While the war against gay marriage wails in the background, a traveling exhibition titled "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945" has settled in at Burton Barr Central Library. It's the first in a series of exhibitions from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about the non-Jewish groups persecuted by the Nazis -- Jehovah's Witnesses, the handicapped, Gypsies, and non-Jewish Poles -- curated by museum deputy director Ted Phillips, who has plenty to say about the horrors of homosexual persecution.
New Times: I remember reading, when this exhibition first opened in Washington, D.C., that the opening was picketed. By Jews.
Ted Phillips: Well, sort of. That wasn't this exhibition, really. We did a similar, but much smaller, exhibition in 1996, and that's the one you're thinking of. It was objected to by a group of Orthodox rabbis who got to Capitol Hill and tried to urge the powers there that federal money should be taken away from this museum. They didn't really get anywhere, and the matter disappeared. This new exhibition is 100 linear feet of material, and we've had almost no negative feedback so far.
NT: How is it that the Nazi persecution of homosexuals didn't come to light until more recently?
Phillips: So much of this kind of information is linked to stories from survivors, but such was not the case with the gay victims of the Nazis. The laws used by the Nazis against homosexuals remained on the books until 1969, so gay men continued to be persecuted and didn't come forward with stories. It wasn't until the younger generation of scholars got involved that the stories of gay prisoners came to light.
NT: A hundred thousand men were arrested in Germany in the 1930s under a broadly interpreted law, Paragraph 175, against homosexuality. The original law had been on the books since 1871, and referred to "unnatural indecency between men." That's pretty vague.
Phillips: In the late Imperial period, the German Supreme Court defined "unnatural indecency between men" as "an intercourse-like act." When the Nazis got around to revising the law, they changed it to "indecent," a very broad interpretation that included any kind of touching between men as illegal. And not just touching -- you could be hauled away for just looking at another man if it was deemed that your look carried sexual subtext.
NT: So cruising was illegal.
Phillips: Yes. If you were so much as suspected of cruising another man, it was a potential crime and you could be arrested and imprisoned.
NT: I thought that the Germany of the '30s was a place where sexual identity and gender were being explored pretty openly.
Phillips: You're thinking of Berlin. [The '30s] was a great period of social experimentation, but not nationwide. Certainly gender issues were being explored in Berlin at the time, but to say that all of Germany was experiencing this would be like saying that the San Francisco of the '70s was representative of all of America during that decade.
NT: The exhibition isn't about the persecution of Jewish homosexuals by Nazis.
Phillips: Actually, the persecution of homosexuals almost predates the very violent persecution of Jews. Gays were among the earliest victims of the Nazi attempts to "clean up society." Two months after Hitler came to power, nearly all of the same-sex bars were closed up. Any sort of gay gathering place had mostly vanished. The police were constantly vigilant, looking for any gay assembly that would "further their degenerate behavior." The persecution of German gay men -- and not lesbians, by the way -- began very early in 1933, and peaked in 1938, just before the attacks on the German Jews really began.
NT: How come lesbians were spared?
Phillips: Because Germany, under the Nazi regime, was very much a male-centric society. All state organizations were all male -- the Nazi party, the Brown Shirts, the SS -- everything was about men. And the great fear was that a gay man would enter one of those groups and spread his degeneracy.
NT: By forcing these guys to wear couture? By holding them down and curling their eyelashes?
Phillips: No. Actually, seduction was viewed to be the great vector of contagion among gay men. Having one gay man [as a member] would lead to degeneration of the entire organization.
NT: Right. Because if you bat your eyes at a straight guy long enough, poof! He becomes a big old Mary.
Phillips: Well, they were driven by fear of more aggressive tactics, but I see your point. The fear was that gay men were undermining German society. And to answer your question about lesbians, women's roles in Nazi Germany were secondary in every way. It was believed that their traditional role of wife and mother would be adopted by women as long as there were enough [heterosexual] men. The handful of lesbians the Nazis knew of were dismissed as not being threatening.
NT: Were gay men incarcerated because they were a menace to society, or because they weren't serving the country by not procreating?
Phillips: Actually, it was both. Another aspect was a strong belief that most homosexual men had been seduced into homosexuality. That they had acquired this contagion and could be cured in prison or in camps if they were given hard labor and a certain amount of discipline under the watchful eye of prison guards.
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!
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.
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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.