Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Repost: LGBT History Month: Pierre Seel*

*originally posted October 22, 2009

A lot of gay men and women spend lifetimes in the closet, afraid of being their true selves for fear of retribution from friends and family, from society. Pierre Seel was like that, too. He endured several lifetimes of horrendous hardships staying silent.

Born into a comfortable middle-class family in Alsace — his parents owned and operated a successful pastry shop — by the age of fifteen Pierre knew he was different than other boys, that he was sexually attracted to other boys. However, having been raised a devout Roman Catholic, he refused to accept it. He confessed the sin of homosexuality to a priest, but the man denied him absolution and, instead, grilled him about his thoughts. As Pierre says, "I was convinced that I was a monster."

So he stayed silent, and with silence, comes mistakes. In 1939, in Le Square Steinbach, a public garden notorious as a cruising ground for homosexuals, Pierre met a man and, after their rendezvous, discovered his watch was missing. Reporting the theft to police meant that his name was added to a list of homosexuals held by the authorities, but Pierre felt he had no choice.

Soon Pierre became disenchanted with cruising and gay clubs and anonymous sex with other closeted me. He longed for a loving relationship and soon found one with a young man he identified in his memoirs only as Jo. He delighted in their time together, when both were able to speak freely about their feelings.

However, Pierre would learn to be silent once again. German troops took control of Alsace in June of 1940 and in May of the following year, he came face-to-face with the Gestapo. Since he'd reported the theft of his watch — and his name was on that list — Pierre was rounded up with dozens of gay men and viciously abused by German officers. He was tortured and raped with a piece of wood and held in the city jail before being transferred to the Schirmeck-Vorbrück camp near Strasbourg. Seel's father and brother searched for him and, at Gestapo headquarters an officer informed then — using a German slur — of the reason for his detention. 
"And that was how, in the most humiliating manner, my family learned of my homosexuality."—Pierre Seel
Not long after his arrival at Schirmeck-Vorbrück, he and the other prisoners were to the roll-call site where they were forced to watch as an eighteen-year-old man was stripped, had a metal bucket placed over his head, and was set upon by a pack German Shepherds who savaged the boy and then devoured him. That victim was Jo.

Pierre Seel pulled back further and became even quieter.  
"I sometimes wake up howling in the middle of the night. For fifty years...that scene has kept playing and replaying through my mind. I will never forget the barbaric murder of my love--before my very eyes."
Although nothing could compare to Jo's brutal murder, Pierre suffered mightily during the war. He and the other gay men were subjected to horrific "medical" experiments and were forced to work constructing the camp crematorium. Since homosexuals were considered the lowest of the low, he was often deprived of food and reduced to stealing carrots from the rabbit hutches he cleaned.

In November 1941, Pierre Seel was suddenly, without warning, released from the camp; the reason being "good behavior". He was given money for a train ride back to Mulhouse, where he arrived just as his family sat down to dinner.

His welcome was a warm one, though not particularly joyful. His father, ironically enough, presented him with a gold watch to celebrate his homecoming, and then father forbid the family to ever discuss Pierre's imprisonment, or the reasons for it.

Following the irony of the gold watch, came yet another twist. With Alsace annexed to Germany, Seel was forced to join the German army; he'd gone from prisoner to soldier. And while an injury landed him a desk job, the moment he was declared fit, he was sent back into battle.

In early 1945, the officer to whom Seel was assigned as an orderly decided to desert and take Seel with him so that both could make their way home. On the third day of their escape, the officer was killed by machine-gun fire, forcing Seel to continue on alone. He traded his German uniform for civilian clothes stolen from an abandoned farmhouse, but he was nevertheless captured by Soviet soldiers who thought him a spy. They took him prisoner and sent him to a repatriation camp in Odessa, where he stayed for several months before arriving home in August 1945.

With French law re-established, homosexuality was once again decriminalized although still unacceptable. For a man who was imprisoned for being gay, this pushed Pierre Seel deeper into the closet; he refused to make friends and lived haunted by memories of Jo's death. His family also stayed silent about his homosexuality until his mother became ill. It was then that she finally asked him to tell her the truth and he told her everything. She became his sole confidant until she died a few years later.

In 1950, believing he could not live openly as a gay man, Pierre married a woman he met through a matrimonial agency; their family grew to include two sons and a daughter. With money often tight, Seel's wife urged him to apply for a state pension for camp survivors but he refused, knowing the reason for his detention would be revealed if he asked for assistance. He had never told his wife about his homosexuality and the strain of his silence finally took its toll; they wife divorced in 1978.

Three years later, Pierre attended a lecture by Jean-Pierre Joecker, who had published a French translation of Heinz Heger's Die Männer mit dem rosa Winkel, "The Men with the Pink Triangle", a memoir of Heger's experiences in a German concentration camp.

Afterward, Seel approached Joecker and identified himself as a survivor from Schirmeck. Joecker, who had been unable to find anyone held prisoner at Schirmeck-Vorbrück, was eager to talk with Seel, who insisted on anonymity. He had stayed silent for over forty years, and didn't know how to speak openly.

Soon, though, his story came out, and Pierre Seel was finally liberated from the closet. He realized that the strength that had seen him through his internment, the power that made him stay still as he watched Jo's murder, the will that carried him though the battlefields of war and kept him silent about who he was, could finally be used for something positive.

In 1982, Pierre Seel finally came out when Bishop Léon Elchinger, calling homosexuality a sickness, abruptly canceled the reservations of one hundred members of the International Lesbian and Gay Association [ILGA] who had been planning to stay at a Catholic dormitory during a convention. He wrote an open letter to the bishop and sent copies to the media, and though the mainstream press ignored it, the letter was published in the monthly magazine Gai Pied.

At the age of sixty-five, after all he'd endured, after all that quiet, Seel was vocal. In 1988 he addressed a packed audience at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the following year he was interviewed on French television; he also told his story in a memoir, Moi, Pierre Seel, déporté homosexuel. He spent the last two decades of his life with a loving partner, Éric Feliu and two dogs. 
"For forty years following the atrocious death of my friend Jo I didn't dare touch a dog, but thanks to [Feliu], I have been able to conquer my fear."
Pierre Seel died on November 25, 2005.

So, while this may seem a sad story, it really isn't. Pierre Seel sets the example that no matter when you come out, the right thing to do is to come out. If it's today, tomorrow, next week, next year, it's the right time.

Pierre Seel is proof that happiness truly comes from being yourself, loving yourself, liking yourself.

The march goes on.

On This Day In LGBT History
October 22, 1870 – Lord Alfred Douglas is born near London. Forever known as Bosie, the boy lover of Oscar Wilde was regarded at the time as a mincing queen intent on self-destruction. In the end it was Wilde who was destroyed.

October 22, 1916 – Police in New York City raided an all-male Turkish bath after agents from the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice, who had infiltrated the establishment, filed a detailed report. Thirty-seven men, including the manager, were arrested. Twenty-five of them were convicted and sentenced to prison. The manager committed suicide.

October 22, 1986 – U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop advised that sex education that includes information on both gay and straight relationships would help prevent the spread of AIDS.

October 22, 1977 - Montreal Police raid gay bars Truxx, and Le Mystique charge 146 men with being found-ins in common bawdyhouse. More than fifty uniformed and plainclothes police in bullet proof vests from the divisional morality, mobile and technical squads carried off the raid. It was the largest mass arrest since War Measures Act during the FLQ Crisis. The 146 men arrested were held for up to 15 hours at police headquarters “while ‘compulsory’ VD tests were administered.

October 22, 1992 – A report on hate crimes in Michigan was rejected by the US Civil Rights Commission because it included documentation of anti-gay hate crimes.

October 22, 1993 – US Air Force Lt. Heide De Jesus announced that she was dropping her lawsuit challenging her discharge from military service under the ban on gay and lesbian service personnel because the fight had left her literally broke.

October 22, 1999 – Boeing announced it would begin offering domestic partner benefits to its gay and lesbian employees. The company explained that unmarried opposite sex couples would not be included because marriage is an option for them, which brought criticism from union leaders.

October 22, 1999 – San Francisco archbishop William Levada announced he would make a $30,000 contribution to a California ballot initiative to restrict the definition of marriage to opposite sex couples.

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