By Emma Sancho (she/her), Level 2 Psychology Student, University of Glasgow

Who are the notable psychologists associated with progressing research on LGBTQ people and why is it important to know about their work?

Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) was a German-born psychologist whose work in sexology was ground-breaking for its time in the Western World. Hirschfeld’s research mainly focused on sexual and gender diversity. He developed the idea of a third gender in the book ‘Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress’ (Hirschfeld, 1910), and defended same-sex relationships between consenting adults. Hirschfeld’s work focused on scientifically demonstrating that gender and sexual diversity was not unnatural but inborn, all the while being a very outspoken militant. Notably, in 1897 he founded the first association to campaign for social and judiciary recognition of LGBTQ+ people, the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee, and later wrote and acted in the movie Anders Als Die Anderen (Different from the Others) (Oswald, 1919), arguably the first pro-gay film. He additionally used both his platform and knowledge as a recognised scientist to defend homosexuals condemned for indecency in court under paragraph 175, a law which led to an estimated number of 140.000 condemnations of homosexuals between 1871 and 1994 in Germany (Hoffschildt, 2002). Hirschfeld (1935) explains in ‘L’Âme et l’Amour, Psychologie Sexologique’ that he is deeply convinced that the role of science is not only to gift humanity with truth, but also to provide “Justice, Liberty and Peace for all men”.

Hirschfeld was not alone in the scientific fight for the recognition of gender and sexual diversity; physician and sexologist Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) played as big a role in the movement. When the former established the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the latter published ‘Sexual Inversion’ (Ellis & Symonds, 1897), which was the first medical work to approach sexual and gender diversity without arguing it was a disease or a degeneracy. He often referenced Hirschfeld’s work, recognising that “In recent years no one has so largely contributed to place our knowledge of sexual inversion on a broad and accurate basis as Dr Magnus Hirschfeld of Berlin.” (Ellis & Symonds, 1897). His writings are of surprisingly current interest. He discussed both male (uranism) and female (sapphism) homosexuality as well as bisexuality, challenged Freud’s view of sexual inversion, put forward the idea that homosexuality likely had a genetic origin, differentiated homosexuality from what he names ‘sexoesthetic inversion,’ which we would now know as being transgender, and believed that sexual instinct is inborn and that there is no ‘cure’ to homosexuality – therefore arguing that it is undesirable to try to treat people for their sexual orientation.

Hirschfeld and Ellis are both referenced by New Zealand psychologist John Money (1921-2006) in his work Gay, Straight and In-Between: the sexology of erotic orientation (Money, 1988). Money particularly used their writings on what Hirschfeld named ‘transvestism’ and Ellis ‘eonism’. Citing his own previous research, he argued that he was the first to define the difference between biological sex and gender role (Money et al., 1955) along with gender identity (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972). This was a major advancement in both the scientific and political spheres. Money, like Ellis, opposed ‘treating’ what was then known as ‘sexual preference’, for which he also proposed the terminology ‘sexual orientation’, arguing that the previous appellation was a ‘dangerous term, for it implies that if homosexuals choose their preference, then they can legally be forced, under threat of punishment, to choose to be heterosexuals’ (Money, 1988). Amongst his other areas of research were what the DSM-II (1968) named ‘sexual deviations’ such as sadism and paedophilia; at the time, homosexuality and ‘transvestitism’ were part of the list. Money coined the term ‘paraphilia’ (broadly, atypical sexual arousal) to replace ‘sexual deviations’ due to the negative connotations. His writings were prominently featured in the 1973 declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the DSM-II.

Hirschfeld, Ellis, and Money all played a determining role in positively changing the perception and treatment of the LBGTQ+ community. Knowing about their work is important for two main reasons. Firstly, hatred and discrimination are deeply rooted in ignorance, and having scientific support for diversity and inclusion is a way to combat both through education. For example, Flores et al. (2018), found that simple exposure to ‘information about [transgender people] and representations of them’ would be sufficient to reduce transphobia. It has been shown countless times that the way LGBTQ+ people are treated has a tremendously detrimental effect on their mental health.  Hirschfeld first warned that homosexuals were more prone to suicide attempt and suicide, a theory confirmed by Haas et al. (2010).  More and more studies are published on the plethora of harmful effects created by discrimination against LGBTQ+ people: lower self-esteem (D’Augelli, 2006), heightened risk of being clinically diagnosed with a mental disorder (Mustanski et al., 2010), and higher likeliness of depression and suicidal thoughts (Baams et al., 2015). The violence that is perpetrated against sexual and gender minorities is pervasive and it also exists in the form of micro-aggressions, which are as defined by Sue et al. (2007) “the everyday […] slights, snubs, or insults […] that communicate hostile […] messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership”. Knowing the grave impact that discrimination has on LGBTQ individuals shows how these three psychologists’ works were and are still very much needed to spread acceptance. Secondly, despite the many advancements that have been made towards the amelioration of the condition of LGBTQ+ people, there is still a long way to go. Minorities not only have to endure bigotry but their entire existences and accomplishments continue to be erased from history. Efforts have been made in recent years, but the fact remains; minorities are underrepresented in every single field, including the scientific one (Hamrick et al., 2019). Elliott et al. (2014) found that ‘sexual minorities suffer both poorer health and worse healthcare experiences’, which could be explained by the lack of LGBTQ+ health care education in medical school (Parameshwaran et al., 2016). Even so, interpersonal acknowledgement and acceptance of gender and sexuality diversity is not enough; LGBTQ+ people often struggle with their difference because of internalized homophobia and transphobia. It is without surprise that we can see the growth in ‘Affirmative Psychology’, which is a form of therapy recommended by the APA guidelines and used to help LGBTQ+ people accepting their sexual orientation or gender dysphoria.

The treatment and perception of the LGBTQ+ community are dependent on a multitude of variables and Hirschfeld, Ellis and Money’s various works have played a role in supporting LGBTQ+ people in the Western World. We should however note that whilst Hirschfeld dedicated his life to the feminist and anti-racist cause along with LGBTQ+ rights, Ellis was a firm believer of the theory of eugenics and whilst Money revolutionised the way gender is understood, his handling of the David Reimer case lead to two suicides and countless sex reassignments of intersex children. Their work is also mostly focused on homosexuals and transgender people, leaving out of consideration some parts of the LGBTQ+ community, such as asexuality, non-binary identities, and genderfluidity. Notwithstanding these criticisms, their exceptional historical contribution to psychological research on LGBTQ+ people should be recognised for helping the lives and wellbeing of the LGBTQ+ community.

About this series:

February is LGBT History Month in the UK and to celebrate we want to take the opportunity to showcase work from students in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Glasgow. As part of their first year curriculum, students study the history of psychology and are asked to write an essay detailing psychology’s history regarding race, gender identity and sexual orientation, women in STEM, the replication crisis, psychology and government policy, or neurodiversity. You can find more information about the assignment here. For LGBT History Month, the TILE Student Voice will publish a weekly essay from the gender and sexual orientation category.

TILE Student Voice

This is a section of the TILE Network that features the student voice in learning and teaching. We want to shine a light on the student perspective when it comes to teaching and learning practice and what better way to do this than letting the students express this themselves. This series also aims to give students to opportunity to engage in science communication and writing. Broadcasting scientific findings to a wider audience is a valuable skill and TILE provides students with the platform to practice that skill.

If you are a student and interested in contributing to the TILE Student Voice section, get in touch:



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