In 1931, a sexologist arrived in colonial Shanghai to give a public lecture about homosexuality. In the audience was a medical student, and after the lecture concluded, he introduced himself. The sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, fell in love with the medical student, Li Shiu Tong. Li became Hirschfeld’s assistant on a lecture tour around the world – the first time in history that a renowned expert defended homosexuality to so many people in so many countries.
Racism and the Making of Gay Rights shows how Hirschfeld laid the groundwork for modern gay rights, and how he did so by borrowing from a disturbing set of racist, imperial, and eugenic ideas. Yet on his journey with Li, Hirschfeld also had more inspiring moments – including moments when he formulated gay rights as a broad, anti-colonial struggle, and a movement that could be linked to Jewish emancipation.
Following Hirschfeld and Li in their travels through the American, Dutch, and British empires, from Manila to Tel Aviv to having tea with Langston Hughes in New York City, and then into exile in Hitler’s Europe, Laurie Marhoefer provides a vivid portrait of queer lives in the 1930s and of the turbulent, often-forgotten first chapter of gay rights.