Howell recounts history of U.S. Holocaust Council and gays

Howell recounts history of U.S. Holocaust Council and gays

To: Readers Forum
The Washington Blade
1408 U Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009

May 4, 1999 (by fax to 202-797-7040)

[published in the May 14, 1999 issue of The Washington Blade]


To the Editor:

The Blade's excellent article “Museum recounts lives of Gay Holocaust victims” (Blade, April 30) provides a comprehensive summary of the many ways in which the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington honors the memory of the thousands of gays murdered by the Nazi regime.

But one point of more recent history needs to be clarified.

Roberta Bennett, the only openly gay member currently serving on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, is quoted: “From the beginning, the museum has recognized that it was not only Jews who suffered during the Holocaust.” Klaus Müller, the outstanding openly gay program director at the Museum, has said much the same thing on many occasions.

But, in fact, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s there was tremendous controversy about whether gay victims should be memorialized at all.

The Holocaust Commission appointed by President Jimmy Carter issued its report and recommendations in 1979 without once alluding to the existence of the gay victims. The National Gay Task Force (as it was then known) protested this omission vigorously, but got nowhere with the Carter Administration and eventually moved on to other issues. Tom Chorlton of our own organization, then known as the Gay Activists Alliance, picked up the ball as the new U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council was being formed in the early days of the Reagan Administration. Eventually I was to spearhead our group’s efforts to ensure that the gay victims of the Holocaust would not be deliberately forgotten.

Luckily, the new Executive Director of the Holocaust Memorial Council was Monroe Freedman, who had served as an attorney on behalf of several gay groups in Washington. Mr. Freedman was sympathetic to our concerns and told us that if we secured the documentation about the gay victims, he would make sure it was called to the attention of the Council members. Such documentation already existed, thanks to the exhaustive research of Professor Rudiger Lautmann of the University of Bremen. The late Clint Hockenberry of D.C., through his role with what was then called the International Gay Association, made the contacts to get an English translation of that documentation into our hands. We presented it to Mr. Freedman, who disseminated the results to all Council members.

Even that solid and irrefutable proof did not sway some Council members, who steadfastly argued either that only the Jewish victims should be commemorated in the Holocaust Memorial Museum or else that gays should not be included because they were sinners and criminals.

The dispute was resolved with finality in early 1983 by Elie Wiesel, the Council Chair, who insisted that the Museum must include all Holocaust victims, not only the Jewish ones, and that the historical record clearly proved that gays were among those deliberately targeted for persecution by the Nazis. Mr. Wiesel’s towering moral authority was not questioned. The Council and the Museum have never since wavered in their total commitment to the full historical truth.

To this day, I consider helping to pave the way to that victory as the most gratifying accomplishment of my own career as a gay activist. Everyone connected with it receives my continuing appreciation.


Craig Howell, President
Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance
Washington, D.C.