Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2004-2005

Sex, Love and Homophobia: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Lives, by Vanessa Baird

reviewed by Colin de la Motte-Sherman

Briefly stated, the purpose of the book is “to give an insight into Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender ... rights in the world today” (p. 8). Significantly – and correctly – the introduction adds, “But a snapshot of the state of things today makes little sense without the anchors of history and culture.” But, just as continents move and anchors can be dragged, so knowledge of historic reality changes, something that seems to have been forgotten by the author or editors.

In the form of short chapters with titles based on the letters of the alphabet, a series of themes and facts that are associated with sex, love and homophobia are dealt with. Some might find that the “easy-to-read approach” leads to superficiality in places, but the book is intended more as an attractive introduction to the topics than an investigation into each theme.

However, the themes of this refreshing approach are linked with each other so that a complex picture is slowly built up. There is a clear effort to achieve a balance of gender topics, as well as to cover the different sociogeographic regions of the world – not with a “token” chapter but throughout the text. In addition, the “Not in our culture” chapter mentions the courageous Polyana Mangwiro (from Zimbabwe) – whom many readers will remember – and Hindu attitudes, as well as gays in the Muslim world. In fact, all the chapters are permeated by the sense of diversity and avoid a Eurocentric standpoint.

With the light touch of hand that many English authors have in dealing with serious topics, Baird mentions in the chapter called “Clitoridectomy and other cures” children who are put on a special diet of Brussels sprouts to protect against becoming homosexual. In “Faith and fundamentalism” she quotes a humorous letter replying to an American broadcaster, in reference to the many punishments the Bible lays down for “misdeeds”, which are no longer used: “I would like to sell my daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21: 7. In this day and age what do you think would be a fair price for her?”

The chapter “Judges ... and the law” has a useful summary of legal milestones of the last ten years.

But ...

The chapter “Untermenschen” (German for subhuman) has big deficiencies and even “false facts”. For example, “... the Institute of Sexology ... was the first organisation set up to promote the understanding and acceptance of homosexuality.” Not true: first was the Wissenschaftliche humanitäre Komitee (Scientific Humanitarian Committee), founded by Magnus Hirschfeld and friends in 1897 – and Hirschfeld, a Jew, socialist and sexologist, had fled Germany, going on a world tour, several years before the Nazis took power, not as is suggested after the Nazis came to power.

That those who had been castrated were later sent to the war front to be decimated is not correct, since known homosexuals were normally considered “unfit” to serve.

Around 5,000 to 7,000 homosexuals were sent to concentration camps and around 53,500 – of whom some 60 per cent died – were sentenced to imprisonment during the Nazi period. It is clear, therefore, that the quoted figure of 500,000 homosexual victims is without any foundation. It is high time that these unrealistic figures were a thing of the past.

It is very unfortunate that such reliance was given to the book by Heinz Heger written over twenty years ago – now avoided by scientific writers as being unreliable – and that so many of the historical source books mentioned in general are from the 1980s, as if history once written down were like the laws of the Medes and Persians. If more up-to-date information had been obtained from those “in the know” – the German gay historians who have spent the last twenty years carrying out research in archives and talking to the few survivors willing to speak – something nearer the truth in this disgraceful episode might have emerged.

So, with the exception of the chapter “Untermenschen”, the book can be recommended as an introduction to the situation of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people around the world today.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-02-13 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :