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Dorchen's Day

Posted Nov 24 2010 9:37am

November 20th marks the 12th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) and LGBT activists gathered around the world to honour the victims of anti-transgender and intersex hate crimes.  Beginning in 1999 in resp0nse to the still-unsolved murder of transgendered woman, Rita Hester ,  TDOR represents an attempt to provide justice and remembrance for murdered transgendered people who are often as ignored after death as they were reviled in life.   The actual number of transgender victims will likely never be known for certain given the frequent failure of police forces worldwide to Tdor-2010[1] investigate hate crimes directed against transsexuals.  As well, many victims of anti-transgender violence are not transgendered or intersex but simply killed since their assailants believed them to be.   It is a trend that shows little indication of leveling off in the forseeable future.

So how far back does anti-transgender violence go?   Answering that question likely requires some background on the history of transsexualism itself. 

Despite ancient traditions surrounding transvestitism and transsexualism (including the Hijra of India and Pakistan, the castrati of Europe,  and famous cases such as the Chevalier d'Eon and James Barry ),  scientific research into sexual minorites who failed to conform to traditional sex roles only dates back to the 19th century with early researchers recognizing that sexual identity was more fluid that had previously been suspected.     In his early classic book, Psychopathia Sexualis , Richard Kraft-Ebing specifically targeted "contrary" sexual desires  as perversions, i.e. sexual practices which failed to result in procreation (the only true goal for sexuality as far as he was concerned).   In fairness, Kraft-Ebing later modified his views and argued in favour of more lenient treatment for sexual minorities.

And more lenient treatment was certainly needed.  Laws against homosexuality tended to be draconian right across Europe in those days.  While not receiving the death penalty that men and women found guilty of "crimes against nature" often faced in previous centuries,  long prison sentences were still the norm.   Although turn of the century sexologists often argued for decriminalization of sexual minorities, their pleas for moderation were typically ignored.  German physician and sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, tried for decades to persuade the German Parliament to overturn existing legislation banning same-sex love but faced rabid opposition.

At the same time, Hirschfeld continued his own research into the often-shadowy world of the sexual minorities of that era.  As a transvestite as well as a homosexual, Hirschfeld often frequented the gay and drag bars in his native Berlin and interviewed the patrons that he enc0untered there.   Although he wrote at length about the different categories of transvestite (a term which he coined, by the way),  Hirshfeld and his colleagues f0und that some of their patients did not simply wish to dress as the opposite sex but to literally change their external anatomy to match their self-identified gender.   By 1923, he had formally introduced the term "psychic transsexuality" into the scientific literaure (although the term varied somewhat from how it is used today) and began researching ways to treat the transsexuals in his practice.  This provided Hirschfeld with the inspiraction for a new type of medical intervention: sexual reassignment surgery .

While surgical procedures aimed at intersexual patients dates back to the 19th century, such operations tended to be purely cosmetic in nature.  What Hirschfeld contemplated would be far more radical.  Working with several surge0ns, including endocrinology pioneer Eugen Steimach and surgeon Felix Abraham, Hirschfeld began investigating surgical means of changing the external genitalia of patients to correspond to their perceived sexual identity.  To take the next step, they needed a volunteer among Hirschfeld's transsexual patients.

Which brings us to Rudolf Richter ...

Born in 1891 in central Germany, Rudolf Richter had never been comfortable with his gender.  After attempting to tourniqet his penis at the age of six, he/she was permitted to dress as a female and began to self-identify as a female in every way possible.  Given the strict laws of the time, this required Richard (who preferred the name of "Dora" or "Dorchen") to live a double life for years.  During the summer, Richard would work as a waiter  in various Berlin hotels and, during off-season, lived as a woman.    After being arrested several times for cross-dressing (and being forced to serve a sentence in a men's prison), a judge relented and referred Richard/Dorchen to Hirschfeld.   Arranging special permission from the police for Dorchen to continue dressing as a woman, Hirschfeld arranged for her to work as a maid at his world-famous Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Seuxal Research).  Considering that transvestites were largely unemployable during that era, the Institute  represented one of the few places where they could work without fear of being fired (all five of the Institute's maids were transvestites). 

In 1922, Hirschfeld arranged for a bilateral orchidectomy (castration) for Dorchen and began investigating the impact that reduced testerone had on her anatomy.  In 1931, Dorchen underwent the very first male-to-female sex change operation which was carried out by surgeons Felix Abraham and Ludwig Levy-Lenz.   The highly experimental operation (which included the first attempt at vaginoplasty ) was a remarkable success and the resulting publicity was enough to lure Einar Wegener to the Institute.  A Danish transvestite (who preferred the name " Lili Elbe "), Wegener`s case was far more high-profile that Dorchen's and it was the resulting publicity from Eigar/Lili's surgery-related death in 1931 which likely sealed all of their fates.

With the rise of Nazism and the increasingly brutal repression that homosexuals faced during the 1930s, Hirschfeld and his associates at the Institute often came under attack.  By 1932, Magnus Hirschfeld had gone into exile in France (although he hoped that the political climate in Berlin would improve enough for his safe return).   Whatever his plan, it ended on May 6, 1933 when a carefully orchestrated Nazi mob attacked the Institute and seized all confidential records relating to Hirchfeld's patients.   The priceless research volumes that the Institute staff had compiled over the years were destroyed in a public book-burning and Hirschfeld was burned in effigy. 

As for Dorchen Richter, she was never seen again.  Whether she was killed by the mob or later died in custody, no information relating to her ultimate fate was ever found.  While Hirshfeld managed to die a natural death in 1935 in French exile, few of his associates fared as well.  Eugen Steimach and Ludwig Levy-Lenz barely escaped the Nazis but Felix Abraham died in a concentration camp.  It will likely never be known how many of the Institute's patients died in the persecution that followed when their records fell into Nazi hands (actual statistics on the homosexuals killed in the Holocaust remain scarce). 

Although a small number of sex-change operations still took place during the rest of the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazi persecution and the Second World War had set back transsexual rights by a generation.   Some progress was still made, however, including the development of the first estrogens, and Sweden became a world centre for sexual reassignment surgery by the late 1940s.  The  first truly high-profile sex change operation was in 1952 when George Jorgensen traveled to Sweden to become Christine and the world would never be the same.

So how much progress has been made worldwide since Dorchen Richter's day?  Not nearly enough, considering the few modern countries that allow transsexuals to live openly.  This is why we continue to mark the Transgender Day of Remembrance each year and will likely keep doing so for a long time to come.

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