February 11, 2015

Ebb and Flow of Bigotry toward Jews, Gays and Transgenders

Two weeks ago, I posted about the positive direction of public attitudes toward gays since the early 1950s. That's when Alan Turing -- the World War II hero who broke the German Enigma code -- was arrested just for acknowledging a gay relationship. He was sentenced to chemical castration, a horrible process that led to his suicide. Then last week, I posted about the growing awareness of transgendered people between the early 1980s -- when my friend Ron was changing from female to male -- and now, as the very public Bruce Jenner is reportedly changing from male to female.

I came away from writing those posts feeling upbeat about the progress we've seen combating discrimination and prejudice. But other readings this weekend reminded me of the ingrained nature of bigotry.

Anti--Semitism: 1945-2015
The Sunday New York Times carried a disturbing story about the aftermath of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps by Allied forces. I’d always been proud of the role U.S. Army played in freeing the death camps, but I didn't have all the facts.

The Times story described the disturbing reality of what “liberation” actually meant for hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors, mainly Jews. With the American forces overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees, the survivors lived for months in decrepit camps in Germany and Austria -- many of them in the same camps where they had been imprisoned. Even after conditions improved, thousands remained in limbo for as long as five years, because the United States and most other nations refused to let them immigrate.

President Truman sent former immigration official Earl Harrison to inspect the camps. In his report to Truman in the summer of 1945, Harrison wrote:
As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in huge numbers under our military care instead of S.S. troops.
What disturbed me most in the Times’ report were the verbatim quotes from General George Patton, who was in charge of our country's Displaced Persons operation. Patton wrote in his journal, “Harrison and his ilk believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews who are lower than animals.”

Not only does Patton reveal shocking disdain for Jews in the camps, he also shows an odd admiration for Nazi prisoners of war under his watch.

Back in Washington, some policymakers actively opposed the idea of admitting Holocaust survivors because of lingering anti-semitism. As many as 12,000 Jews remained in the Bergen-Belsen camp until it was finally closed in 1951.

Anti-semitism in America has certainly waned dramatically since then. But this past weekend’s news was full of reports of French Jews preparing to leave their country because of growing anti-semitism there. And then there's the Middle East....

Homophobia: Here and There
The same page of the Sunday Times carried the weekly op-ed column titled “Do gays unsettle you?” Openly gay writer Frank Bruni thinks many Americans remain uncomfortable with gays and lesbians, in spite of recent progress. He knows that holding his partner's hand while they walk the streets of Manhattan is still - for many -- a loaded gesture... even in pay-no-mind New York City.

Bruni's column was followed on the same page by the report about displaced concentration camp survivors, a positioning that seemed to trivialize Bruni's hand-holding observation. Still, the two articles in tandem underscored the progress against anti-semiticism and homophobia we've seen here and in other western coutnries.

Even so, homophobia hasn't gone away. The Economist's report on the World in 2015 included a review of gay rights today. The report begins with this summary:
In only a few years homophobia has been relegated from a legally buttressed norm to a widely condemned prejudice. At least, these are the best times to be gay if you live in London, Madrid, Auckland, or San Francisco. In many other parts of the world the plight of homosexuals is dire, even deteriorating.
The two main regions in which gay rights have suffered renewed attacks are Africa and the former Soviet Union. In much of Africa, same-gender sex is a crime. New anti-gay laws were passed last year in Uganda and Nigeria. Kenya may soon follow suit.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin approved a bill that outlaws the “promotion” of homosexuality, a stigmatizing action being repeated in other former Soviet republics. In India, a court has in effect re-criminalized homosexuality. In much of the Muslim world and in parts of the Caribbean, too, the oppression of gays remains atrocious.

The Economist provided this summary of gay rights in 2015:
It is not altogether a coincidence that, while gays are posing for wedding photos in ever more countries, in others they are newly afraid for their freedom, even their lives. In some places politicians are combining homophobia with nationalism to create a noxious, hybrid populism -- portraying gay-rights as a Western imposition and themselves as bulwarks against encroaching foreign depravity.
2014 – Year of the Transgender?
Not surprisingly, my weekend reading included several reports on transgender issues, prompted by the news of Bruce Jenner’s plans for a male-to-female transition. I particularly liked a column in The Washington Post that suggested 2014 was likely go down in the history books as “That Transgender Year.” The author, Steven Petrow, noted these events:
Activist and actress Laverne Cox became the first trans-person to grace the cover of Time magazine; “Orange Is the New Black,” in which Cox’s trans character also broke boundaries, was nominated for 12 Emmys. Amazon’s “Transparent,” about a father who is transitioning, hit gold as well. 
Out in the real world, meantime, transgender people continued to be attacked and killed in shocking numbers. Murders topped 1,500 in the six years between 2008 and 2014, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project. And the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law reported that 41 percent of people who are transgender have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, nearly nine times the national average.
As I mentioned last week, my friend Ron -- who made the more difficult transition from female to male -- unfortunately ended up in the sad group of transgenders who attempt succeed and succeed.

Petrow's column notes that only a meager eight percent of Americans know someone who is transgender. I wonder what the percentage was back in the early 1980s when Ron and I were friends.

I think the extraordinarily rapid change in the public's attitude toward homosexuals was triggered by the AIDS crisis. Before that, most Americans thought of homosexuals as stereotypes: the effeminate gay or the butch lesbian. But this image was shattered by the thousands of gay men outed by AIDS, a group that included  Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins, and that nice young man who lived next door.

Now, 92 percent of Americans say they know someone who is gay or lesbian -- a reality widely acknowledged as a primary driver of mainstream acceptance.

With more than 1.5 million Americans identifying as transgender, it's very likely that more of us will get to know a transgender. Bruce Jenner -- with his reported plans for a reality TV series based on his own transition -- could greatly accelerate that process.

Interesting times.


John Schappi said...

Those interested in learning more about transgender issues, both Petrow in his NYT column and a reader who commented on my prior post on this issue recommend Deborah Rudicille's "The Riddle of Gender."

I will order it from Amazon right after posting this.

Anonymous said...

I am very interested in your take on this. This last summer, my oldest daughter's husband of 8 years declared himself trans and is transitioning into a woman. To this point, my daughter seems to be handling it well, but I'd really like to see more written about the effects on the spouse. My head spins at the concept of trusting someone who has deceived you (by omission) for so long....

John Schappi said...

Commenting on your daughter's situation is not easy for me. It hits too close to home since I am a gay man who lived a lie during much of my 20 year marriage. At least at the time of the marriage and for several years thereafter, I had conned myself into believing that therapy combined with my love for my wife had converted me from gay to straight.
Lives and relationships can be complicated.