Bad gay: Should Hitler be outed?
In the fall of 2001, the terrorist attacks led to the cancellation of a slew of book tours. But one book that broke through the blanket coverage and even snagged a Today show interview within a few weeks of September 11 was German historian Lothar Machtan's The Hidden Hitler. For a sensation-stalking media, even a monumental terrorist attack couldn't suppress the highly controversial premise of the book: that Adolf Hitler may have been a closet homosexual.
It also proved irresistible stuff for late-night comedy, particularly at a time when everyone needed a good snicker. Saturday Night Live soon featured Chris Kattan in a pink SS uniform, prancing around the Third Reich, humping someone's leg.
Cute, but many gay activists weren't laughing. In the next few weeks they'll be laughing even less. On April 20, Cinemax aired The Hidden Führer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler's Sexuality, an extensive documentary that draws upon Machtan's work and adds more grist for the mill, including claims that Hitler molested composer Richard Wagner's 18-year-old grandson.
The filmmakers, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Party Monster and The Eyes of Tammy Faye), and author and journalist Gabriel Rotello, are gay themselves and certainly aren't averse to exploring controversial topics. (Full disclosure: I appear briefly in the film, and all three filmmakers are longtime colleagues of mine.)
To a lot of gay activists and scholars, this isn't just another case of a dubious Bad Gay being exhumed; this is the Bad Mother Lode.
Even before The Hidden Hitler was published in 2001, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation launched a blistering attack on Machtan, who is not gay but who, most critics agree, is not homophobic.
"[Machtan's] speculation fuels an ongoing debate that the person who still personifies evil and hate six decades later was one of us," said Cathy Renna, media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. She added that the book is "without any real proof." In the Washington Post, Geoffrey Giles, associate professor of history at the University of Florida, accused Machtan of gathering up "every piece of malicious tittle-tattle and idle gossip," even though Giles admitted, "we can never know" the real truth about Hitler's sexuality.
There's a rightful skepticism among gays when an evildoer, dead or alive, is outed in the popular press. That's because journalists are usually loath to report on public figures' undeclared sexual orientation, piously claiming to be respectful of privacy– except, all too often, when it's a Bad Gay.
When a 1993 biography claimed that the dictatorial FBI director J. Edgar Hoover not only was gay but had a penchant for secretly donning cocktail dresses and feather boas, there seemed to be a collective exclamation: "Aha! He was a drag queen!" As if that somehow explained it all. Similarly, on the Today show, Matt Lauer teased his interview with Machtan by saying that The Hidden Hitler "claims that Hitler was actually gay, and that his homosexuality was at the root of his evil." The book claims nothing of the kind.
The impulse among some straights to pathologize homosexuality creates a strong resistance among many gays and lesbians to even entertain a premise. I've been guilty of that myself, writing on the 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. At about the same time that The Hidden Hitler was published, a rumor began circulating that law enforcement was studying the possibility that the hijacking ringleader and some of his terrorist comrades were homosexual– a rumor investigators have neither confirmed nor denied. Atta had been described in the media shortly after the attacks as a squishy mama's boy whose father felt he wasn't man enough to be a terrorist.
The gay rumors were recycled by the National Enquirer, which reported that the FBI believed that "Atta and several of his bloody henchmen led secret gay lives for years." I followed up with a piece for Newsweek.com, noting that the rumors looked like more stereotyping on the part of federal law enforcement, which has a history of equating homosexuality with criminal activity going back to Hoover's days, and concluding that it shouldn't matter if Atta and his fellow hijackers were gay. But I was taking the point too far– just as the defensive critics of The Hidden Hitler are taking their point too far.
Of course it would matter if Atta were a homosexual. It would shed a bright light on how homophobia– not homosexuality– may be a contributing factor in driving an individual to unfathomable destruction. If Atta and his homicidal companions were secretly homosexual, living within an Islamic fundamentalist society that often imprisons or beheads suspected sodomites, it might help explain why they gravitated toward organizations that adhered to the strictest and most extreme tenets of Islam, perhaps as a way to control their urges. And it also might explain why they'd so easily give up their lives rather than continue in their tortured existences.
In the case of Hitler, such knowledge would be profoundly revelatory as well. In Machtan's portrait, Hitler was perhaps so self-loathing and so traumatized by the fear of exposure that he'd do anything to prove he wasn't a homosexual, including, later, persecuting other gays and violently stopping anyone, straight or gay, who might expose him as he rose to power. Machtan even posits that the SA chief Ernst Röhm, who was openly homosexual, was killed in the infamous Night of the Long Knives on Hitler's orders because Hitler was afraid Röhm was going to out him.
It may sound far-fetched, but that formula– squashing other gays as you grab for the brass ring is a tried and true one among the closeted and power-hungry set. It's the same formula used by Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy's sidekick, in his purges of gays in government as he ascended to the power elite.
The Cinemax documentary powerfully distills the evidence in a way that Machtan's book doesn't. The Hidden Führer doesn't prove that Hitler was gay, but it certainly presents a lot to chew on. One flaw, however, is that it doesn't explore why this is important to know. Midway through The Hidden Führer, I was convinced that there's something there, but I was left wondering what the point is and why so many gays don't want to know.
In the cases of other, more laudable public figures– from Leonardo da Vinci and Walt Whitman to Florence Nightingale and Susan B. Anthony– gay activists and gay historians haven't had a problem claiming them as lesbian or gay. The proof hasn't always been definitive for the straight world, even if it has been for many gay activists and gay academics.
Because Eleanor Roosevelt was close with several lesbian couples and wrote highly affectionate letters to a constant companion, Lorena Hickok, the first lady was, according to many gay history books and websites, a lesbian– though some might say the evidence of that isn't any stronger than that presented regarding Hitler.
That's why the critics' angry denunciations ring a bit hollow. And with books like Machtan's and films like The Hidden Führer making the case, dismissing it isn't going to make the question go away. Why not engage the debate and see where it leads?
Michelangelo Signorile is the author of "Queer in America" and "Outing Yourself." He writes a weekly column for New York Press, which is where this essay first appeared.