What happens when a #historian talks about #transgender rights
I set fire to Twitter. Again.
On May 10, 2021, I published an article in Scientific American called “The Forgotten History of the World’s First Trans Clinic.” It would appear in the print magazine in August of the same year—still 2021. In it, I wrote the following sentence:
The Nazi ideal had been based on white, cishet (that is, cisgender and heterosexual) masculinity masquerading as genetic superiority. Any who strayed were considered as depraved, immoral, and worthy of total eradication. What began as a project of “protecting” German youth and raising healthy families had become, under Hitler, a mechanism for genocide.
Two years have gone by, and we are presently witnessing the worst attacks on transgender (and other LGBTQIA) people in the 21st century. The ACLU is tracking 385 anti-LGBTQ bills in the U.S.—I won’t list them all here, but you can choose your state and find out which are threatening as we speak. The bill that passed in Tennessee last week restricts "adult cabaret performances" in public or in the presence of children, and at least 9 GOP-led state legislatures are pushing similar anti-drag bills. But that’s hardly all; Georgia advanced a bill to deny care to trans youth, and Mississippi’s recent policy outright bans gender-affirming care for minors in the state (AFFIRMING CARE does not mean sudden immediate gender surgery, and I can’t believe I have to type this, but many conservatives are pushing this erroneous idea, so I must. A more full list can be found here, but it largely consists of social affirmation and in some cases safe, reversible puberty blockers). And, of course, anti-trans rhetoric took center stage at CPAC, where Republicans seek to limit healthcare and human rights for transgender people.
What does this have to do with an article I wrote two years ago about the history of a clinic? Well, I was asked this question by Alisa Chang, host of All Things Considered, NPR. You can listen here, but the critical point comes at the end, and I’ve added it from the transcript below:
A pioneering gender-affirming health institute opened in 1919 in Berlin
March 1, 20234:12 PM ET
CHANG: Well, here in the U.S., you know, we have seen a wave of new anti-trans legislation proposed in recent years. The ACLU is currently tracking something, like, over 300 anti-LGBTQ laws in the U.S. Let me ask you - for you personally, how does it feel to be researching this queer history from - what? - over a hundred years ago and see virtually the same battles happening today?
SCHILLACE: It's really troubling. First, when I began reading about Hirschfeld and his institute and the public response, I thought they were so ahead of their time. And then I thought, that's not the right way to put it. We just haven't moved very far. And that's really the tragedy, to think what might have been achieved if they had continued as they began. So instead, we're seeing so much backlash. So much ground has been lost already, and they're threatening to lose more. You know, essentially, the Nazi ideal had been based on this kind of white, cisgender heterosexual masculinity, and they considered that superior, and they considered anyone who deviated from that as worthy of eradication. And so when you see this kind of language returning, it's almost like watching it again and thinking, this is where you're starting. Where will this end? What violence is coming? So it's deeply disturbing for me because I feel sometimes as though what I'm doing isn't history. It feels like journalism.
The coverage of my NPR moment in the spotlight resurrected that earlier article at Scientific American, and on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I felt like I broke my Twitter feed. (I didn’t; that’s Elon’s job). Suffice to say that after a tweet by my (very dear and awesome) friend Eric received half a million views, we were playing wack-a-mole with anti-trans trolls. Also, they asked, how dare I suggest that the current conservative party was following a Nazi playbook? Was I calling Republicans Nazi? (Update: 502K views and still counting).
I wasn’t. Or, not quite. You see, the book I’m writing just now (out with Norton in 2024) isn’t about Nazis. It’s not about WWII, either. It starts in the 1860s, the latter part of the Nineteenth Century, and it follows the history of scientific discovery. In 1902, both the hormone and the gene were discovered and named. They began as intimately intertwined: germ and cell, sexual hormones and chemical messengers. Both would have deep and abiding influence. Hormone science would go on to become sexology and endocrinology; they learned about secondary sex characteristics, learned that variation was natural, and that both gender and sexuality were fluid. In the 1910s and 1920s, no less. Genetic control of heredity, however, would move in another direction entirely. It would become known—infamously—as eugenics. It would lead, ultimately, to genocide. The Nazi came for all they felt were not ‘pure’ Germans; they murdered Jews in their millions, and they also killed disabled people, other racial minorities, trans people, gay people.
That’s a history we know, or think we know. Most feel they have a pretty good idea of what Nazis believed. But the seeds of genocide didn’t spring into existence in 1933. No—they were growing all the while. My book is about what hatred looks like before it bears a swastika; my book is about how a group of like-minded people all hoping for rights and a better future through science went from friends to enemies—how researchers who once shared ideals turned on their colleagues and helped send them to their deaths. If you looked at the start of the 20th century, you would see enormous support for gay rights and even of transgender persons. What happened? The questions my book seeks to answer are these: how is hatred born? How does it grow? What does it look like when we still have time to stop it’s death march?
The answer is sobering. It looks like now. And we are running out of time.
Aren’t we all experiencing a similar sense of dislocation? I am sure you have well-loved photographs of family parties, drinks with friends, field trips. There you are, among friends, laughing and smiling. The you in the photo didn’t know that some of these people would later support ideologies to negate your very existence. It feels like starting with the sitcom Friends and ending up with The Glass Onion. It hurts. How did we come to this?
The words Democrat and Republican used to refer to general differences of governing style and fiscal conservancy. They used to overlap quite a lot. That isn’t the case anymore, and the words barely have their original meanings. Today, agreeing to the Republican agenda means silencing voices, limiting human rights and health care, and even promoting violence. I don’t say this lightly; invited speaker to the Conservative convention, Michael Knowles, called for the eradication of “transgenderism.” Margorie Taylor Greene talked up her plan to introduce a bill criminalizing doctors for providing gender-affirming care. And those Twitter trolls from the weekend? The worst, I suppose, were two different comments suggesting that the “only” reason Nazis resorted to the Holocaust was because of transgender people, and a third, who suggested the Nazi purge of trans persons was “the only thing they got right.”
My research has shown me all the different ways Jewish and homosexual identities were tangled up together by propaganda in the decades before anyone used the word “Nazi.” Hatred of the other grew along side wistful attempts to hang onto imperialism and the imagined superiority of race and class. It’s all much more complicated than I can lay out in a short essay, but I promise you, I’m neck deep in the stuff. So no—no, I wasn’t calling Republicans “Nazis.” I am saying that the ideology of hatred, which gave rise to horrific transgressions against human rights and human dignity under the Nazis, currently lies at the root of these anti-trans agendas. And I am very scared about where it’s heading.
As always, you connect the dots that others missed. I'm so thrilled for your urgent, no doubt poignant, book.