In some parts of Europe, things became less grim during the 19th and 20th centuries. Homosexuality was generally accepted and transsexualism tolerated.
In Germany, up to the time the Nazis took over in 1933, the authorities were prepared to give out special ID cards to trans people. These did not change their birth sex attribution or name, but did form an official recognition of the fact that they habitually appeared to be of the opposite sex, through clothing and make-up. This protected them to some extent from police harassment. The sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, whose practice was in Berlin, was prepared to give letters of support. Hirschfeld was later involved in the celebrated case of Lilli Elbe, before moving to the USA to flee the Nazis.
The Weimar Republic
The Weimar Republic was the unofficial name given to the State of Germany from 1919 to 1930. It was characterised by a catastrophic divide in society between conservatives and reformers. Until the Great Depression took hold, however and despite the great hardship that war reparations caused Germans, the reformers had the upper hand.
Germany experienced its own “Roaring Twenties” until they were cut short by the Great Depression. Cities burgeoned with new arrivals from the countryside in search of jobs, setting the stage for a vibrant urban life. Urban centers like Berlin became some of the most socially liberal places in Europe, much to the chagrin of conservative elites. Berlin had a thriving nightlife full of bars and cabarets. There were between 65 and 80 gay bars and 50 lesbian bars in the capital alone. Sexual liberation was a very real phenomenon, complete with a gay and lesbian rights movement led by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld who ran an Institute for Sexual Science.1
Increasing poverty, runaway inflation and social unrest — much of it engineered — however, brought Hitler and the Nazis to power and swept away the age of social freedom. Thousands of Germans fled to other countries to escape, in justifiable fear for their lives. A bright light of toleration of transsexuals was snuffed out.
Pre-war Paris had long been a haven for homosexuals and transsexuals. The French had abolished their anti-homosexuality laws in 1789 and Paris in particular had become a hot-spot, though never with the stridency that Weimar Berlin displayed. As in Berlin, a generation of young people deserted the countryside and its poverty for the bright lights of the cities, there to explore, amongst other things, their own sexualities.
Religion in Europe
The principal religion of both Germany and France was Catholicism. This, while maintaining its injunction against any form of homosexuality from the pulpit, has been less harsh in its punishments in real life. Across the Catholic world can be seen, in real terms, a moderation of hostility towards transsexuals in particular. In the Philippines, for example, demonstrably one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in the world, with over 90% adherence. Yet here, transsexuals have been openly able to go about their lives without let or hindrance, for hundreds of years. They are no less prominent there than in Thailand, say, with its generally tolerant Buddhist culture.
This contrasts radically with the religious temper of the Anglo-Saxon world, which was exported to the USA. The Anglican Church was for centuries a relentless persecutor of any form of homosexuality and in this regard was one of the most vicious European churches, with only Dutch Lutherans being more dedicated to harming the innocent.
It seems likely that this in some part at least explains why the great European cities of Berlin, Paris, Naples, Rome, Barcelona and Madrid became the homes to so many transsexuals, as remains the case today. Until only 60 years ago, being a homosexual of any type in London was a dangerous life that could get you beaten up or killed. The great cities of continental Europe, especially the southern ones, remain essentially trans-friendly with very little hostility being visible — except, and then only occasionally, from British or US tourists.
Les Amies de Place Blanche
After the war, in the 1950s, Paris became the home of a community of transsexuals living on and around the Place Blanche. Many of them worked in cabaret, others in the sex business. They were photographed, in one of the most remarkable collections of photojournalism, by the Swedish photographer Christer Stromhölm over ten years up to the late 1960s. Some of these went on to have GRS and two actually attended Stromhölm’s funeral 40 years later, testifying to the bond he had built up with them.
One of the best-known French transsexuals, who was one of the mothers of modern Western transsexualism, was Jacqueline Charlotte ‘Coccinelle’ Dufresnoy (1931-2006). While still a teenager, the young Coccinelle began performing in a Paris cabaret that specialised in female impersonators. Unlike the other stars, however, Coccinelle lived full time as a woman. After a chance meeting with Marie-André Schwindenhammer (1909-81), Coccinelle was introduced to the use of hormones by the older transwoman. Some time later, on tour in Nice, she met a younger transwoman, who later told her about Dr Georges Burou, who ran a maternity clinic in Casablanca. He also performed GRS, since the French legal ban on castration did not apply in Morocco. Coccinelle had her surgery there in 1958.