This year, for Holocaust memorial day, the Equalities Team and specialists from Swansea University held an event for Holocaust Memorial Day. The theme was ‘Torn from Home’. A specialist in ethics, one in racism, and myself as Chair of the LGBT+ Staff Network at Swansea University, gave presentations on aspects of memorialisation and lessons to be learned. Reviewing the horrors of what happened during the Nazi regime in Germany (1933 to 1945) and the impact on people of diverse backgrounds was an important reminder to all of us that we must continue to strive for equal and just societies and social processes. For me, the task of reviewing and exploring what happened to LGBTQ+ people under that regime was particularly powerful, if considerably challenging.
Prior to the rise to power of the Nazi regime in 1933, the Weimar republic in Germany offered a diverse and creative culture in which LGBTQ people were able to express themselves reasonably freely, particularly in Berlin, which many LGBTQ people were drawn to. There was an institute studying homosexuality, and arguing against its criminalisation. Even though being male and homosexual was illegal, this law was not really enforced, and there were significant advances in gender rights and roles and women’s autonomy alongside cultural diversity. There were gay printing presses, gay clubs and bars, and bookshops too.
All of this freedom came to an end in 1933. The new regime enforced the criminalisation of male homosexuals. The focus of the Nazi persecution of LGBTQ people was on gay men. Section S175 of the Reich Penal Code applied to men only, and although there were those who lobbied to have it extended to women, this did not happen. Intimate relations between women were not seen as significant, and were not, as such, prosecuted at law. The lack of penal sanctions against lesbianism did not mean that women known or denounced as lesbians escaped all persecution or prosecution.
The Nazi regime undid all advances in women’s suffrage and rights. Women were removed from any positions of leadership or responsibility in public life and industry. They were to be mothers and wives and carers only, their ‘natural destiny.’ The mysogynist philosopher Ernst Bergmann suggested 1933 that ‘the sex of masculine women’ ‘be compulsorily mated in order to cure them’ arguing that there was ‘no need to fear that they would transmit their degeneracy to their issue.’ The Nazi regime was obsessed with racial purity.
A collective lesbian lifestyle and identity, which had grown since the early 1900s, and especially in the years of the Weimar republic, was destroyed under Nazism. And so such women were forced into hiding. However, some women were arrested as ‘asocials’ due to their lesbianism. Shortly after the Nazi ‘seizure of power,’ lesbian women were already being carried off to concentration camps. From 1936, they were sent for re-education programmes at the Berlin institute for Psychological Research and Psychotherapy, but there is very little evidence anywhere of what happened to women. According to some sources, lesbians who were sent to Ravensbruck, and other camps, were told that if they served 6 months as prostitutes, they would be freed. Most often, they were exterminated once they were no longer useful.
Gay men were arrested, detained, and sent to be ‘re-educated’ in order to try to ‘cure’ them of their homosexuality. If this was not successful, they might be castrated, or executed. In 1933, the Prussian Minister for the Interior issued three decrees for the combating of public indecency. These were focused on prostitution and homosexuality, including the closure of ‘public houses solely or mainly frequented by persons who engage in unnatural sex acts. Gay magazines and publications were closed and their stock destroyed.
Advances in science, health and research were reversed – on 6 May 1933 Magnus Hirschfeld’s Sexual Science Institute, which was world renowned, was destroyed, and on 10 May his writings and research were publicly burned. He had advocated that homosexuality was simply another state of human being.
In the second six months of 1934, a special section was set up at Gestapo headquarters to deal with cases involving homosexuality. At the end of 1934, all Regional Criminal Police Bureaux were asked for lists of persons who had been homosexually active in the past. There were nationwide actions against gay men. In Berlin, a raid on pubs resulted in 413 homosexual men being placed into ‘preventive detention.’ In 1935 the Sixth Amendment to the Penal Code contained significant changes in the criminalization of homosexuality and its punishment. This resulted in many more men being detained.
Although only small proportion of homosexual men were actually arrested and punished, the everyday life of all LGBTQ people was powerfully shaped by the official policy of oppression and criminilisation, resulting in a widespread contempt for anyone LGBTQ. Many people pretended to be heterosexual to avoid persecution.
Hundreds of gay men were sent to concentration camps. In these camps, coloured triangles designated what kind of prisoner. ‘Asocials’ (which included prostitutes and a small number of lesbians) wore a black triangle. Political prisoners wore red triangles. Gay men wore pink triangles. The conditions in most camps were horrific, and prisoners were subject to random and extreme brutality, torture, experimentation and extermination. Women found pregnant in Ravensbruck were forced to undergo termination of pregnancy in horrendous circumstances.
Six million Jews were murdered, as part of ‘The Final Solution.” This in itself is shocking. But they were not the only victims. It is vital to remember that many prisoners were Gypsies, political dissidents, political activists, or the most marginalised within society. Alongside the monstrous anti-Semitism, there was also a mass execution of ‘useless mouths’ including the mentally ill and the disabled. And for some, they wore more than one triangle, identifying their intersectionality. The families of many of those murdered received letters and death certificates citing standard causes of death, hiding the truth of what really happened. People were shot, beaten to death, starved, frozen, bitten by dogs, and, as the second world war progressed, gassed. A lot of what happened is lost, as the documents and evidence were deliberately destroyed during the last months of the war.
What can we learn from this?
This was a fascist backlash during a period of advances in culture, equality and gender rights. This was a response to advances in racial and gender freedom, and also advances in understanding of human identity and sexuality. It was led by a regime which took power and manipulated its population by misinformation, brutality and legal changes which reduced people’s ability to resist. It took a global war to bring this to an end. We have gained significantly in the last two decades in terms of LGBTQ rights and women’s rights, but we still have a long way to go. Many people I speak to, either LGBTQ-identified or not, seem to think that with equal marriage and the Equality Act 2010, we have nothing left to fight for. That there is no need for LGBTQ people to be political. Yet across the world there are still many countries were being LGBTQ is illegal. We need activism more than ever.
Currently, there are some reports of persecution of gay men in Chechnya. It is illegal to even discuss homosexuality in Russia. And there has been a reversal of LGBT supportive laws in the USA – including Trump’s ban on Trans people in the military. Similarly, gender equality legislation and activism in the USA is being reversed, particularly in the sphere of women’s reproductive rights. It is vital for us to realise that during the Nazi regime, all of the persecution was legalised. It is still illegal to be gay in 72 countries in the world, some of whom carry the death penalty for this ‘offence’ (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/27/gay-relationships-still-criminalised-countries-report).
The general vitriol and backlash against the rights of Transgender people in the UK and the USA is particularly disturbing. Political movements that have hitherto been focused on gender equality suffer from extreme elements which seek to deny Trans people their fundamental identities.
Violence and persecution of LGBTQ people is rife in our culture, despite the legal protections some of us enjoy. We cannot allow the inequalities, prejudice and discrimination that have plagued us for so long to continue or to worsen. Global leaders should call on every country to address legal issues, and enshrine the protection of individual rights in laws that cannot be rescinded.
When I read of the horrors of the Holocaust, and the people affected, I think also of the people I know and love, and I realise that this kind of marginalisation, victimisation and persecution could happen to anyone. When I first became a visible LGBTQ person within my current role, people were afraid for me. They said it would negatively impact on my academic career. When I experienced neighbourhood abuse at home, and professional bullying in previous roles in clinical practice, I thought I would have to hide my identity in order to continue paying my bills. But I am lucky to now work in a fully inclusive, progressive and visionary institution with visible role models and a very strong drive for equality. My work has become part of my activism, and my identity fundamental to my work. I consider myself lucky to work for Swansea University and to be connected to networks of activists and colleagues who are engaged in the same drive to demonstrably act for equality.
Considering the lessons of the past, I say, what can we do, you and I, to build a better future? What can you do? It might be that you simply challenge the language and behaviour you encounter, which might exclude or stereotype LGBTQ people, or people of diverse ethnicities, cultures and characteristics. It might be that you visibly show your support by joining the LGBTQ allies network, or promoting gender-inclusive language in your workplace. You might ask for LGBTQ inclusivity training in for your team. Or you might look at ways of making your materials and activities more inclusive. You might write to your MP to lobby for the retention of the Human Rights Act after Brexit, and to advocate for equal treatment and direct action to support certain groups in our society – including Trans people, migrants, people with disabilities, the elderly and those with mental illness.
It might just be that you embrace the idea of consciousness-raising, for yourself and for others. To recognise our privilege and use it as best we can to change this unequal, unfair world for the better. If this blog post has helped with that, then I have achieved my purpose in writing it.
Alys Einion February 11th, 2019
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