The Invisible Queer Victims of the Holocaust

A few weeks ago, I went up to Cedar Crest College to speak on the last day of a week-long series of events focusing on the Holocaust, hosted by a very good friend of mine. At first, I had some hesitation over agreeing to the topic. While I knew queer people suffered during the Holocaust, I wasn’t sure how I was an appropriate person for such a presentation, but after preparing for my speech, I learned so much more about how the queer Holocaust victims received the worst treatment of any non-Jewish group, and unlike any other group in the Holocaust, even after being freed from concentration camps, the hatred faced by queer Holocaust victims continued for decades. I learned that while the Nazi Holocaust is long past, the genocides in Uganda and Darfur, as well as Russia’s new anti-gay laws show we may not be as far from repeating these mistakes as we would like to think. I wanted to share some of the story of what happened to gay people in Germany during this period in time, and highlight how many things have not changed in the past 80 years.
As a sidenote for some historical context, Transgender as a term did not even exist until the 90s. A transgender person living in the 1930’s and 1940’s would likely be considered to be gay, at this time. Even the label gay doesn’t quite fit, as it has a specific definition present day that doesn’t always match up with how people may have thought throughout history. As gender roles and cultural norms shift, behavior that we might think is “gay” may have been considered perfectly normal for a straight man at a certain time in history to do. That being said, “homosexual sex” is usually the big issue, and often focuses on male + male penetrational sex (often defined as sodomy, though technically the term refers to any non-procreational sex) being the truly heinous offense.
Prior to World War 2, things were relatively good for gay people in Germany compared to other European countries. While there were sodomy laws that made male + male penetrational sex illegal, the standard for conviction was very high, so it required a great deal of evidence to convict anyone of that crime. Gay social groups were allowed to exist so long as they did not actually admit to having sex. As the Nazis took power in the early 1930’s, that radically changed. Hitler and his regime practiced a strict policy of homophobia. In 1935, “Paragraph 175” of the Germany Criminal code, which up till then banned sexual deviants such as pedophilia and beastiality, was ammended to make male gay sex a punishable offense of up to 10 years in jail, lowered the standard of conviction significantly, and later gave judges the power to order compulsory or voluntary castration (which many were coerced to undergo anyways). While lesbian sex was not considered illegal under Paragraph 175, lesbians were considered asocials, since they did not meet the “German standards of womanhood” such as being a good wife and mother, bearing kids for your husband, etc. Other asocials included prostitutes, chronically unemployed, mentally ill, handicapped people, and more.
In February 1937, Henrich Himmler, head of Hitler’s SS, gave a speech in which he declared that <b>homosexuality threatened the moral purity of Germany</b> as well as the racial purity of the Aryan race. He also announced that, under his authority, any homosexuals convicted under Paragraph 175 would be sent to concentration camps once the court had finished with them. Informant networks sprung up, with kids informing on teachers suspected of being gay, gay groups being raided, having their membership lists used to identify more homosexuals, and all books relating to sexuality were publicly burnt. The program to send homosexuals to concentration had a slogan of “Extermination Through Work.”Men convicted under Paragraph 175 and sent to concentration camps were marked with a downward-pointing pink triangle (just as Jews were branded with a yellow Star of David). Lesbian women were branded with black triangles, marking them as asocials.
Life in the camps for the Pink Triangles was more awful than any other non-Jewish groups. They were strictly monitored 24/7 to ensure no men had sex. They were completely isolated in their own block, immediately killed if they so much as talked to a prisoner from another block. The Nazis were terrified the Pink Triangles would seduce the other prisoners, which was ironic, since homosexual sex was much more prominent in any other block which was not as strictly monitored. Not only did the Pink Triangles experience abuse from their Nazi jailors, but they experienced the same discrimination and hatred from other prisoners due to widespread homophobia; gay prisoners were even beaten to death by other homophobic prisoners. For every other group, the camps were made up of two groups, the Prisoners VS the Nazis, which gave all of the prisoners a sense of commrodery which helped many make it through the terrible period. This was not true for the Pink Triangles, they had no support, no group, no safety at all. Everyone was likely to want them dead. This complete isolation, even by other prisoners, had a terrible affect on the Pink Triangles’ psyche.
Pink Triangles were considered the lowest of lows, below the criminals, often not allowed to hold any sort of position of responsibility. If a homosexual man went to the sick bay, they were not likely to ever return. The Pink Triangles were the first to be taken for experimentation. This was especially true for numerous doctors who tried to <b>discover and destroy the gay gene</b> and <b>cure the gay disease</b>. Pink Triangles were forced to undergo 10-13 hours in grueling, backbreaking, pointless work meant to break their spirit and crush their hope. An example of this would be taking the first half of the day to move snow from one side of the road to the other using their bare hands, then spend the second half of the day moving it back to the original side of the road. Death rates of Pink Triangles was susptected to be 3-4 times higher than any other non-Jewish category of prisoner.
The torture for gay Holocaust victims did not stop after World War 2. As the Allied forces liberated the concentration camps one after another, most people were freed and sent home, many eventually given some monetary compensation or pension by the government for their suffering. Pink Triangles, however, were often taken out of concentration camp only to be returned immediately to German jails, since homosexuality was still illegal under Paragraph 175. Their time in concentration camps was sometimes counted as time served. Further, many other European countries (and America) still had laws banning sodomy, so even the liberators of the camps considered the Pink Triangles lower than criminals. The targetted torture of the LGBT people was not recognized at all in the Nuremberg War Crimes, which took place after the war ended to hold key Nazi officials responsible for the atrocities they commited during the war. Many of the doctors who committed atrocious experiments on humans to try to cure the gay gene lived and died as free men after the war. It wasn’t until 30+ years later that the German government officially repealed the part of Paragraph 175 banning gay sex in 1969. Even then, it was not until 2002 that the German government offered an official apology to the gay community. The last known gay Holocaust survivor died in 2008. Because of all the homophobia that was rampant throughout the area and the techniques used to silence gay Holocaust victims, nobody really knows how many gay people were in the concentration camps. Most reports range from 5,000 to 15,000 Pink Triangles in the concentration camps. Other reports site over 100,000 gay people being arrested and taken away. Over 60% of the people wearing Pink Triangles died after they arrived in the concentration camps.
Historically, this is a very sad story and a part of our story as LGBT individuals in a world full of hate and homophobia. But the ramifications of this event in our past are still only now being understood. For so long, gay victims of the Holocaust were invisible, it has only been in the past 30 years they have even been acknowledged, and only in the past 10 they have been officially recognized as victims of the Holocaust. I believe it is important for us as queer people to claim this part of our history. This is the end result of the homophobic speeches given by numerous conservative leaders to incite the masses against their queer brothers and sisters. This is where policies like those in Russia, where they are rapidly identifying and isolating any homosexuals, this is where those policies lead. Queer rights aren’t some new special thing, but the exact same rights conservative governments have tried to take from us for centuries. We are not some new movement that came from nowhere, we are a culmination of centuries of pointless hate, and we won’t take it anymore. Claiming our history is, in my opinion, a big step for advancing our identity as queer people, and an amazingly powerful driving force to make us not only crave equality and justice, but to know we deserve it.
Had the queer victims of the Holocaust been recognized immediately after the war ended, had they be part of the Nuremberg Trials after the war, I believe we would be living in a radically different and much more equal world. I will get into why I believe that in my next post, but I wanted to first explore some of the historical facts about the Holocaust.
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2 Comments

  1. urbanmythcafe

     /  April 23, 2014

    I like the extension that you make, that LGBT people would now be in a much better position if the world had acknowledged the extent of our victimization by the Nazis. I am interested to see how you make this case. My own first thought is that the world, at that time, might actually have sided with Hitler on the issue.
    I do not usually have this dim of a view of human nature. But, just think, the whole world was enamoured of eugenics in the 20’s and 30’s. This country was still performing involuntary sterilizations of mentally disabled people through the 1960’s and even 70’s (I would need to source that , but I have a friend who was sterilized in the 60’s) Lots of Roma were brutilized by Hitler too. Did the world rally for them at all? I don’t know the answer to that. As these events grow farther into past, it is easier and easier for people to think that they are not relevant to today.

    Reply
    • Sadly, I think I agree with you. Much of the world was still violently homophobic. There were numerous anti-sodomy laws, gay marriage bans, and worse all around the world at that time. Some of the brutal experiments done on homosexuals in the concentration camp were indeed carried out throughout the world and here in the US for decades after the Holocaust. It is a sad commentary that the same torture was inflicted on many people, yet the world’s response was only for groups they approved of at that time. You are absolutely right that the Roma did not immediately receive the support some other victims did. In the first few decades after the war, nearly all of the focus was on the Jewish Holocaust Victims, as they were the most targeted, and visible group (possibly also the most “socially acceptable” group internationally). It wasn’t until the 70’s that scholars began to further explore the other victims of the Holocaust, and not until 1982 till West Germany officially recognized the Roma Holocaust. I definitely recommend doing some reading on “Porajmos”, or the Roma Holocaust. As a side note, after that point, Roma Holocaust Survivors could claim government reparations, whereas no homosexual survivors received any such reparations.
      I should hopefully be posting part two tonight or tomorrow!

      Reply

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