LGBT HISTORY MONTH.
Magnus Hirschfeld, Marielle Franco, Robert Graves and Marsha P. Johnson. Who were they?
Magnus Hirschfeld, Marielle Franco, Robert Graves and Marsha P. Johnson. Who were they? Maisie Barker from LGBT History Month looks back at the lives of four pioneers of the queer movement.
If you were asked to name a famous LGBT person from history, who would you choose? Alan Turing? Oscar Wilde? Maybe Audre Lorde if you’re that way inclined. In 2019, LGBT History Month will celebrate its 15th birthday and the theme is Peace, Reconciliation and Activism. Each year, four faces are chosen to represent each part of LGBT. These faces feature heavily in the materials produced for LGBT History Month and offer a chance for the community to discover hidden icons from the past.
The challenge with historical figures is deciphering their lives through our modern lens. Can we define someone as transgender when the word barely existed? Can we argue that someone was gay based on a few (often edited) pieces of writing? It can be argued that, given that necessity to be closeted, the few clues we do find can indicate a much richer history than has been previously agreed. So now we have that debate out of the way, let’s find out who they are. The four faces of 2019 are Magnus Hirschfeld, Marielle Franco, Robert Graves and Marsha P. Johnson. Who were they?
Magnus Hirschfeld might mean something to the academics amongst you (or those with a passing interest in the Weimar world of Christopher Isherwood). He is widely regarded as the ‘first advocacy for homosexual and transgender rights’ due to his operation of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee.
A German-Jewish physician and sexologist, he pioneered a compassionate understanding and treatment of homosexual men. Driven by the propensity of his gay patients to suicide, and the trial of Oscar Wilde in nearby Britain, Hirschfeld worked to understand a ‘universality of homosexuality’.
At the time, gay Germans were prosecuted under Paragraph 175, a section of German law that criminalised homosexuality. Hirschfeld and his Committee argued that this left gay citizens vulnerable to blackmail and believed that increased scientific understanding of homosexuality would improve their social standing. The Committee created a petition to overturn Paragraph 175 and was supported by such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Thomas Mann. He also pioneered understanding of people who would now be considered transgender. He catalogued 64 different types of sexual role involving gender presentation, sexual identity and gender identity. During the liberal days of the Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld created the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexual Research) which was home to his work on investigating sexuality. He also sheltered transgender people, giving them jobs when they would strule to find other employment.
At the outbreak of WWII, Hirschfeld travelled extensively across the United States and Asia, seeking to develop his ideas about homosexual behaviour. His Institute remained open but was increasingly targeted by Nazis, culminating in a mass book burning on 10 May 1933. Hirschfeld never returned to Germany. Hirschfeld’s compassionate attitude to homosexuals was in contrast
with the hostility they faced from all other sections of German society. His opponents believed homosexuality to be a choice, that ‘degenerates’ lured young boys into homosexuality and that they should be punished. By openly supporting gay rights, Hirschfeld pushed the progress of LGBT rights in Germany forward.
With the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, it might seem incredulous that a figure such as Marielle Franco could have represented the same country. As a black lesbian feminist, Marielle would always have a target on her back, leading to her murder in 2018. Marielle was born in a slum in Rio de Janeiro and soon became interested in human rights activism. She worked for various state representatives and in many rights organisations. In 2016 she ran for city council and received the fifth highest number of votes out of more than 1,500 candidates. She fought against gender violence which was epidemic in Brazil. She was concerned with reproductive rights and the rights of those in the favelas (slums). She attempted to create a day of lesbian visibility but the bill was defeated. She was an outspoken critic of police brutality and corruption. On 13 March 2018, she was assassinated by being shot four times whilst in her car. Her murder remains unsolved.
Robert Graves’ work may be more familiar than his history: he was the author of Goodbye To All That, which chronicled his time in WWI, and I, Claudius. During the war he frequently communicated with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and the former noted the implication of homosexual tendencies in Graves’ poems. He publicly supported Siegfried Sassoon when Sassoon made public antiwar statements. Both would later be sent to a medical hospital to recover from shell shock. Graves was honoured, among sixteen other Great War poems, in Westminster Abbey in 1985. It was also revealed that he had been shortlisted for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s often difficult to pinpoint exact orientations of those who lived in the past. But his gay relationships in youth and his eventual marriages to women indicate that he would have identified as bisexual had the terms and social acceptance been available.
No discussion on LGBT activism would be complete without reference to Marsha P. Johnson. As enigmatic as she was indefinable, the myth of Marsha has almost come to eclipse her life’s work. Facing homophobia at home Marsha left and immersed herself with New York’s LGBT community. She quickly became an icon – a tall, slender drag queen who identified her gender as ‘pay it no mind’ – and was photographed by Andy Warhol.
A lot of confusion revolves around the exact series of events at the Stonewall Inn; it is possible that it will never become clear (Marsha herself claimed she didn’t arrive till early morning) but what is clear is that Marsha was at the forefront of LGBT rights activism throughout her life. She was active with ACT-UP, the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and STAR House, which housed homeless queer youths and sex workers. She was found dead in the Hudson River on 6 July 1992. She was 46 years old. Whilst her exact history can be difficult to pin down, it’s undeniable the impact that Marsha has had on queer activism and on keeping interest in LGBT history alive.
What links these four together is their dedication to highlighting the legal persecution of minority groups. All four faced insurmountable odds and atrocities and dedicated their energies to developing a better world for us all. As LGBT people, they faced an uphill battle throughout their lives but hopefully, the efforts of LGBT History Month will ensure their battles will go on recognised.