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Dangerous Records: Why LGBTQ Americans Today Fear the Weaponization of Bureaucracy

Prisoners at Sachsenhausen concentration camp wear triangle badges indicating the nature of their offenses against Nazi social code (pink would indicate homosexuality). National Archives and Records Administration, 1938.

The recent rise of far right political movements in the United States and globally has prompted historical comparisons to the Nazis. The atrocities committed by the Nazis have been studied widely, particularly in reference to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but it is also important to understand lesser-known victims and the ways that prior discrimination affected their persecution. While focusing on the pre-war experience it is crucial to understand how the Nazis relied on bureaucratic information to know whom to target, especially when the classification was not an obvious ethnic or religious one (such as assimilated and secular Jews, or gay men, lesbians, and others persecuted for gender or sexual behavior). Today, there are important lessons to learn about the dangers that bureaucratic information gathering, combined with escalating prejudice and vilification, could present.

The rise of the Nazi party in Germany also brought about several laws restricting access to literature and laws regarding the treatment of what we today would refer to as LGBTQ+ people. Paragraph 175, a law criminalizing same sex male relationships, was established in 1871, but revised by the Nazi party to be more inclusive in regard to the actions that could be punished. Queer men were targeted early in the Nazi regime, which placed heavy blame on them for losing the First World War. Nazi ideology justified discrimination and repression by claiming that a lack of masculinity was a contributing cause of the country’s downfall and economic depression. Though only half of the 100,000 arrested for the alleged crime of homosexuality were persecuted, this figure is still large enough to raise an interesting question about how the Nazis knew whom to target and where the information was coming from. Political factors appear to be involved, because a majority were prosecuted within six weeks after Heinrich Himmler’s assumption of control of internal security in 1943. Each man was reported in a similar manner whether that was a private individual report, a police raid, or utilization of the “Pink List.”

The practice of information gathering towards members of minority groups by bureaucratic organizations has a startling history of being used for oppressive ends, particularly by the Nazis. A clear example of this includes the utilization by the Nazis of the “Pink List," a list compiled by organizations of support such as the Scientific Humanitarian Committee or reported by private individuals and then held by the police. The Scientific Humanitarian Committee aimed for “Justice Through Science” and espoused the biological theory of homosexuality, the idea that sexuality is an innate biological feature rather than a characteristic of weakness and psychological deviance. The SHC was targeted by the Nazi party early in the rise of Hitler due to their propensity to advocate for homosexuals. The SHC kept lists of homosexual Germans for support and scientific reasons but those lists were seized by the Nazis then utilized to target the homosexuals on the list.

A clear example of the danger that could befall a young gay man who interacted with police on any other matter is seen with the story of Pierre Seel. Seel arrived at his local police station to report a stolen watch and, when questioned about the specific circumstances, revealed that he had come from Steinbach Square, a well-known hangout for gay men seeking each other's company. After experiencing intense questioning, he was released and assured that nothing would come of the compromising information, but three years later he was arrested as a suspected homosexual due to the list he was placed on after he left the police station. This list was compiled by police and security forces over the years, and was augmented by confessions made by imprisoned gay men who were raped and tortured to compel them to add additional names to the list. The Pink List is a clear example of how dangerous information that categorizes someone into a minority group can be, particularly in the hands of those in power with ill intentions.

While the Holocaust is an unmatched and exceptional example of cruelty and systematic persecution of social outgroups, it is nevertheless important, even crucial, to recognize similarities between those events and the present, especially where prejudices join with bureaucratic state power. Today, transgender Americans are being framed as deviants, accused of undermining traditional gender roles, and described as “groomers'' and child sex abusers. Armed vigilantes have harassed people attending drag performances, and activists are seeking to remove books about gender and transgender experiences from schools and libraries. When the power of the state aligns with these expressions of prejudice and identification of outgroups as a threat to children, family and society, there is real cause for concern.

Anti-LBGTQ sentiment has been particularly vociferous in Texas. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s recent request for a list of individuals who have changed their gender on state-issued driver’s licenses, as well as other departmental documents, has concerning similarities to the “Pink List” compiled by Nazi officials in 1930’s Germany. The request for the list itself made transgender Texans subjects of surveillance, implying the state views them as dangerous. According to an email sent on June 30, 2022 by Sheri Gipson, the chief of the DPS’s driver license division, the Attorney General’s office “wanted ‘numbers’ and later would want ‘a list’ of names, as well as ‘the number of people who had a legal sex change’.” This first request produced over sixteen thousand results. Unfortunately for the Attorney General, it was difficult for the state agencies to meet his request. One issue involved gender changes to correct filing mistakes (a cisgender person’s gender was accidentally recorded inaccurately, and the change affirmed their identity). A subsequent data request attempt led to narrowing the data to only court-ordered document changes, which would identify transgender people specifically. Although the agency could not accurately produce this data, this instance, alongside the various laws being introduced throughout the state such as the prohibition of gender affirming care and the limiting of LGBTQ+ lessons in school, brings up the startling question of the kind of damage that information gathering could do not only presently, but also in several years.

The weaponization of personal information available to state organizations should not be taken lightly. It has, and will continue to, present danger to those being targeted by the state as threats. Laws to target transgender children by restricting their access to gender-affirming care or affirming ideas in books have become commonplace in several Republican led states, but an explicit attack on legal adults adds an element that lends the question to where it will stop and who will stop it. These laws send a clear message that the right does not want transgender people to have a presence in society, both within everyday life and in the media surrounding them. The proposed laws restricting gender affirming care, along with classifying the parents of transgender children receiving gender affirming care as child abusers, LGBTQ+ lessons in school, and banning books and media that showcases queer people attempt to erase the queer experience both from modern life as well as in history.

All of these efforts depend on being able to identify those who are not living with the gender assigned to them at birth. Bureaucratic records may not be considered dangerous by the public, but the ability of government officials to access the records of those whose place in society they are seeking to erase can lead to dangerous consequences in the future. Other vulnerable groups will be targeted, and it is necessary to examine the historical implications and repercussions of the blatant targeting of these groups.