I’ll never forget walking up to the gates of Auschwitz. It was the summer of 1996, and I was on a European tour with my college basketball team, playing a handful of exhibition games against teams from France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Poland. As we approached the iron gates of the now infamous concentration camp, the words “Arbeit Macht Fret” loomed over our heads meaning, “Work will set you free.” It was chilling thinking of the horrors of what took place inside those gates between 1940 and 1945 during the Holocaust, an act of genocide that killed six million Jewish people, which was 2/3 of Europe’s Jewish population.
My experience at Auschwitz and the pink triangles
The day I stepped foot onto the grounds of Auschwitz, I was about to turn 19 years old, and that past year, I had just come to the realization that I was gay, and had been contemplating all summer how to disclose that information to my parents, my family and my friends. Entering the museum on the grounds, we all walked in silence, heads bowed, hands in our pockets. Nothing can quite prepare you for walking through evidence of an attempt to exterminate an entire population of people, along with countless other minoritized groups, through means of torture beyond most of our imaginations. Walking through the museum, I pulled off to the side of the group, reading and absorbing information, taking in unbelievable displays, like the huge pile of glasses taken off of prisoners before they were sent into the gas chambers. Glasses, shoes, suitcases…reminders of the families that died there. As I turned a corner, I found myself face to face with another display, another large glass case, this one filled with pink triangles.
Pink triangles were put on the clothes of gay prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps to identify and separate them from the other “undesirables.” Walking up to the bright pink triangles on display, I learned that they were slightly larger than the other colored triangles, so the guards could identify them easily from a distance, and along with the harsh treatment from the guards, they were singled out for harm by other inmates as well.
I had only one thought as I stared at those pink triangles in the glass case. “That is me.” I remember an overwhelming feeling that had I been alive in Germany during this time, my triangle could have been among those in that case. I remember feeling a sense that these triangles belonged to “my people” and that along with the dread and fear I felt about coming out to my loved ones, a different feeling was also growing, one of pride and connection with the past and present LGBTQ communities. I also remember feeling a profound sense of connection to all others represented in that museum, whether they were being persecuted for their religion, their race or their immigration status. I was struck by the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, “First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew, then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Remembering the importance of our shared humanity
On today, Friday, January 27, 2023, we recognize International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an international memorial that commemorates the victims of the Holocaust. As I reflect on this attempt to extinguish the Jewish population, and my experiences touring Auschwitz, I am also reminded of what I learned about how this happened. Often when learning about the Holocaust, or slavery or any other atrocity against a population of people, we ask, “How could people let this happen?” What I learned that day, is that the way that we allow ourselves to torture, kill or enslave other human beings is to strip them of their humanity. Nazi propaganda attempting to get others to see Jews as less than human was also on display at the museum. When we dehumanize other people, we cease to see them as connected to us, and we allow unspeakable acts to occur.
On Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, I went to the capitol to testify for a bill to ban conversion therapy for children and vulnerable adults in Minnesota. After I spoke out against the harmful practices of “conversation therapy”, which uses shame and sometimes other forms of psychological, physical and sexual torture to attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, I sat and listened through some of the most dehumanizing hate speech against LGBTQ people that I have heard in the last 20 years. This is how it starts. If we can convince ourselves that LGBTQ people, including kids and teenagers, are less than human, or in the case of transgender youth, do not even really exist, then we can allow ourselves to enact laws, policies and harmful practices upon them.
While there is no comparing an act like the Holocaust to something like conversion therapy, there is a profound connection to how we allow ourselves to separate our humanity from others based on their identities that transcends time and place. Indeed, there is a profound and direct connection between the recent rise in LGBTQ hate speech and the hundreds of anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender bills that have been introduced so far this year and the visible rise of antisemitism in this country and across the world. But 2021 was not only the worst year on record for anti-LGBTQ violence and legislation, it was also the highest year on record for documented reports of vandalism and violence directed against Jews. We are in the middle of a five-year upswing in antisemitic incidents, connected to an increase in hate crimes more broadly over the past few years.
As I walked away from Auschwitz and back onto the bus with my teammates 30 years ago, I not only took with me an imperative that I must move forward with coming out to my family and friends and live in my truth as a gay person, but I also took with me a profound sense of connection to my fellow humans and a drive to create safe spaces and justice for them all. You see, if I don’t speak up against antisemitism, racism, ableism and other attempts to generate inhumanity and hate in addition to speaking out against homophobia and transphobia, I am compromising my own humanity. If we can’t see the connection between the dehumanizing hate of antisemitism and homophobia, then we have resigned to allow that hate to tear us apart.
So today, as you take a moment to remember the Holocaust, I also encourage you to take a moment to reflect on your role in speaking out against attempts to dehumanize others. I encourage you to pick up your phone and call your legislators this session to ban conversion therapy, or to sign into law a transgender refuge bill coming up next week that will establish Minnesota as a sanctuary state for gender affirming care. Don’t let fear get in the way of breaking the silence that surrounds antisemitism, and let your Jewish friends and community know that you will indeed “never forget” the atrocities of the Holocaust. Pay attention to those racially biased comments that you hear from your family or colleagues and use your voice to speak up for all of our shared humanity. Because as I so profoundly learned all those years ago behind the iron gates, none of us are free until all of us are free.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd, (they/she)
Chief education officer, chief of staff and medical director of the Gender Health program
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd, (they/she), is the chief education officer, chief of staff, pediatrician and medical director of the Gender Health program at Children’s Minnesota. Dr. Goepferd is an advocate for advancing equitable health care for all children – including trans and gender-diverse youth. They have been named a Top Doctor by both Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine and Minnesota Monthly for the last several years and gave their first TED talk, “The Revolutionary Truth about Kids and Gender Identity” at TEDx Minneapolis in 2020.
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