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Critique Essay History Humanities Law/Legal Nonfiction Social Sciences

Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: A Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939–1943

By Laurie Marhoefer, 2016

Did the Nazis persecute lesbians? In recent decades, their murderous campaign against gay men has drawn growing public attention. But historians are still at odds over the question of whether lesbians were persecuted as well. This article argues that historians ought not to limit themselves to the notion of “persecution” and rather ought to consider risk, that is, how lesbians, “transvestites,” and gender-nonconforming people ran pronounced, particular risks in a society that stigmatized same-sex sexuality, transgender, and gender-nonconformity. This argument involves some fundamental reconsiderations—of the category “lesbian” as well as of how the Gestapo, the secret state police, functioned. A close reading of a single Gestapo investigation reveals the important role that witnesses (as opposed to denouncers) played in producing risk as well as the ways in which the category “lesbian” can be complicated. This article thus puts forward new ways to think about the history of lesbianism, some kinds of gender nonconformity, and trans history, as well as a new idea about how the Gestapo worked.

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