Queer Women in the HolocaustBY Reyna Stovall
Hi, my name is Reyna Stovall and I have worked in Holocaust education and research for a few years now. I have done talks, lectures, and museum tours, and as I have put together presentations on various subject matters and natures, I am always struck by the lack of information about queer women. While a significant majority of queer history is undocumented and often misrepresented, the Nazis were very meticulous and thorough record keepers. The lack of information about lesbians is uncharacteristic considering the vast amount of documentation we have about other groups deemed “undesirable” at the time as well as the general population of those living in Nazi-occupied Europe. Of course, lesbians existed during the Holocaust, but within my research, the stories and experiences of lesbians have been very few and far between. So, I was prompted to discover—where were all of the lesbians during the Holocaust? Were they persecuted along with and to the extent that homosexual men were? And what else could I maybe pull out of sources that other people have maybe overlooked in the past?
To first answer these questions, I had to ask myself where Holocaust research has been. Where are the research gaps and what has been overlooked? So, as any good historian would do, I turned to some good old essays—you know, the ones you have to begrudgingly read for those really niche college classes with titles like “The Aesthetic Demonization of Fashion and Anthropology in the Early Eighteenth Century.” In all seriousness though, what I found was starkly sexualized, coded, and highlighted some absolutely disgusting power dynamics.
One thing that really stood out, in particular, was the classification of lesbians in concentration camps as asocial. Just as a side note here, there is increasing data showing that most lesbians in concentration camps were not imprisoned as lesbians, but rather for other group affiliations, such as political prisoners, for joining the resistance, or as Jews. But nonetheless, in concentration camps, people who were imprisoned were forced to wear uniforms to signify what they were imprisoned for. They had to wear badges on their uniforms in particular. Jews had yellow badges, criminals had green, political prisoners had red, Jehovah’s witnesses were given purple, homosexual men had pink. And then there was the black triangle, which was given to prisoners considered “asocial.” Among these were prostitutes, Roma, and Sinti, and, as stated previously, some lesbians.
While the black triangle has become known as a symbol of lesbian empowerment due to the reclamation of the symbol by the lesbian community in the 1960s and ‘70s, during the Holocaust this symbol was used for dehumanization and humiliation. The problem from a historical perspective with the classification of lesbians as asocial prisoners arises in the fact that because there are multiple groups of people within this category, the numbers of women deported, imprisoned, and murdered as lesbians cannot be ascertained. In addition, because of the dehumanized nature of circumstances within the camp, sexual relationships between women cannot be automatically assumed as being queer. As described in multiple memoirs and oral testimonies, some women used same-sex sexual relationships as a way to get more food, or as a way to find comfort in whatever ways they could.
While these are all statistical limitations for historical analysis, there are certain social limitations as well, not least of which are the descriptions of lesbians with the black triangle as perverted within a lot of survivor and other historical accounts. This largely relates to inmates asserting relationships with Nazism, whether that be to gain the favor of a camp guard in exchange for more food or to increase the chance of survival by using sex in exchange for protection. Within Holocaust history, there is one Nazi camp guard named Irma Grese who has been continuously documented as abusing her position of power as a Nazi camp guard. While sexual humiliation occurred from the moment prisoners entered the camps, Irma Grese was known for the rape, torture, and sadistic brutality of women imprisoned in the camps. She would forcibly have sex with them and whip their breasts, before sending them to be gassed and cremated. This sexualized torture has been described in multiple memoirs but is amplified by the sexualization, power dynamics, and pornographic coding of lesbian relationships that are often portrayed in Hollywood films, such as (1) Aimée & Jaguar (1998) (2) Fénelon (1983) (3) Sophie’s Choice (1982) (4) Mädchen in Uniform (1931) (5) and Bound (1995), just to name a few. The contributions of these films and historical accounts further lead to the interpretation of lesbians within concentration camps as predators within historical adaptations and even more modern, professional analyses.
As I began to uncover some of these interpretations and search for new reference materials, one thing became abundantly clear to me: there was much more data about gay men. As I mentioned previously, homosexual men were directly persecuted during the Holocaust. While lesbians were placed in the “asocial” category within concentration camps, there were many lesbians who continued living their lives in Nazi-occupied Europe without ever being deported to work, concentration, or death camps. This was largely in part because the Nazi regime legally criminalized sexual acts between men, while only lesbian organizations and gatherings were prohibited under paragraph 175 of the criminal code in Nazi law. Along with these legal formalities, there was a social double standard of viewing gay men as innately homosexual while viewing lesbian relationships as acquired or conditional, and thus non-threatening—and in the case of concentration camp life, contingent on internment.
This double standard combined with social and political apathy has even led some scholars to conclude that lesbians weren’t persecuted at all during the Holocaust. I do not think, however, that this apparent apathy toward lesbianism can be dismissed. As famous Holocaust scholar Samuel Clowes Huneke has said, “Gender is perhaps why lesbians weren’t persecuted in the same ways… but simply because there was a tolerance for female homosexuality doesn’t mean that these women led enviable lives.” Perhaps there was less direct persecution of lesbians than the 50,000 men systematically convicted, persecuted, and dehumanized for being homosexuals during the Holocaust, but the view that women were not seen as sexual beings or as threatening to the regime’s policy of pronatalism, which encouraged reproduction, is a form of persecution. So going forward, it is important to “bridge the divide in the scholarship, putting persecution and tolerance into a single frame of reference for understanding the lives of lesbians in the Third Reich” (Huneke).
With the sexualized nature of many historical accounts of lesbians, the power dynamics often cited, and the social and political biases that have influenced more modern accounts established, I started looking more toward the current research that is being done to reclaim the experiences of queer women during the Holocaust. What I have discovered is that a lot of the work is attempting not only to reconstruct the experiences of lesbian women during the Holocaust but also to refute the idea that sexual acts between women in concentration camps only relate to violence and physical preservation.
Many scholars claim that because of the constant threat of annihilation within the camps, sexual acts between inmates cannot be viewed as acts of intimacy or of autonomous self-expression. Some would even go as far as to argue that even acts of sexual intimacy are peculiarly sexless because of the context in which they occurred. While these are very valid points and certainly have truth in some cases, not all relationships, sexual or otherwise, within the camps can be viewed with this lens of physical preservation and exploitation.
So while my research rabbithole into the experiences of lesbian women during the Holocaust was not nearly as fruitful as I wanted it to be, because of the lack of documentation and the social polarities that have dominated lesbian representation, I think it is ultimately important to consider these experiences of lesbian women during the Holocaust in the broader context of queer history. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have always and will always exist, whether their lives are written about and documented or not. Significant amounts of queer history have been lost to the ages due to social stigmas, fear, and persecution, but we can begin now to correct these wrongs of history. It is our duty as modern-day historians and world citizens to have these difficult discussions, to dig into the past and reclaim the history that has been lost. By talking, sharing, and learning we can begin to ultimately make the world a better place for all, ensuring that future generations of LGBTQ+ individuals will be able to look back, feel seen, and understand the power and experiences of all those who came before them.
About the Author
Reyna Stovall is a current sophomore at Fordham’s Lincoln Center, majoring in International Studies with a minor in Jewish Studies and French. Reyna is originally from San Antonio, Texas where she is a docent at the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio (HMMSA). Outside of school she enjoys reading, making playlists, crocheting, and watching Broadway shows.