Pink Persecution

"Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals" at Burton Barr resonates in today's America

NT: That sounds sort of sexy.

Phillips: Well, the thinking was that doing manly work would reeducate these men as straight males who could then rejoin society.

NT: And throw away their aprons!

Camp follower: Ted Phillips curates persecution.
Emily Piraino
Camp follower: Ted Phillips curates persecution.

Phillips: One SS official at the time said that 98 percent of gay men could be reeducated, but that 40,000 of them would have to be taken out of society completely so as not to further contaminate society. These were the "incorrigible homosexuals."

NT: How is it that they were identified as homosexuals? Were they carrying handbags?

Phillips: No, because as soon as it became public knowledge that the police were diligently looking for homosexuals, gay activity dispersed and went underground. Gay men who had gay friends wouldn't talk to or look at them in public. People began turning in their friends and neighbors. In one case, a woman turned in her own brother for being gay.

NT: And these guys were arrested. But based on what?

Phillips: Circumstantial evidence. Two men are seen going into a house, the lights go out. "Hmm, what's that about?" These men are immediately looked upon as "enemies of state."

NT: Were homosexuals segregated in the camps?

Phillips: Usually, the population of homosexuals [in each camp] was small, maybe up to two dozen. And they were spread out to diffuse them, so they wouldn't create support for one another or attempt to form coalitions. The Germans wanted to diffuse the homosexuals' influence -- not that they had any. One camp had so many homosexuals that they tried to create a single barracks, and put up a double row of barbed wire around that camp.

NT: You're joking.

Phillips: I've seen drawings of the double barbed wire. Unbelievable.

NT: There's some sort of metaphor there for George Bush and the whole gay marriage thing, but don't get me started. Tell me, were there gay love affairs started in these camps?

Phillips: There are anecdotes, but little strong evidence. It would be wonderful to find diaries of the prisoners, but written documents don't seem to exist.

NT: So did you track down gay survivors?

Phillips: Very few. Our real information came from police files, because few gay men came forward to tell their stories.

NT: The worst part of the story is that after these men were freed from the concentration camps, they were taken to prison, because homosexuality wasn't decriminalized in Germany until 1969.

Phillips: That's because, under Nazi law, they were still viewed as not having finished their sentence. You have to remember that the allies who freed the prisoners were from countries that still had sodomy laws on their books, as well.

NT: Right. And some of those anti-sodomy laws have only recently been repealed. So what's the greater lesson here?

Phillips: The exhibition will hopefully get people to thinking about stereotypes, and the impact that prejudice can have on people. The impact that state mandates can have on individuals. And the ways in which certain forms of persecution persist today.


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