In northern France’s Alsace region, south of Strasbourg and near the German and Swiss borders, is a small, charming city called Mulhouse.
With a metropolitan population of just over 300,000, it’s about the same size as greater Victoria. I’ve never been there but I found myself researching Mulhouse online, prompted by something I’d read.
One of France’s main manufacturing towns during the Industrial Revolution, Mulhouse dates back to the ninth century and much of its past is still intact.
The city website’s postcardy virtual tour trumpets the region’s urban delights. It shows a lot of impressive architecture spanning the centuries from medieval to modern times, structures that have somehow survived a revolving door of national allegiances and war after war after war.
The urban core proudly displays a respectable number of old and ancient churches, homes for the rich, housing for the poor, halls of commerce, and quaint parks and green spaces. There seems to be a museum at every turn in the road, commemorating this, that and the other thing.
But institutions that put history under glass, and buildings left behind for a near-sighted posterity to put into its photo album or share with the folks back home by e-mail, never tell the whole story of a place and the people who lived there before.
It would be nice if they could but the walls can’t talk. They can’t tell you the story of Pierre Seel, a young man who lived in Mulhouse.
He was 17 years old when the Nazis invaded France in 1940, and 18 when they came knocking at the door.
Seel was a member of a secretive community of men who congregated for sex and companionship out of view of family, friends, work associates and the law; men who kept quiet about their desires in order to assimilate and survive.
They probably met via the tucked-away public places, private parties and windowless backroom bars where millions of young men like Seel have been meeting each other for centuries and still do all around the world, frequently if not usually at risk of being arrested, humiliated, beaten up or worse.
Today, we toss around the term subculture to define this kind of social organization, but I prefer the taxonomical designation I came across in a medical dictionary, which describes a subculture as: “A culture made by transferring to a fresh medium micro-organisms from a previous culture.”
This must be the definition Dr Magnus Hirschfeld-the Kinsey of his day-and Adolf Brand had in mind during the brief flowering of European tolerance for homosexuals that blossomed in the late 1890s in Berlin, where they formed the world’s first gay rights movement, The Scientific Humanitarian Committee.
Gay men have been trying to scramble out of the petri dish ever since.
In the Berlin of the 1920s you could get an eyeful of sequins and an earful of attitude from the queens working Berlin’s popular Eldorado Club.
Nazi power grew and by the early 1930s, gays in the I Am a Camera Berlin of Christopher Isherwood were running for cover to avoid state-sanctioned persecution.
In 1936, the SS created the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion, and there was nowhere left to run.
Paris was the other urban centre where gays enjoyed some degree of acceptance, sort of. A number of writers had played hide and seek with gay male identity: André Gide, Jean Cocteau and Marcel Proust, but none of the writers publicly disclosed their own homosexuality.
When Jean Genet published Notre Dame des Fleurs in 1943 while serving time in prison, his shocking (for then) novel about drag queens, fags and hustlers in the Paris demimonde revealed a world few people even knew existed, and things started to change. The word was out.
But Mulhouse wasn’t Berlin, and it certainly wasn’t Paris.
Pierre Seel’s name appeared on an ongoing list of known homosexuals compiled and maintained by local police.
When the Germans occupied Mulhouse, they rounded up everyone on the list. More than 100 men including Seel were taken into custody. During interrogation, the Nazis tore off fingernails and raped detainees with broken rulers. Then it was off to camp.
Throughout the confusion, Seel had tried to find his boyfriend, another 18-year-old called Jo, but with no luck. He was standing at attention in a circle in the concentration camp’s courtyard with the other men from his barracks when he did.
Seel was heartsick when guards brought Jo from out of a building and forced him into the centre of the circle. They stripped him naked, put a bucket on his head, then let go of the leashes. The dogs apparently started with his groin and thighs, and devoured him, screaming, in front of all the men watching.
During the Holocaust, an estimated 350,000 gay men were exterminated alongside six million Jews, and all we’re left with is the symbol of a pink triangle.
What can a symbol tell us about these men? Not much. The men are gone, their voices missing forever.
Without their voices, the pink triangle is just a picture on a T-shirt, as faded as the slogan printed beneath it: Silence Equals Death.
I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror, is the true story of one of the very few gay men to survive the concentration camps.
By breaking the silence about what happened to him at Schirmeck, Seel breathed life into the pink triangle for a gay man like me who always associated it with AIDS.
Unlike most camps, however, Schirmeck didn’t use the pink triangle to identify gays. Homosexuals and Catholics both wore blue bars.
Society’s attitude about gay men who were exterminated in the death camps was don’t ask, don’t tell. Ashamed, Seel didn’t tell anyone anything, pretended to be straight, got married and had kids.
In 1982, when the Bishop of Strasbourg condemned homosexuals as sick, Seel couldn’t hold it in anymore and broke the silence of almost 40 years.
The history of gay men is a history of missing men-centuries and centuries of men of all classes, beliefs and occupations who practiced self-censorship in order to survive, then died and disappeared.
They didn’t talk about themselves, consequently no one else did.
Breaking the silence has been the most important and one of the most difficult aspects of the gay movement because so many gay men are willing to sacrifice their freedom of expression in a bid for acceptance that-if we do indeed shut up-can only lead us back down the dark path where all our problems started.
Don’t talk about the baths and public sex, they say, people won’t like us.
Shut up already about SM play, and could you tone it down about the dildos?
And whatever you do, please don’t talk about bum-fucking 12-year-old boys. Do you have to be so political? Why don’t you write something nice about the choir?
I was thinking about this while I was at the recent rally for Aaron Webster on Vancouver’s courthouse steps, trying to figure out what to write for Xtra West’s 300th issue. I’d been asked to reflect on changes in the city’s gay community since the paper first hit the street in 1993.
On the surface, things are pretty good. We have establishments with windows onto the street and a bustling little village taking shape along Davie. That’s a change.
Throughout the West End, gay men walk hand-in-hand while sharing the sidewalk with people of myriad ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We have more sports clubs and events than you can shake a stick at; Gayway, a new health and social centre specifically for gay men; and Gaywest, which offers a host of options for men interested in physical and emotional healing. We even have knitting circles, which I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
And boy do we have lifestyle.
Across North America, cities are praising gay men for gentrifying down and out neighbourhoods, and urban theorists are shmoozing about the so-called “gay index.” A city with a strong gay population is perceived to be open-minded and bohemian, hence desirable to upwardly mobile young professionals, particularly technology workers.
On the flip side, when I was 18 in 1977, a friend of mine who worked in a bookstore could afford to rent a one-bedroom West End apartment and live on two dollars an hour. Today, the same apartment would require three or four bookstore clerks at nine dollars an hour.
I’m glad that people think I’m a good investment, but I didn’t come out to stimulate the economy. There are more interesting things to stimulate, like discussion.
Many gay men are feeling disengaged by the community here, like it’s in a holding pattern. We’re wondering what’s next, but no one talks about it.
I remember over the years how my friends and I would talk and talk and talk-and laugh-about politics, literature and current affairs, but mostly about sex.
We talked about ideas, and like Oscar Wilde said, “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”
Now, at parties, no one wants to talk about anything controversial.
No one wanted to talk, for example, about a gay publisher’s recent decision to refuse to run a paid-for HIV prevention ad in his gay magazine because he thought its sexual connotations might offend some readers. And no one wants to hear from, let alone talk about, drag queens and leathermen at Pride.
We live in an increasingly violent world, the airwaves are a cacophony of pots and black kettles and people are wary of speaking their minds.
So I guess, since Xtra West opened up shop, what’s struck me most has been the occasional time I’ve stumbled across the emerging voice of a new local gay writer, whether a journalist, a poet or a writer of fiction.
The Body Politic, Xtra West’s parent paper, helped my generation of gay men explore some very challenging ideas about male sexuality, peaking, I believe, with Gerald Hannon’s Men Loving Boys Loving Men, which I still think is one of the most important pieces of Canadian journalism.
Pink Triangle Press gave me a leg up as a writer, and continues to encourage others. I strongly encourage any young queer out there who has an idea and knows where to put the period to flex his vocal cords in Xtra West. Because if you’re like me when I was your age, you didn’t come out to set up housekeeping. You came out to express yourself.
Please don’t go missing in action.