The Daily Agenda for Friday, August 16
August 16th, 2013
Pride Celebrations This Weekend: Allentown, PA; Brooklyn (Bedford Stuyvesant), NY; Columbia, MO; Kelowna, BC; Madison, WI; Montréal, QC; New York, NY (Black Pride); Ottawa, ON; Prague, Czech Republic; Reno, NV; San Jose, CA; Sligo, Ireland; Taos, NM.
AIDS Walk This Weekend: Reno, NV.
Other Events This Weekend: Ascension Beach Party, Fire Island, NY; Dunas Festival, Gran Canaria, Spain; Tropical Heat, Key West, FL; London to Paris Cycle for Terrence Higgins Trust, London/Paris; Schwules Straßenfest, Munich, Germany; Camp Camp, Portland ME; Provincetown Carnival, Provincetown, MA; Vancouver Queer Film Festival, Vancouver, BC.
TODAY IN HISTORY:
120 YEARS AGO: Texas Doctor Proposes Castrating “Sexual Perverts”: 1893. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which introduced his theory of evolution to the masses in 1859, also had a profound effect on biologists, medical doctors, psychiatrists and social theorists. The theory, in simplified form, held that species evolved through a process of natural selection which weeded out the weaker and less capable variations of the species. Darwin wasn’t the first to propose the theory; others proposed the theory as far back as the eighteenth century. But Darwin succeeded in providing a trove of evidence from his travels around the world to illustrate the theory in action.
The theory of evolution opened as many questions as it answered, and the main question on the minds of social theorists struggling to understand the impact of the industrial revolution was this: If nature selected out the weaker and defective members of a species, what happens when man’s technological advances intervenes in that natural process? The answer, they said, could be found in the cities throughout Europe and North America: poverty, disease, alcoholism, crime, family violence and moral depravity. They proposed an opposing theory, the theory of degeneration, which held that human beings, now that they were shielded from the natural course of evolution, were in danger of producing offspring who “de-generated” from their parents in an imperfect form — think of a xerox copy of a bad xerox copy. According to the theory, Alcoholics begat alcoholics, criminals begat worse criminals, rapists begat more violent rapists. And, of course, negroes begat negroes. Degeneracy theory was always, at its core, a highly racist one.
As pessimistic as the theory was, it did have its positive contributions: it spawned the hygiene movement which began mandating safe housing, clean food, proper sanitation, limitations in child labor and other protections, and universal education. In the glass-half-empty category, the theory of Degeneration was part of the shift from regarding homosexuality as a crime to be severely punished, to being a malady to be addressed “scientifically” — namely by the nation’s doctors and insane asylums (along with the brave few who countered that gay and gender-variant people harmed no one and should be left alone). But far more darkly, Degeneracy Theory would very quickly soon give rise to Eugenics, which provided a dark answer to the question of what to do with the unfortunate products of degeneration (from which the word “degenerates” first came).
Eugenics came in two forms: positive Eugenics (the hygiene movement was but one example), and negative Eugenics, which included sterilization programs aimed at severing the generational capabilities of the degenerate line. On August 16, 1893, Dr. F.E. Daniel of Austin, Texas, delivered an address before the World’s Columbian Auxiliary Congress titled, “Should Insane Criminals or Sexual Perverts be Permitted to Procreate?” The main perversions that Daniel was worried about were rape and masturbation, the latter of which was believe to be the cause of insanity. For the case of sexual criminals judged to be insane, there had already been calls for castration in lieu of hanging, partly because it was believed that hanging someone who was insane constituted a breach of justice. Daniel also held that view, but, ever the humanitarian, he considered hanging to be an extreme, cruel, and ultimately ineffective form of punishment. And so he added an additional reason to consider castrating criminals who, despite their obvious degeneracy, were nevertheless judged to be sane:
In this country, and recently, several writers have advocated castration. Dr. W. A. Hammond’s paper on the subject will be recalled by all present. Dr. Frank Lydston (Va. Medical Monthly) in reply to a question from Dr. Hunter McGuire as to the cause of so much rape by negroes in the South, advises castration as a remedy for the evil; and there is much wisdom in the advice. He would castrate the rapist, thus rendering him incapable of repetition of the offense, and of propagating his kind, and turn him loose — on the principle of the singed rat — to be a warning to others. Dr. Lydston says, and very truly, that a hanging or even a burning is soon forgotten; but a negro buck at large amongst the ewes of his flock, minus the elements of manhood, would be a standing terror to those of similar propensities. Dr. Orpheus Everts (Lancet Clinic, March, 1888,) would castrate all convicted criminals, thus arresting the descent of their respective vices of constitution.
Daniel found Everts’s advice too extreme: “innocent persons are sometimes convicted of crime, and we might cut the wrong man.” But Daniel did believe that sexual crimes were in a special category because, he argued, it was almost impossible to draw a line between sanity and insanity where sexual crimes were concerned:
In light then of the very evident doubt as to the sanity of those who commit sexual crimes, and therefore, of their responsibility; and particularly as it is impossible in the present state of our knowledge to draw a line and say where, in mental alienation, unsoundness to the extent of irresponsibility for acts exists, I would substitute castration as a penalty for all sexual crimes or misdemeanors, including confirmed masturbation.
…The lower animals limit production, and eliminate the weaker by battles between the males for the possession of the female; and certain of the rodents, the squirrel I am told, castrate the young males. But with civilized man the procreative function, and the right to exercise it ad libitum seems to be something sacred; it is respected, even in those who have, by their misconduct, outraged society, and forfeited all other rights, civil, religious and political. Is it not a remarkable civilization that will break a criminal’s neck, but will respect his testacles? [sic]
A number of asylums were already beginning to sterilize both their male and female patients. Daniel argued that if those programs were extended to sexual criminals, it could usher in a new age of sexual continence within a generation:
While we can not hope ever to institute a Sanitary Utopia in our day and generation, it would seem within the legitimate scope and sphere of Preventive Medicine, aided by the enactment and enforcement of suitable laws, to eliminate much that is defective in human genesis, and to improve our race mentally, morally and physically; to bring to bear in the breeding of peoples the principles recognized and utilized by every intelligent stock-raiser in the improvement of his cattle; and in my humble judgment the substitution of castration, as advocated above, for the useless and cruel execution of criminals, is the first step in the reformation. I predict that in twenty years the beneficial results of castration for crimes committed in obedience to a perverted (diseased) sexual impulse will be established and appreciated.
Rape, sodomy, beastiality [sic], pederasty and habitual masturbation should be made crimes or misdemeanors, punishable by forfeit of all rights, including that of procreation; in short by castration, or castration plus other penalties, according to the gravity of the offense.
[Source: E.F. Daniel. “Castration of sexual perverts.” Texas Medical Journal 9, no. 6 (December 1893): 255-271. Available online at Google Books here.]
90 YEARS AGO: Pierre Seel: 1923. Pierre’s troubles began when his watch was stolen while he was in a public square in his Alsace home in 1939. The watch, a gift from his godmother, had sentimental value, and so he reported the theft to police. The square where the theft occurred was a well-known cruising ground for gay men in the area, but since homosexuality was not illegal in France, there shouldn’t have been much of a problem. But local police added his name to a list of gay men they were maintaining, and when the Germans invaded in 1940, that list fell into Gestapo hands. Seel was picked up in 1941, was beaten, had his fingernails pulled out, and raped with broken rulers. Two weeks later, he was sent to the Schirmeck-Vorbrück camp near Strasbourg, where the beatings, tortures and rapes continued. He wore a blue bar on his uniform instead of the pink triangle — The blue bar was reserved for Catholics and “a-socials” — but the nature of his “crime” was well known. “There was no solidarity for the homosexual prisoners; they belonged to the lowest caste,” he later recalled. “Other prisoners, even when between themselves, used to target them.” His camp was made to stand and watch as his eighteen-year-old boyfriend was stripped naked in the center of the yard and torn apart and devoured by german shepherds. That scene would haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life.
After six months of starvation, torture and forced labor, Seen was set free without an explanation. What’s more, he was made a German citizen when Alsace was informally annexed by Germany, and he was drafted into the army and sent to the Eastern Front. After the war, he made his way back to France. He took his family’s advice and went deeply underground about his sexuality, and married in 1950. The marriage was a difficult one, and it finally fell apart in 1978. In 1979, Seel happened to attend a debate in a bookstore for the launch of the French edition of Heinz Heger’s book, The Men with the Pink Triangle. Two years later, Seel publicly told his story when the Bishop of Strasbourg denounced the performance of the French translation of the play Bent, which was based on Heger’s book. From then on, Seel became an advocate for the recognition of gay victims of the Nazis, particularly those from the Alsace and Moselle regions of France. In 1994, Seel published his own memoir, I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual. In 2000, he appeared in the American-made documentary, Paragraph 175. When the documentary premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, Seel traveled to Germany for the first time since the war and received a five-minute standing ovation.
France still has an uneasy don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy where German collaboration is concerned, and Seel’s opening of old wounds didn’t go down easy. In the 1980s and 1990s, he received numerous death threats, and was attacked and beaten by youths shouting homophobic epithets following an appearance on French television. The mayor of Strasbourg refused to shake his hand during a commemoration ceremony. But the distance of time has allowed some recognition of historical realities to take root. Seel received official recognition as a victim of the Holocaust in 2003, and in 2008, three years after his death in Toulouse, his adopted city, a street was renamed in his honor. The plaque reads, “Rue Pierre Seel – Déporté Français pour homosexualité – 1923-2005”.
55 YEARS AGO: Madonna: 1958. The Material Girl notches another one.
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