By Tish Dace
Martin Sherman’s shattering Holocaust play Bent became the most-produced play worldwide written by an American during the 20th century’s last quarter. It receives productions 35+ years after its 1979 premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre because bigots still slaughter or punish people who’re gay or “other.”
As of May 1, 2011, when the manuscript for my Martin Sherman: Skipping Over Quicksand went to press, 54 countries had seen Bent.
Conspicuously absent from the list which begins my Appendix A were Muslim countries, black Africa (save only South Africa), most of Asia, and dictatorships. Homophobia prevented mountings in the very countries which most would have benefitted from it, those countries where touching hearts might change minds.
Subsequently, however, Bent has played in Seoul; Bangkok; Taipei; Hong Kong; Istanbul and on tour in Turkey (breaking the Islamic barrier); and Havana (breaking the Communist barrier since foreigners presented the only previous productions under Communism). These six raise the country count to 60.
Set in the Third Reich during the early years, 1934-1936, Bent dramatizes the Gay Holocaust preceding the Jewish Holocaust. Both gay and Jewish, Sherman responded rapidly when he learned of the slaughter that began on the Night of the Long Knives, June 29-30, 1934, and continued as Himmler announced his intention to exterminate homosexuals. Research into this, in 1977, little-known gay annihilation culminated in writing the drama of playboy Max fleeing the SS, captured and shipped to Dachau, and there redeemed by falling in love with another inmate and by defying the Nazis in the one chilling way open to him.
Bent’s power has proved instrumental in reducing homophobia and other forms of bigotry. It spectacularly succeeded in multiple productions in the previously fascist nations Germany and Japan. Not surprisingly it appeals to producers and audiences facing repressive laws and practices, yet not only those directed at sexual orientation, but more broadly those confronting fear and hatred towards any “other.”
Because Americans hear about marriage equality, we might conclude discrimination against gay couples has all but disappeared. Yet as of September only 19 states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriages. Courts have struck down prohibitions in other states, but those judicial decisions await appeal. The Supreme Court might rule this session.
Just as President Obama prepared to issue an Executive Order banning discrimination by government contractors based on sexual orientation, the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision (suggesting corporations are people but women aren’t) produced demands gay discrimination remain legal. Lawsuits challenging the Executive Order seem inevitable. Except for federal contractors, employers still can fire any employee because of sexual orientation. The Family and Medical Leave Act offers no protection to gay couples living in states that fail to recognize their marriages.
Hatred of gay men and women continues, especially in red states. Scott Esk, a candidate for the Oklahoma House, advocates death for homosexuals, as does a North Carolina pastor who, in May, advocated abandoning them to die in concentration camps. The 2014 Texas Republication Party platform endorses conversion therapy to “cure” gay people, despite clear evidence it doesn’t work but damages those subjected to it. 40% of homeless children are LGBT, rejected by their parents. The suicide rate among gay young people is four times higher, a response to berating by bigots, who also continue to inspire gay bashings, such as victimized a gay couple in Philadelphia on September 11. Many preachers continue to inveigh against homosexuality as an evil condemned by the Bible, forgetting the Good Book also approves of owning slaves and prohibits touching a pigskin, thus banning football.
Fundamentalists unable to continue to outlaw gay relations at home have turned to banning them abroad. They’ve succeeded in criminalizing or increasing penalties there.
These extremists who export hatred include Scott Lively (Abiding Truth Ministries, lobbied in Uganda for what initially became the “Kill the Gays” bill, takes credit for the Russian anti-gay law); Brian Brown (National Organization for Marriage, lobbies in Russia, Australia, France, Trinidad and Tobago); Benjamin Bull (ironically named Alliance Defending Freedom); Larry Jacobs (World Congress of Families, lobbies in Australia, Africa, Eastern Europe); Paul Cameron (Family Research Institute, in Russia, Eastern Europe, Uganda pushes calumnies about gay people injuring children); Robert Oscar Lopez (in Europe vilifies same-sex parenting); Sharon Slater (Family Watch International, invites UN delegates to sessions purporting to prove gays destroy marriage and family but reparative therapy cures them). The discredited venom such crusaders spread proves persuasive with overseas officials who don’t recognize the fraudulence of their claimed expertise or the false “facts” peddled.
Lively, currently on the ballot for governor of Massachusetts, rewrote history to blame gay men for the Holocaust. Bent corrects such lies.
Historically, countries evolved slowly on issues of gay rights; some—such as the USSR and India–have even decriminalized homosexuality and then recriminalized it. The US lagged behind many others, only completely decriminalizing in 2003.
78 nations, including 38 in Africa, still criminalize gay relations. Those countries that impose the death penalty include Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Nigeria; Brunei has legalized stoning to death gay people as part of that country’s recent adoption of the Sharia penal code. Courts often accept the mere perception of homosexuality as proof. A Cameroon court sentenced two men to five years in prison because they wore women’s clothing at a nightclub, where they drank Bailey’s Irish Cream.
US bigots have proven especially successful at fomenting hatred in Africa. In July Kenyan authorities rounded up 60 people and a spokesperson inveighed “Homosexuality is as serious as terrorism.” South Sudan and Burundi have criminalized gay sex. Zambian police subject suspects to forced anal exams. Police in Nigeria (like police in Germany in 1934) had prepared extensive lists of perceived gay men and began arresting them as soon as the new law took effect in January.
When homosexuals not outlawed, such as in South Africa, suffer violence, the police often turn a blind eye; the term “corrective rape” refers to the common practice against lesbians in SA. Sometimes rape turns to murder. Reacting to such violence, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has battled for gay rights with the passion he directed against apartheid, declaring he won’t “worship a homophobic God.”
In some countries that don’t criminalize gay relations, judges nevertheless hand down prison sentences, as a Cairo court did in April citing “debauchery.” (Arrests in Egypt have risen under the military rule replacing the Muslim Brotherhood.)
In September the National Assembly of Gambia voted to increase the punishment for same-sex relations from 14 years to life imprisonment. They based their bill on the Ugandan law, which also makes it a crime to fail to report others. On a technicality (absence of a quorum) a court invalidated that law. This decision is being appealed, or the bill will pass again when reintroduced. Uganda’s bill has prompted several nations including the US to impose sanctions for human rights violations, but the country’s foreign minister has become president of the UN General Assembly.
Although the US argues on behalf of gay rights internationally, it decriminalized homosexuality later than other nations. Israel took that step in 1988, for instance, and it did so because of Bent, which proved popular there when produced by the Haifa Municipal Theatre, run in repertory, and toured. Under Bent’s influence, people from the theatre approached the left-oriented party RATZ. Its head, Knesset member Mrs. Shulamit Aloni, led the legalization effort. Although the Knesset decriminalized under civil law, gay sex still violates Jewish religious law. Nevertheless, Conservative Judaism in Israel in 2012 voted to allow ordination of gay rabbis and performance of same-sex marriages.
Because Bent dramatizes fascists demonizing and brutalizing Max, Rudy, and Horst–characters we come to care about–it creates empathy for gay men. But we can also respond to the Nazis’ dramatized reign of terror with compassion towards others who suffer because they differ from those in power.
Nazis slaughtered gay men, Jews, gypsies, many Slavs, political dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, blacks, the disabled, some ministers and priests. Those bigots’ counterparts today likewise revile the “other” based on their differences.
Anti-Semitism persists; indeed, an Anti-Defamation League study released in May suggests a quarter of adults globally harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. Sherman dramatizes that in Bent.
In February Neo-Nazi mobs led the Ukrainian revolution. Their militias continue to adorn themselves with swastikas and other Nazi symbols—which the Sept. 13 Washington Post regrettably excused as “romantic,” though it stems from revered Ukrainians who fought alongside the Nazis in WWII.
Recently French shouting “Death to Jews” and Germans chanting “Jews to the gas” represent a resurgent anti-Semitism which confuses Israeli politics with European Jewish citizens. Anti-Semitic incidents in the UK likewise reached an all-time high in August. On Sept. 14, Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out against renewed anti-Semitism.
In the US, terrorist Frazier Glenn Miller shouted “Heil Hitler” when arrested after killing three people at Kansas City Jewish community centers on April 13. Such isolated violence might give way to organized anti-Jewish terrorism by white supremacists from League of the South, who’ve formed death squads—known as the Indomitables—bearing Nazi insignia.
The French Front National has deemphasized anti-Semitism in favor of Islamaphobia, which now sells better in France, as it does also in the US. Hence it provides one source targeted by the President’s deriders, who stress his otherness by questioning his birth certificate’s authenticity, terming him Kenyan or Indonesian, and labeling him Muslim.
In September, the Evangelical magazine Charisma published an op-ed calling for genocide against Muslims on grounds they all want to “subjugate or murder Christians.” Islamaphobic hysteria—what Slate has termed “Muslim-McCarthyism”—has caused the NSA and FBI—without probable cause or warrants—to target distinguished American Muslims for spying.
During the summer, the Jewish Board of Deputies and Muslim Council of Britain jointly condemned Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism, urging their followers to “export peace” to the Middle East. If only respect for human life could spread to the Islamic factions hoping to exterminate each other, especially the Sunni Islamic State striving to annihilate Shiites and Kurds.
The UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERN) on August 28 condemned the US for permitting racial and ethnic discrimination, in violation of its treaty obligations. The 18-person CERD panel found minority communities suffer by every measure—access to voting, health care, jobs, justice, housing, and education. They judged our education more segregated than 40 years ago and lambasted the African-American “school to prison pipeline,” life sentences without parole for children, racial profiling, racial disparities in imposing the death penalty, “stand your ground” laws in 24 states, and police brutality towards minorities.
The most famous recent example every American knows: Michael Brown, 18, unarmed, on August 9 shot by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer while the victim held his hands in the air to surrender. Witnesses agree, describing a cold-blooded execution, without trial, much like the SS officers’ shots at the end of Scene 1 and near Bent’s conclusion. The police denied permission to a nurse to give Brown CPR, just as the SS wouldn’t allow one prisoner to help another.
Four days earlier in Beavercreek, Ohio, trigger-happy police gunned down John Crawford, 22, while he talked to his girlfriend on his cell phone in a Walmart. Another shopper, Angela Williams, collapsed and died as she tried to get out of the way when officers shot him on sight, though guilty of nothing more than shopping while black. Chatting on his cell, Crawford leaned on the butt of a toy Walmart bb gun, the barrel on the floor. Ohio is an Open Carry state, but as Crawford was the “other,” cops ignored his right to carry a real gun.
On September 10, two officers in Saratoga Springs, Utah, shot in the back six times Darrien Hunt, 22, also holding a toy, a sword with a rounded edge, not a blade. Utah is also an Open Carry state, but Hunt was black, part of the 0.5% black residents of a white community.
These people died because the white police who killed them feared and/or hated the “other.” So have the many who have mowed down young men here month after month. (USA Today reports white officers kill African Americans an average of twice a week, with more than 50% of the victims under 20.) No wonder CERD indicts this country. And when the young men don’t die, we learn from the US Sentencing Commission black men’s sentences last 1/5th longer than white men’s for the same crime.
This suggests unarmed Kajieme Powell, who openly shoplifted in St. Louis in August, then waited outside the store, chose to die, suicide by cop. The officers who arrived obliged him by shooting him on sight. He didn’t run or struggle or protest, just stood with his arms at his side until he fell over dead; then the officers handcuffed his corpse. Bruno Bettelheim’s The Informed Heart explains the psychology underlying Powell’s action.
British police generally don’t carry guns, so in 2012 they fired guns a total of once, killing nobody. That year US police shot and killed 409. Indeed the National Safety Council finds Americans eight times more likely to die at the hands of a cop than a terrorist.
Exacerbating the problem, federal government agencies send military equipment to local police, including school police. They’ve received tanks–impervious to IEDs and land mines–machine guns, bayonets, grenade launchers, aircraft, drones—gear appropriate to battlefields, not Main Street, which encourages officers to demonize community members as enemy combatants and aim to vanquish rather than serve and protect. Has anyone in Washington wondered why elementary schools need grenade launchers? Do they fear terrorist children lurking on Kansas farms? Incentivizing the recipients to employ battle gear, Homeland Security requires them to use it within one year.
SWAT teams, mostly dispatched to minority businesses and homes, make liquor inspections at nightclubs, raid barbershops suspected of operating without a license, and break down doors to serve warrants for drug searches. Such tactics kill and injure innocents, such as the 7-year-old murdered while asleep in her living room and the infant sent to intensive care when officers blew up an explosive device in her face. Only 7% of SWAT-team dispatches involve something appropriate like a hostage situation. In April, Peoria’s major sent a SWAT team to someone who mocked him on Twitter.
In 1993 the US signed the Chemical Weapons Convention banning tear gas (an aerosol nerve agent) in warfare. Yet we permit its use in “riot control,” which police interpret to mean, fire it into crowds of peaceful protestors, as they did night after night in Ferguson to silence dissent.
Abuse of power and treating the “other” as though they live in a Police State will seem familiar to those who know Bent.
Loss of our humanity also manifests itself in extreme income inequality. The latest US poverty scandal has attracted rebukes from the United Nations, which protested denial of “the human right to water” in 83% African-American Detroit, where 19,500 residences have had no water to drink, no water to cook, no water to bathe or wash dishes or flush toilets. Those who cut off water to the “other” might have felt at home in the Third Reich, as would the judicial system which in many locations has criminalized both homelessness and the inability to pay small bills. Bent depicts homelessness and poverty after Max and Rudy flee to the forest.
The Third Reich invested in its war machine instead of its people. So do we. Think what the US could do for its citizens with the $398 billion spent so far on the F-35 fighter plane that doesn’t work.
Oligarchs have voted 54 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Because they deny health care is a human right, they likewise refuse, in 23 states, to expand Medicaid. That refusal causes annually per state between 5,700 and 17,000 preventable deaths, despite the fact the Federal government would pick up the tab.
Medical care drives Bent’s denouement. Like those who die unnecessarily each year in red states, Horst contracts a bronchial illness, but hustler Max manages even in Dachau to work a deal to obtain life-saving medicine. Horst recovers, but the SS officer’s suspicion regarding who actually took the pills dooms the pair.
Max, Rudy, and Horst lack access to legal representation and due process, like our refugee children who flee violence and likely death at home but whom we deport. Representative Michele Bachmann even calls for child refugees to go to “Labor Camps” like Dachau.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” so genocides recur–in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Syria. Crimes against humanity continue in 21st-century wars as Islamic factions slaughter each other in mass murders large and still larger. The specific sufferings of Max, Rudy and Horst put a name and a face upon those today whom we know not as individuals but as statistics by the hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands.
Bent provides a crucible for conscience in other arenas. In addition to bigotry regarding sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity, and class, today the loss of our humanity manifests itself in killing–without indictment, trial or conviction–by means of drones; or shrugging off as collateral damage murder of non-combatants; or sanctioning torture.
Hitler did not provide due process to the suspected gay members of the SA whom he ordered murdered on the Night of the Long Knives. Therefore the SS don’t bother arresting Wolf. Instead they burst into Max and Rudy’s apartment and shoot Wolf, then slit his throat. Max and Rudy flee, but that can only delay their doom, when they will enjoy no right to a charge, a lawyer, a trial.
Today the powerful imprison whistleblowers; judge the accused guilty until proven innocent (which is backwards) and violate Constitutional protections without probable cause for suspicion. The US government, which should be protecting Constitutional rights, instead has retaliated against 1,400 whistleblowers in the last year. It declares peaceful protests illegal (such as the FBI labeling non-violent Occupy demonstrators Terrorists). These offenses should remind us of the Third Reich; watching Bent reinforces the parallels.
On April 8, Edward Snowden testified to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that NSA’s XKeyscore program allows collecting without warrants both metadata and content of US and EU citizens based upon sexual orientation; this technology—covering phone calls, emails, online chats, texts–could be misused, as the Gestapo misused less high-tech means. At the local level, police, without warrants, use Stingrays to track cell-phones. These enable them to learn the locations and identities of everyone in private homes, offices, and apartment buildings. Think what the Third Reich could have done with that device.
Although we haven’t quite become the Third Reich’s police state, the US departs from the rule of law in its treatment of the “other.” We incarcerate in mostly private for-profit prisons the largest percentage of our population of any nation. Yes, that distinction belongs not to the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Russia or any other country Americans label dictatorships, but to the US. We have 5% of the global population, but 25% of its prisoners, and our prisons incarcerate children as young as 11 or 12. Our prisoners serve sentences disproportionately long for their crimes, endure beatings during and after arrests, torture without benefit of trials, extrajudicial executions, and judicially countenanced executions by lethal injections not sufficiently lethal, so the condemned struggle to breathe for prolonged periods, something like Rudy’s slow death.
Out-of-control “law enforcement” officers command more respect than dedicated teachers, and more money goes to imprisoning our citizens than educating them. (California spends $62,300 on an inmate annually, but $9,200 educating a child.)
Plutocrats in 22 states disenfranchise the young, the old, minorities and the poor with the equivalent of a new poll tax–photo i.d.s. They reduce voting hours and days and cancel voter registrations in precincts dominated by “undesirable” voters. Fear of the “other” prompts them to assume those who don’t look like you won’t vote for you.
If civilization survives, it will do so because we have put compassion ahead of self-interest. Bent enhances that capacity for caring. We also value Bent as one of the great modern love stories. For that reason as well, it will continue to speak powerfully to viewers today, tomorrow and beyond.