Closet Drama

Michael Bronski

Outing hardly raises an
eyebrow anymore. Kevin Spacey? Who cares. Rosie O’Donnell? Please. But recently
when the National Enquirer published its front-page expose of Mohamed
Atta, the mastermind behind the September 11 terrorist attacks (“Mohamed Atta
and several of his bloody henchmen led secret gay lives—and Atta’s ‘boyfriend’
died with him in his September 11 suicide mission”), you couldn’t help but take
notice. Especially since the Atta revelation comes on the heels of the
publication of Lothar Machtan’s The Hidden Hitler (Basic Books), which
claims that the Fuhrer was gay.

There’s a weird
irony to these outings: for the past 50 years the gay rights movement has
promoted a public-relations campaign insisting to mainstream America that gays
are just like everyone else. That gays, in fact, have existed throughout
history. Supporting evidence comes from queer historians, both popular and
scholarly, who’ve argued that figures such as Plato, Joan of Arc, Abraham
Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, John Singer Sargent, and
Eleanor Roosevelt were attracted to or engaged in sexual relationships with
members of their own sex. What’s interesting to see, now that Hitler and Atta
have been added to the list, is how readily the general public (in the case of
Atta) and the media elite (with Hitler) have embraced the notion that both men
were gay. During a recent interview with Machtan, NBC’s Matt Lauer
unquestioningly accepted the premise that Hitler was gay and asked
anti-historical questions, such as: “In just the minute left, and I know it’s
very difficult to ask you to do this, but why do you think that his
homosexuality and perhaps his attempts at concealing it were at the root of his
anti-Semitism?” Apparently, the idea that Hitler’s putative closeted
homosexuality did more to shape his hatred of Jews than the 2,000 years of
virulent European Catholic/Christian anti-Semitism that preceded him poses no
logical problem to the mass media.

It’s quite a
contrast with the reception given, for example, to the claims that Roosevelt and
Whitman were gay. Even though there is abundant, albeit sometimes conjectural,
proof that these people experienced same-sex desires, scholars demand far higher
standards of “proof” for queerness than they ever would for heterosexual
longings or actions. They do this even when such “proof” exists. Whitman, for
example, left letters and poems expressing homoerotic feelings, and Roosevelt’s
papers are filled with expressions of lesbian desire. Still, enormous efforts
are made to “explain” it away as poetic imagery in the case of Whitman or as
sentimental women’s talk for Roosevelt.

So why the ready
acceptance that mass murderers like Hitler and Atta were gay and the reluctance
to believe that beloved figures like Roosevelt, Whitman, and Lincoln might have

Machtan and the
National Enquirer, in making their cases, draw upon the same historical
techniques and methodologies pioneered by Havelock Ellis and John Addington
Symonds, who compiled what was probably the first list of famous homosexuals
throughout history in their 1897 work Sexual Inversion. These techniques
and methodologies can be summed up as follows: historians looking for
homosexuals in history have learned to read between the lines. Sometimes this
involves looking at the work of an artist in fresh ways: why are Michelangelo’s
male nudes so much more realistic than his female nudes? Exactly what was
Gertrude Stein talking about in her obscure prose poem “Tender Buttons?”
Sometimes it means acknowledging the obvious: it certainly wasn’t poverty that
forced Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed to spend four years sleeping in the same
bed when one was an up-and-coming lawyer and the other a prosperous,
middle-class store owner.

In The
Hidden Hitler
, Machtan reinterprets much of what we already know about
Hitler to make the case that he was sexually attracted to men; that he probably
had sexual relationships with some men before the 1930s; that these
relationships helped him attain social and political power; and that his fear of
exposure led him to implement a brutal anti-gay policy and inflamed his already
deeply held anti-Semitism to new, more determinedly deadly levels. For instance,
while the homosexuality of Ernst Rohm, head of the Sturmabteilung (better known
as the SA or the Brownshirts) and of some members of the SA has long been a
historical given, Machtan reinterprets Hitler’s putsch against them—known as the
“Night of the Long Knives”—as a preemptive strike against people who knew too
much about Hitler’s homosexual past. In doing so, he rejects the long-held
belief that Hitler’s violent destruction of the group was a standard political
power play within National Socialism.

In its tawdry
piece on Atta, the Enquirer makes much of the fact that Atta and
Abdulaziz Alomari shaved their bodies the night before the attack and put on
cologne. This can easily be interpreted as a religious act. Islam, along with
Christianity and Judaism, has religious and social laws connected to ideals of
cleanliness and aestheticism that regulate care of the body and hair grooming.
But when put in a seamier context, the act takes on a lurid feel: “On the eve of
his murderous assault, [Atta] and his boyfriend Alomari made a quick, mysterious
trip to Portland, Maine, where they spent the night in room 233 of a Comfort
Inn. They paid $179 for the deluxe rooms with gold bedspreads.

Atta and Alomari
dutifully followed instructions from a document later discovered in luggage that
got left behind…. It told the men to take an ‘oath to die’ and ‘shave excess
hair from the body and wear cologne’.” While the Enquirer piece raises
some valid issues—that male- male sexual activity has always been tacitly
condoned in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures (though never accepted as
a sexual identity)—the magazine distorts it by noting, “extremist elements among
Arab men become so socially segregated from women, they turn to homosexual

The bottom line
when searching for homosexuals in history, as with Hitler, or in contemporary
life, as with Atta, is that the “clues” have to be interpreted responsibly. When
they aren’t, you wind up with sloppy scholarship such as Noel I. Garde’s From
Jonathan to Gide: The Homosexual in History (
Vantage Press, 1964), in which
large trees of innuendo grow from small seeds of evidence. The standards should
be closer to those of historically perceptive and sensitive scholars such as
Blanche Wiesen Cook, whose biography of Eleanor Roosevelt is a model of how to
understand a historical figure’s sexuality in the context of her life and times.
The second volume of Cook’s projected four-volume work on Roosevelt, for
example, explicates in great detail how Roosevelt’s intense, often erotic
connections to women formed the basis of her domestic and human-rights work and
helped shape the New Deal. There’s no way to argue that Machtan meets this

Unlike Cook’s
biography, Machtan’s work is full of holes. He doesn’t have any hard evidence to
prove that Hitler was gay. No man actually claims that he slept with Hitler, and
there are no explicit letters, diaries, or communications—so he relies on the
endless rhetoric of conjecture. Machtan’s text is littered with “maybe,”
“perhaps,” and “possibly.” Sometimes he goes even further with “in light of this
it makes sense to assume” and “there may also be documents locked away in Swiss
strong rooms that would shed light on these years” or even the more impertinent
“it would be irresponsible to rule out that Hitler may have made approaches to
wealthy men [for sex].” Often his jumps are breathtaking: the “fact” that
Wagner’s world-famous Bayreuth opera house “was a notorious international
rendezvous for prominent homosexuals”—the “opera queen” theory of history—proves

At the end of 434
pages, we are left with a house of speculative cards that can hardly stand on
its own. All history asks us to make some leaps of faith, but like a magician,
Machtan wants us to suspend disbelief almost all the time. He is the master of
circumstantial evidence. Complicating matters is the fact that he avoids placing
his material in a larger context. There is almost no substantive discussion of
Magnus Hirschfeld (who was a Communist, sexuality researcher, and an early
homosexual activist) and his Institute for Sexual Research; the complexity of
German naturalist movements (which often promoted a desexualized form of
homoeroticism); or the Wandervogel movement that conflated nature with
nationalism. Machtan also seems unaware that most historians reject the label
“gay” or “homosexual” for non-contemporary figures, and his use of both words to
describe Hitler’s identity flies in the face of sound historiography and correct

Furthermore, he
fails to recognize that same-sex activity does not necessarily dictate
self-identity. Hitler’s extreme conservatism, deep homophobia, and strong desire
to belong to the mainstream most likely precluded him from seeing himself as an
“invert,” the term then in use (defined as a woman’s soul in a man’s body and
viewed by the mainstream as a pathological condition). Therefore, even if Hitler
was attracted to or had sex with men, he almost certainly did not self-identify
as “gay” or “homosexual.” The narrowness of Machtan’s historical vision—he is
intent on finding every single suggestion of homoeroticism in Hitler’s life and
friendship circle—continually undercuts whatever interesting information he has
uncovered, such as the provocative rumor that Rudolf Hess was known to some
allegedly gay men as “Fraulein Hess” or “Black Emma.” Even worse is Machtan’s
constant assertion that Hitler (and Hess, among others) were “almost
pathologically sensitive, weak, and impressionable” persons with “markedly
feminine traits.” This conflation of “feminine” with male homosexuality is a
sure tip-off that Machtan falls far too easily into homophobic gender
stereotypes of essential “male” and “female” characteristics. After finishing
the book, you have the impression that the Third Reich was run by screaming,
hysterical nancy boys.

Yet the book is
being marketed as a serious work of historical investigation and, interestingly,
received as such. It was published simultaneously in 15 languages and is a
bestseller in Germany. Machtan’s inability to deal in any sophisticated way with
gender is not incidental to the way “gay” stereotypes and homophobia have taken
shape historically. One of the reasons The Hidden Hitler and even the
National Enquirer
story on Atta are so accepted and acceptable is that both
pander to the most commonly embraced homophobic stereotypes. Machtan’s work is
strewn with images of devious, duplicitous, overwrought closet cases, and the
story is so predicated on a close-binding, suffocating mother/
distant father it could come out of a 1950s psychoanalytic textbook. It portrays
Atta as both too manly and too feminine—apparently to make sure all the bases
are covered. Whatever kernels of truth may be in Machtan’s book or the
article are completely ancillary to their methods, intentions, and

It’s ironic to
note that, for better or worse, the Machtan biography and the National
piece are creations of a new world shaped by the gay movement and
feminism. In his book The Hitler of History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997),
historian John Lukacs notes that “history means the endless rethinking—rewriting
and revisiting—of the past” and that the past is created as quickly as we can
create the present and the future. All new histories now have to take into
account the gay and lesbian politics and past that homosexuals have been
creating for decades. Machtan attempts to do this with some restraint and
seriousness; the National Enquirer article is part of a backlash against
the social and political gains the gay movement has made during this time.

On some level,
all history—and all writing—is about politics, and it would be incredibly naive
to think that the “outing” of historical figures does not have a political
basis. From the 1897 list constructed by Ellis and Symonds to the National
piece on Atta, such work forwards clear political agendas. The
idea of a gay Hitler is not new. It was used by the Communists after World War
II to attack fascism and one of the more popular and dangerously loony books
from the Christian right over the past few years has been Scott Lively and Kevin
Abrams’s The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party (Founders
Publishing Corporation, 1995), which blames homosexuals for the Third Reich and
the Holocaust. The advent of a gay movement has, to a large degree, complicated
the heterosexual world’s relationship to homosexuality. Once a form of
unmentionable depravity, homosexuality now occupies a clear and present place in
the world. But despite the work done by gay and lesbian activists to promote
positive gay images, the specter of the “evil homosexual” holds enormous
fascination for Western culture. In many ways, homosexuality functions on a
primeval level as the great signifier of evil. Homosexuals have become to the
modern world what the Jews were to the medieval world—they corrupt children,
they spread disease, they stand outside the sanctified, secure boundaries of
nationalism, and they seek the destruction of the state.

It is no
surprise, then, that both Adolf Hitler and Mohamed Atta—despite, rather than
because of, whatever historical evidence there may or may not be—have become so
easily identified as “gay.” The deeds of Hitler and Atta are unthinkable, in
much the same way that homosexuality has always been unspeakable (it was,
according to Lord Alfred Douglas, “the love that dare not speak its name”). In
some ways, it makes perfect sense that the once unspeakable—now
articulated—could become the first line of expression for the unthinkable.

Still, it raises
the question: what kind of a person actually thinks Hitler and Atta are somehow
more evil because they may have been gay?                Z


Bronski’s writings have appeared in the
Village Voice, the Boston
Globe, Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Advocate,
Out, the Boston Phoenix, and Z.