Part I: Man’s Inhumanity to Women
Mid-semester, in our high school genocide studies course, my students and I were about to begin class by turning to the assigned readings on the Bosnian War and the question of genocide in former Yugoslavia. I had prepared slides for the day’s discussion that included numerous photographs, which, in retrospect, showed mostly Muslim boys and men behind barbed-wire fences. As students were coming into the classroom, one student, Elise (a pseudonym), began describing a performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues she had seen the previous weekend. One monologue in particular resonated with the week’s readings: “My Vagina was My Village.” The monologue describes the intimate, excruciating story of a woman being brutally raped during the course of the war, as well as the physical and emotional aftermath of living with the trauma. As Elise described the monologue in careful detail, the class grew increasingly quiet, students’ eyes trained on their desks. I too sat motionless not wanting to interrupt Elise but wondering if the topic of rape was too difficult, inappropriate for high schoolers. Elise ended her comments with a question that reverberated around our classroom: “Why don’t we talk about rape and the stuff that happens to women?” After a long pause, she continued: “It’s almost like…the way it’s talked about…genocide…I mean…it’s almost like it’s something that men do to other men.”
My students and I began to cautiously explore examples of, and the issues around, sexual violence in genocide. Because such topics are not widely discussed in secondary classrooms, I knew that communication with my students, their families, and the school administration were important to ensuring everyone was aware of the classroom discussions. Given the statistics about rape and sexual violence in the United States, it seemed likely that some of my students would have had first-hand experiences with sexual violence, making a safe and supportive classroom environment essential. Although, given recent attention around sexual violence on college campuses, an open conversation about the subject seemed appropriate, if not necessary. After all, these students would be leaving for college in a short few months. In addition to exploring rape and sexual violence, our class discussions also afforded students the opportunity to examine the shame and stigmatization attached to these crimes by societies more broadly. Students soon pushed me and each other to dig deeper, exploring LGBTQ experiences and rape and sexual violence committed against men and boys, an area of even greater societal taboo and stigma.
Part II: “Other Victims”
Over the lunch hour at an educator conference, I walked from the convention center to the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. I wanted to visit the Pink Triangle memorial, a series of 15 granite pillars topped with pink triangles memorializing the roughly 15,000 gay men imprisoned by the Nazis. As I approached the memorial, with the intention of taking a few photographs to share with my high school students, I notice that the memorial park was abuzz with activity. Unlike many other urban Holocaust memorials that seem largely forgotten after their dedication, this memorial was lovingly tended. Striking up a conversation with some of the people working in the gardens, I shared my and my students’ interest in expanding our knowledge of who our textbook casually refers to as “other victims” of Nazi genocide (only Jews and Roma and Sinti are specifically named). As I talked with the gardeners, I became increasingly interested in the connections these community members had to the memorial. “I watched as so many of my friends died of AIDS,” said one older man. “I wonder,” another asked, “do your students know about AIDS or the ways LGBTQ peoples are still stigmatized and treated unfairly in this country?” I paused, taken aback, where I had expected to visit a memorial to the victims of Nazis persecution, I found a memorial that spoke most powerfully about the AIDS epidemic and the continuing prejudice against LGBTQ communities.
Year after year, my students are always shocked to discover that the infamous Paragraph 175 dates not from the 1930s, but from 1871. The Nazis, however, strengthened the law and increased prison sentences for those targeted under the law from months to years in 1935. Perhaps most alarming for students is to learn of the reimprisonment, even after the Allied liberation of the camps, of many gay men who had not served their full sentence. Indeed, an estimated 50,000 men were prosecuted under the law following the war. The law ultimately remained in effect until 1994. Broader discussions of Paragraph 175, not only help to provide a voice to the “other victims” of Nazi genocide, but also provide ways for students to think about the stigmatization and discrimination of LGBTQ communities over a longer span of time. In recent class discussions, after sharing the above story from San Francisco with my students, we tend to include some discussion of the AIDS epidemic and the bridging between the genocides of WWII and other topics in contemporary discourse.
K-16 educators interested in exploring issues surrounding gender and sexual orientation in genocide are invited to enroll in a weeklong summer educator workshop at the University of Minnesota: Gender and Genocide: Uncovering Absent Narrative in Mass Violence and Human Rights Education
George Dalbo is a Ph.D. student in Social Studies Education at the University of Minnesota with research interests in Holocaust, comparative genocide, and human rights education in secondary schools. Previously, he was a middle and high school social studies teacher, having taught every grade from 5th-12th in public, charter, and independent schools in Minnesota, as well as two years at an international school in Vienna, Austria.