New Holocaust History Center exhibit explores past, present of persecution of gays

Gay rights activists organizing against state-sponsored anti-gay pogroms in the Russian republic of Chechnya are detained by police in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 1, 2017. (David Frenkel)

new exhibit, “Invisibility & Resistance: Violence Against LGBTQIA+ People” will occupy the Contemporary Human Rights space of the Holocaust History Center on the campus of the Jewish History Museum when the museum opens for a new season Sept. 1.

The exhibit, which will be on display through May 31, will connect the ongoing human rights concerns of LGBTQIA+ people around the world — emphasizing Chechnya, Uganda and Brazil — with various forms of systemic violence experienced by LGBTQIA+ people in the United States, says Bryan Davis, executive director of the museum. “The exhibition will be rooted historically and extend out from a presentation of Nazi persecution of homosexuals during the era of the Third Reich.”

The theme of persecution connects broadly to the history of the Jewish people.

Only a few of months ago “it came to light that there are these work camps, prison camps, for gay men in particular in Chechnya. That was a moment of thinking about the echoes” with the focus of the larger museum, says TC Tolbert, Tucson’s poet laureate and a transgender activist who is one of several local artists collaborating on the exhibit.

“It was suddenly just undeniable,” says Tolbert. 

For Davis, these connections are crucial.

“The Contemporary Human Rights exhibition space in the Holocaust History Center is a critical centerpiece of the museum campus. This is where we see the connectedness of past and present and feel the urgency of history as a force acting on our world now,” he says.

Robert Yerachmiel Snyderman, who directed content development for the exhibit along with co-curator Nika Kaiser, says the Russian Jewish photographer who took the photo on this page of an LGBTQ resistance group in Russia, David Frenkel, was beaten by members of a hate group after documenting an LGBTQ protest. “When he called the police to report it, he was harassed and abused by police as well, so there was a human rights campaign that was started on his behalf. … And part of the harassment he received was directed at his Jewishness.”

Snyderman didn’t know Frenkel was Jewish when he first contacted him about the photograph, so this contemporary “intersection between state-sponsored anti-gay behavior and anti-Semitism” came as a surprise.

In creating the exhibit, Snyderman says he put together “a team of local and mostly queer writers and activists,” including Tolbert, and also reached out to local and national organizations such as the Southern Arizona Aids Foundation and the Ali Forney Center, a New York-based nonprofit that is the largest LGBTQ community center helping homeless LGBTQ youth in the United States. Some 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ, says Snyderman.

Tolbert, who works with schools and youth centers to empower queer and transgender youth around issues of visibility and safety, says one section of the exhibit will include kites created by youth as part of a project s/he started seven years ago called “Made for Flight,” as well as photos of queer and transgender youth from the archives of Eon, a youth program of the now defunct Wingspan LGBTQ community center.

Poet Joy Ladin, a professor at Stern College of Yeshiva University and the first openly transgender person to work at an Orthodox Jewish institution, who spoke in Tucson in 2013, also contributed to the exhibit.

Another contributor is Rabbi Elliot Kukla, who runs a website called TransTorah.org and spoke here in 2009. Kukla, who is transgender, addresses “trans identity in relationship to religious Judaism,” which affects a growing number of people, says Snyderman.

The curators also consulted with Max Strassfeld, a young transgender assistant professor at the University of Arizona, who is writing a book about “what are called the six genders of classical Judaism,” says Snyderman.

Steve Zupcic, a member of the local gay Jewish community, curated the section on the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, Tolbert notes.

Since none of the staff at the museum identify as queer or transgender, “we really worked hard to listen to the local community, and to reach out and build context nationally and internationally with experts and organizations who are really on the ground,” says Snyderman.

One decision made early on, he says, was “not to romanticize or even emphasize the successes that the LGBTQ community has made in the U.S., because a lot of times that serves to overshadow the still very acute problems.”

Yet, at least in part, it is gratitude for those successes that led Ellen Freeman and her wife, Roe Callahan, to be title sponsors of the exhibit.

“Roe and I, as a gay couple, have felt blessed to be able to be married and to be out, and also feel it’s our responsibility to help carry the message and support the message of equality for everyone,” says Freeman.

“What I really love about this — and I think it is true of this LGBTQ exhibit as well as the past refugee exhibit, and probably for every exhibit to come — is that the design of the Holocaust History Center has really been able to create an incredible mood and ambience and a place of information and retrospection. It takes an incredible look at the past, but also positions the Holocaust History Center as a contemporary human rights center.

“To be able to use the Jewish History Museum and the Holocaust History Center as a foundation to talk about contemporary issues of vulnerable communities or other issues around the world, is a very important thing,” says Freeman, who adds that part of the annual plan is to use the exhibit as a “launching pad” for further related programming, such as potentially bringing Ladin and Masha Gessen, the gay Russian Jewish writer and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, back to Tucson. Gessen spoke here in 2015.

Nothing could be more timely, says Freeman, than getting Ladin’s perspective on President Donald Trump’s recent announcement banning transgender personnel in the U.S. military, or continuing to talk with Gessen about Putin.

Putting together robust programming around the “Invisibility and Resistance” exhibit is important not only to the LGBTQ Jewish community, says Freeman, “but in this day and age, it’s important to everybody in our community — Jewish, not Jewish, gay, not gay.” 

The Holocaust History Center and Jewish History Museum are located at 564 S. Stone Ave. Exhibition hours are Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 1-5 p.m., and Fridays, noon to 3 p.m. For more information, visit jewishhistorymuseum.org or call 670-9073.