own writing. Marhoefer rightly asks why that moment? What changed? 

Elizabeth: On his world tour, he bore witness to the violence and suffering European imperialism caused among the Indians, in Hong Kong, and elsewhere – but he’d seen suffering before when he traveled to the United States and Morocco as a younger man and was unmoved. Marhoefer argues that it was China, and his connection to Li Shui Tong [Le Jow Tong], that changed his mind. A month after meeting Li, and traveling throughout China with the younger man, Hirschfeld articulated for the first time the intersection of anti-imperialism and homosexual liberation. After telling a Chinese reporter “I hope soon the Chinese peo­ple will run their own country without foreign interference,” Hirschfeld went on to say:

I hope … that in adapting modern knowledge to the needs of the people, the Chinese leaders will not make the mistake that has been made in other … countries of placing too many prohibitions and inhibitions upon the natural impulse of the people. Where too many laws exist to make people conform to a mold, the people become nervous … they cannot be themselves and their natures rebel. The result is an undermining of their health and happiness. I can sum up my meaning in one sentence: Do not legislate too much on how people shall think, what they should not know, and what they should not do.

Averill: Though subtle here, this was the first time (that Marhoefer could find) that Hirschfeld voiced his (new) anticolonial ideas in the same discussion as the need for sexual political freedom. He’d speak more clearly and openly in his summation of the world tour, the book World Journey, but here – significantly, after a month in Li’s intimate company – he was forging those connections. Though he never attributed these ideas to Li directly, and Li never wrote about empire in his own unpublished writings, Marhoefer logically suggests that when Hirschfeld’s references “Chinese students” in his writing, he is referring to Li. 

Elizabeth: At the end of his life, Hirschfeld’s intellectual journey was pushing toward a coalitional politics – the intersections of homosexual emancipation, antiracism, and anticolonialism. 

Averill: But as Marhoefer demonstrates, the legacy of Hirschfeld’s work was not coalitional at all. Instead, homosexual emancipation preserved a connection to Hirschfeld’s earlier way of thinking. The gay rights movement of the 1950s and 60s foregrounded the needs and faces of white, cis men, and even though some gay rights activists – like Paul Kuntzler, Franklin Kameny, and Jack Nichols, all of the Mattachine Society Washington – also fought for Black civil rights in the US.  . Most of the organizations that advocated for gay rights were not intersectional, were, according to historian Kent Peacock, downright racist and exclusionary. 

Elizabeth: Marhoefer puts it bluntly: 

“erasure of queer people of color troubled queer activism across the twentieth century, in Berlin and elsewhere. To take just one example, in the 1960s in the majority-Black city of Washington, DC, a small and almost entirely white gay rights organization sincerely condemned anti-Black racism. At the same time, it deployed the analogy between the sexual minority and racial minorities, at times claiming, just like Hiller did, that the sexual minority had it worse than African Americans. Kent Peacock writes that those statements were “inevitably read to mean that the two groups were entirely separate, that blacks could not be part of the homosexual community, and that homosexuals could not be black.” The gay rights group remained overwhelmingly white; the assumed subject of its politics stayed white, too. Queer Black people in DC had to form their own organizations. Robert Tobin, who has a far less pessimistic reading of all this than I do, argues that queer movements “built upon” the success of antiracist movements. “Building upon” can, however, be narrated as a parasitic relationship. It does not mean white queer movements helped antiracist movements, nor that they made anti-racism a part of their queer politics rather than leaving people of color (including queer people of color) to fight racism alone.”

Averill: Civil rights activism and gay rights activism could have been integrated instead of afterthoughts and occasional coalitions. But it wasn’t. It was built on Hirschfeld’s early theories and publications, rather than those he produced at the end of his life. The German gay rights movement was subsumed by Nazism. Hirschfeld’s writings survived, as they’d been translated into multiple languages, but the texts that made the greatest impact in the United States and post-WW2 Europe were his earlier ideas about biological, natural homosexuality and the concept of the ‘sexual minority.’ And the Nazi destruction of Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexological Research set European sexology back several decades. What if Donald Webster Cory, author of the 1951 The Homosexual in America, had read and incorporated Hirschfeld’s World Journey account instead of his earlier works? What if the NSDAP hadn’t won the 1933 election? What if What if What if … How different would the American homophile movement (and jesus, just everything) have been? 

Elizabeth: And while Li spent much of the rest of his life trying to carry on Hirschfeld’s work, as the older man willed it with his dying breath, Li never had the kind of career that Hirschfeld did. But Li’s failure to become the Hirschfeld of China was not predetermined. When Hirschfeld refused to go to America, and Li chose to stay in Europe with him, that derailed Li’s studies for several years, as he was forced to struggle through an education system in which he wasn’t fluent. Instead of returning to China permanently, Li moved to the US to continue his education, and then lived out the rest of his life in Canada. Though Li was introduced to the sexological community when he co-authored a paper for a major sexological conference, he was not recognized as Hirschfeld’s successor. The American sexologists were informed by early Hirschfeld, not Hirschfeld-Li, or just Li. There were few non-white sexologists who made a name for themselves; though Li was poised to do so, he made choices that redirected his life again and again. Though he pursued his own work in a way that would have eventually distinguished him from Hirschfeld, he did not publish any major sexological works.

Averill: In fact, there is only one surviving sexological text authored by Li. It is unpublished, and was rescued from the garbage by a neighbor after Li died in Vancouver in 1993 at the age of 81. It’s the outline for crossover text: a work of fiction blended with his 51 years of sexological research, with ideas that are clearly influenced by Hirschfeld, but also diverge significantly from Hirschfeld’s theories. Li, for example, rejected the theory of ‘the races’ that Hirschfeld made so central to his work, and, according to Marhoefer,  Li likely wrote this 16-page outline with the hope or intention that it would be the sequel to Robert Smythe Hichens’ novel That Which Is Hidden. That Which is Hidden is based on Li’s life – as is the main character of the novel. Hichens was inspired to write it after he met Li in a bar and Li told him all about his travels with Magnus Hirschfeld. The Li-character in the novel is a caricature of Chinese masculinity – that is to say, effeminate, and encapsulating many of the racial tropes that white Europeans like Hirschfeld and Hichens imagined of Chinese people. But Li also loved the novel, and hoped to work with Hichens on a second book, which would also convey his sexology theories to a broad reading audience. The unfinished, partially-developed manuscript is all that remains of Li’s life’s work. 

Elizabeth: So both Hirschfeld and Li died before their antiracist, anticolonial theories of (homo)sexuality could proliferate and have an impact. 

Averill: And since there aren’t three fates spinning, weaving, and cutting the threads of our lives, and predetermining the when, how, and why we die, there can be no clearer way to emphasize that history – LIFE – is contingent. Choices matter, and accidents and disasters and events out of human control matter. That’s what’s infuriating about studying the past – because it didn’t have to be that way, it didn’t have to result in violence, racism, exclusion, pain, suffering, disenfranchisement, war, etcetera. Change any precondition – say, if Hirschfeld chose to go with Li to the US – and you could very well change the outcome. And it’s scary, but sometimes preconditions are changed by things we have no control over, like meteors hitting the planet or a hurricane or sudden death. So it’s usually infuriating or terrifying, but I think when we look at historical contingency, there’s also a kind of hope. A reminder that the choices we make matter. That when we vote, or protest atrocities, or just do the right fucking thing – it matters. So that’s my Ted Talk for today. Thanks for listening.

Elizabeth: As always, we invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at dig_history, or join our Facebook group – Dig History Pod Squad. If you have a comment or question or want to share some kind words with us, you can always email us at – we love listener mail! If you’re an educator, we’ve got a compendium of episodes you can use in the classroom – and free teaching resources, including full lesson plans! – on our website, We realize that recent changes to curriculum in states like Florida and Texas will complicate being able to use our podcast episodes in the classroom, so please reach out if there’s something we can do to be helpful to you and your classroom. You’ll also find full bibliographies, the scripts for all of our episodes, resources, and a link to our swag store at


Heike Bauer, The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture (Temple University Press, 2017). 

Ed. Heike Bauer, Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World (Temple University Press, 2015).

Howard Chiang, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China (Columbia University Press, 2018).

Howard Chiang, Sexuality in China: HIstories of Power and Pleasure (University of Washington Press, 2018). 

Laurie Marhoefer, Racism and the Making of Gay Rights: A Sexologist, His Student, and the Empire of Queer Love (University of Toronto Press, 2022). 

Further Reading

Jake Newsome, Pink Triangle Legacies (Cornell University Press, 2021).

Dagmar Herzog, Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton University Press, 2005).

Annette Timm, Not Straight from Germany: Sexual Publics and Sexual Citizenship since Magnus Hirschfeld (University of Michigan Press, 2017).

Katie Sutton, The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany (Berghan Books, 2007).


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