“Whose Body is it Anyway?”: Sexual Transformation in Germany, 1890-1933

Sander L. Gilman, Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University

Respondent: Max Cavitch, Associate Professor, Department of English

One of the major claims that Gilman makes is that in Germany, sexual transformation was a part of the public sphere.  He specifically discusses Martha Baer, a German-Israeli author who was born female and underwent one of the first sex-change surgeries.  In this discussion of the public sphere, he discusses the Martha Baer’s struggle with being Jewish and the anti-Semitism that he experienced.  Baer wanted to distance himself from the anti-Semitism, but found that the dichotomy between men and women was lost with the stereotype of the Jew.   The male Jew menstruation became an anti-Semitic myth to separate and further alienate male Jews before World War I.  This “sexual difference” that Baer originally notes as a sign of womanhood was something that he had to deal with as a young girl. Baer was a Jewish girl that did not menstruate, but either had to believe that menstruation would occur, or believe that she was, in fact, different.  He (upon realization of true identity) became to realize that his body was that of a healthy, Jewish man, not a girl who had not experienced menstruation.  The public sphere comes into play when this idea of Jewish male sexuality being different was displayed on the front paper every week from about the 1880s to 1900.  The spread of these ideas led to further alienation and public discussion of the ideas of transformation.  Baer’s autobiography became available in the public sphere in the form of a film in the 1920s.  Specifically in Germany, sexual ambiguity and transformation became a German fascination, and the rise of reconstructive techniques on genitalia during World War I became publicly known.  The psychological theory behind these reconstructive techniques, that operating on a body to fix the psyche or mind, was German in essence.  The public sphere image of fluid sexual identity in Germany was introduced, where Germans became to either understand or fear the fluidity in gender roles.

A provocative point made by Gilman was that although the idea that sexual identity change at this time seemed difficult, the idea of transforming from a Jew to German was impossible due to biological constraints.  At first thought, this notion seems ridiculous, due to the fact that a gender change would be deemed a much bigger deal than a religious one.  Today, fewer people question others converting for marriage or simple changes in belief, but people still do question the change in gender.  However, at the time before World War I, there was a so-called biological difference between Germans and Jews.  Jews were denoted as sexually ambiguous, specifically male Jews.  They were sexually separated from society when this idea of male menstruation came about, and Gilman argues that the conversion from a male Jew to a male German was impossible for this reason, while conversion from a male German to female German was not.  It makes sense that in a world then where there was such a large disparity between males and females that Jewish males would be compared to females biologically as a tool for isolation.  I find this interesting, because I did not know about this method of Jewish alienation during World War I, and especially find this interesting from a historical perspective.

Question:  Given the fact that the first surgery to correct the anomaly of sexual life took place in the early 1900s, why do you think a historical perspective and questioning the idea of “where, when and who” (as Gilman states), is so important when thinking about sexual transformation?

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