Column: History can be powerful, but only if society chooses to learn about it
If society fails to learn about LGBTQ history, the community is bound to suffer more and more.
Dec. 15, 2018
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
Abigail Ruhman is a freshman journalism and political science major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.
This column is part 12 of Abigail Ruhman’s “Twelve Gays of Christmas” series. Twelve Gays of Christmas is a twelve-column series about a variety of LGBTQ topics. During the holidays, members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to experience depression. By informing readers of the issues facing the LGBTQ community, these columns are meant to support the community this holiday season.
The ability for us to look back on the past and see the impact it still has on the world is something that society tends to ignore from time to time.
For minority communities, it is especially important to learn about the past and how it influenced culture. This makes their families and the community around them so important. Unfortunately, the LGBTQ community doesn’t have a built-in support system around it.
This has resulted in LGBTQ history becoming forgotten or contorted, which presents a major issue for the community. The fact that LGBTQ history isn’t typically included in history books and discussions means that people aren’t typically informed about the community’s history.
The thing about LGBTQ history is that it’s typically viewed from the angle of the individual being queer, rather than looking at the historical significance of the era. For example, Alan Turing invented the machine that cracked the Enigma code and was considered the precursor to the modern day computer. While historians tend to treat his sexuality as a background fact, it was a major aspect of his life and career.
Despite the fact that homosexuality was illegal at the time, Turing was rather open about his sexuality. While it never became a direct problem during World War II, he was arrested after the war for homosexuality and chose estrogen treatment to avoid jail time. The belief at the time was that estrogen would convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. After his year of treatment was complete, he committed suicide. Turing’s story shows how easy it was for a great mind to be lost due simply to their sexuality.
When it comes to contorting history, it didn’t just leave a mark on individuals, it also affected hundreds of people. During Adolf Hitler’s attack on those not within the Aryan race, one group that is often overlooked was homosexual men. Since German law ignored lesbians, gay men were the only group affected by the pink triangles during World War II.
The pink triangle was used to label which male prisoners were homosexual. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 63,000 gay men were imprisoned and assigned the same fate as Jews at the time. While the number is much smaller compared to the six million Jews murdered, liberation from internment camps meant something totally different.
After the gay men were liberated, many who wore the pink triangle were immediately placed into jail for being homosexual. That’s right — they survived the internment camps and were placed into jail. History tends to see liberation as a happy ending, yet this wasn’t true for the LGBTQ community.
Even after World War II, the LGBTQ community was still targeted. The Cold War is typically attached to the Red Scare and McCarthyism, while the Lavender Scare is often ignored. As America began to shift into an era of conformity, people began to connect homosexuality to communism. The general public believed that communists and homosexuals were mentally and morally weak.
If someone could lie about who they are attracted to, then it was assumed that they were also lying about their loyalty to America. The government allowed employers to ask applicants about their sexual history, and fired any LGBTQ civil servants. In addition, someone could be fired for “guilt of association” if they knew someone who was gay.
The issue doesn’t just stop there — LGBTQ specific history has also shifted with time. For example, the community can sometimes forget that the gay rights movement was started by transgender women of color. The Stonewall Riots are often hailed as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Some argue that the Compton Cafeteria Riot was the actual beginning to the movement, but this was also led by transgender women. There is an obsession with keeping the LGBTQ narative to gay, white, cisgender men.
Distorting history to fit a straight or less controversial narrative leaves the LGBTQ community at a disadvantage. The community has gone through history that is heartbreaking, but it isn’t always easy to find information about it. It has failed to make its way into history books, classes and discussions.
As someone who thrives on knowing the history of my community, the fact that it’s so difficult to learn about Turing, the pink triangles and the Lavender Scare hurts. I happened to dig into my community’s history, but for those not interested in digging deep, it's easy to ignore.
Society owes it to the community to inform everyone on the good and bad history. Discrimination has hurt the community time after time, but society can’t learn from its mistakes if they are erased.