Opinion: Peter Tatchell on the inspiring Shoah survivor who dedicated herself to gay rights

Opinion: Peter Tatchell on the inspiring Shoah survivor who dedicated herself to gay rights

Peter Tatchell campaigned in the 1980s to lay wreaths in memory of Nazism's LGBT victims
Peter Tatchell campaigned in the 1980s to lay wreaths in memory of Nazism's LGBT victims

By Peter TATCHELL, Founder of the Peter Tatchell Foundation

Peter Tatchell campaigned in the 1980s to lay wreaths in memory of Nazism's LGBT victims
Peter Tatchell campaigned in the 1980s to lay wreaths in memory of Nazism’s LGBT victims

The Jewish and gay communities have shared experiences of persecution and triumph. In Jewish gay people, the two experiences are combined. I salute the Jewish lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities and the huge contribution they’ve made to both gay and Jewish life.

Sadly, both our peoples still endure very considerable victimisation today. Across Europe, we witness the rise of anti-Semitism. Leaving aside Hungary and Ukraine, even in great democratic nations like France, anti-Semitism is gaining ground and becoming respectable.

Likewise, in parts of Europe, we see escalating levels of homophobia and transphobia. What is happening in Russia – the vilification and demonisation of gay people – has echoes of the hatred espoused against Jews in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Germany. While there are no Nuremberg Laws or concentration camps in Russia, the level of public vitriol against LGBT people is unnervingly reminiscent of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda.

It has created an atmosphere in which mob violence and far-right extremism has been given a green light to terrorise LGBT people, as we saw in Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary, Hunted.

These developments should be a wake-up call to everyone who cherishes human rights. We need to stand against anti-Semitism, homophobia and transphobia – to signal loud and clear to governments and people everywhere that we stand united against all prejudice, discrimination and hate crime.

From the 1970s to 1990s, I documented and publicised the hidden history of gay persecution in Nazi Germany: in particular, to persuade survivors to record their stories. Eventually, there were exhibitions at Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and London’s Imperial War Museum.

The gay survivor witness statements, like the witness statements of Jewish survivors, are incredibly powerful, moving personal testimonies – and a damning indictment of tyranny and inhumanity. They also serve as a warning that never again must these things be allowed to happen.

I was born in 1952, just seven years after the end of the Second World War. Aged 12 or 13, I kept thinking: why did people allow Hitler to come to power? Why did governments stand back and allow Germany to re-arm? Why did so many people look the other way when Jewish, gay, Roma and disabled people – plus communists, Jehovah Witnesses and others – were rounded up?

I resolved that if such persecution ever arose again, I would try to do something to stop it. This was one of the imperatives that pushed me to become a human rights campaigner.

I became friends with Jewish lesbian rights campaigner, Sharley McLean. She was born in Germany in 1923 and escaped to Britain in 1939, in one of the last transports of children allowed to leave Germany before the Nazis closed the border.

Both her parents both perished in the Holocaust. Her uncle, Kurt Bach, was gay, left-wing and Jewish. He was arrested in 1937 and perished in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

She was deeply traumatised and I only discovered her story by accident, when she let slip about having come to Britain in 1939. She told me her story, which I later wrote up in a series of articles.

Sharley worked with me to memorialise Jewish and LGBT victims of Nazism. Until the mid-1980s, it was banned to lay pink triangle wreaths (the symbol that gay prisoners were forced to wear in concentration camps) at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Sharley joined me and others to challenge this.

From the early 1980s, we laid such a wreath after the main Remembrance Day services and on VE Day.

Every time, within hours, the wreath was removed. But we persisted. We challenged the British Legion and the government department in charge of memorials and monuments.

In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of VE Day, a pink triangle wreath was laid at the Cenotaph in memory of the LGBT victims of Nazism and of all those who died fighting fascism. It was not removed. This was a first. We won, at last.

During the 1990s, when the LGBT direct action group OutRage! was very active, we organised an annual Queer Remembrance Day ceremony.

Immediately after Whitehall’s official service, we marched to the Cenotaph. Thousands of people applauded their respect as we marched with pink triangle flags and wreaths.

Without Sharley’s involvement, it may have taken much longer to memorialise the gay victims of Nazism. Her testimony as a Jewish lesbian who fled Hitler’s Germany was very important.

She helped us challenge people in power who had kept the Nazi persecution of LGBT people hidden from history. Sharley McLean, you inspire us all.

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