- Sexology’s Photographic Turn: Visualizing Trans Identity in Interwar Germany
Photographic evidence played an increasingly important role in the efforts of early twentieth-century sexual scientists to establish their discipline as what Michel Foucault describes as “legitimate knowledge.”1 Since the late nineteenth century, pioneers in the field of sexology, such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing in Vienna, Havelock Ellis in Britain, and Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany, had relied heavily on the autobiographical statements of patients and other informants in their efforts to uncover the mysteries of human sexual life, publishing these as case histories in support of newly forged classifications of what they at first described as sexual “pathologies” and “perversions.” But the almost exclusive reliance on subjective textual evidence began to change when technological developments in photography and its mass reproduction combined with an expanding patient base in ways that enabled sexologists to embrace this seemingly more empirical form of evidence. Historians have shown that from the mid-nineteenth century onward scientists had started turning to photography as a more tangible, “scientific” form of evidence that, in its mechanical objectivity, resonated with society’s abiding concern with the “Truth.”2 This article [End Page 442] sets out, first, to chart the ways in which this sexological turn toward the visual in the first decades of the twentieth century played out in relation to the historical diagnosis of a new “transvestite” (Transvestit/in, Hirschfeld) or “Eonist” (Ellis) category. (In the following, I frequently refer to these categories using the umbrella category of “trans identifications,” a somewhat anachronistic label, but one that reflects both the broad parameters of these historical terms and the fact that they have been fiercely disputed by trans scholars and activists in recent decades. At the same time, it remains useful to deploy the term “transvestite,” in particular, to reference the historically dominant term adopted by trans-identified individuals and doctors alike in early twentieth-century Germany.)3 Second, this article considers the ways in which medical images of trans subjects differed from the kind of self-representation emerging in German “third sex” subcultural contexts, which included emerging homosexual and trans political organizations and media.
There were significant overlaps, I suggest, in the representational practices framing early German sexological photography, particularly in the works of Hirschfeld—the self-declared expert on “sexual intermediaries”—and the kinds of images that were beginning to appear in subcultural community magazines by the late Weimar period, such as Das 3. Geschlecht (The third sex). At the same time, there were some significant divergences that can be traced to the differing scientific and political motivations of each group. For while sexologists were working to firm up their disciplinary credentials, a first generation of transgender activists was working to extend the rights and public recognition of individuals whose gender identification did not align with the sex assigned to them at birth.
In her 2013 book Disturbing Practices, Laura Doan argues that history writing that is framed by concepts of identity constrains as much as it illuminates because it remains tied to “the logic of lineage.” This applies not only to what Doan describes as the “ancestral genealogy” mode of queer history writing, which seeks to “recover” nonheteronormative subjectivities in the past in ways that affirm identities in the present, but also to what she terms the “queer genealogy” mode, with roots in Foucauldian critiques, which explicitly sets out to destabilize identity categories.4 Similarly, Robyn Wiegman highlights the ways in which twentieth-century “identity knowledges” such as queer, race, transgender, and feminist studies inevitably force the [End Page 443] reproduction of identity categories, “no matter how resolutely one may be moved by their traditions of anti-identity critique.”5 Wiegman’s emphasis on the complex links and divergences between social justice projects and academic identity knowledges prompts the question, how might we begin to think about the relationship between contemporary transgender activism and theory, on the one hand, which tends to treat trans as an intersecting modality rather than a category, and, on the other hand, early twentieth-century efforts to create discrete identity categories intended to clearly distinguish between trans and same-sex desires and identifications?6...