Surviving Nazi Fascism and Fighting Back: The Life and Work of Sharley McLean

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Sharley MacLean

Sharley McLean was a Jewish lesbian who survived Nazi fascism. Sharley, who was born Lotte Reyersbach, was born in Oldenburg, north Germany, in 1923. She only just escaped death and went on to be a nurse during the Second World War. She became a prominent, influential political activist, particularly after the death of her partner, Georgina, in 1977.

Surviving and Serving

All of Sharley’s family died in the Holcaust. This included her gay uncle, Kurt Bach – an anti-Nazi activist – who was killed wearing a pink triangle in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He was arrested in a gay bar in Berlin, 1937, and then was tragically tortured and murdered. 

Sharley only just survived. She “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,” according to Peter Tatchell Foundation’s website.

Sharley became a nurse during the Second World War, at Lewisham hospital in south London. She received much anti-German abuse, particularly when the Sandringham School was bombed by the Luftwaffe. She got married to Allan McLean, who was a British socialist, and it’s possible she did it to fit in easier with an English surname. 

She reported having feelings for other women at the time of her marriage, but lesbianism wasn’t particularly advertised, let alone encouraged. She went along with what other women did and married a man. The homophobic and misogynistic context meant a heterosexual marriage was often a measure of security rather than genuine love and desire. Sharley had to survive. 

Sharley recalls:

“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.”

Lesbian art documents women’s romances during the World Wars. Radclyffe Hall’s book The Well of Loneliness depicts the story of Stephen, who falls in love with another woman, Mary Llewellyn, while serving as an ambulance driver in the First World War. Their love, after their service, was challenged by homophobia – internalized and societal – which ended in tragedy. Sharley experienced this first hand.

Sharley’s experiences during the war were heart-breaking. She recalled:

“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.”

Sharley realised later on that some nurses she worked alongside were in fact lesbians. When one said “you’re one of us now,” Sharley assumed she meant she could pass for British, and was chuffed. 

Sharley came out as a lesbian after having two children and a complete mental breakdown. Her friend, David Semple, reports, “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 died in 1977 and Sharley was in despair. “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 David Semple.

Fighting Back

Sharley McLean combined Holcaust education with gay liberation activism. Peter Tatchell reports, “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.”

People were forbidden from laying a pink triangle wreath at the Cenotaph – the main British war memorial in London – until the mid-1980s. Public remembrance of the “LGBT victims of the Third Reich and of LGBT service personnel who fought to defeat Nazism” was frowned upon. The wreaths were automatically removed. Sharley helped Peter Tatchell and others “overturn the wreath ban.”

The tragic erasure of lesbian and gay victims of the Third Reich didn’t end there. “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,” Peter Tatchell describes. 

Sharley McLean, via Instagram

Sharley joined and spoke at major commemorations and remembrance days at the Cenotaph. She did this until 2 November, 1997. Sharley was completely alienated from the Jewish faith due to homophobia. She was a “passionate secularist and humanist,” Peter recalls. She was the co-founder of Hyde Park Gays and Sapphics, which addressed crowds at Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, which she described as “the university of the working classes.” 

Sharley died at 90, in 2013. She was a Jewish lesbian hero who refused to succumb to society’s perception of her. She made her voice known and used it to amplify others’, especially the forgotten LGBT victims to the Nazis. 

It’s important to remember names like Sharley McLean’s, not only to reconcile with the tragedy that overwhelmed her life, and to learn from it in today’s aversion to dissent, but to also be inspired by her willingness to survive what could be viewed as absolutely unsurvivable. Sharley did more than survive, too, she was the backbone of many activist communities. She inspired many other people’s desire to fight back. Thanks Sharley.

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