Trans Rights and Cultures in the Weimar Republic

Katie Sutton is Associate Professor of German and Gender Studies at the Australian National University. She is the author of Sex between Body and Mind: Psychoanalysis and Sexology in the German-Speaking World, 1890s-1930s (University of Michigan Press, 2019) and The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany (Berghahn, 2011), and has published on sexuality, gender, and sexology in early 20th-century Germany, including interwar queer and trans subcultures. Contact: katie.sutton@anu.edu.au

In 1932 popular illustrated daily newspaper Tempo, which had a circulation of around 125,000 copies, took up a theme it believed captured the Zeitgeist: “Women who live as men”.[1] This “reportage from an unknown world” by one C. A. Jank ran for almost thirty issues from April to June, detailing stories of individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB) who lived and worked, sometimes for decades, in a society that viewed them as men. 

It opens with the story of Karl, a working-class Swabian who runs into problems at the Berlin unemployment office because his ID document is issued to a “Henriette.” In a colourful report that speaks to Depression-era readers with its evocation of bored queues and timestamps, Karl confronts a perplexed official demanding to know the truth of his gender: “The thing is this: I’m a girl. But for fifteen years I’ve been living and working as a lad.”[2] What might stories such as Karl’s tell us about the development of trans legal rights and cultures during the Weimar Republic?

Jank’s report of Karl’s encounter in the unemployment office forms part of longer biography that goes back to the persistent childhood demands of young “Henriette”: “Mother, when will I become a boy?” Today, we might be tempted to classify his identification as trans(*), although it is not clear whether Karl saw himself in a way that might easily align with such a twenty-first-century label.[3]

By the interwar years, though, adopting the term “transvestite” to characterize gender-variant expressions and identities had become a possibility. Sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld coined this popular label with a bulky 1910 study on the theme, publishing numerous case histories to help distinguish “transvestism” from older ideas of “inversion” or a “third sex.”[4] He viewed cross-gendered identifications as most often a lifelong condition—a view we also see reflected in Jank’s narration of Karl, albeit in a more popular mode. 

Fighting for Recognition 

Such labels were also being taken up by sexual rights activists. New magazines aimed at same-sex desiring or trans-identifying readers with names such as “Girlfriend” or “Friendship” were vocal in calling for separate “transvestite” organizations.[5] They seized on this and similar labels for their potential to broaden the claims of sex-gender minorities to the full rights of legal citizenship. 

Gerd Katter and Berthold Buttgereit, both AFAB, were among those who petitioned their local police authorities for a Transvestitenschein (transvestite certificate), such as that shown below. These ID documents permitted their bearers to dress as men without being vulnerable to arrest under Germany’s nineteenth-century “gross mischief” or “public nuisance” laws (Paragraphs 360/11 and 183 of the RStGB), which carried punishments of up to six weeks in prison, or fines up to 150 marks.[6]

Transvestitenschein issued to Gerd Katter, Berlin, 1928, declaring him “known as wearing men’s clothes.” Source: Magnus-Hirschfeld Gesellschaft, Berlin

Those laws had seen some contemporaries embroiled in disruptive court cases. 42-year-old Toni Simon, assigned male at birth (AMAB), was compelled to front up to an Essen court in 1929—which she did wearing a nice dress and high heels—only to see her “gross mischief” charges for dressing in women’s clothing downplayed by the judge. Despite a 100 mark fine, he conceded that the court had little choice but to follow in the more tolerant path laid down by the police. Magazine column “Transvestites’ World” reported eagerly on this case, depicting Simon as a human rights pioneer.[7]

Previous posts on this page have investigated laws affecting trans people in contemporary Germany[8] and the EU.[9] The Transsexual Act (TSG) introduced in the Federal Republic in 1981, for example, enabled individuals to change their given names and gender status. Adrian de Silva shows how the regulation of trans and queer individuals has remained closely intertwined even into the 21st century, with several subsequent amendments to the TSG developing in response to laws regulating same-sex marriage and registered partnerships. 

In the Weimar era too, queer and trans politics were closely entwined. While cross-dressing was not strictly illegal, falling under the “mischief” and “nuisance” laws outlined above, many AMAB individuals found themselves vulnerable to arrest under Germany’s notorious anti-homosexual Paragraph 175. This particular form of persecution only increased following the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.[10]

Respectability and its Limits

Interwar activists arguing for greater recognition of same-sex relationships and those pushing for greater legal and social acknowledgement of gender-variance shared a strong emphasis on respectability politics. The Weimar homosexual and transvestite publications and organizations were dominated by middle-class views. While authors and activists argued for greater acceptance of sex-gender minorities, they tended to do so by marginalizing subjects who did not fit easily with bourgeois ideals of decorum. Historian Laurie Marhoefer describes this as exemplary of the “Weimar settlement on sexual politics”—toleration for many at the expense of a few. She also shows how the Weimar-era push for respectability often entailed assumptions about whiteness and European superiority that have continued to shape LGBTQ+ politics into the present.[11]

The label “transvestite,” the magazines argued, should be reserved for those who dressed subtly, steered clear of sex work or criminal activity, and avoided any unnecessary attention: transvestites were to be “impeccable,” “trustworthy” and “inconspicuous.” Sometimes, this amounted to a demand to either go “stealth” and pass, or to restrict transgender expressions to the private realm. One article on “Transvestites and the Police” issued a 

…warning cry to those tranvestites who through their build, their gait, and especially through beard growth that can’t be covered by any amount of makeup immediately draw attention on the street, so that the public feels harassed and calls over the next best constable. … Many of our transvestites only have the leisureliness (Gemütlichkeit) of the Berliners and their own luck to thank for not yet being subjected to unpleasantness.[12]

Similarly, middle-class homosexuals urged one another to avoid encounters with prostitutes and criminals, and to refrain from ostentatious behaviours for the sake of a larger human rights cause. 


Examining the Weimar pre-history of today’s trans politics thus gives cause for both celebration and critical reflection. This era saw new ways of arguing for the rights and recognition of sex-gender minorities, including formal name changes and certificates. But that recognition only extended so far, even among people who themselves identified as “homosexuals” or “transvestites.” Just as Weimar trans politics excluded some individuals for veering too far from the narrow constraints of respectability, looking to this history can open our eyes to the limitations and exclusions of our own political claims in the present. 


Cite this article: Katie Sutton “Trans Rights and Cultures in the Weimar Republic”, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 10/06/2021, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/1714, (accessed on: Datum).


[1] Warm thanks to Jochen Hung for sharing this source with me; see also his rich analysis of gender representations in Tempo, published by Ullstein from 1928-1933 in: Jochen Hung, “The Modernized Gretchen: Transformations of the ‘New Woman’ in the Late Weimar Republic*,” German History 33, no. 1 (2015): 52–79.
[2] C. A. Jank, “Frauen, die als Männer leben: I. Karl aus der Etappe,“ Tempo ca. 1 May 1932, n.p.
[3] I use “trans” and “queer” in this piece as readily understood shorthand to capture a broad cross-section of gender-variant and non-heteronormative embodiments and identifications. As these terms only came into circulation many decades after the period in question, though, I use “transvestite” as a gender-neutral translation of the German Transvestit and Transvestitin, the most widely used descriptors of self and community in the 1920s “trans” media.
[4] Magnus Hirschfeld, Die Transvestiten. Eine Untersuchung über den erotischen Verkleidungstrieb (Berlin: Med. Verlag Alfred Pulvermacher, 1910).
[5] I discuss these organizations and the connections to new medical models in: Katie Sutton, “‘We Too Deserve a Place in the Sun’: The Politics of Transvestite Identity in Weimar Germany,” German Studies Review 35, no. 2 (2012): 335–54.
[6] On these certificates and laws see Jane Caplan, “The Administration of Gender Identity in Nazi Germany,” History Workshop Journal72, no. 1 (2011): 171–80; Rainer Herrn, Schnittmuster des Geschlechts: Transvestitismus und Transsexualität in der frühen Sexualwissenschaft, Beiträge zur Sexualforschung 85 (Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2005), 126–40.
[7] “Unsere Leser haben das Wort: Angeklagter in Frauenkleidung,” in “Die Welt der Transvestiten,”
Die Freundin 5, no. 13, September 25, 1929, n.p.
[8] https://hsl.hypotheses.org/1694
[9] https://hsl.hypotheses.org/1375
[10] On trans history in the Nazi era see Rainer Herrn, “Transvestitismus in der NS-Zeit: Ein Forschungsdesiderat,” Zeitschrift für Sexualforschung 26, no. 4 (2013): 330–71; Laurie Marhoefer, “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: A Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943,” American Historical Review 121, no. 4 (2016): 1167–95.
[11] See Laurie Marhoefer, Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis (Toronto: Toronto UP, 2015), 208; Laurie Marhoefer, “Was the Homosexual Made White? Race, Empire and Analogy in Gay and Trans Thought in Twentieth-Century Germany,” Gender & History 31, no. 1 (2019): 91–114. On respectability politics in lesbian circles see also Marti M. Lybeck, Desiring Emancipation: New Women and Homosexuality in Germany, 1890-1933 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014).
[12] “Die Transvestiten und die Polizei: Schluß,“ Der Transvestit, supplement to Die Freundin 1:7 (1924). See also  Sutton, “Politics of Transvestite Identity.”


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