(Originally written April 5, 2006 on my old blog. I’m transferring this now because I gave this talk again twice this week. A friend accompanied me to one of them and, in the car ride home after, she mentioned that she had the same realisation that I discuss at the end of this post. So as I sit at home recovering once again from having to deal with this gruesome topic but also from the energy of raising much needed awareness on the issue and reflecting on how I now fear more violence as a visibly queer guy than I ever did before, I thought it would be a good time to transfer this post.)
Maybe you already know this symbol . . . it can often be seen in connection to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) communuty. Perhaps you already knew that the origin of this symbol can be found in Nazi concentration camps where not only Jews, Roma, people with disabilities and Jehova’s Witnesses were persecuted but where at least 10,000 homosexual and bisexual men were persecuted as well. I’m assuming that people who would, today, perhaps identify as trans women were included as well. Heck, some hetero men who were perceived as gay were probably in there as well since gossip was commonly used as evidence.
Like many people, I thought for a long time that the only targets of Nazi hatred were Jews. That is what I had learned as a child. Of course, this was horrible to me and, even though I’m not Jewish, I’ve always (well, at least since I’ve been mature enough to have deeper thoughts on the issue) felt concerned by these events. There are two primary reasons for this: one is that my father worked for a Jewish community in New York state and taught me to have enourmous respect for them (. . . even though he actually admired Hitler! That is a whole other story, a very traumatising one at that, about this internal duality that he had and the image of my little 5-year-old hands drawing swatikas under his guidance haunt me in my darker moments. However, that is nothing compared to the suffering of the people we are talking about here). The other reason for my long-standing feeling of concern with these events is that I feel human suffering through the empathy that I have for fellow humans, regardless of ethniciy, sex, age and so forth. After all, Jews are humans and I’m human. That was and still is enough for me to feel deeply concerned with and touched by their story, just as it is enough for me to feel deep concern with other genocides and massacres.
When I went to university, I finally found out that there had been other victims in the Holocaust. In the very gradual revealing of these various groups, homosexuals were the last one I found out about.
Now, the college where I teach hosts an annual Holocaust Symposium in April. During this week, various events are scheduled that deal with the Holocaust or with other genocides. The goal is to educate students and the community about what went on and to avoid forgetting the past. These events are scheduled during class times and teachers are encouraged to bring their students. Since I’ve been teaching there, I have always made it a point to take my students to these events. I think it’s important for them to be reminded.
During last year’s  symposium, I casually asked the organiser, a wonderfully kind and warm man who makes a great cup of tea, if they had ever dealt with the topic of homosexuals during the Holocaust. I figured that in 12 years of existence, they couldn’t possibly have by-passed this important topic. I was wrong. He enthusiastically asked me if I would be willing to work on this for the 2006 symposium.
So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been doing research on this topic in preparation for a presentation to be given this week. For the most part, I managed to keep the topic at an intellectual level and to remain objective. Even as I recognised the attrocity of what I was reading, I remained calm and heady. Once in a while, however . . . once in a while, I would have to put it aside. There were points where I just could not read another witness account of inhuman treatment and brutality. Sometimes, it was just too much.
What really touched me, though, even more than the descriptions, as horrible as they were, were the mug shots. You know . . . those series of three pictures of a prisonner upon his arrival at a concentration camp . . . one profile, one diagonal and one face-on. They already had their pyjama-like uniforms on. I looked at these young men and imagined how they must have been full of vitality, full of life, full of love . . . and how they were now so confused, so messed up (since the transportation to camps had its fair share of victims) and so close to death. So close to the atrocious suffering that would be dealt to them by SS officers and even other prisoners. I will spare you the details.
Today, after my presentation, I attended a commemoration ceremony. Short speeches were made as well as a prayer by a Rabbi and some Yiddish singing (that I felt I could almost understand since it is so close to German but . . .not quite). Candles were lit. Two students talked about their previous exposure to Holocaust education in school or elsewhere. A recurrent theme was “How will others remember?” In fact, it was the theme of this year’s symposium. One thing that came up (I honestly can’t remember if it came up in conversation or in my brain) was that when the survivors are gone, their children will be there to continue to pass down the memories, and their children’s children after that.
This thought, whereever it came from, made me think about the LGBT community at two levels. One level is that we often forget that there is still a lot of work to be done with regards to LGBT rights. Even if conditions are favourable now and we have gained much ground, at least in Canada, things could change in a matter of no time at all. If we think of Berlin in the 1920s, we are reminded that queer culture was flourishing. Bars, associations, a gay rights movement . . . it seemed as though things were headed in the right direction. They even managed to get a vote through in the Reich that would remove the law against homosexuality (Paragraph 175) from the books. This progress was nullified very rapidly with Hitler’s rise to power even though many people thought that he was harmless in the beginning and that everything would be OK. It scares me that today, we often thing that everything will be OK and that the rights we’ve gained can’t be taken away. With the current political climate in North America, this attitude can be very misleading.
The second aspect on which this thought made me reflect is that of “descent”. If Jewish survivors had children and grandchildren who would transmit their story throughout the generations, who would do it for the gays? For the most part, gay survivors did not have children. Furthermore, they couldn’t even tell their story until the 1970s without fear of arrest since Paragraph 175 remained in effect in one version or another in both East and West Germany.
I realised then, in the middle of listening to a speech by a Rabbi, that WE, the current queer community, are their descendents . . .if not physically, then spiritually. It’s our duty, then, to become aware of the atrocities that they faced during the Holocaust and in other times and places. The Holocaust is, of course, a special case since it went beyond a mere case of homophobia into a case of vengence on these German men who should be able to reproduce and help propagate the “Master Race” but who, instead, chose to love differently. It is therefore important for us to be aware and to make sure that future generations are aware of the extent or the suffering to which hatred and incomprehension can lead. Like the children and grandchildren of Jewish survivors, we must recognise the past of our “ancestors” and make sure that it doesn’t happen again, that we maintain our right to love in our own way and that the future generations inherit this right.
I also think that it’s critical that we show the Nazis (if their souls are watching us from whereever they are, surely in hell if it exists – although I’m not Christian, I can’t believe that there is no hell somewhere reserved for people such as them who have incarnated evil) that they failed in their quest to divide us! For let us not forget that one of their goals in assigning triangles of various colours to their prisoners was to divide them so that they would continue to distrust and even hate each other. We must acknowledge that ALL these people suffered in equally horrendous ways. We cannot put a hierarchy on people’s suffering. We can say that the suffering was inflicted differently on the different groups but in the end Jews, gays and other victims of the Holocaust or of any other genocide or massacre suffered in appalling ways.
This realisation, that we queers are in a sense descendants of homosexual victims of the Holocaust gave a whole new meaning to the research and presentation that I did. If at first the project was mainly academic and intellectual, it has now taken on a spiritual, political and social meaning since I can now feel that I have fulfilled part of my duty as a metephorical descendant of these victims. This realisation, as it hit me like a punch in the stomach, gave deep meaning, even after the fact, to the pain that I felt through the gazes of the victims in the pictures. And I’m grateful for it.