By Eugen Schoenfeld
It was the beginning of August 1944 when I arrived at Muhldorf Wald Lager, the last of the four work/death camps I was sent to and the one from which, about seven months later, I was liberated.
In the camp square I observed two men. They were dressed in same blue-and-gray-striped uniform as I was. Their numbers, like mine, were printed on their jackets. They displayed a small, cotton triangle similar to mine, but instead of being yellow, it was pink.
Here were the two homosexual men imprisoned in the camp. I seldom saw them later. They were not assigned to the back-breaking cement detail that, combined with a starvation diet, slowly but surely killed us Jewish inmates.
But on that first day as I looked at them, I recoiled. I wondered whether they recoiled at the sight of over 1,000 Jews inundating the camp.
I didn’t hate them or despise them, nor was I disgusted by them. The negative emotions I felt primarily came from fear. I feared them as we always fear strange things we do not understand.
To us, the homosexuals were the buzerants, a denigrating term we used for gay people that was not too dissimilar from Zhid, which some Russian kids spewed at us.
I feared them lest being gay was a transmittable disease and any association with them would transmit the disease. Of course fear in a way brings on hate, but my dominant feeling was fear. Maybe, I thought, they should wear bells like the lepers of ancient times, warning the hearer to run to avoid their disease.
My disposition toward gays wasn’t derived from my personal evaluation of the act, of which I knew very little, but I was indoctrinated into a state of feeling and an associated cultural attitude rooted in the Torah. The Torah and all the commentators told me that being gay was not only wrong and sinful, but also carried an odious state of being.
In the Torah, G-d proclaims in an angry tone that homosexuality is more than a sin. It is abhorrent. It is a personal abomination to G-d. It is disgusting.
How else could I interpret G-d’s words other than culturally prevalent view: Homosexuality is a threat not only to the sanctity of human existence, but also to the continuation of the species.
When I began teaching in 1959, Americans were sprouting a new revolution. In courses on the sociology of social problems, I tackled the prevalent issues of the day: women’s liberation, the racial revolution, and the gender and sexual revolutions. Women, black Americans, and gays and lesbians were seeking their rights, seeking justice and personal freedom.
Both as a sociologist and as a Jew who was conscious of millennia of persecution and just recently liberated from concentration camps, I had to support the principle of justice, and hence I stood with the people who were seeking it. I could not do otherwise.
The right to justice was ingrained in me by the Torah, my consciousness of Jewish history and my Holocaust experiences. Having four daughters, I wished that they would not be committed to a subsidiary social position because of gender.
I supported black people’s liberation from continued slavery. I experienced black people’s struggles. I was in the midst of my own struggles: In spite of my college education, the only job I, a foreign Jew, could obtain was as a door-to-door salesman of debit insurance in the St. Louis ghetto.
I was, however, still ambivalent about gay rights. The sense of fear and my ingrained cultural perspective remained in me in spite of knowing that being gay is not a disease or a sin. It is but a practical joke that nature, or perhaps G-d, produces through some unknown form of genetic mutation.
Gay-bashing, I proposed, comes from our ancient fear that nonreproductive sex — that is, sex for pleasure — threatened the balance between birthrate and death rate. The birthrate had to be high because the death rate was high.
Today, the world is becoming overpopulated. The danger for humanity’s existence is not solved by adhering to the first commandment to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. We have too much procreation, too high a birthrate compared with the death rate, and we have more than filled the earth.
Who would have thought that any pope would dare to pronounce, as Pope Francis did, that Catholics should not breed like rabbits?
If procreation is no longer the paramount reason for marriage, what is? Marriage today is an expression of romantic love. We no longer have sex to keep the commandment of pirya v’rivyah (be fruitful and multiply). Instead, we make love, albeit still governed by social or religious rules.
The primary function of marriage is the declaration of a committed love. But love is not limited to heterosexual couples.
Before retiring, I planned to research the relationship between homosexuality and religion. I had lengthy chats with three ministers in the Metropolitan Community Churches, which are traditional Christian churches with the exception that the ministers and the members are gay.
One minister told me that he was dying from cancer, and he began weeping. He didn’t cry because of self-pity or a fear of nihilism. As a minister, he was sure he had been granted salvation and would enjoy the pleasures of paradise.
But he cried for his partner of 25 years. “What will he do when I die? How will he get along?”
I sat in his office, and my perspectives on being gay were melting away. I realized that he was not different from me and that his fundamental concerns did not differ from those of most married heterosexual men who love their wives.
I had empathy because were I in his shoes, I would have had the same concerns. We were both concerned with another human being whom we loved and with whom we developed a loving relationship.
In the final analysis, a union is sanctified not by words, but love for another human being.
Many people will angrily declare: How can you compare the sacred ritual of heterosexual union to a homosexual union? Why should we disregard the sanctity of the marriage vows in heterosexual marriages?
But if we are honest, we will realize that in the past much of marriage was founded not on love, but on economic concerns. Most Jews today have never seen an old-fashioned eyrusin (betrothal), when the two families stood in an often loud and angry discussion of the economic foundation of marriage that led to the signing of the marital contract, the ketubah.
Love transcends gender. It is not my intent to argue what kind of love existed between David and Jonathan. It was an intense relationship lauded by some rabbis as true love, for the souls of David and of Jonathan were fused into one.