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Debunking J.K. Rowling's misinformation on trans history

jk rowling Berlin nazis burning books including thousands stolen Magnus Hirschfeld LGBTQ transgender research library
twitter @jk_rowling; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Historian Laurie Marhoefer debunks J.K. Rowling's controversial tweet about trans people in Nazi Germany and cautions against the dangerous implications of such misinformation.

On March 13, a corner of the internet exploded when J.K. Rowling sent out a tweet on X (formerly Twitter) casting doubt on whether the Nazis went after trans people.

I’m a history professor. I do not spend time in that corner of the internet where the author of the beloved Harry Potter series stirs up strong feelings with her criticisms of the movement for transgender rights. However, I happen to be among the very few historians in the world who study the history of trans people and the Nazi State. My research has influenced public discussions about this topic in Germany and the US. Rowling’s critics quickly began citing my research, too.

When Rowling pressed send on her tweet, I was at my desk grading papers. My friends began to text. “Had I seen the tweet?” Pulling up Rowling’s tweet on my laptop, I saw that she had followed it up with an even more troubling claim: transgender people were not targeted by the Nazis.

But saved on my hard drive are digital copies of the Nazi police files of transgender men and women living in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, proof of the opposite. In the cold bureaucratic text, those files chronicle heartbreaking stories.

Among the worst are the stories of transgender women who were murdered by the Nazi state. One of them was Liddy Bacroff, the feisty sex worker who told off the police who hounded her and lived as much of her life as a woman as she could. She died in the concentration camp Mauthausen.

Another is a woman whose female name I do not know because the police only recorded her birth name. From childhood, she had wanted to be a dancer. She lived with her aunt, and they often went out in the evenings together for a drink, both presenting as women. The dancer was murdered in the concentration camp Buchenwald.

Rowling’s claims were inaccurate but not new. In 2022, a prominent German opponent of transgender rights wrote tweets very similar to Rowling’s. People responded that she was denying the Holocaust. She sued them and lost. A few months later, in an unrelated move, Germany’s parliament formally recognized transgender and other LGBTQ people as victims of fascism. But fantastic claims like these did not go away.

What troubles me the most is Rowling’s tweet suggesting that trans healthcare had links to Nazi medical experiments. In a time when state legislators across the country are undertaking a historically unprecedented campaign to restrict or ban the healthcare that trans people need to live, this is not only grossly misleading but dangerous.

As a historian, let me set the record straight.

Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, much of what we associate with transgender rights today was already on the horizon in Germany, including legal transition. Trans people could get police permits to present publicly as the sex they were. In the 1920s, a few small magazines were published for and by transgender people. A left-wing sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, had even published a book about transgender people in 1910.

In 1919, he founded a scientific institute that offered medical care to a few brave trans women and men. One aspect of this care was surgery, sometimes done at the institute and sometimes elsewhere in Berlin by plastic surgeons referred to patients by the institute. I say the patients were “brave” because the surgeries were experimental. No patient protections existed. This was the era before antibiotics.

When the Nazis took power, they destroyed this burgeoning world of trans health care. On the plaza by the Berlin Opera, they threw the institute’s library and archive into a bonfire, a giant book burning so public that it was reported in the international press. Hirschfeld, a favorite target of the Nazis because he was a Jewish advocate for birth control and gay rights, was already living in exile. Many of his collaborators fled the country. The new regime shut down the institute and the transgender magazines. For the most part, they either revoked or stopped issuing police permits to trans people.

The Nazis had a traditional gender ideology. They were vitriolically homophobic. In 1935, they revised Germany’s existing law against men having sex with men. Many countries had such laws at the time. The United States only revoked them in 2003. Yet the Nazis made German law unusually harsh. They sent between 5,000 and 15,000 to concentration camps for breaking the law against male-male sex.

Among those thousands of people were some trans women, such as Bacroff and the dancer. The Nazis essentially saw transgender women as gay men who had a very severe case of whatever caused homosexual desire. They were, supposedly, even more threatening to the fascist state and society.

These facts have less traction in Rowling’s corner of the internet, where the game is simple: find a grain of historical truth, then spin it so far from reality that it becomes grotesquely false. You will find people claiming that people in the 1920s were not “transgender” because they used different words to identify. Indeed, they had different terms. But when you read their own writing, and you see how they experienced gender, you can tell that what transgender means to us is pretty much what their terms meant to them.

Another claim is that the Nazis did not stop issuing police permits to trans people. Yes, there are a few surprising cases where the police issued permits, but these cases are the exception. In the large majority of cases, police revoked them. This was true for Bacroff and the dancer: both had permits to live in public as women before 1933, but these were later revoked.

The worst of these theories is the one that links trans medicine to Nazi medicine. This is perhaps what Rowling meant to do when she retweeted something about trans healthcare, eugenics, and Dachau. The grain of truth there is that Hirschfeld supported eugenics, as did the majority of doctors at the time in the US as well as Germany. (Not that I think that excuses them.) A more troubling detail is that one of the surgeons Hirschfeld’s institute worked with was a leading plastic surgeon in Berlin, who worked on surgical techniques for many kinds of surgeries in addition to gender-conforming surgeries. He went on to support the Nazi regime. During the Second World War, that doctor worked for the Luftwaffe and disseminated the results of the Dachau “medical experiments” about hypothermia.

Though it is troubling that an early plastic surgeon who treated trans people went on to collude in Nazi violence, it is not surprising, given the widespread support for the regime’s violent programs in German medicine and society in general. More importantly, it says nothing about trans people themselves or about trans medicine. Among the patients of the 1920s who had surgeries through the institute was Charlotte Charlaque, a Jewish woman who survived Nazism and lived out her days in Brooklyn.

This is not Rowling’s first foray into the murky waters of the wacky, conspiratorial internet. There are signs that, finally, more people are seeing how alarming her statements are: a Seattle museum recently pulled her from its exhibits.

Yet she’s only getting worse and farther from historical reality.

Laurie Marhoefer is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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Laurie Marhoefer