Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 – Remembering forgotten victims
By Peter Tatchell
Sharley McLean – Jewish feminist, lesbian, humanist and survivor of Nazi fascism – was born Lotte Reyersbach in Oldenburg, north Germany, in 1923.
Her socialist father, Franz, and Jewish mother, Grete, died in the Holocaust; as did nearly all her extended family.
She had a gay uncle, Kurt Bach. A left-wing, anti-Nazi activist, he was arrested by the Gestapo in a gay bar in Berlin in 1937, and died wearing a pink triangle in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Sharley fled to Britain as a 16 year old refugee from the Nazis in 1939, in one of the last Kindertransports of children allowed to leave Germany before Adolf Hitler closed the borders.
During the Second World War, Sharley worked as a nurse at Lewisham hospital in south London. She was on the receiving end of anti-German abuse, especially when Sandringham School was bombed by the Luftwaffe. This partly explains why she got married, to Allan McLean, a British socialist. Her new English surname helped her fit in.
At the time of her marriage she had feelings for other women but had no name for those feelings. Moreover, in the homophobic climate of that era, marriage seemed a safe refuge.
“When Lewisham Hospital was bombed, we all shared rooms and even beds because the rooms were so small. We were together; we cuddled each other without giving it a second thought. I think we were naive sexually. One staff nurse would say there were two ward sisters who were ‘homosexual ladies’. They used to tell people they weren’t married because their boyfriends were killed in the First World War. I remember we used to look at them with curiosity. Ridiculous when you think how naive one was.”
She realised later that some of the nurses she worked with were lesbians. When one of them told her: “You’re one of us, you know,” she misinterpreted this as meaning she could pass for British, and took it as a huge compliment.
Her wartime hospital experiences were scary and often heart-breaking, as Sharley later recollected:
“I hated the war; we were in the frontline, all the casualties we saw…You just worked; there was a dedication and even people with little nursing experience were called upon, to set up drips. It was all done by hand and we had a big fish kettle to sterilize things. Things were primitive compared to now and the sepsis rate was higher, and there were no wonder drugs. I was also on duty when the hospital was hit. A bomb fell on the dispensary which caused tremendous fire. As nurses we were told where there were so-called safe points and one of my friends on E Block had taken shelter at one of those points and that collapsed and she was killed outright. We were badly burned in the D Block I was in but we managed to evacuate all the patients.”
Her friend David Semple notes:
“After 1945, Sharley continued working for the NHS, and had two children. In 1950, following a breakdown and an unsuccessful attempt to take her own life, she was told by a psychologist that she was a lesbian. This came as a shock, and when she later visited the Gateways, a lesbian club, she felt she didn’t fit in with the tweedy women she met there. But in 1953, she began a relationship with a West Indian woman, Georgina, which lasted for 24 years, although Sharley carried on living with her husband. Divorce would have meant losing her children.
“Georgina’s death in 1977 was a body blow; Georgina had kept her sexuality secret and her family refused to allow Sharley to attend the funeral. But she threw herself into political activism, working for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and later the Terrence Higgins Trust (in the 1980s and 90s),” recalls Semple.
I got to know Sharley in the early 1980s. She was a wonderful woman and campaigner. I was honoured to know her and to help publicise her remarkable personal story.
Sharley participated in my early campaigns to document the experiences of LGBT Holocaust survivors – and later to commemorate them and the service personnel who died fighting Nazi fascism.
Until the mid-1980s, it was forbidden to lay a pink triangle wreath at the Cenotaph – the main British war memorial in London – in remembrance of the LGBT victims of the Third Reich and of LGBT service personnel who fought to defeat Nazism. The wreaths we laid were swiftly removed. She helped me and others overturn the wreath ban.
Likewise, prior to the late 1990s, the war veterans association, the Royal British Legion, refused to acknowledge that LGBT people had served and died in the armed forces. It would not allow a LGBT war veterans contingent to march in the official Remembrance Day parade. Sharley worked with us to challenge and, eventually defeat, this exclusion.
She joined and spoke at our V-E (Victory in Europe) Day commemorations at the Cenotaph in the 1980s and, a decade later, at the Queer Remembrance Day vigils at the Cenotaph, organised by the LGBT campaign group OutRage! The last one she spoke at was on 2 November 1997.
Alienated from the Jewish faith by its historic homophobia, Sharley was a passionate secularist and humanist; being a long-time supporter of the Gay & Lesbian Humanist Association.
She was the co-founder of Hyde Park Gays and Sapphics which, from 1982, for over 20 years, championed public outreach on LGBT issues, addressing crowds at Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park. She once describing Speaker’s Corner as “the university of the working classes.”
Sharley died aged 90 in 2013. She will be long remembered by those who knew her, with much admiration and appreciation.
• Thanks to David Semple for his assistance with this article