SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. - In Nazi Germany, some gay men were castrated and prosecuted under draconian laws prohibiting homosexuality. Others were subjected to crude medical experiments designed to "correct" their sexual orientation. Gay men in concentration camps were singled out with distinctive pink triangle badges and assigned backbreaking labor that often killed them.
A traveling exhibit from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum uses photographs, documents and artwork to chronicle the Nazis' arrests and persecution of tens of thousands of gay men from 1933 to 1945.
The exhibit, on display through the end of the month at the University of Rhode Island, gives voice to what its curator describes as "one of the lesser-known stories of the Nazi era."
"You could substitute the word 'homosexual' and put in any minority group and see a story of how easy it is to persecute somebody," said curator Edward J. Phillips, also the acting director of the museum's division of exhibitions.
"It still serves as an example of how easy it is to get the wheels of persecution in motion and follow through with it," he added.
The exhibit, "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945," has been on the road for about five years, largely at college campuses. It is scheduled to travel this fall to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Phillips said it reflects the Washington museum's goal to be as inclusive as possible in discussing victims of the Nazis, which include most notably the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Gays, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war and gypsies were among the groups who were also persecuted.
About 100,000 German men were arrested under a sweeping anti-gay law, and roughly half were convicted and sent to prison, according to the exhibit. Between 5,000 and 15,000 were sent to concentration camps, where many died from starvation, beatings, exhaustion and murder.
The Nazis regarded gay men as a socially deviant subclass whose sexual orientation threatened the elite and masculine Aryan race they sought to establish. A diagram included in the exhibit likens homosexuality to a contagious infection that could be spread among men by seduction.
Sexual relationships between women, already regarded as second-class citizens, were not criminalized and lesbians were generally seen as less of a cultural threat, Phillips said.
The exhibit begins just before the Nazis rose to power, when an estimated 1.2 million gay men lived in Germany and a gay culture flourished in nightclubs and cafes.
But after Hitler took power, the Nazis began shuttering gay clubs and, in 1934, the Gestapo asked local police departments to compile lists of men believed to be gay.
A law known as Paragraph 175 that had previously prohibited "unnatural indecency" between men was reworked to dramatically expand the range of illegal behaviors and, by 1938, even a perceived wayward glance or touch could be interpreted by the courts as criminal.
"There was such an open sense of sexuality right beforehand. It took very little for that to fall apart," said Judith Tolnick Champa, director of the URI Fine Arts Center Galleries, which is hosting the exhibit.
In 1943, SS chief Heinrich Himmler approved a medical experiment designed to "correct" gay men of their sexual orientation. The experiment involved inserting capsules of testosterone into the groins of 12 prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Two men died from complications of the surgery, the exhibit says.
A highlight of the exhibit is a series of published lithographs by Richard Grune, a gay artist who was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. His works, with titles like "Death Slide to the Crematorium in Concentration Camp Flossenburg" and "Undernourished Prisoners in the Bath," offer unflinching depictions of prisoners as exhausted, skeletal and tortured.
One light moment is a satirical cartoon poking fun of Ernst Rohm, the gay leader of the Nazi Storm Troopers. The 1933 cartoon in an anti-fascist newspaper shows Rohm walking past a line of soldiers focusing on their backsides with the punchline: "Rohm Inspects the SA Parade."
The gay victims of the Nazis were overlooked for years and did not receive formal acknowledgment in Germany until a 1985 speech by the then-president of West Germany, the exhibit says. However, memorials to the gay victims have been developed in parts of Europe and one is being created in Berlin. Paragraph 175 has been abolished, and the German parliament in 2002 pardoned the men convicted under it.