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. 

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