Hari Nef as Gittel Pfefferman in 1930s Berlin



A Guide To 'Transparent' Season Two's Historical LGBT Plotline

Season one of Amazon’s show Transparent was an obvious hit when it came out last year. The critical reception to the show was overwhelming, sparking many a think piece and a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. As season two rolls out today, the Pfefferman clan–and show-runner Jill Soloway–is sure to get even more press, as the story jumps away from modern Los Angeles, to another place and time [Spoiler alert]. Throughout the season, Hari Nef plays Pfefferman ancestor Gittel, a trans woman living in 1930s Berlin. The scenes in Berlin add a rich layer to our understanding of the Pfeffermans– and to modern day Ali’s theories about inherited trauma.

At first glance, the Berlin subplot seems substantially fictional. The idea of LGBT people not just being out, but being visible in society during the ’30s, just doesn’t seem feasible.

Magnus Hirshfeld and friends.
Magnus Hirshfeld and friends in the 1920s.

However, Transparent retains its attention to detail and realness in these scenes. The Berlin populated by Maura’s mother Rose and her sister Gittel, isn’t far off from the Berlin that really existed in the Wiemar Republic-run Germany between World War I and World War II. Many of the scenes of Berlin take place in or around the Institute of Sex Research. The Institute, run by Magnus Hirschfeld–who is also featured throughout the season–was a real thing in Germany from 1919 to 1933. The Institution and the community around it was fairly open, especially compared the the closed-door sexuality of LGBT people in America.

Hirschfield was also a pioneer in accepting transgender people. One of the first scenes of Transparent that takes place in the Institute shows a trans man leading a tour group; it’s probable that scenes like this were commonplace, Hirschfield not only accepted transgender people, but also employed many of them as the Institute’s staff.

The crowd at a gay club in Berlin in the 1930's.
The crowd at a gay club in Berlin in the 1930’s.

There’s also a scene where Gittel shows her mother her “transvestite pass,” a legal protection that real-life Hirschfeld was instrumental getting for transgender individuals. “He managed to convince Berlin police officials to issue transvestite passes,” said Robert Beachy, author of “Gay Berlin: Birthplace of Modern Identity,” in a conversation with NPR. “And so if somebody had one of these transvestite passes, say, a male cross-dresser who liked to wear women’s clothing, he could then show it to a police officer and say, ‘I have formal permission to appear in public in women’s clothing.’ So, this was a phenomenon in Berlin already before the First World War, and it continued then into the ’20s and early ’30s.”

Although by law, being gay was illegal in Germany between the World Wars–with transgender people also being persecuted under the same laws–the police realized that enforcing any ban was basically impossible. In effect, as long as everyone involved was consenting the police turned a blind eye to the burgeoning LGBT scene in Berlin. There were more gay bars and journals in 1920s Berlin than there were in 1980s New York City.

However, as the Nazis came to power, the tide changed quickly in Berlin.

As many of the prominent gay rights figures in Berlin were Jewish, the Nazi party condemned homosexuality. “The homosexual rights movement was often understood as Jewish,” explained Robert Beachy. “And so Magnus Hirschfeld, some of the other leaders, a lot of the progressive physicians or psychiatrists or medical doctors who also supported legal reform–they were Jewish. A lot of the lawyers and jurists who supported some kind of reform, they were also Jewish. And, so one way to smear the homosexual rights movement was to describe it as Jewish. And it’s this connection that probably reinforced a Nazi condemnation of homosexuality.”

A group of queer German men in the 1930's.
A group of queer German people in the 1930’s.

Spoiler Alert: One of the final scenes in Transparent–a heart wrenching moment in the second season–is the books of the Institute being burned as Gittel is dragged off by Nazi police. In February 1933, the Nazi Party launched an LGBT purge in Berlin. The books of the Institute were destroyed and the Institute itself closed, ending the golden era of Berlin LGBT life. Between 1933 and 1945, over 100,000 men were arrested for being homosexual. Many were sent to concentration camps, although the exact number is unknown.

For a fictional television show, the scenes in 1930’s Berlin throughout the second season of Transparent closely follow this narrative of LGBT life in Berlin: A rise, a golden age, and a tragic fall at the hands of the Nazis. In doing so, the show adds layers of history–dimensions of trauma–that few shows come close to tackling.

All images from the collection of Magnus Hirschfeld

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