Proof Emma Goldman Would Support Trans Liberation

History nerd that I am, I came across a letter Emma Goldman wrote to Magnus Hirschfeld in 1923. I’m not sure how I managed to miss this before, but its a gem.

For context: Emma (n.1869 – 1940) is possibly the most famous north american anarchist. She was also a Jewish immigrant, feminist, birth control advocate, anti-war activist, prison abolitionist, supporter of free love (polyamory), labor organizer, midwife, atheist, and a damn good speaker/writer. She helped extend critiques of capitalism and the state to include all forms of hierarchy and oppression, including in interpersonal relationships. She has been an inspiration to me and one of my favorite political thinkers since I was 13.

Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the first-ever known organization to advocate for the legal rights of homosexuals and transvestites. He is credited with inventing the terms transsexual and transvestite. (He didn’t, actually. But he did contribute greatly to their modern meaning.) His clinic, the Institute for Sexology, employed many self-identified transsexuals and transvestites before it was burned down by the Nazis. There, they pioneered modern hormone replacement therapy and performed the first ever modern vaginoplasty for a transsexual woman.[1]

I’ve always known Emma was a supporter of homosexuality and that she saw anarchism as an ally to sexual minorities. In her autobiography, she recounts conversations she had with various ¨sexual inverts¨ on her 1914 speaking tour. Invert was a Victorian umbrella term for homo/bisexuals, transsexuals, transvestites, etc – which, at the time, were much less rigidly-defined categories, even in “Western” society.

Their pitiful stories made the social ostracism of the invert seem more dreadful than I had ever realized before. To me anarchism was not a mere theory for a distant future; it was a living influence to free us from inhibitions, internal no less than external, and from the destructive barriers that separate man from man [sic].

In earlier writing, Hirschfeld called Emma an ¨american freedom fighter¨ for her support of the rights of sexual inverts. So, they clearly were acquainted.

Anyway, as a trans anarchist, I was pretty excited to find this letter between them! In it, she begins by talking about her support for homosexual rights (emphasis in the original):

As an anarchist, my place has always been on the side of the persecuted. The entire persecution and sentencing of [Oscar] Wilde struck me as an act of cruel injustice and repulsive hypocrisy on the part of the society which condemned this man.

Then she mentions she’s also read Kraft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, Victorian sexologists who largely coined modern “Western” models of transsexuality. But she not only knew of trans peoples’ existence, she also personally supported them. She says (emphasis added):

Among my male and female friends, there are a few who are of either a completely Uranian[2] or a bisexual[3] disposition. I have found these individuals far above average in terms of intelligence, ability, sensitivity, and personal charm. I empathize deeply with them, for I know that their sufferings are of a larger and more complex sort than those of ordinary people.

Emma was a trans/queer supremacist!!! ;D Now… She actually ends the letter with a brilliant critique of early 20th century assimilationists that was way ahead of her time (as she was on almost everything about which she wrote). She talks about the ways in which some homos had already appropriated historical figures and retroactively labelled them with modern terms in order to argue for inclusion/acceptance/tolerance. (She considers this to be an understandable, but unhelpful, response to oppression. This is just as relevant today.)

But, with that in mind, I think we can at least agree that the people Emma Goldman knew as Urnings[2] and bisexuals[3] are the direct cultural ancestors of contemporary trans and genderqueer people (at least, or especially, in “Western”/colonized contexts). And she’s pretty clear about her solidarity:

It is a tragedy, I feel, that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which shows so little understanding for homosexuals, is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life.

Emma got it in 1923. She understood, in an earlier language, that heterosexism and cis supremacy degrade the value of trans and queer lives. And she states openly that our existence is significant and valid. What the hell took (/is taking) the rest of the feminist movement so long?

[1] I wrote a chapter in my thesis about the Institute for Sexology. I think its interesting that many historical accounts (including feminist ones and ones that originate in trans circles) portray the “medical model” of transsexuality as something that was created by an external psychiatric-medical institution, totally removing the agency and voices of trans people themselves. In reality, the early history and technology of transsexuality (as shown by the Institute) was produced by constant engagement between trans people and cis researchers, often working in partnership. (Not to discount the very real and dominant cis-centric ideologies of medicine at the time, including in Hirschfeld himself.) Also interestingly, far from being a decontextualized medical ideology divorced from social realities, the Institute and its members were actively engaged with questions of legal rights such as fighting the criminalization of sex workers and anti-cross-dressing ordinances, as well as campaigning against the Nazis and larger reactionary forces.

[2] Uranian was an English adaptation of Urning, a German neologism at the time meaning either ¨third gender¨ or ¨person assigned male at birth who expressed as female (and vice versa).¨

[3] The term ‘bisexual’, in 1923, was not just a sexual orientation – it also referred to a person with two sexual (gender) identities — somewhat similar to certain definitions of “genderqueer” or “non-binary” used today.


  1. My parents named me after Emma Goldman, in part. Although I am not at all sure that this name in its current form will be one that follows me for very much longer due to various complicated feelings I have around it and its genderedness, this is one of the reasons I am extremely reluctant to let it go. I feel like whatever my new name might be, I want to hold on to this connection, because it’s pretty amazing.

    Also, I really appreciate this blog as a whole. I’m would say that your post on the Non-Profit Industrial Complex changed my life, or at least some of my thinking on life, in ways that I consider pretty significant. You write beautifully and persuasively. Thank you.

  2. I’ve referred to this many times. Thanks for sharing this gem! Two questions: you’re referring to Hirschfeld (Hirschfield), right? I just want to be extra sure it’s the same person, not at all trying to be some pedantic brat. And the link says the letter is from 1923 but the blog post says 1934. Which one is right?

    Thanks so much!

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