Karl M. Baer: The first person in the world to undergo sex-change surgery

Karl M. Baer was born as Martha, in 1885 Germany – and he was buried in 1956 in Bat Yam (Israel), as Karl M. Baer. During that time, he managed to become a feminist activist, to undergo the first known sex-reassignment surgery, to move to Israel, to become an insurance agent – and live in a polyamorous relationship with two women in Bat Yam. Despite all this, so few people in Israel and worldwide have heard the name Carl M. Baer, even within the LGBT community.

When he was born the hospital nurses determined he was a girl, but they claimed his physical attributes were “weird” – apparently, Baer was born intersex (someone who has physical attributes of both sexes, male and female). In any case, from a young age, he felt a mismatch between his gender and his body.

During puberty, the differences between Baer and the other girls in class became more apparent. Hair began to appear on his face, and his voice became lower – which led to him thinking he was ill with tuberculosis. He also began experiencing sexual attraction towards women. With no access to credible information about sexuality and gender, he suffered from depression and anxiety.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Carl began to work in a large department store, where he was exposed to feminist theorists. The reality of the department store with its sexual harassment, financial discrimination, and the disparaging attitudes of the customers and managers, turned Carl into a feminist activist.

He moved to Hamburg in 1903, where he was first exposed to the LGBT community. He quickly became a part of the lesbian community in the city.

He rented an apartment with Edward Levinson, who was the publisher of a Jewish magazine and an activist who fought against the sexual trafficking of Jewish women. Baer quickly became an activist in the field as well and began lecturing throughout Germany. He became known as a journalist and an eloquent speaker in the field.

He began publicly addressing himself with male pronouns in 1904. The fact that there were no known cases of people who had undergone sexual reassignment surgery from female to male at that point, did not stop him from introducing himself as a man.

Around that time, Baer met Beile Halpern and fell desperately in love. There was one issue preventing them from living happily ever after: Halpern was married. Just like Romeo and Juliet, they decided that if they couldn’t live together – it was best that they died. Yet as Baer waited for Halpern’s arrival on the eve of their suicide, he was badly injured in an electrical accident in Berlin.

During his rehabilitation, Baer admitted to his doctor that he was in a bad mental state. The doctor decided to consult Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, due to Baer’s “strange physical findings” and the fact that he referred to himself as a man.

Dr. Magnus Hirschfield was one of the most prominent (and only) researchers in Germany and the world who studying sex, gender, and sexuality during that time. He was one of the first to call to repeal the law forbidding homosexual relations. He was also one of the first people to study what he referred to as “the third gender” – intersex and transgendered people.

Dr. Magnus Hirschfield recommended that Baer undergo “a little surgery” to correct his gender. Although there were no clear regulations regarding gender reassignment during that time, Baer still had to obtain forms from various authorities before undergoing the surgery. He got the required paperwork and went through the surgery successfully in 1906. In January 1907, his birth certificate was amended and he was registered as a man. This led to him being able to marry Halpern, but she passed away from pneumonia shortly after their wedding.

Unfortunately, we do not know which surgery Baer underwent. During the Nazis book burnings, most of Dr. Hirschfield’s notes were burned, including Baer’s medical records.

Nazis Soldier burning Magnus
Nazi soldiers burning books and documents in Dr. Hirschfield lab

Baer’s story made waves in Germany, and he published an autobiography that became a bestseller. He chose No Body as a pen name, in reference to Hertzl’s The Old New Land (Altneuland), which had a character with the same name. The autobiography gained a lot of traction in Germany and even got two motion picture adaptations.

He began working as the manager of the Berlin branch of B’nai B’rith (Children of the Covenant) until he was captured and tortured during a raid of the branch in 1937. After his release, he and his wife, Elza Max, decided to move to Israel.

They settled in Bat Yam, and Baer found a job as an insurance agent. During those years, he began a relationship with his secretary, Gitla Fish, and she moved in with him and Elsa. They lived as a throuple – a three-person relationship. He passed away in 1956 and was buried in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv, with few Israeli citizens knowing of his remarkable story.

karl m baer

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