Last week, children's book author JK Rowling tweeted some more nonsense about transgender people. In this case, she disputed the fact that Nazis destroyed early research on the community:

Despite Rowling’s dismissal, it is an established fact–not a fever dream–that the Nazis persecuted transgender people. And it’s not the first time this debate has come up on social media. Denying this history is part of an overall effort to discount the discrimination trans people still face in their pursuit of fundamental rights today. It is important to remember the truth and to evaluate what research we have, especially at a time when far-right attacks against trans people are increasing in the United States and elsewhere.

The Looting and Burning

In 1933, the Nazi-supporting youth with the German Student Union and SA paramilitary looted the Institute for Sexual Science (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft) in Berlin. The institute collected the earliest known research on gay and transgender people, and it helped people obtain legal name changes, medical treatments, and “transvestite certificates” from local police that allowed them legally to present as their gender.

Days after the looting, Nazis took to the streets to burn the 20,000 books looters found inside the building, and they placed a bust of the institute’s founder, Magnus Hirschfeld, on the pile in effigy. Hirschfeld was out of the country at the time, but he later died in exile in 1935. 

In the years that followed, trans people were busted under German laws criminalizing sodomy and wearing clothes associated with their birth sex. They were imprisoned in concentration camps before and after the start of World War II. Some were murdered there. Others escaped with their lives.

We’ve Been Here Before 

Since Rowling posted about the subject on, misinformation about trans people in Nazi Germany has circulated widely. Some people have also claimed that the discussion of trans victims of Nazi violence distracts from the “real victims” of National Socialism. In light of this discourse, I called the leading researcher studying trans people and the Nazis, University of Washington professor Laurie Marhoefer.

“My first reaction was, they’re totally wrong,” Marhoefer said of the posts. “They’re not even in the ballpark. My reaction 1.5 was, ‘Oh this is eerie, the same thing happened in Germany two years ago.’”

Back in July of 2022, a graduate biology student named Marie-Luise Vollbrecht, who was known for her “gender critical” anti-trans views, made headlines in Germany.

She tweeted that the Nazis had never targeted trans people, and to say they did “mock[ed] the true victims of the Nazi crimes.” People responded with a hashtag that claimed she denied Nazi crimes. Vollbrecht filed a lawsuit against some of them, claiming their hashtag violated her rights and basically called her a holocaust-denier, which is a crime in Germany. She lost her case, and, after parsing the historical facts, the court officially recognized trans people as Nazi victims. A few months later, Germany’s parliament issued a statement recognizing the queer victims of Nazis and of post-war persecution. 

We Don’t Know Much, but What We Do Know Is Grim 

That ruling aside, this history is by no means complete. Scholars still don’t know much about the lives of trans people in Nazi Germany. Researchers have only recently started to study the subject and to undo false assumptions that cis gay men and transgender women were essentially viewed as the same in the eyes of their oppressors.

Through years of research and the review of published literature, Marhoefer has identified 27 criminal cases involving trans men, women, and gender nonconforming people in Nazi Germany. Locating them is hard work, and it requires parsing heaps of documents in non-keyword-searchable archives to find police files on a very small group of people that did everything in their power to avoid police detection. Marhoefer has 30,000 Gestapo files on their laptop alone. The little we do know, so far, is grim. 

According to research from Marhoefer, beginning in 1933, Hamburg police were instructed to send “transvestites” to concentration camps. A person named H. Bode lived in the city, dated men, dressed in women’s clothes, and once held a “transvestite” certificate. After multiple public indecency and public nuisance convictions, she was sent to Buchenwald, where she died in 1943. Liddy Bacroff, a trans sex worker in Hamburg, died at Mauthausen the same year. Officials sent her there because she was a “morals criminal of the worst sort.” 

Essen police ordered Toni Simon to stop wearing women's clothes, as she had done for years. She served a year in prison for disrespecting police officers, hanging out with gays, and speaking against the regime. The authorities called Simon a “pronounced transvestite,” and a Gestapo officer said placement in a concentration camp was “absolutely necessary.” She ultimately survived. 

Unlike today, Marhoefer said, trans people were never a front-and-center political issue for the Nazis, nor were they rounded up in the same systematic way as Jews or the Roma. Nevertheless, the Nazis did specifically target them for their gender identities. On a fundamental level, transness was incongruous with Nazi ideology, a hyper-masculine fascism that emphasized purity and traditional gender roles. 

The enforcement of moral laws prevented them from living as they did in the Weimar Republic era, the democratic government in power before Adolf Hitler and a time of limited acceptance. Magazines, nightclubs such as the Eldorado, and nascent organizations for trans people were shuttered. The state forced detransition, revoking a permit from at least one person named Gerd R. and driving them to suicide.

“I think we expect the crackdown, and then it’s all over their media, but it’s quiet,” Marhoefer said. “How many in a camp do we have to find before people will be like, ‘Okay, there was persecution?’”

While the Nazis did not often discuss transness much, at least one 1938 book, Ein Beitrag zum Problem des Transvestitismus, provides some idea of how party officials thought about trans people. 

Author Hermann Ferdinand Voss described trans people as “asocial” and likely criminals, which justified “draconian measures by the state.” Nazi rhetoric also linked trans women and pedophilia, which mirrors the contemporary allegations from conservative Republicans about trans and queer people “grooming” children.

When they came after Hirschfeld, who was gay and Jewish, propagandists also framed homosexuality as a Jewish plot to feminize men and to destroy the race. Years before Nazis stormed his institute, the pro-party newspaper Der Stürmer labeled him the most dangerous Jew in Germany, which brings us to another point Rowling shared in a thread on X.

Problematic Granddaddies 

After users told Rowling that Nazis did, in fact, persecute trans people and burn research about them, she accused people who corrected her of valorizing Hirschfeld, rather than doing what they were actually doing, which was simply correcting the record. 

Indeed, Hirschfeld, the granddaddy of the gay rights movement and a pioneer for trans health care, was a eugenicist. Furthermore, the early practitioner of vaginoplasty, Erwin Gohrbandt, who operated on Lili Elbe of The Danish Girl fame, was a Nazi collaborator connected to Dachau.

History rightly doesn’t look back on eugenicists and Nazi collaborators fondly, but those facts have nothing to do with whether or not Nazis persecuted trans people or burned research. 

Apparently unsatisfied with spreading historical misinformation in one instance, Rowling followed-up with a tweet that directed users to a “thread on the persistent claims about trans people and the Nazis.” The thread implies that trans medicine is eugenic or Nazi in some way, and it draws a false connection between gender-affirming care and tortuous human experiments in the camps. 

Broadly, the thread argues that early trans medical care constituted medical malpractice and the development of a new kind of sterilization in the form of gender-affirming genital surgery, and it contends that Gohrbandt performed his early vaginoplasties with the same regard for humanity as he displayed in his later work with the Nazis.

But the beliefs of these flawed medical pioneers have no bearing on trans people or trans politics, and conflating modern gender-affirming care with this early experimental treatment ignores the state violence trans people faced at the hands of the Nazis.

Despite Hirschfeld’s contributions to the field, people are right to criticize him for seeing the world through the lens of eugenics, even if that view was common in the 1930s. 

Marhoefer literally wrote the book on his eugenic beliefs. Hirschfeld thought that gayness was eugenically beneficial because queer people did not reproduce, but he made no eugenic arguments for or against his work with trans people. He dedicated one of his books to eugenics, and he believed they sat at the heart of the science of sexology. And while he was critical of scientific racism, you can find anti-Black statements in his work, too, Marhoefer said.

Moreover, while Hirschfeld’s writings suggest he empathized with trans people and wanted to alleviate their suffering, he still staked a career on them. He photographed trans people in demeaning ways and trotted them out for demonstrations in front of other doctors.

It’s important to remember that Hirschfeld did not invent or create transness. The community existed before he discovered it, and the trans people themselves were not advocating for eugenic sterilization. The man was a trailblazer, not a saint. In fact, his approach to trans medicine laid the foundation for a system that forces people to jump through hoops for medical care. To this day, the majority of people who do trans medicine are not transgender themselves, and they do not always have the best interests of trans people at heart, Marhoefer said.

Gohrbandt would certainly make a list of medical practitioners who did not always have the best interests of trans people at heart. The pioneering plastic surgeon’s career bloomed along with his field, which quickly advanced to treat disfiguring battlefield injuries from World War I. He did not work at the institute, and because the surgeries were still very rare, he didn’t make a living performing them, Marhoefer said. We can count on one hand the number of gender-affirming surgeries he performed.

Unlike the Jewish and leftist doctors he worked with, Gohrbandt did not have to flee Germany. He endorsed the regime and later became the chief medical advisor for the Luftwaffe’s sanitary services division. In 1942, he participated in a secret conference on the results of fatal hypothermia experiments performed on Holocaust victims, and later reported the results in a German surgical journal.

Marhoefer said it is not strange that a future Nazi worked with progressive Jews on gender-affirming care in the 1920s. Many German doctors backed the regime and committed atrocities because they wanted careers. 

There’s no defending Gohrbandt, but his path does not suggest anything unique and nefarious about gender-affirming care. It says more about the heartbreaking situation these trans people found themselves in when even the few doctors they could turn to for medical care treated them with disdain.

Marhoefer said doctors of the day took advantage of desperate women such as Elbe, Dora Richter, and Charlotte Charlaque, who was Jewish and fled the Nazis. They endured experimental surgeries with no oversight before antibiotics, patients’ rights, or ethics protections. Many doctors saw them as a means to an end in the overall development of plastic surgery.

What All of This Is Really About

Trans persecution is simply one story in a much larger one about the Holocaust. Trans people today who point out this history as right-wing attacks against them intensify around the world are not erasing the murder of Jews and Roma in concentration camps, or the extermination of disabled people, or the deaths of millions of Soviet POWS in Nazi Germany’s murderous campaign to seize eastern territory and farmland. 

But this conversation is not really about Nazis any more than constant squabbles over gender-affirming care are about children. Nor does it honor victims of Nazi crimes.

No information, scholarship, or detailed account of a complicated history can satisfy someone who is fundamentally opposed to a person existing as they do. No number of mainstream medical organizations that again and again defend the efficacy of gender-affirming care can assuage their doubts. The benchmark for correctness is constantly moving and shifting, and the argument has no logical endpoint.

Meanwhile, ordinary trans people who rise to their own defense are labeled activists and needled for their wording, or their temperament, or their appearance, or the smallest misstatement. 

At the same time, people like Rowling expect transgender laypeople to possess the knowledge of Holocaust researchers, of doctors, of psychologists, and of public policy experts. Every week, it seems, anti-trans interests push out another poorly researched hit meant to undermine the community’s existence in some way. It is trolling, and it is exhausting, and that’s all it is.