Over the holidays, I had the closest thing to a pilgrimage that I’ll ever know.
Many of you don’t know the name Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, but when I’m asked who my LGBT hero is, the answer is, it’s him. To put it simply, Hirschfeld is the father of the LGBT movement for equality. You might think it was those of us at Stonewall or those at the Independence Hall marches or those even earlier like Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society in 1950. But all of us don’t hold a candle to Hirschfeld, who started his work, not in 1950, but 65 years earlier in Berlin, Germany in 1896.
He was the first to speak up for LGBT rights publicly, publish books, speak at conferences and create an LGBT organization that made change and inspired a community — the very first of its kind in the world, something that could have meant prison or death at the time. Compared to the scope and breadth of his work, us in Gay Liberation Front, those of us at Stonewall, those who marched in Philadelphia and even Harvey Milk, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera seem small.
Everything Hirschfeld did had not been done before. Just a few of his achievements include the study of sexuality, the beginnings of gender studies and the beginning of medical research for gender transition. He also fought to change laws, created a library on sexuality and gave public lectures on the subject. He held drag balls, created LGBT media and was unafraid to venture into territory that was seen as scandalous and immoral. And he did it before anyone else. Aside from his fight against what today we’d call homophobia and transphobia, he also fought racism, ageism and antisemitism. He literally changed laws, published work and even had a part in a movie. And he suffered for it!
There’s a very famous photo of the Nazi’s first book burning. In that photo, you see Nazis tossing books into a fire, and you also note a soldier with a stick, and at the top of that stick is a bust of a man. That book burning was Hirschfeld’s library, and the bust was of Hirschfeld himself. They burned his organization and his home. He was beaten and left for dead. That night in 1933 was a warning: get out of Germany before we kill you. After being released from the hospital, he left for a speaking tour around the world, centering his work for LGBT inclusion. He went into exile in France.
Over the holidays, Jason and I took a vacation along with our friends Klay and Val. When we found ourselves in Nice, France, we set off to find Hirschfeld’s grave. It was an all-day exploration since many sources have him buried near the center of Nice, but in actuality, he is in the Orthodox cemetery in Caucade, near Nice’s Airport.
This was very personal for me. Harvey Milk, Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, Harry Hay, Sylvia and Marsha were my friends and contemporaries; Hirschfeld is my hero.
When we finally reached his grave after climbing hills and racing down streets, I placed yellow roses on his tombstone, said a few words of gratitude and cried. It was the closest I’ve come to a pilgrimage, and it was as close to a religious experience I’ve ever had. Klay found some paper, and we made an impression of Magnus’ name on his headstone. It will be a keepsake and remind me each day of the sacrifices he made to bring us where we are today.