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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Nazis on my mind

Earlier this month I attended the opening of an exhibit titled "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945." Organized by the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and sponsored locally by the Kansas City Jewish Museum and the Urban Culture Project, the exhibit features 250 historic photographs and documents. Their topics include the imprisonment of 50,000 homosexuals during the Nazi period and the rationalization behind this and other acts of police terror.

Hitler's reign of terror against German gays is not as well known as other acts of barbarism committed by the Nazis. Perhaps that's because the numbers of gay men who perished in Nazi death camps pale in comparison to the 6 million Jews who died in Auschwitz and other places whose names have become synonymous with 20th century savagery. Perhaps it's also easier to lump gays in under the heading of "other undesirables" when history books recount the victims of Nazi persecution. Or maybe it's because that, while the Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, communists, unionists and others who managed to survive Hitler's "final solution" were released when the allied forced liberated the camps, gays were turned over to German authorities for continued imprisonment because Germany's harsh Paragraph 175 under which they were convicted had been on the books prior to the rise of the Nazis - thus homosexuals weren't really political prisoners.

The first time I learned of Nazi persecution of gays was from the play (and later the movie version) "Bent." Gradually, the knowledge that gays were among the groups targeted by Nazis began to enter the world's consciousness. Books such as Heinz Heger's The Men of the Pink Triangle and Richard Plant's The Pink Triangle: The Nazis' War Against Homosexuals began to appear. For a while the pink triangle was even a popular symbol for the struggle for gay rights.

So thoroughly have gays been indoctrinated into the victimology of the Holocaust that when we face persecution from any sector we're apt to start drawing immediate comparisons with Nazis. The president calls for an amendment banning same-sex marriage? He's a Nazi, or, as one acquaintance putting it, "he's worse than Hitler." Jerry Falwell, James Dobson or other members of the religious right refer to gays as "sinners"? It's easy to call them Nazis, too.

"Nazi" is one of those words that gets a lot of attention. It provokes an immediate reaction, too - both in the person being labeled a Nazi and in the person doing the labeling.

But it's a false analogy. And a dangerous one, too.

America in the early days of the 21st century is far different from Germany in the 1930s. In the U.S. most of the anti-gay rhetoric comes from persons affiliated with conservative religious groups and from politicians seeking to curry favor with these groups. In Germany during the 1930s persecuting gays arose not from the religious community but from the secular and political realm. In the U.S., the religious right claims that God is on it's side and point to a few scattered (and often disputed) biblical verses to justify their beliefs. In Germany of 80 years ago, the Nazis justified their treatment of homosexuals at the altar of the modern god: Science.

Nazis used the science of eugenics to "prove" their superiority over Jews. Never mind that the eugenic arguments they used were easily disproved. If it looked good on paper, it provided all the proof the Nazis needed to eradicate Jews or any other group not measuring up to that Aryan perfection.

In the case of gays, the Nazis could produce flow charts demonstrating beyond a doubt - in their minds, anyway - how a single homosexual could corrupt good German men and lead them astray from the path of marrying a good, sturdy German lass and producing more volk to fill up all that new space Hitler was seizing all over Europe.

If the Inquistion was religion's way of enforcing religious conformity, then the death camps were modern society's way of doing the same thing in the secular realm - but carried to even greater extremes. The Inquisition gave us the rack, the "iron maiden," and the auto-de-fe. As horrible as those inventions might be, the Nazis applied science and the idea of mass production to make an assembly line of death. From the cattle cars to the showers to the ovens. Only the 20th century could have produced such a dark version of industry, parodied by smoke-stacks belching the cremated remains of humans and not the byproducts of fossil fuels from long-dead swamps.

Don't get me wrong. Religion has much to answer for. Over the centuries religions have written their histories in the blood of their enemies and justified that blood in the names of their gods. But in the 20th century, a new upstart called nationalism appeared on the battlefield and showed religion a thing or two about writing history in blood.

Does opposition to gay rights make the religious right and fundamentalists the equivalent of Nazis? Not even close. Fundamentalism and similar religious movements are more concerned with turning back the hands of time to make the modern world a little, well, less modern. Do presidents and other politicians who spout anti-gay rhetoric deserve to be tarred with the brush of Nazism? No. For the most part they are using such talk to play to their base of supporters. It's a short-term solution for winning votes. They know that discriminatory laws are a bad idea and that explains why after all the talk and talk and talk there has been no action taken on an amendment banning same-sex marriage. But look for the issue to be trotted out again for the 2006 mid-term elections just in time to stir of their base.

In the U.S., anti-gay sentiments primarily come from the pulpits of conservative religions and from the mouths of those who wish to placate the fundamentalists. Using scripture to justify discrimination against gays is a far cry from misusing science to justify exterminating a group.

If there's any comparison that can be drawn between those who spout anti-gay beliefs, it's more accurate to compare American anti-gay sentiment to a theocracy like the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and not Nazi Germany.

For more information, see the United States Holocaust Museum's website on Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals.