Thanks to the summer heat officially forcing me into air-conditioned hibernation, I am currently re-watching my favorite season of television ever: season two of Amazon’s Transparent.
There are many things to love about this show and this season. I am mostly in love with the history it shares so beautifully. (Spoilers ahead.)
Both seasons of Transparent deepen their story with flashbacks. But where the first season brings us back to a different period for the current Pfefferman family, season two takes us back a generation to 1930s Berlin to meet the matriarchs of the Pfefferman clan: Maura’s mother Rose, her older sister Gittel, and their mother Yetta.
Their story is delicately woven through the season, showing us Yetta’s fear of the political shifts in Germany and her inability to accept Gittel’s identity as a “transvestite,” Rose’s fascination with Gittel’s trans identity and queer community, and most of all the powerful home that Gittel finds in Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science. Our first glimpses of the ‘30s plotline take place at this Institute during a cabaret, and as the season progresses we see more snippets of Rose and Gittel and Yetta’s story leading up to its traumatic climax. But their story is not simply fiction; Magnus Hirschfeld was a real historical figure, and Transparent has brought his story into the spotlight.
Evan Davis writes for The Decider:
“Dubbed ‘The Einstein of Sex’ in his heyday, Hirschfeld predated even Alfred Kinsey in his progressive and scientific interest in human gender and sexuality. He made his name with the 1896 publication of Sappho and Socrates, one of the earliest scientific disquisitions on homosexuality in the modern world. Hirschfeld continually advocated for the public repeal of laws that outlawed homosexuality, and strived to make gay men and women accepted as part of mainstream European society, including the founding of the World League for Sexual Reform, the first global gay rights organization, in the 1920s. He also supported the legalization of abortion and other women’s rights. (As a Jew and an openly gay man, Hirschfeld knew a few things about being stigmatized for who you are.)”
In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institute depicted in Transparent to act as a hospital, research center, library, intellectual home, and community center for queer and trans people from all over Weimar Germany. The Institute provided the first sex reassignment procedures, mostly provided by Hirschfeld’s associate Dr. Ludwig Levy-Lenz.
On May 6, 1933, a day featured prominently in Transparent’s 1930s plotline, the Nazis destroyed Hirschfeld’s beloved Institute while he was away in Paris. They burned the library and archives, destroying Hirschfeld’s legacy and the great progress of 1920s Berlin. Many of the most famous photos of Nazi book burnings are actually images of this horrific and (until now) commonly forgotten event. In the show, Gittel refuses to leave behind her home at the Institute to go to the U.S. using a visa with her given name (Gershon); Rose and Yetta leave Germany and Gittel behind and escape the coming Holocaust. As modern-day Ali Pfefferman explores her family’s roots and the psychological concept of inherited trauma, Transparent viewers watch the family’s historical trauma play out.
I love this plotline for so many reasons. It complicates our historical narrative, allowing us new avenues through which to mourn and struggle with historical memory and collective trauma around World War II and the Holocaust. It celebrates the beauty and complexity of the Weimar Republic in a way that illuminates the many, layered, and too often oversimplified tragedies of Nazi Germany. It also pushes back against the dangerous erasure of queer and trans history as it brings to the surface the true existence of gender and sexuality research and medicine in the 1930s. And it shows the ways that different identities are bound up in each other’s oppression and trauma—and, inevitably, in each other’s liberation as well.