A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
In the past several decades, there has been an increased public “outing” of the persecution of gays and lesbians during the Nazi regime. Holocaust museums around the world have erected monuments to commemorate the 60,000 victims, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who were convicted, imprisoned, or executed due to their sexual orientation. Yet in Berlin’s Topography of Terror museum, the memorial that serves to honor LGBT Holocaust victims still preserves the oppressive walls of the closet. While other Holocaust victims in the museum are granted full documentation of their first and last names, the LGBT memorial removes the last names of victims who were persecuted for homosexuality, concealing their identities in order to “protect their privacy” (Estrin, 2014).
When it comes to the closet, the distinctions between privacy, protection, and enforced silence remain blurry. Feeling obliged to keep gay identity eternally shrouded within shadows to sidestep violence—even despite one’s death, even from the grave—constitutes a pervasive societal trauma which must be voiced, examined, and mourned. The closet thereby becomes an indestructible tomb that suffocates both the living and the dead. The closet becomes an everlasting symbol of shame that trickles down the generations, teaching our future children that there are parts of themselves which are “bad” and must remain forever hidden from the light of day. At some point, these sequestered, silenced parts of a human being’s selfhood must be properly atoned for by those of us who have been left behind. It becomes the living’s duty to bring voice to the lives of the dead, who could not speak for themselves while here on earth.
The necessity to bring voice to those who live and die in the closet is particularly relevant now, seventy years after the Holocaust, amidst the current worldwide persecution of the LGBT community. Though the U.S. is making notable strides on the marriage equality front, other parts of the world have regressed to the dark ages. In February 2014, Uganda strengthened the severity of its anti-gay criminal penalties by imposing a life sentence of prison to “repeat offenders” found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality.” In December 2013, after a four-year societal push towards gay liberation and pride, India’s Supreme Court reinstated the Section 377 law to criminalize homosexuality, punishing gay sex with up to ten years of jail and shoving millions of Indians back into closets. In June 2013, Russia enforced a law to ban the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors, using threats of imprisonment and violence to exile its gay community inside closets. A glimpse into the physical and mental torture, political coercion and blackmail, and public ostracism of the LGBT community in these countries bears heartbreaking resemblance to the treatment of Jews during Nazi Germany. Though concentration camps may not exist during this modern persecution, there exists a psychic genocide—an extinction of selfhood—that is just as atrocious.
As societies such as Russia, Uganda and India uphold political rulings to strengthen the heteronormativity of their cultures and snuff out the authenticity of millions of their citizens, what kind of memorial should we offer those who will carry their closets eternally to the grave? To commemorate is to recall, honor, and celebrate a person’s selfhood and the life they lived. To mourn is to feel deep sorrow and regret for the loss of a life lived. We are called upon, now, to mourn the millions of lives around the world that might be forever left unlived. We are called upon to mourn the many people whose authentic selves might be forever submerged by society’s conspiracy of silence, so that one day, upon their death, they may never be commemorated for their beautiful fullness of spirit.
On May 20th, 2014, Pennsylvania became the 19th state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage. While we celebrate this significant step forward, we must refuse to remain silent about our ancestors from the past, and our brothers and sisters across the globe, who have yearned to taste such freedom. To the millions of men and women who are forced to live and love within closets because of the violent cultures that surround them—I mourn for you. To those people now deceased who had to spend entire lifetimes wrestling with the guilt and shame of societally imposed secrecy—I mourn for you. For those of you who have felt unseen for the beauty of who you are in the entirety of your being—I commemorate your spirit. For those of you who must swallow your right to love and be loved to avoid ostracism, imprisonment, and death—I commemorate your heart. Please know that these words stand as a tribute, mourning song, and battle-cry—for you.
By Nisha Gupta
Estrin, D. “Gay victims of the Nazis…” PRI: March 27, 2014. http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-03-27/70-years-after-wwii-gay-victims-nazis-are-still-not-fully-honored