Transparent’s 1930s Berlin Flashbacks, Explained

Hari Nef as Tante Gittel in Transparent. Photo: Amazon

As the Pfefferman clan continues to cope with the secrets and complications that surfaced when their “moppa” came out, we’re also drawn into another family drama. This one plays out in 1930s Berlin, where Grandma Rose and her sister, Tante Gittel (born Gershon), lived during the Weimar period, before the cosmopolitan city's flourishing gay subculture was destroyed by the Nazis. We asked Robert Beachy, author of Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity — one of the books Transparent creator Jill Soloway credits with schooling her — to tell us about that transformative time, and what Gittel’s life might have been like.

Spoilers ahead for season two.

Willkommen to Weimar, where anything goes.
Though we get a glimpse of Gittel in episode one, it’s not until the episode-four flashback, when the camera lingers on the entrance to Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science and we see Rose taking a tour of a place that welcomes people with “a wide range of sexualities,” that we meet the person whose ring Josh will soon ask Rabbi Raquel to wear. It’s 1933, 14 years since the Weimar constitution eliminated almost all forms of censorship, resulting in an explosion of high and low culture, scientific exploration, and a multiculti megacity filled with German transplants, European émigrés, and Russians who’d fled the Bolsheviks. Initially a relatively inexpensive place to live — if you had foreign currency, gold bullion, or property — by the end of 1923, the mark was almost worthless, and the middle class was practically wiped out. Prostitution was pervasive, as was a certain amount of hedonism.

Presenting “the Isaac Newton of sex,” Magnus Hirschfeld.
While Transparent compares Gittel’s good doctor to a physics heavyweight during Rose’s tour, the Hearst newspapers dubbed him “the Einstein of sex” in 1931, and Beachy compares him to Freud. Born in 1868, the gay sexologist was never officially out, but everyone knew his partner was Karl Giese, whom he met after World War I, and who was the Institute for Sexual Science’s librarian. After a closeted patient who’d been forced to marry committed suicide, Hirschfeld helped found the gay rights Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1897 — more than 70 years before the Stonewall riots. One of its goals: repealing the country’s anti-sodomy statute. Though the law was never tossed, the Berlin police turned a blind eye to it with a don’t ask, don’t tell policy, beginning in the 1880s.

The villa Rose visits Gittel at is Hirschfeld’s Sex Institute.
Rose comes to the mansion where Gittel lives and works to ask her for money so the family can go to America and find their father, who’s left. Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science — which he established in 1919, and which housed a clinic, research center, and a museum about sexual diversity (remember the tour Rose took) — had a large support staff and rented rooms to workers. In addition to medical personnel, there were library and museum staff, cooks, cleaners, and a gardener. Many of the jobs were filled by gender-nonconforming inhabitants. By the early ’20s, the Institute provided services not only to gays, lesbians, and cross-dressers, but also to straight married couples and singles. People could anonymously drop questions in a box outside and show up to weekly public meetings for answers.

As for Gittel's party-girl status …
The villa had quite a social scene. Initially, only cognoscenti attended lectures and daily teas. But eventually, the place became a Weimar hangout and tourist attraction with cocktail parties, costume balls, and holiday fêtes.

And that transvestite pass.
When Gittel goes home to give her mother Yetta the cash for boat tickets and visas in episode eight, Yetta wonders how she wasn’t beaten up en route. Gittel tells her mother she’s a transvestite, and shows her the pass that keeps her safe, because “Magnus had the city issue them to all of us.” In 1910, Hirschfeld published Die Transvestitenin (The Transvestites), coining the term “transvestite,” and the concept of cross-dressing, which he determined was distinct from gender identity and sexual orientation. The first to “diagnose” the desire to dress like the opposite sex, in 1909 he convinced police to issue permits to Berliners so they wouldn’t be arrested or hassled in public.

Sex-reassignment surgery is nothing new.
Gittel doesn’t seem interested in transitioning. But those who did would likely have seen Dr. Ludwig Levy-Lenz. While Hirschfeld participated in one of the first primitive procedures in 1920, Levy-Lenz was the Institute’s go-to guy. In his 1930s memoir, he took credit for performing the most surgeries from the mid-’20s until the end of the Weimar period in 1933. He removed male genitals and fashioned primitive vaginas; did mastectomies and hysterectomies; and used radiation to zap facial hair, which, of course, had nasty side-effects. 

Auf Wiedersehen, gay Berlin.
shows Hirschfeld at the villa when the Nazis ransacked the place in episode nine (which would have been May 1933), but he actually left Germany on a world tour in 1930 and never returned. Having been called out by Hitler in the ’20s, he knew a gay, Jewish, trans-rights sexologist was no longer willkommen in Berlin. He saw the Institute’s destruction in a newsreel in a Paris cinema. The villa didn't survive the war, and Hirschfeld died in France in 1935, on his 67th birthday.