About ten years ago or so, Noble-Prize winning author Toni Morrison gave an interview to 60 Minutes. Asked to explain her suspicion of Americans of white heritage, Morrison gave the following statement:
With very few exceptions, I feel that white people will betray me; that in the final analysis, they'll give me up. If the trucks pass and they have to make a choice, they'll put me on that truck. That's really what I feel. There are some white people whom I have known over the years that I know would not do that, because they know I wouldn't do it to them. But there are very few of those people. By the way, there are lots of Black people who'd put me on that truck also, so I'm not trying to demonize the white race. It's just a kind of a constant vigilance and awareness that maybe these relationships can go just so far.
Morrison’s statements might seem chilling to many (even most), but people-of-color instantly identified with her remarks. Historical examples abound of otherwise fine and decent white folk getting caught up in the fervor around them that resulted in African Americans’ brutal deaths. Lynching involved entire communities, even the allegedly “tolerant.” If one is part of a dominant majority, it takes unique courage to challenge that group, even if real people are dying in front of your eyes. Kind words might have been spoken during times of peace, but when push came to shove, most ignored or actively participated in the violence.
Sexual minorities, however, have been slower than racial minorities to realize this icy truth. We must not flinch, though, from thinking about our vulnerability. Without trying to sound histrionic, we simply can’t depend on most heterosexuals. Should a secret police force, or even an angry Christian mob, arrive at your apartment door tomorrow, are you confident that your heterosexual neighbors will defend you? Or will they simply shake their heads, saying it’s a shame, but relieved that they weren’t gay and therefore subject to the same abuse?
There are, of course, some uniquely brave heterosexual folk who would intervene. There are also way too many queer folk who would simply hide in their own apartment. I don’t mean to indict people wholesale. I am not always confident that I would have the individual courage to fight either. After all, I couldn’t even heckle John McCain.
However, we need to discuss more openly the real dangers about being a minority. The majority can turn against us quicker than you might expect.
Sound extreme? Maybe – but history is on my side. It’s time to trot out the Nazis. Because of the scope and horrors of the Nazi regime, it is tempting to dismiss the Nazis as “forever ago.” Let us remember, though, that most of our grandparents were alive during the Nazi period in Germany. We aren’t talking about ancient Rome here.
The Nazi regime gained an astounding level of support from the general public for their persecution of gay men. As early as 1928, the Nazi party released explicit statements about their agendas. “Anyone who thinks of homosexual love is our enemy,” the party announced, “We...reject any form of lewdness, especially homosexuality, because it robs us of our last chance to free our people from the bondage which now enslaves it.”
On January 30, 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. By the summer of 1933, the Nazi SA raided and destroyed gay bars throughout Germany. By 1935, the German government instituted a full-scale campaign against gay men. In July 1935, the German courts claimed any action was punishable as a crime if the “inborn healthy instincts of the German people” demanded it.
At the same time, the SS announced its support of the death penalty for gay men. Heinrich Himmler declared gay men “propagation blanks” and a menace to German health because they spread homosexuality as an infection. Being gay, the Nazis declared, was “unnatural.” The Nazi government even established a special office, the “Reichs-Center for the Fight Against Homosexuality and Abortion,” as a division of the criminal police.
The same callousness among the German public that allowed over 6 million Jews to perish in the camps also permitted the persecution and death of gay men. Sixty percent of the gay men sent to Nazi prison camps did not live to see the arrival of Ally troops. Tens of thousands of gay men simply vanished. Very few objected.
When the Allies did liberate the camps, gay men found little sympathy. After all, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union all had their own laws against male homosexual behavior. Therefore, the allies declared that homosexual inmates of Nazi concentration camps had not been wrongly imprisoned and, as a result, deserved no compensation for their suffering.
If Nazi Germany seems too far removed, we need only remember the general public's depraved indifference towards the AIDS crisis in the early eighties. As Brian noted in an earlier comment, in the early days of AIDS, gay men, because of their sense of community and shared identity, united and worked to provide social and medical services that the rest of the nation simply didn’t want to give out.
We should not deceive ourselves that this can’t happen again. The current level of religiously motivated hatred against gays and lesbians in the U.S. is real. Remember that 76 percent of Texan voters, along with voters in many other states, amended the state constitution to explicitly deprive gay men of the right to marry. Where were our heterosexual allies? Most of them simply stayed home and didn’t vote at all. If they objected, they didn't take ten minutes out of their day to prevent this change. Can we assume, then, that they would really stand in front of a truck?
This entry has much reference to death. So, I will end with another incident of persecution against gay men that simply makes heterosexuals look foolish in their paranoia. Our neighbor-to- the-north’s homophobia took on comical proportions during the middle of the twentieth century. Canada, following the lead of U.S. McCarthyism, became committed to purging gay men from the government in the fifties and sixties. Canadian officials found, though, we queer folk can be a tricky lot. If only they had some sort of machine to easily determine which of us was gay or not. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Yep, the Mounties) supported pseudoscience attempts to create just such a machine.
The RCMP dubbed the project “The Fruit Machine.” Though ultimately scrapped, the RCMP invested a great deal of effort in trying to detect gay men in their ranks. They attempted to measure perspiration in response to words like “queen, rim, wolf, tea room, and top men.” Another “study” required subjects to view picture of seminude men in physique magazines along with Playboy magazines. Scientists attempted to measure their eye movements as a means to determine their attention span. Silly, scared heteros!
From the deadly reality of Nazi death camps to the absurdity of the Mounties’ fruit machine, gay men faced a hostile heterosexual majority in the twentieth century. Though we should hope that many heterosexuals will come to our aid, we need to renew our commitments to each other. We can only depend on those with shared experiences and a shared position. If we, as queer folk, aren’t there for each other, the reality of the truck will loom before us.