Italy finally ready to recognise the suffering of gays in Holocaust camp

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The Independent Online

A black marble plaque surmounted by a pink triangle will be unveiled next Wednesday at the site of the only Nazi concentration camp in Italy.

A black marble plaque surmounted by a pink triangle will be unveiled next Wednesday at the site of the only Nazi concentration camp in Italy.

The pink triangle was the symbol sewn for identification on the uniforms of homosexuals imprisoned in the camps. It has since been adopted by the gay movement as a more general symbol of their persecution, both under the Nazis and under other, less malign regimes.

The unveiling at San Sabba, a rice-mill near Trieste converted into a concentration camp by the Nazis in 1943, is the first public recognition in Italy of the suffering of gays under the Nazis. The plaque, proposed by Arcigay, Italy's most prominent gay rights group, is backed by the city's mayor and council.

"The plaque is important," says Sergio lo Giudice, president of Arcigay, who will do the unveiling. "It's a sign that something in Italy is changing."

And changing quickly; in 2003 when gay activists attempted to get the persecution of homosexuals under the Nazis recognised officially, Trieste's ruling centre-right slapped them down. Roberto Menia, a councillor with the "post-fascist" Alleanza Nazionale, said: "For the sake of political correctness we're forced to be buggers."

In 1930, Mussolini opposed introduction of a law targeting homosexuals, saying: "To the fortune and the pride of Italy, this abominable vice does not exist here". Just last year, Italy's minister for Europe, Rocco Buttiglione, told MEPs in Brussels he considered homosexuality a sin.

But now the city council has voted unanimously to let the commemoration go ahead. The plaque will be unveiled on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, at the culmination of a torchlit peace procession.

Homosexuals were among several non-Jewish groups sent to concentration camps in their thousands by the Nazis. Other groups included political enemies of the Nazis and Jehovah's Witnesses. Holocaust historians point out that, unlike Jews, Gypsies and other "non-Aryans", these groups were not sent to be exterminated but "re-educated".

That, at least, was the theory. But prejudice and hostility towards them from other inmates as well as the camp authorities and SS guards meant that most died within a relatively short time.

Unlike the Jews, they were not herded into the camps en masse but taken "in random samples", wrote Rüdiger Lautmann, professor of sociology at the University of Bremen. "They were supposed to renounce their particular orientation. Hitler considered homosexuality as a predisposition that could not be changed ... [but] its manifestations could be blocked."

Severe measures were intended as behaviouristic conditioning, a way to cause unlearning through aversion. Professor Lautmann said: "If necessary, homosexuals were to be castrated, but they were permitted to continue to work. As a matter of policy, extermination was therefore restrained. In practice there were other contrary impulses on the part of the SS, and those who wore the pink triangle met an unusually harsh fate."

Professor Lautmann says two-thirds of gays in the camps died there. The survivors were so cowed that it was not until the play Bent in 1979 that their suffering became widely known.

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