The Legacy of the 'Gay Holocaust'
TRIGGER WARNING: This article is about the holocaust, and therefore makes mention of anti-Semitism, Nazism, fascism and extreme homophobia and transphobia.
When we learn about the holocaust in school, we are taught about the persecution of Jewish communities by the Nazis. And this is fair enough – contemporary scholarship focuses on Jewish experiences for a reason: they were by far the most persecuted group and suffered the most deaths at the hands of the Nazi Party. It is right that Jewish holocaust experiences make up the bulk of literature on the topic. But it is also worth noting the experiences of other groups that were marginalised by the Nazis.
The queer experience of the holocaust is not well known or well-studied. One reason for this is homophobia, and only recently changing attitudes towards the LGBTQA+ community. Another is a lack of reliable data (more on this later).
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were systematically persecuted by the Nazis, and this deserves recognition, as does the liberal environment of queer rights in Prussia during the Weimar era.
The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (The Institute for Sex Research) had been founded in 1919 by Jewish gay rights campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld, and amassed an extensive library on sexual attraction, queer eroticism and gender diversity, with Hirschfeld becoming an early wester pioneer of gay and trans rights. The Institute offered some of the earliest available gender affirming surgeries, employed openly trans people, prescribed hormones, and even worked with the Berlin Police Department to halt arrests of ‘cross-dressers’. Hirschfeld even began issuing the necessary identification for trans people to live in their chosen gender and therefore enjoy legal recognition of their identity.
Hirschfeld’s Berlin Institute was important, but only part of a larger queer scene in Berlin. The city provided a safe haven for queer individuals in a country otherwise hostile to them. Although gay sex had been criminalised in 1871, Prussian Prime Minister Otto Braun’s hesitancy to enforce this law allowed a vibrant queer scene to develop in Berlin, with a diverse range of clubs catering for various types of identities, and the establishment of the world’s first gay magazine, Der Eigene, in 1896.
This was until the appointment of Hitler as German Chancellor in 1933. Almost immediately, the once bustling queer community was forced underground. Many individuals, particularly gay men and ‘cross dressers’ were immediately arrested. Others still married as a means of protection against persecution by the Nazis.
In May 1933, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was attacked by Nazi Party members, and its contents promptly burned. Up to 20,000 books, journals and publications were destroyed, setting the progress made on gay and trans rights back by decades. The Nazis seized lists of the Institute’s staff, patients, clients and partners and used these to seek out more queer individuals to prosecute.
By 1936, the Reichszentrale zur Bekämpfung der Homosexualität und Abtreibung (Reich Central Office for the Combatting of Homosexuality and Abortion) had been established by Himmler to seek out and arrest queer people under Paragraph 175a, an extension of previous criminalisation, which effectively made existing as a gay person illegal in Nazi Germany. In total, estimates suggest that around 100,000 people were arrested, with around 50,000 being prosecuted. Those prosecuted often faced castration, and an estimated 15,000 were sent to concentration camps.
It is impossible to know for certain how many queer people were arrested, prosecuted, sent to concentration camps or murdered, for multiple reasons. If you had intersectional identities, for instance, if you were Jewish and queer, you might be identified by your Jewish heritage, regardless of your queer identity. Because both Jews and homosexuals were at the very bottom of the social order within the concentration camps, it was largely redundant to mark prisoners as both Jewish and gay.
Another issue is the fact that, while gay men had a separate category within the camps, lesbians were grouped with ‘asocials’, which in effect was the designation for anyone with a lifestyle the Nazis disapproved of. Lesbians, the homeless, those out of work, addicts etc were all labelled as ‘asocial’, meaning that separating out these categories is next to impossible.
Additionally, trans people who were deported were often categorised based on their assigned gender, with trans women being labelled with the pink triangle for homosexuals, and trans men being given the black ‘asocial’ triangle.
While we cannot know the exact numbers of queer people who suffered at the hands of Nazi persecution, we can be certain that they faced deplorable and inhumane treatment and were often subject to torture at the hands of prison and camp guards. Furthermore, the ability to build morale through group bonding was denied, as those branded with the pink triangle were often segregated to stop their ‘homosexual disease’ spreading throughout the camp.
At Dachau and Buchenwald, gay men faced experimentation under the guise of ‘finding a cure’ for homosexuality. Jewish women and lesbians were forced to work in brothels and were made to have sex with gay men as an attempt at conversion therapy.
Unlike many of the other groups liberated from concentration camps, those convicted under Paragraph 175a were never acknowledged as victims, or able to access reparations for their suffering. Indeed, many were re-imprisoned under the same legislation by which they had been deported. Paragraph 175a would not be repealed until 1969 in West Germany, where ‘homosexual acts’ remained a crime until 1994. The plight of gay men specifically would not be acknowledged by Germany until 2003. Lesbians and trans people have never received an official apology.
What can we take from these experiences suffered by queer individuals? First and foremost, they serve as a warning that we cannot be complacent. Berlin was a thriving haven of queer culture which, seemingly overnight, disappeared. Given the current global polarisation over issues as basic as human rights, it is easy to see how fascism can creep into our societies and destroy liberal democracy and the protections in place for marginalised communities. We need to guard against far-right ideology and displays of homophobia and transphobia should serve as a warning sign for increasing intolerance. Allies need to step up and challenge intolerance whenever and wherever they encounter it. If intolerance is not challenged, it will spread.
By examining the experiences of LGBTQA+ people during the holocaust, we do not seek to diminish the harm done to others, such as the Jewish and Roma communities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally ill etc. We instead seek to provide a more full and complete account of the horrors of Nazism and the atrocities committed by those in power. The more complete our image is of fascism and its harms, the more aware we can be when we see fascism re-emerge in our own societies, and the sooner we can act against it.