Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Dangers of Political Apathy


Text of Speech given to G & L Jewish Group at the Havurah Brunch in Mount Washington,
June 3, 2007


Let’s see if you recognize this place:

On a given night, hundreds would cram the city’s streets, some carrying a gay periodical, and patronize the dozens of gay bars, cafes, nightclubs, pornography shops, cabarets and bathhouses. Adding to the crowd was an ample supply of hustlers that was visible along the dim, nighttime corridors.

Inside the buildings, female impersonators, wearing lavish brightly colored costumes, performed amidst a foggy, smoky cloud that enveloped the jammed rooms. Toe-tapping songs were played to the resounding joy of the gay and straight audiences of the packed nightclubs and cabarets with the music drifting outside into the streets.

In other establishments, men freely danced with men; women danced with women. They openly embraced. An anti-gay law on the books was seldom enforced. Gay life was colorful, free and vibrant. Gay neighborhoods were established throughout the city. It had the most active gay culture on the entire continent, and it was a sexual Mecca.

Does this scene describe New York? San Francisco? Washington, D.C.? Or even Baltimore? Not hardly.

It happens to be Berlin, Germany, just prior to the Nazis’ rise to power. It was estimated that there were more gay establishments and periodicals in 1920 Berlin than in 1980 New York. Not only was homosexuality tolerated, it flourished.

But as the music played inside Berlin’s gay clubs, sweeping political and social change was about to unfold that would rock the world.

The patrons (and owners) of these establishments were oblivious to the new political reality; they continued to dance, seek out sex partners and lived in their own secluded, care-free world, unsuspecting of the emerging satanic forces and the horror of what was about to befall them. It sneaked up on them, and when they realized what was happening, it was too late.

As fast as a snap of a whip, there was the accession of Nazism and Hitler and the enforcement of the infamous Paragraph 175 that severely criminalized homosexual behavior.

All gay clubs, hotels and other similar establishments were closed down. Known homosexuals were ordered to appear at police stations and were pressured to identify other homosexuals. School children were asked to inform on teachers who were suspected of being homosexual, employers on employees, and vice-versa.

Their tragic journey had begun. Gay men in Germany were sought out and rounded up with most being shipped to concentration camps for imprisonment and extermination.

They were forced to wear a pink triangle for easy identification and lived in separate blocks apart from the other prisoners. The prisoners wearing the pink triangles were brutally treated by the guards and by inmates from other categories.

Approximately 100,000 gay men were arrested, 50,000 sent to prison camps, and hundreds were castrated.

All told, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homosexuals, mainly those who were deemed "incurable," were exterminated in the death camps. Their death rate was said to have been three to four times higher than other non-Jewish categories during the Holocaust.

Many factors contributed to this tragedy, but there is no question that apathy was among them.
I’m not saying that gays were the only apathetic group in Germany nor am I blaming them for the rise of Nazism. Apathy afflicted all segments of society, and the rest of the world was blind-sided as well.

But we must never allow that to happen again. To do so, we must fight apathy. Apathy creates a vacuum for extremism to take hold.

Today we do have large numbers of people in the gay and lesbian community who are politically indifferent. Sadly, many are even proud of that.

From a survey taken at a Pride festival a couple of years ago, few knew what the Human Rights Campaign was. Many didn’t even know who Maryland’s governor was. Almost as astonishing is a friend of mine—a Jew, no less—who doesn’t even know what Hamas is. Incredible.

Clearly the horrors of Nazi Germany are not likely to be repeated here. I am not suggesting we have a government that is sympathetic to such thinking. Nor am I correlating our government to the atrocities of the Nazis or diminishing the human tragedy of the Holocaust.
But it is worth taking a look at some frightening similarities: We basically have an anti-gay government at the federal level that has been obviously hijacked by religious, homophobic extremists.

Gays and pro-choice supporters are vilified by extreme right wing elements.
There are hate groups all over the country that would like nothing else but to see gays remanded to concentration camps or exterminated.

Don’t believe me? Read their websites. You’ll see.

Just last Monday, there was this article in the Baltimore Sun that told of a website for the Alabama Department of Homeland Security. It named gay rights groups among others as potential terrorists. And this is a state government agency!

There is a definite rise in the number of white supremacist organizations, which target gays and other minorities.

Many individuals and groups, in fact, have thanked God for AIDS. They have blamed gays and lesbians for natural disasters and terrorist attacks. These so-called people of God, like the late Jerry Falwell, profited from their hateful rhetoric.

Hate crimes directed towards LGBT individuals are increasing and are now the third largest target of hate crimes committed.

These hate crimes are rationalized based on the extreme, hate-filled condemnations of gay people by the religious right who use the Bible as a weapon.

Who is to say for certain these modern-day extremists will not come to power at a given point in time?
The gays in Berlin surely didn’t expect such terror to envelop their nation.

The anti-gay, pro-life forces in this country are well funded, well motivated and well represented.

That is why the LGBT community cannot afford to sit back in their own comfort zones while progress towards equality is slammed shut or worse, our rights are being beaten back.

What can we do?

There is no shame in being active politically. It doesn’t matter which Party you want to align with. For example, the Log Cabin Republicans—a gay group—have been doing good work in trying to stop the extremists within their Party who want to crush our rights.

Join a civil rights organization like Equality Maryland or the Human Rights Campaign. Write your representatives at the Federal and State levels to tell them where you stand on issues that affect you as a gay man or lesbian.

Read the gay press and stay informed on these issues.

Don’t take anything for granted or wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting for you.
Even on the heels of the Stonewall riots in June 1969, which many believe was the launch of the gay rights movement, there was a concern for apathy.

Merely two weeks after the uprising, a flier distributed by Mattachine-New York—a gay political organization—called for gay people to end their isolation and apathy by attending a gay liberation meeting so that "homosexuals are no longer going to sit back and be apathetic pawns for every politician who comes along."

Even then they had to fight apathy.

Apathy is nothing to be proud of, and as history has taught us it can be dangerous.

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