The William Way LGBT Community Center opened its doors this month to a traveling exhibit that profiles the widespread, yet seldom-discussed, persecution of sexual minorities during one of the darkest periods in modern history.
The center will host the Philadelphia debut of “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals: 1933-1945” through Dec. 4.
The traveling exhibit was designed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and has been displayed at nearly 30 museums, libraries and cultural centers throughout the country since 2003.
Candice Thompson, director of William Way services, said the center is “truly honored” to be the first Philadelphia locale to host any exhibit circulated by the museum, “let alone one that is so relevant to our LGBT community. Hosting this exhibit is a big deal not only for the LGBT community, but also for the city of Philadelphia.”
The exhibit is comprised of 32 panels, as well as an interactive kiosk, that contain stories of the rampant persecution of gay men and lesbians in Germany during Nazi rule. More than 100,000 men were arrested under Germany’s Paragraph 175, which prohibited sodomy and labeled law-breakers “antisocial parasites” and “enemies of the state.”
“The exhibition explores why homosexual behavior was identified as a danger to Nazi society and how the Nazi regime attempted to eliminate it,” said Edward Phillips, deputy director of exhibitions at the musuem and exhibition curator. “The Nazis believed it was possible to ‘cure’ homosexual behavior through labor and ‘re-education.’ As their efforts to eradicate homosexuality grew more draconian, gay men became subject to castration, institutionalization and deportation to concentration camps.”
About half of the men arrested under the law at the time were placed in prison or mental hospitals and about 15,000 were sent to concentration camps, where they faced torture, disease, starvation and murder.
Even after World War II ended and the concentration camps were closed, many of the men imprisoned in the camps because of the anti-sodomy law were sent to prison to finish out their sentences. Paragraph 175 was lifted from the German penal code in 1990.
Thompson said the center is striving for “synchronicity” throughout the exhibit’s time at William Way and thus has books on the topic in its library, while its monthly book club discussed “Two Lives: Gertrude & Alice,” a work on the Nazi-era relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.
At 3 p.m. Nov. 8, the center will host a screening of “We Were Marked with a Big ‘A,’” a film that documents the stories of three gay men who, like many imprisoned for being gay, had an “A” affixed to them — which stood for “assfucker” (“arschficker”) — but who survived Nazi persecution.
At 7 p.m. Nov. 16, the center’s Out & Faithful program will host a panel discussion entitled “Where Was God in the Gay Holocaust?” with speakers such as Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Mishkan Shalom; Jon Pahl, director of master’s programs at the Lutheran Theological Seminary; and Marie Cohn, professor of religious studies at Chestnut Hill College.
The center screened “Paragraph 175,” a documentary that details the impact of the law, during the opening-night reception Oct. 15. Thompson said the center could not accommodate the more-than 100 people interested in viewing the film, so it will host another screening before the exhibit closes, with the date to be determined.
The exhibit and related programming will allow the local LGBT and ally communities to not only learn more about the conditions that sexual minorities faced during the Nazi regime, but also to examine the wider ramifications of LGBT persecution over the past 70 years, said Thompson.
“This exhibition allows the center to encourage dialogue among and beyond our community around issues such as sexuality and spirituality, identity and to explore how persecution of LGBT people manifests itself today,” she said.
For more information, visit www.waygay.org or call (215) 732-2220.