Knowledge in Transit: Global Encounters and Transformation in Magnus Hirschfeld’s Travelogue

In spite of all, in spite of all—the time will come when man will reach out his hand to his brother, all over the world.
—Magnus Hirschfeld

Magnus Hirschfield (1868–1935) was a world-renowned pioneer in sexology.1 Years of his modern scientific knowledge production on sexology were monumentalized with the establishment of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin in 1919. On May 10, 1933, the institute became an early target of violent Nazi attacks with its library ransacked and its books burned publicly.2 During these turbulent times in Germany, Hirschfeld was on a lecture tour in the Unites States, where he was lauded as a celebrity and his knowledge was embraced enthusiastically by many in the American academy, press, and public. Unable to return home because of the Nazi seizure of power, he decided to embark on a world tour to acquire and share the “treasures of serological knowledge.”3 In transit, he acquired new ideas.

Today we offer two examples of academic knowledge on the move in tandem with the Migrant Knowledge blog. Razak Khan discusses the place of certain travel experiences in Magnus Hirschfeld’s thought, and Anna Corsten looks at the reception of two German-speaking refugee historians in West Germany

Recent publications have discussed Hirschfeld’s travels in India but have focused on his engagement with ancient Indian sexology and Hindu culture.4 Here I wish to examine the salience of Islam and Muslims for Hirschfeld in his 1933 account of his travels, Weltreise eines Sexualforschers (literally: World Journey of a Sexologist), as he moved between Indonesia, India, and the Near East.5 I argue that the tolerance and coexistence he encountered on his journey taught him how closely connected the issues of sexual and cultural diversity were. In Hirschfeld’s travelogue, the very act of traveling constitutes a form of migrant knowledge that produces ideas in transit. This transitory character of migrant knowledge expresses itself in a transformative potential to create cosmopolitan, humanitarian, and global knowledge. I suggest that Hirschfeld’s knowledge on sexuality, formed against the background of German academic culture and Western scientific knowledge, underwent an evolution, if not a complete transformation during his journeys in the 1930s. Here he personally encountered, experienced, and documented culturally and sexually diverse modes of living and social coexistence.

Hirschfeld provided a new analytical concept in his travelogue: “sex ethnology.”6

Of the five branches of sexology—physiology, psychology, pathology, sociology and ethnology—the last, which has to do with the erotic and sexual customs of various peoples, countries and times, is the oldest so far as content goes, but it is the newest in its approach.7

Hirschfeld blamed shame and negative attitudes around sexology topics for the resultant lack of research. At the same time, he acknowledged the works of his predecessors and contemporaries, in particular, B. Malinowski, Felix Bryk, and J. Winthuis.8 Regarding India, he cited the example of Katherine Mayo’s controversial book, Mother India, and criticized it for coopting sexual ethnology into the colonialism project.9

During his travels, Hirschfeld noted, in particular, the diverse views on “transvestites, [on] homosexual and bisexual variations of sex.”10 Hirschfeld noted that these categories had been viewed differently throughout history, with contrary perspectives, but had come to be regulated by law—globalized and implemented through European colonialism.11 Hirschfeld is well known for coining the word “transvestite” to describe those who had the “urge to wear the clothes of opposite sex.”12 In 1926, before his travels, he also used “total transvestitism” for those who wanted to change not just their “sartorial but also their biological appearance.”13 This category of transvestite has lost coinage in our time of transgender discourse and politics. Nevertheless, it may be worthwhile for scholars to revisit Hirschfeld’s transvestite category because it was the first radical articulation of a performative theory of sexuality entailing clothing choices instead of relying on essentialist bodily truth.

Hirschfeld’s account of Japanese female impersonators and Malay cross-dressers operated through his own European sexology knowledge, attempting to explain the phenomenon according to his pre-existing categorization. We could see this as the globalization of the European transvestite category; however, Hirschfeld also started noticing the limitations and transitory nature of his categories. India represented this transformative moment in the journey of his ideas.

Hirschfeld’s Travels and Learning Experiences in India

Hirschfeld found himself awestruck in Agra, city of the Taj Mahal and other wonders. He was fascinated by two young men dressed as goddesses in the Ramlila festival celebrations, which he attempted to explain in terms of “transvestite impulses,” drawing on his prior knowledge and work on the topic.14 However, his local interlocutor, P. Nath Kathju, encouraged Hirschfeld to remain open and to “be on his guard against reading sex symbolism where none was meant.”15

Despite his prior European knowledge, Hirschfeld remained a curious sexual ethnographer and kept his eyes, ears, and mind open for the sexual diversity of Indian culture. He had heard about the ubiquitous presence of cross-dressers in Indian culture and had encountered “eunuchs” in Delhi.16 He described this category as a “specific group of prostitutes” and gave a detailed sexual ethnography about where they lived, their mode of existence, their work practices, and their internal diversity. He was also careful to note the demarcation between eunuchs, female prostitutes, and the male prostitutes known as romalis in Lucknow city.17 Hirschfeld was not able to study the romalis but he had already learned to acknowledge the sexual diversity that characterize sexuality and gender expressions in India.

Hirschfeld’s travel account of India has been analyzed by scholars for his dialog with Bengali middle class (bhadralok) intellectuals such as Girindrasekhar Bose (1886–1953), who served as president of the Indian Psychoanalytic Society in Calcutta. Hirschfeld was fascinated not just by the practice of the modern science of psychoanalysis and sexology in India but also by the ancient knowledge and practices of sexology there. The subcontinent represented a transformative moment for him because it possessed its own sexology knowledge, handed down in the Kamasutra. Apart from this ancient Indian text, the temple architecture, ubiquitous phallus worship, and general public cultures of fluid gender expression—embodied most famously by Rabindranath Tagore—deeply impressed him.18 Beyond the bhadralok, however, Hirschfeld also engaged with the masses and discussed popular culture around sex and sexology in India. It was in this rich culture that he criticized Katherine Mayo’s Mother India. He believed that there was much to learn from India about living with sexual and religious diversity.

Religious and Sexual Diversity from Patna to Palestine

Hirschfeld also engaged with Muslim intellectuals and the question of religious and sexual diversity in India. Significantly his journey to India was preceded by experiences in Muslim majority countries such as Indonesia and followed by a trip to the Near East including Egypt and eventually Palestine. I want to emphasize the crucial place of Islam, including India, in his world journey. Even in Calcutta, a major theme of his lecture was women and the seclusion (zenana, purdah) system. Interestingly, Hirschfeld analyzed it not on religious or cultural grounds but as a medical issue. He was concerned about denying women fresh air and exercise, which left them vulnerable to tuberculosis. While criticizing the system, he also commended the purdah reform measures taken by King Amanullah in Afghanistan and Kemal Pasha in Turkey.19

Magnus Hirschfeld (middle) with Li Shiu Tong (first row, left) as guests of Syed Abdul Aziz Patna October 12, 1931. © Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft e.V.

Hirschfeld’s ideas were well received among reformist Muslim circles in colonial India. He was invited by a local political leader, Abdul Aziz, to stay with him while speaking to packed lecture halls about “Love, Marriage & Sex” (in Patna) and the “Science of Sexology” (at Bihar National College).20 He met members of mixed Hindu-Muslim audiences at the banquet Aziz hosted.21 Based on his experiences in Patna’s composite public culture, Hirschfeld observed that the “deep and unbridgeable” gulf between the Hindus and Muslims was grossly exaggerated.22 He blamed English rule and colonial divide-and-rule policies, and he offered the examples of Aziz and Syed Mahmud (the latter, from Chapra, was secretary of the All India National Congress) as nationalist Muslims and allies of Gandhi and Nehru. He also met Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, an exemplary nationalist Muslim, in Delhi, in connection with a lecture in sexual science at Hindu College under Ansari’s sponsorship.23

In Bombay, an influential entrepreneur and nationalist Muslim, Khwaja Abdul Hamied, and his Jewish wife Luba hosted a house party in Hirschfeld’s honor in Bombay. The mixed gathering and the active Muslim-Jewish cultural entanglements he encountered moved him. He noted with much surprise the small but well-established Jewish community of 21,776, whose members enjoyed equal rights as citizens and who were deeply integrated in Indian society, not only holding public positions but also intermarrying with non-Jews.24 Hirschfeld described Luba and Hamied, who had first met and married in Weimar Berlin but who had left amidst rising anti-Semitic violence. Now they were living happily as a Muslim-Jewish family in Bombay.25 Intercultural entanglements may have been forged in cosmopolitan Weimar Berlin, but they survived and flourished in the colony.26 While speaking of interreligious and cultural bridges, Hirschfeld also noted differences, including the presence of “dark skinned Jews,” who left a “particularly strange impression” on him. He concluded that these “colored Jews” represented a long history of local conversion to Judaism.27 His own European ideas about what a Jewish body was supposed to look like were evidently challenged by the racial and cultural diversity of India.

From India, Hirschfeld proceeded to Egypt and eventually to Palestine.28 Islamic and Muslim sexual-religious culture intrigued him. At first look, he criticized Islam and the condition of women there, but a closer understanding of his travelogue reveals how he engaged with the interconnected issues of sexual and religious diversity. Although Hirschfeld was a European scientist, he was not blind to the legacy of Western colonialism, especially the colonial propensity of the English “to graft their puritanical morals upon the primitive customs of the native.”29 He criticized British laws in Sudan while also espousing a positive reading of Islamic law on sexuality:

The sexual affirmation—the sexual joyousness, of the Mohammedan—which so essentially contrasts with other dogmas and finds it most poignant expression in the fact that to be a monk or a nun has always been forbidden by Islam—clearly indicates that deep religious feeling and sexuality are by no means alien to one another.30

In Hirschfeld’s sex ethnology, Islam exemplified not the terror but pleasure potential of human sexuality and religion.


Hirschfeld was deeply moved by the presence of sexual and religious diversity and native tolerance in India even under British colonial regimes of repressive laws and divide-and-rule policies. In his departing words from Bombay, Hirschfeld noted that India’s true contribution was its tolerance of diversity and love for humanity. He hoped that “Europe can learn just as much from free India as a free India can learn from Europe.”31 The challenges to mutual coexistence amidst religious discords continued to recur, especially during his sojourn in Palestine, where he also blamed British polices for interreligious conflict. British colonial rule pitted Jew against Arab, precipitating violent conflicts. In everyday life, however, he saw both challenges and opportunities for coexistence. Co-mingled sounds of the greetings “shalom” and “salem alaikum” gave him hope.32 He opposed segregation and advocated intermarriage and assimilation as the future of coexistence.33

Hirschfeld spread knowledge through lectures, in interviews, and by meeting people while in transit, and he learned many new lessons about sexual and religious diversity too. In some ways, his account of his journeys provides us with the commonsense but valuable insight that knowledge lies in diversity of thought and lived experience, an argument that lay at the heart of demands for homosexual rights and sexual diversity in Germany, as it had earlier for Jewish emancipation.34 Hirschfeld himself experienced persecution for both his sexual and religious identities; he was homosexual and Jewish. By the end of his world tour, he could see that this lesson applied to not just sexual but also religious minorities, and so he hoped for tolerance of difference and peaceful coexistence.

Razak Khan is a research fellow (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) at the Erlangen Centre for Islam and Law in Europe (EZIRE), Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, and a research associate at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.

Epigraph: Magnus Hirschfeld, Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist, trans. O. P. Green (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935), 304.

  1. See Charlotte Wolff, Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology (London: Quartet Books, 1986). ↩︎
  2. By way of context, see Robert Beachy, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). ↩︎
  3. Wolff, Magnus Hirschfeld, 289. ↩︎
  4. Veronika Fueechtner, “Indians, Jews, and Sex: Magnus Hirschfeld and Indian Sexology,” in Imagining Germany Imagining Asia: Essays in Asian German Studies, ed. V. Fuechtner and M. Rhiel (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2013) 111–30. ↩︎
  5. Magnus Hirschfeld, Weltreise eines Sexualforschers (Brugg: Bözberg-Verlag, 1933); Magnus Hirschfeld, Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist, trans. O. P. Green (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935), 304. All quotations are from Green’s translation. ↩︎
  6. Hirschfeld, Men and Women, xiii. ↩︎
  7. Ibid., 307. ↩︎
  8. Ibid., 308. ↩︎
  9. Ibid.; Katherine Mayo, Mother India (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1927). For a critical historical analysis of the book, see Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008). ↩︎
  10. Hirschfeld, Men and Women, xvii. ↩︎
  11. Ibid. ↩︎
  12. Magnus Hirschfeld, Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress, trans. Michael A. Lombard-Nash (New York: Prometheus Books, 1991),11. ↩︎
  13. Ibid., 178. ↩︎
  14. Hirschfeld, Men and Women,196. ↩︎
  15. Ibid., 197. ↩︎
  16. The North Indian category for eunuch being Hijra. See Jessica Hinchy, Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra, c. 1850–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). ↩︎
  17. Hirschfeld, Men and Women, 202–203. ↩︎
  18. J. Edgar Bauer, “The Sexologist and the Poet: On Magnus Hirschfeld, Rabindranath Tagore, and the Critique of Sexual Binarity,” Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 2, no. 4 (2010): 447–70. ↩︎
  19. Hirschfeld, Men and Women, 166. ↩︎
  20. Ibid.,178. ↩︎
  21. On Abdul Aziz, see Mohammed Sajjad, Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (New Delhi: Routledge, 2014). ↩︎
  22. Hirschfeld, Men and Women. 179. ↩︎
  23. Ibid.,199. ↩︎
  24. Ibid., 209–10. ↩︎
  25. On the cosmopolitan life and works of Hamied, see K. A. Hamied An Autobiography: A Life To Remember (Bombay: Lalvani Publishing House, 1972). ↩︎
  26. On Indian Jews, see Joan G. Roland, Jewish Communities of India: Identity in a Colonial Era (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998). ↩︎
  27. Hirschfeld, Men and Women, 209–10. ↩︎
  28. On Hirschfeld’s writings about Egypt and Palestine, see Liat Kozma, “Sexology in the Yishuv: The Rise and Decline of Sexual Consultation in Tel Aviv, 1930–39,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42, no. 2 (2010): 231–49. ↩︎
  29. Hirschfeld, Men and Women, 256. ↩︎
  30. Ibid., 235. ↩︎
  31. Ibid., 213. ↩︎
  32. Ibid., 299. ↩︎
  33. Ibid., 303–304. ↩︎
  34. Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini eds., Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003). ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Razak Khan, “Knowledge in Transit: Global Encounters and Transformation in Magnus Hirschfeld’s Travelogue,” History of Knowledge, November 6, 2019,