SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. - In Nazi Germany, some gay men were castrated and prosecuted by the Gestapo under Draconian laws prohibiting homosexuality. Others were subjected to crude medical experiments purported to correct their sexual orientation. Gay men in concentration camps were singled out with distinctive pink triangle badges and assigned backbreaking labor that often killed them.
A traveling exhibit from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum uses photographs, documents, and artwork to chronicle the Nazis' arrests and persecution of tens of thousands of gay men from 1933 to 1945.
The exhibit, on display through the end of the month at the University of Rhode Island, gives voice to what its curator describes as "one of the lesser-known stories of the Nazi era."
"You could substitute the word homosexual and put in any minority group and see a story of how easy it is to persecute somebody who is outside of the norms of the society," said curator Edward J. Phillips, also acting director of the museum's division of exhibitions.
The exhibit, "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945," has been on the road for about five years and will be at URI through March 29.
Phillips said the exhibit reflects the Washington museum's goal to be as inclusive as possible in discussing victims of the Nazis, which include most notably the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Gays, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and gypsies were among the groups who were also persecuted.
About 100,000 German men were arrested under a sweeping antigay law, and roughly half were convicted and sent to prison, according to the exhibit. Between 5,000 and 15,000 were sent to concentration camps, where many died from starvation, beatings, exhaustion, and murder.
The Nazis regarded gay men as a socially deviant subclass whose sexual preference threatened the elite and masculine Aryan race they sought to establish. A diagram included in the exhibit likens homosexuality to a contagious infection that could be spread among men by seduction.
Sexual relationships between women, already regarded as second-class citizens, were not criminalized, and lesbians were generally seen as less of a cultural threat, Phillips said.
The exhibit begins just before the Nazis rose to power, when an estimated 1.2 million gay men lived in Germany and a gay culture flourished in nightclubs and cafes. But after Adolf Hitler took power, the Nazis began closing gay clubs, and in 1934 the Gestapo asked local police departments to compile lists of men believed to be gay.
A law known as Paragraph 175 that had previously prohibited "unnatural indecency" between men was reworked to dramatically expand the range of illegal behaviors. By 1938, even a perceived wayward glance or touch could be interpreted as criminal by the courts.
In 1943, SS chief Heinrich Himmler approved a medical experiment designed to "correct" gay men of their sexual preferences. Two men died from complications of the surgery, the exhibit says.
A highlight of the exhibit is a series of published lithographs by Richard Grune, a gay artist who was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. His works, with titles like "Death Slide to the Crematorium in Concentration Camp Flossenburg" and "Undernourished Prisoners in the Bath," offer unflinching depictions of prisoners as exhausted, skeletal, and tortured.