KC chorus tackles Nazi persecution of gay people

Maria Sudekum | Associated Press

The lives of gay men in Germany in the early 20th century — from their freedom in Berlin’s rowdy nightclubs in the 1920s to their persecution under the Nazis a decade later — are the focus of an upcoming production by the Heartland Men’s Chorus.

“It’s an important chapter in history, and the history of gay men,” said Tom Lancaster, marketing director for the Kansas City-based chorus. “It’s one that is really underrepresented, and it’s a part of the Holocaust that a lot of people aren’t aware of. … Even people who were aware gays were persecuted under the Nazis, they weren’t aware of the scope.”

The Heartland Men’s Chorus, a nonprofit group that often takes on social issues for its programs, performs the two-act “Falling in Love Again” Saturday and Sunday at Kansas City’s Folly Theater. The program also includes a companion exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The small exhibit, “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945,” runs through April 10 at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The Nazis, who killed 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, considered homosexuality an aberration. They didn’t try to exterminate all German homosexuals, but thought they could change them or isolate them with treatment that included imprisonment, castration and hard labor at concentration camps, according to the Holocaust Museum. The Nazis sent anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 homosexual men to the concentration camps, the museum says.

The chorus performance opens with a musical glimpse of what gay men experienced in the liberal Germany of the 1920s when “Berlin had more gays bars than New York in the 1980s,” Lancaster said. The music in that portion of the program includes selections from Cabaret, Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” and “The Lavender Song,” considered to be among the first gay anthems.

The second half of the program is based around an opera, “For A Look Or A Touch,” and portrays the treatment gay men endured under the Nazis, beginning in 1933 when Hitler came to power. The opera, based on interviews from the documentary, “Paragraph 175,” tells the story of one gay man who survived the Nazis and another who died during that time. Baritone Morgan Smith and actor Kip Niven portray the couple. A dance performance choreographed by William Whitener, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, is also part of the performance.

Fran Sternberg, with the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park, Kan., said the HMC program is important “because of the kind of homophobia that still lingers.”

“We need to know where that kind of thing leads,” Sternberg said. “Everybody needs to know about this. … The important thing to understand is the Nazis come to power legally, and they campaigned in regular elections and people voted for them.”