Saturday, March 27, 2010

Are you in real estate?

When your enemies stop coming after you with guns and baseball bats, you can always, of course, shoot yourself in the foot. That’s what seems to be going on in Berlin at the moment with gay people. Some gay people, anyway.

Germany, like most of Northern Europe, has left the United States in the dust when it comes to gay rights. Most countries now embrace gay people, at least at official levels. The Catholic Church is still fighting recognition of gay rights tooth and nail, but fortunately the church has pretty much lost credibility in Europe. Many countries have even added marriage and adoption rights to all the other rights of citizens which signal freedom from discrimination. Homosexual acts are legal in every country in Europe. And that, believe it or not, since 1929, includes the Vatican!

If I had been German, for example, my partner would not have had to spend $7000 on lawyers to help him with the process of becoming a resident. We would have gone to the Standesamt, signed on the dotted line, and presto, a visa for my life partner tout de suite.

Germany's capital city, Berlin, and its second largest city, Hamburg, both have mayors who are gay and my German friends find that fact totally unremarkable.

So far so good, right? Well, yes. But here comes the foot-shooting part.

Two years ago, in May, a memorial went up in Berlin, across from the Jewish memorial, to gays persecuted by the Nazi regime. Lots of nice speeches, including one by gay mayor Klaus Wowereit. (I wasn’t there, unfortunately, but it was covered in the media and is still available on YouTube. )

The memorial itself is a graceless block of concrete, but I understand there are times to be silent, sober, unadorned and undistracted. As with other memorials, you need other experiences to bring home the horror. If you've ever seen Bent, for example – I saw it on Broadway with Michael York many years ago and it remains the most compelling thing I've ever seen on stage – you won't need much to jog your memory. This is a memorial, not an attempt to relive the past.

A nice touch is the video screen showing "The Kiss". "Kissing" would be more accurate, but let's not quibble.

Wasn't long, of course (why is this so predictable?) before vandals had at the memorial, smashing it, scratching the screen, covering it with graffiti. That was something I imagine the people responsible for putting this together planned for.

What they didn't see coming was the ruckus that has ensued following the realization that, for the next couple of years, the original plan called for the kissing men to give way to kissing women. The problem is what exactly are we remembering? And are we remembering or are we politicking?

Lesbians were not taken seriously by the Nazis any more than they were in Victorian England. Queen Victoria, remember (it isn't true, unfortunately - it's an urban legend) was supposed to have prevented laws against lesbian behavior because "Women wouldn't do such things!" In any case, there are few cases of lesbians in concentration camps, and the memorial recognizes that fact. Mostly, though, what information there is is highly contested.

But what to do about the fact that switching off is part of the original deal? And while you worry about historical accuracy, you might do well to remember when the gay memorial was dedicated, Jewish groups protested that such a memorial to a few thousand insults the memory of the millions who died for being Jewish. And that the Jews are not the only people to have to contend with holocaust deniers. They have bigger fish, t'is true, but we have right wing Michael Medved.

I remember a lecture by Gore Vidal once on political activism by gays. In his talk he mentioned the thousands of gays killed in concentration camps. Somebody stood up and hit him with that question. "Isn't there something wrong about talking about gays in concentration camps when the number of Jews killed was so much greater. "Numbers?" Vidal said, "Numbers? What, are you in real estate?"

This same issue came up again when gays in the U.S. cast their struggle as a struggle for civil rights. Many African-Americans felt that claim encroached upon their territory and bristled. Sometimes you just can't seem to make room for everybody.

But is this analogous? Is six million to perhaps 10,000 on a par with 10,000 to, what, a dozen? Three dozen? The problem is numbers, or more precisely the fact that the numbers are uncertain. How and when do you remember people whose numbers cannot be determined? Do you start only when the numbers exceed a handful? The size of a village? A million?

Irrelevant discussion, say memorial organizers. The women in camps were not there for being Lesbian, they say. The muddying of the details by those wanting to keep memory alive always comes back to revisionist history.

It's a self-inflicted wound, a divide and conquer strategy inflicted from within. Is one justified in grabbing the mike at a Jewish memorial and insisting Jews stop what they're doing and include gays and gypsies and socialists and Jehovah's Witnesses in every remembrance of Jewish suffering?

How does one take sides on this issue? Perhaps the answer comes in making a distinction between linking and appropriating. At the opening ceremony to the memorial, at least one speaker suggested it was appropriate that this be linked to the Holocaust Memorial. Linking is the right thing to do. Appropriating through revisionist history is not.

The final decision about this is not in. There is a jury and they supposedly will make a decision in a couple weeks. I wish it had not come to this and that the lesbians of Berlin might have been persuaded to let this memorial stand as it is.

Lesbians and gay men have so much to gain from working together for the LGBT (yes, the L should come first) cause, so much to lose from infighting.

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