Holocaust Memorial Day: The lessons we should learn from the Nazi persecution of gay people

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PinkNews publisher Benjamin Cohen reflects on the persecution of gay people by the Nazis as Britain marks Holocaust Memorial Day.

If I was alive 75-year-ago and living in Berlin and not London, my outlook would not have been looking good and not just because I’m Jewish. Like some of those who found themselves in concentration camps, I also have a disability, I am member of a trade union and perhaps more pertinently, like many of the people reading this article, I am gay.

2014 marks the 80th anniversary of the creation of a list of homosexuals, ordered by Hitler, who would later find themselves persecuted. In total, during their time in power, the Nazis arrested 100,000 people for homosexuality, imprisoning half of them including up to 15,000 in concentration camps. Many of those imprisoned died, some after sickening experiments by scientists trying to find the ‘cure’ for homosexuality.

Unfortunately, when the allies liberated the concentration camps, many of the gay people who were imprisoned were not set free. Instead they were transferred to prisons, then under the control of the allied forces. Their crime, homosexuality, something outlawed before the Nazis took power, remained on the statute book until 1968 in East Germany and 1969 in West Germany. Unlike other victims of Nazi persecution, they were not offered reparations and it took until 2002 for the German government to officially apologise for the Nazis’ crimes against gay people. Today memorials to the Nazi persecution of the gay community are found in Berlin, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Sydney and since earlier this month, in Tel Aviv.

Holocaust Memorial Day, marked today is the opportunity to remember all of the victims of Nazi persecution. The Nazi’s rule of terror was an era that witnessed the single worst example of misery that humanity has ever inflicted on itself. Today in my view, also provides moment of reflection for what happened still in our collective lifetimes and an opportunity to galvanise us never to allow the same persecution of minority groups happen again.

I believe that as a community, should use today as an opportunity for us to consider, given how many countries around the world continue to criminalise or discriminate LGBT people, how unchallenged prejudice can quickly and dramatically escalate into unimaginable brutality.

What happened during the Holocaust also stands to us as a warning to all of us that societies can go backwards as well as forwards. In the 1920s, Berlin was one of the gay capitals of the world, where Germany’s prohibition on homosexuality was widely ignored by the police and a large, open, flourishing gay community was in existence. Just before the Nazis took power, the German legislature was poised to repeal the legal ban of male homosexuality. It took a political climate that had nothing to do with gay people to radically alter the treatment of this minority group. The Nazis drew on deep rooted, latent homophobia within the population to stigmatise gay people to justify to ordinarily rational people the single largest act of persecution on the basis of sexuality that the world has ever seen, just as it engulfed the largest single act of anti-semitism on the planet.

What worries me is that eight decades on, as some countries such as Britain have moved forward so much with gay equality, other countries are moving backwards or have yet to move at all. Russia, which legalised homosexuality twenty years ago last year introduced draconian laws that severely clamp down on the rights of gay people and their families.

As a gay man, there are though, far worse places where I could live than Russia. In the majority of the countries of the Commonwealth, including 11 where our Queen is head of state, homosexuality is illegal and can result in life imprisonment. Even worse, there are five countries that routinely execute people for being gay. It seems incredible that in 2014, 78 countries around the world would either imprison me or put me to death simply for being gay, something that I chose no more than the accident of my birth than means that I am a Jew. It is clear that when it comes to gay people, at the least, there are still many lessons from the past that need to be learnt.

Benjamin Cohen is the publisher of PinkNews. He Tweets @benjamincohen

Variants of this article have previously appeared in Gay Times (GT) and the Jewish Chronicle.