In 1936, the SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler created the Gestapo’s Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion. As a result, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested as homosexuals, and some 50,000 of these men were sentenced.
Some spent time in regular prisons, some were forcibly castrated as an alternative to incarceration, and thousands were sent to Nazi concentration camps.
Men with pink triangles were often treated particularly severely by guards and other inmates alike. Some homosexuals were also victims of cruel medical experiments, designed to change them into heterosexuals. Estimates are that more than half were executed or died from disease and malnutrition, but for those who survived, the liberation from the Nazi concentration camps did not end the suffering and humiliation.
They were not acknowledged as victims of Nazi persecution, and compensation was refused. Some homosexuals liberated from the concentration camps were even forced to serve out their terms of imprisonment.
Sixty years later, no one has apologised for this tragic and shameful treatment of camp survivors. Regrettably, the wall of prejudice, discrimination and hypocrisy has not yet disappeared, and Europe is often more tolerant of homophobes than their victims.
While it is true that, also thanks to the work of the Council of Europe, sexual orientation will no longer get you jailed, the bigots in several European countries are free to speak and act on their homophobic beliefs without any fear of sanction from the authorities. Very often the officials themselves – mayors, parliamentarians and even ministers – will be the first to voice and promote homophobic ideas. Many individuals in positions of moral authority endorse or even encourage hatred against gays and lesbians, demonstrating a deplorable failure to practice the tolerance they preach.
As a result, homophobia in parts of Europe is on the increase, and there are very few governments ready to speak out to defend the human rights of gay and lesbian people in other countries. This is one minority which is left to fend for themselves. In the Council of Europe we are not telling our member states how far they should go in recognising the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry or adopt children, because any such extension of rights at the European level would require a consensus of all 46 member states. But when it comes to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights – which prohibit discrimination on any grounds – there cannot be any compromise, and we should defend these rights with conviction, perseverance and force.
Legally binding Council of Europe standards and the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights are clear and unequivocal -those who discriminate against gays and lesbians are not only offending the memory of the victims of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, they are also breaking the law. The victims of discrimination have the right to complain to the European Court of Human Rights, but this should be the last resort. It should not be the only way to protect the human rights and dignity of gays and lesbians across Europe. The fact is that the situation in a number of countries is a reason for concern. If individuals and institutions with responsibilities to enforce laws are allowed to propagate intolerance, it is not only the human rights of gays and lesbians which are at stake. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law cannot function in a society which tolerates bigotry, prejudice and hate. If we continue to look the other way, an outburst of homophobic violence is only a matter of time.
That is why we must end the hypocrisy of silence and stop treating homophobic attitudes as a cultural eccentricity. It is time to apologise for the past and act for the future. It is time for Europe to say clearly and with force – no longer and never again!
Terry Davis is Secretary General of the Council of Europe