Dora Richter, the first trans woman to complete gender reassignment surgery, worked as a maid in Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science. Her testicles were removed in 1922, and in 1931 her penis was removed, and later a vagina was surgically created.
After the orchiectomy, Dr Felix Abraham, a psychiatrist at the institute, published a case study: “Her castration had the effect – albeit not very extensive – of making her body become fuller, restricting her beard growth, making visible the first signs of breast development, and giving the pelvic fat pad… a more feminine shape.” Dora was 31 at the time of that operation. There were eunuchs in the Ottoman Empire until 1923, and while Italy made castration for musical purposes illegal in 1861, the last Sistine Castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, lived to 1922. Dora is part of the Institute, but the psychiatrist feels able to report on her as a subject of scientific study. It seems dehumanising to me. Moreschi had higher status. The recording of his singing made me feel horror and admiration, at a glimpse of a lost world. The Sultan might not want European scientists examining his servants.
I wondered why I had heard of Lili Elbe but not Dora Richter. Lili was an artist. Dora was born to a poor peasant family in 1891 in Germany. Aged six, she attempted to remove her penis with a tourniquet, and after that her parents allowed her to dress as a girl. As an adult, she was arrested several times for cross-dressing and sentenced to a man’s prison before a judge sent her to Hirschfeld’s Institute. In 1925, Dr Levi-Lenz wrote,
It was, moreover, very difficult for transvestites to find a job… As we knew this and as only a few places of work were willing to employ transvestites, we did everything we could to give such people a job at our Institute. For instance, we had five maids- all of them male transvestites, and I shall never forget the sight one day when I happened to go into the Institute’s kitchen after work: there they sat close together, the five “girls”, peacefully knitting and sewing and singing old folk-songs. These were, in any case, the best, most hardworking and conscientious domestic workers we ever had. Never ever did a stranger visiting us notice anything.
Where to start? I am not surprised she was a good worker if she would have been jobless, and arrested, anywhere else. The Institute has too much power, but the doctor makes it sound beneficent. He is so patronising about the five “girls”. I am glad we have control of our own language now: I am a trans woman, not a transvestite. It is not about clothes. I don’t know if she was happy, knitting, or if she had talents rarely realised in peasant children.
Adolf Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, and dictator in March 1933, and on 6 May Nazis attacked the Institute, burning books. “Dora is not known to have survived this attack”. Hirschfeld had gone on a speaking tour in 1931, and been advised not to return to Germany: he died in Nice in 1935. The Nazi party was hoaching with gay men, but that did not stop them hating the gay Hirschfeld, who had been known as “Aunt Magnesia” in the gay community and established the Institute to provide a research base for his ideas that “hermaphrodites, homosexuals, transvestites, are the necessary natural link between the two poles of man and woman”.
Dora showed huge persistence, asserting that she was female, and expressing herself as female. It is because of that kind of courage that I am able to express myself as female today. I will honour her even if those who knew her appeared not to.