There’s a clear connection between Nazism & anti-abortion, anti-gay conservatism

A pink triangle monument in Sitges, Spain
A pink triangle monument in Sitges, Spain Photo: Shutterstock

While serving as features editor between 1980 and 1981 for the Boston-based Gay Community News – a progressive national publication – I received a telephone call from Margaret Lazarus, co-director of Cambridge Documentary Films, Inc. located across the Charles River. She explained to me that she and her husband, co-director Renner Wunderlich, had been making documentary films on several topics for classroom use. They were now very much interested in producing a film about homophobia.

She asked whether I would like to join a production team and whether I knew others who were knowledgeable and interested in such a project.

And that was the beginning of a nearly two-year project of working on the greatest joint venture I’d ever had the pleasure of joining. I met some phenomenal, compassionate, and committed social activists to discuss the process of coming to a consensus on the philosophical parameters of this vast topic, determining who we would like to interview, deciding upon the editing, and other considerations in the film’s production.

Our collection included a diversity of backgrounds and experiences: healthcare workers, community activists, anti-war peace activists, anti-nuclear organizers, feminist and anti-racist activists all, as well as those who experienced the brutal forces of homophobia. Most of us had been for years on the front lines in the battle for freedom and equality.

Setting the Context

It was a time, 1981, before the larger public had access to personal computers, and longer still before the invention and distribution of the smartphone. Over a decade would pass before widespread internet by the public. Homes had very reduced cable television services while many homes still watched a limited number and variety of channel options.

Positive representations of lesbians and gays on the small and large screen were limited, but on the rise.

It’d be another decade before community legal groups would begin challenging discriminatory marriage statutes banning same-sex couples, and approximately 35 years until we won the right to marriage equality in the 2015 Supreme Court ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges.

In 1986, four years after the release of our film, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults — in this particular case regarding male same-sex sodomy. Another 20 years would pass until the last of the anti-sodomy statutes outlawing our sexuality would finally fall in the court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling.

We filmed our interviews during the very beginning of the Ronald Reagan years in the White House, years with a distinctly Christian conservative focus, years of the so-called “trickle down” economic climate concentrating on giving preferences to the titans of industry. This resulted in the enormous wealth and income gap that has only increased since Reagan left the Oval Office.

In many ways, it was a very different time. In 1981, AIDS had hardly hit the public consciousness, and the heightened inclusion of bisexual and trans people had not yet occurred in the larger movement for LGBTQ+ rights.

Over a decade would pass before the Rainbow Flag would become the accepted symbol of the LGBTQ+ movement.

In 1977, just a few years before our filming, Anita Bryant — a former Miss Oklahoma, Christian nationalist, and singer— launched her “Save Our Children” campaign to reverse a Dade County, Florida ordinance outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, education, and public accommodations. Bryant and the Christian conservatives she attracted were successful in overturning the non-discrimination law by a 2-to-1 margin in a public vote.

Sparked by this victory, groups in other regions of the country with similar ordinances organized to overturn theirs as well. Using many of the anti-homosexual scare tactics – including that we “recruit minors” into a so-called “deviant homosexual lifestyle” and into a “gay agenda” since we “can’t reproduce,” and ending the supposed “gay control of politicians and the media”— voters in 1978 overturned similar ordinances in St. Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon.

Not surprisingly, several conservative Christian organizations were ascendant at this time. One of the most notable and toxic was the Moral Majority founded by Baptist minister, Jerry Falwell Sr. who was staunchly anti-homosexual in his beliefs and rhetoric.

During our film, we included some television propaganda advertisements produced by the Christian theocratic right that promoted homophobic tropes as scare tactics.

A decade later, the Springs of Life Church located north of Los Angeles, California, produced a propaganda film to reverse equality ordinances protecting lesbian and gay people. The Church shipped an estimated 25,000 copies of the film across the nation to conservative organizations and churches spreading fear and hatred.

The film’s announcer arrogantly claimed that “17% of homosexual men consume human feces for erotic thrills,” “28% of homosexual men engage in sodomy with more than one thousand partners,” and “They spread diseases that imperil the entire society.”

This film seemed to have patterned itself on the 1940 Nazi propaganda film, Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) in which the film’s narrator asserted that Jews are involved in 47% of robberies in Germany, and 98% of prostitutes are Jewish.

That film argued, “The Jews are only 1% of the population, but they know how to terrorize a great, tolerant nation by controlling finance, the arts, education, and the media.”

The links between antisemitism and anti-gay propaganda could not have been stronger.

“Pink Triangles: A Study of Prejudice against Lesbians and Gay Men”

At the very beginning of the film and interspersed throughout, we included a series of “person on the street” comments taken from random interviews conducted at a shopping mall in a Boston suburb. The interviewee responses ranged from very negative homophobic reactions to some that were fairly neutral or even very positive.

I often wonder whether we might receive similar or distinctly different responses if we traveled back to this mall today. What would reactions be if we venture into deep red states?

Historian and writer, Richard Plant, author of the book The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War against Homosexuals provides a historical analysis of times preceding our own. Plant fled Germany during the early years of Nazi rule. He lost many friends to the persecution of homosexuals in his native land.

With Plant’s overview, we structured our film in segments.

During the New England Lesbian and Gay Conference, we filmed a panel of activists talking about the state of the movement and projections for the future.

Educator and poet Ron Schriber discussed the role of “victimhood” in the autocratic project of the Middle Ages and during the German Holocaust. He also talked about how “homosexuality” has been constricted differently within various social contexts and cultures.

Barbara Smith, a writer and social activist, discussed the ideological functions dominant groups have used to oppress lesbians and gay men, and how homophobia within the Black community dysfunctionally “oppresses some of its own members.”

Political activist Leslie Cagan, discussed the concept of scapegoating during times of crisis, and attempted to predict what it portends for the near future: how conditions will deteriorate further and how we must join with other marginalized communities in coalition to defeat the forces of oppression.

And Armando Gaitan, a community activist, talked about our community’s understanding of different forms of oppression since we are members of intersectional communities.

In our healthcare segment, Kevin McGirr, a psychiatric nurse, talked about the psychological damage homophobia inflicts upon individuals of any sexual orientation.

Jonah Fields, a psychiatrist, related his personal experiences with homophobia when colleagues who became aware of his sexuality suddenly doubted his qualifications to serve clients. He quipped how the extant psychological literature, with its false conclusions and flawed research methodologies, represented lesbian and gay men’s experiences “as much as Gone with the Wind represented the lives of Black people.”

Mental health worker Michael Crowley linked homophobia with sexism in instances when “gay men are represented as feminine, and are therefore, oppressed as women are oppressed in our society” in certain ways.

Some members of our collective traveled to New York City to discover what that community was doing to counter the rising tide of violence directed against lesbians and gay males.

Tamar Hosanski of the Safety and Fitness Exchange provided some background of the types of attacks people have suffered because of their assumed sexuality.

Flora Colao, a patient advocate at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York discussed her work with victims of crime, particularly homophobic hate crimes, and how she advocates for their recovery within the healthcare, law enforcement, and judicial systems.

In the personal testimonies segment, we profiled Aaron Fricke, who one year prior to our interview, in 1980, sued his high school in Cumberland, Rhode Island — in the case of Fricke v. Lynch — for the right to take a male date to his senior prom after the principle denied his request.

Aaron discussed the violent backlash he had gone through being a victim as an out gay student at his school. He closed by relating a “bittersweet” story of his high school graduation: “When I arrived at the podium [on the stage to receive my diploma], all the people in the bleachers — the parents and, maybe, the brothers and sisters — they all booed for me. But then I turned around and bowed to the students who all cheered for me.”

Julia Perez, a community worker, discussed the role of gender in her community, and how “there was no role for me as a lesbian.” She also talked about her experiences as a lesbian mother.

In this connection, Gail Bradley from the organization Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) related her daughter Sarah’s path in “coming out” to her, saying, “Foremost, I wanted Sarah’s love” and, “I did what I could, given my own limitations” to maintain her love.

Two members of the Boston Asian Gay and Lesbian Group talked about issues of homophobia, identity, and community.

Lester Wong discussed the difficulty he had coming out gay within the Asian community and being ethnically Chinese within the white gay male community. When he told his mother that he likes men, his mother retorted, “I don’t care if you like men. You still have to get married [to a woman].”

Gillian Gee connected homophobia with racism. When Lester explained how people called him homophobic epithets like “f*g” and “sissy” before they knew he was gay, Gillian explained that “it wasn’t because you were a ‘f*g’ or ‘sissy,’ but it was because you were Chinese. And that’s how homophobia and racism connect. They called you a homophobic name, ‘f*g’ ‘sissy,’ to really express a racist sentiment.”

We included a segment in which I and Hilary Kay from the Boston Gay Speakers Bureau had a deep and honest exchange with 10th to 12th grade students at The Group School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Theresa Simmons and Sam Dolson talked openly about the challenges they witnessed when their peers have “come out,”

In our attempt to continually place the topic in historical perspective, we obtained original footage from the so-called “Army McCarthy” U.S. Senate hearings of 1954, in which infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy (the namesake of “McCarthyism”) had his vicious homophobic lawyer Roy Cohn (who happened to be gay) look on.

the McCarthy hearings we included were held to investigate allegations of suspected “homosexual activity” on “a large Army base in the South,” and insurgent homosexuals within the government during what came to be known as the “Lavender Menace,” parallel to the Communist “Red Menace” in our governmental centers of power.

At the beginning of our work on the film, we did not have a definite title. Watching over the rough interviews, references to the Nazi symbol in the concentration camps for gay men, the pink triangle, emerged several times from Richard Plant and from Aaron Fricke. It seemed to us, therefore, to use this symbol of homosexual oppression (and later of resistance) to name our documentary on homophobia.

In one of the final segments, we circled back to Richard Plant who discussed the allies liberating the concentration camps. While homosexuality remained illegal in the allied countries at the time, “some of the U.S. officials were legalistic and sent [the pink triangle gay prisoners] back to jail.”

The Nazis’ anti-homosexual & anti-abortion campaign

The Nazis ruthlessly enforced and eventually extended Paragraph 175, the section of the German Penal Code dating back to 1871 with the unification of Germany: “Unnatural vice committed by two persons of the male sex or by people with animals is to be punished by imprisonment; the verdict may also include the loss of civil rights.”

Nazi ideology rested on the assessment that homosexual males lowered the German birth rate; they endangered, recruited, enticed, and corrupted youth; risked a possible homosexual epidemic could spread; accused homosexuals of being “potential oppositionists” and enemies of respectable society; and held that sexual relations between people of the same sex impairs their “sense of shame” and undermines morality, inevitably heralding the “decline of social community.”

While Nazi ideology and practice rejected lesbianism as well, they did not criminalize same-sex sexuality between women as they had in Germany’s Paragraph 175 of the Penal Code because they believed that so-called “Aryan” lesbians could at least birth children for the “New Germany.” The Nazis did incarcerate lesbians, however, sent to the camps under the red triangle (political prisoners) or the black triangle (vagrants).

On the other hand, Heinrich Himmler, Gestapo head and chief architect of the Reich’s anti-homosexual campaign, justified his actions by arguing that male homosexuals were “like women” and therefore, could not fight in any German war effort. Subsequently, he conducted surveillance operations on an estimated 90,000 suspected homosexuals, arrested approximately 50,000, and transported somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 to concentration camps throughout the Nazi dominion. Very few survived.

Hitler also proposed eliminating all sexuality education from the German school system and encouraged parents to take on the primary responsibilities for sexual instruction within the home.

Alfred Rosenberg, one of the Nazi’s chief ideologues, directed his misogynist outrage against women: “The emancipation of women from the women’s emancipation movement is the first demand of a female generation trying to rescue nation and race, the eternally unconscious, the foundation of all civilization, from decline…. A woman should have every opportunity to realize her potential, but one thing must be made clear: Only a man must be and remain judge, soldier, and politician.”

Englebert Huber, a Nazi propagandist, dictated the “proper” place of women in the Third Reich as being figuratively and literally beneath men: “In the ideology of National Socialism, there is no room for the political woman….[Our] movement places woman in her natural sphere of the family and stresses her duties as wife and mother. The political, that post-war creature, who rarely ‘cut a good figure’ in parliamentary debates, represents the denigration of women. The German uprising is a male phenomenon.”

The Nazis added Paragraph 218 of the German Penal Code to outlaw abortions and establish a national file on women who had undergone abortions and doctors who had performed abortions.

The common thread running through Nazi ideology regarding gender, gender expression, and sexuality was an intensive campaign to control individuals’ bodies and the bodies of members of entire communities in an attempt to control their minds.

What does all this mean for the future of gay rights in the U.S.?

When we interviewed Richard for the film, Renner asked him if he could imagine where the U.S. might be heading in its treatment of lesbians and gay men.

“I really will not make a prediction for modern day,” he began, “but it seems to me clear that if you look at the whole picture, that any society that is under indomitable stress, that cannot deal with the problems, that feels that the fabric of society is disintegrating, will look for scapegoats. And there are always scapegoats around. The gays are always a very welcome scapegoat.”

“And in our modern times,” he concluded, “that should come to pass that even America, one of the most powerful countries in the world, feels it is at the edge of an abyss, they might repeat, in another way, the pattern of the Nazis.”

The film closed with footage from the 1982 Boston Pride March down Boylston Street. The final image is of a woman in the march carrying a handmade sign, “No More Holocausts.”

“Pink Triangles: A Study of Prejudice against Lesbians and Gay Men,” Cambridge Documentary Films, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Alice T. Friedman, Robin Greeley, Mark Heumann, Cathy Hoffman, Margaret Lazarus, Julie Palmer, Lena Sorensen, Renner Wunderlich (producers), 35 minutes, 1982.

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