A semantic firestorm has erupted since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the migrant children detention camps “concentration camps.” Some historians say the camps, in which children sleep on concrete floors without blankets, toothpaste or soap, meet the definition of concentration camps. Others, some with ties to Trump, say they do not.
But the precise definition doesn’t really matter. If we’re at the point where we’re arguing whether or not a policy is creating concentration camps, it’s probably not a moral policy and isn’t something the U.S. should be doing.
The comparison is especially troubling for Americans, because we see Americans as the people who liberated the concentration camps, not the people who created them! And it’s true. On April 11, 1945, Americans freed the Jews, Poles, Slavs, Romani, disabled people, political prisoners, and Freemasons interned in Buchenwald. But not the homosexuals.
As we approach Pride weekend, remember that America did not free the gay men when they let everyone else free from the Nazis. They sent the gay men to rot in German prisons. Homosexuality remained illegal in Germany until 1994. In 1952, the German government offered reparations to Jews and other victims. Gays did not get reparations until 2017.
But we’re talking about the United States. Many times has the U.S. justice system used legality to threaten and repress minority groups, conflating permissibility and morality. This has enabled the obvious things like slavery, but also the internment of Japanese-Americans in disease-infested internment camps during World War II, and the continued rampant incarceration of black men.
Much attention is paid to what happened during raids on gay bars like the one that caused a riot at Stonewall 50 years ago. But what happened after the raids was worse. People caught up in raids were robbed, blackmailed, had their names published in the papers – or worse. Until about 40 years ago, they put ice picks in queer people’s brains.
“If you got caught the first time, you spent six months in the county jail. If you got caught the second time, you’d get sent to Atascadero, which is the state prison,” according to gay rights pioneer Harry Hay. “In state prison, you were offered two choices of cure. One is castration and the other one is lobotomy. And don’t think we don’t know thousands of guys who went that route … there are people who have been that mutilated by the state.”
Lobotomies rose in popularity because of, surprisingly, German concentration camps. In the first half of the 20th century, psychiatric patients took up more than 50 percent of all hospital beds in America. These weren’t voluntary commitments – they included people like political protesters, “hysterical” women, civil rights ministers, and people who didn’t conform to gender stereotypes. They were so squalid that a 1946 Life magazine article remarked that the nation’s system of mental hospitals resembled “little more than concentration camps.” That rallied the populace.
Enter Walter Freeman, a surgeon who had his licensed revoked for killing patients. Since 1936, he had been perfecting the transorbital lobotomy – rendering a person unconscious through the electroconvulsive shock, inserting an icepick behind each eye, and with a hammer, knocking it into the brain to swish it around like a swizzle stick. It was cheap, it took 30 minutes, and it allowed institutions to lower their patient count.
By 1951, almost 20,000 people in the United States were lobotomized. About 5 to 15 percent died, a little more than half were unchanged, and the rest “improved.” This basically meant that they were passive enough to be released from an asylum. Many were essentially brain dead – they couldn’t read, remember, or as in one case, would do nothing but pour coffee from an empty pot all day. Many were left with debilitating disabilities or frequent seizures.
Freeman performed at least a thousand of the operations himself, and as many as 40 percent of his patents were queer. Lobotomy wasn’t mean to cure homosexuality – that wasn’t an official mental disorder until 1968. At the time, homosexuality was seen as a sign of schizophrenia. Freeman did believe he could cure that! “It would appear that homosexuality is of little practical importance after frontal lobotomy,” he wrote.
Nonetheless, the gruesome nature of the operation and lack of positive results lead the medical establishment to turn on lobotomies in the mid-1950s. Lobotomies were no longer performed on the general public. They were still performed on gay people – involuntarily, of course.
Homosexual acts were still illegal, and like with the current immigration crisis, illegal acts were used as an excuse for unconscionable treatment. Atascadero was known as “Gay Auschwitz” among San Franciscans. The general public turned their gaze, because being gay was illegal, and bad things happen when you break the law.
The practice continued until 1977, when Congress created the National Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research to investigate allegations that psychosurgery techniques —including lobotomy — were used to control minorities and restrain individual rights.
Policies that punish people for acting “illegally” according to a racist, homophobic, sexist, and xenophobic code of laws allow the state to torment groups it sees as unfit. It is surely illegal to cross the border without paperwork – but should that be punished with starvation and death? Does breaking the law mean the government can do whatever it wants to you?
We don’t talk about the lobotomizing of queer people because we focus on the hero’s narrative of LGBT people winning their civil rights. But when we forget the many instances of extreme cruelty foisted on our community in the name of the law, we allow the government to recommit these crimes on other groups.
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