How the Pink Triangle Became a Symbol of Queer Resistance

The origins of the pink triangle span back to the Holocaust. The triangle was used to identify and single out homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps. Different coloured triangles identified different groups: red for political prisoners, green for professional criminals, purple triangles for Jehovah’s Witnesses, pink for gay men, as well as other sexual offenders including rapists and paedophiles, and more. Prior to the dehumanising classification, gay men were marked with a capital A, sewn onto their left breast or trouser leg. This stood for Arschficker, the German for ‘arsefucker’.

Homosexuality was made illegal in Germany in 1871 by Paragraph 175. This was rarely enforced, though, until the rise of the Nazi party and the Night of the Long Knives in 1933. It read: “175. A male who commits lewd and lascivious acts with another male or permits himself to be so abused for lewd and lascivious acts, shall be punished by imprisonment…” Gay organisations were banned and research into sexuality was prohibited, with the pioneering Institut for Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexology) raided and its library burned. Gay men were arrested, imprisoned, and sent to concentration camps; those within the Nazi party itself were murdered.

“Off I went to Dachau without a trial – directly to Dachau,” recalled one man. Many believed gay men to be at the bottom of the pecking order inside the camps; there was little protection, with sadistic and cruel punishments often being carried out in front of hundreds of other prisoners.

Some would trade sexual favours with camp Kapos for safety; others were chosen as ‘pets’ and received extra rations. Pierre Seel, a gay French survivor of the Holocaust, wrote in his memoir:

”There was no solidarity for the homosexual prisoners; they belonged to the lowest caste. Other prisoners, even when between themselves, used to target them.”

Seal’s writing is difficult and upsetting to read but describes the sheer brutality of the SS towards gay men: “Now I froze in terror. I had prayed that he would escape their lists, their roundups, their humiliations. And there he was before my powerless eyes, which filled with tears. Unlike me, he had not carried dangerous letters, torn down posters, or signed any statements. And yet he had been caught and was about to die. What had happened? What had the monsters accused him of? Because of my anguish I have completely forgotten the wording of the death sentence.”

“The the loudspeakers broadcast some noisy classical music while the SS stripped him naked and shoved tin pail over his head. Next they sicced their ferocious German Shepherds on him: the guard dogs first bit into his groin and thighs, then devoured him right in front of us. His shrieks of pain were distorted and amplified by the pail in which his head was trapped. My rigid body reeled, my eyes gaped at so much horror, tears poured down my cheeks, I fervently prayed that he would black out quickly.”

“Since then I sometimes wake up howling in the middle of the night. For fifty years now that scene has kept ceaselessly passing and re-passing though my mind. I will never forget the barbaric murder of my love – before my very eyes, before our eyes, for there were hundreds of witnesses. Why are they still silent today? Have they all died? It’s true that we were among the youngest in the camp and that a lot of time has gone by. But I suspect that some people prefer to remain silent forever, afraid to stir up memories, like that one among so many others.

“As for myself, after decades of silence I have made up my mind to speak, to accuse, to bear witness.”

An estimated 100,000 men were arrested, with 50,000 officially charged; between 5,000 and 15,000 were sent to camps, with a survival rate thought to be as low as forty percent. Accurate records weren’t kept or were destroyed so it’s impossible to know the true figures. Many were castrated – often voluntarily, with the promise of lower sentences – and some prisoners were experimented on, in apparent attempts to ‘cure’ homosexuality.

After the war, Paragraph 175 remained in place in both West and East Germany: the deaths of thousands of gay men went unacknowledged for many years. Memoirs such as The Men with the Pink Triangle by Heinz Heger and I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir Of Nazi Terror brought the persecution to public attention. Martin Sherman’s 1979 play Bent tells the story of Max, a gay man who chooses the yellow star over the pink triangle on the train to Dachau, where he falls in love with fellow inmate Horst. Ian McKellen played Max in the first West End production, as well as the 1990 revival, which helped to raise public awareness about the issues explored by Sherman.

The pink triangle was adopted by gay rights activists in the 1970s, its reclamation linked by Erik Jensen to the aforementioned memoirs published that decade. This was criticised by some, who deemed it exploitative and offensive to those who had died under the Nazis. However, when AIDS hit, the lack of governmental response led many to make accusations of institutionalised homophobia and to draw parallels between the holocaust and the AIDS epidemic. Larry Kramer, playwright, author and activist, explicitly labelled AIDS a holocaust.

In 1987, ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) chose an inverted pink triangle – or an inversion of the Nazi badge – as their logo, along with the slogan SILENCE = DEATH. This then proliferated throughout AIDS activist imagery: Gran Fury used it in their infamous installation Let The Record Show, which displayed quotes and statements from various public figures carved in stone against a background photomural of the Nuremberg trials: “William F. Buckley, columnist — “Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common needle users, and on the buttocks to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.

Jesse Helms, US Senator — “The logical outcome of testing is a quarantine of those infected.”” Keith Haring painted multiple works featuring a pink triangle, usually with figures covering their ears, eyes and/or mouths.

ACT UP quote the Encyclopaedia of AIDS on their website: “The pink triangle was established as a pro-gay symbol by activists in the United States during the 1970s… the appropriation of the symbol of the pink triangle, usually turned upright rather than inverted, was a conscious attempt to transform a symbol of humiliation into one of solidarity and resistance. By the outset of the AIDS epidemic, it was well-entrenched as a symbol of gay pride and liberation.”

The German government only issued an official apology in 2002; the European Parliament marked 60 years since the liberation of Auschwitz with a text that mentioned the murder of homosexuals. A pink triangle forms the basis for various LGBT+ memorials around the world: the Homomonument in Amsterdam, the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial in Sydney, the Pink Triangle Park in San Francisco, monuments in Barcelona, Sitges and Montevideo. Each year, a one acre pink triangle is displayed on Twin Peaks in San Fransisco during Pride.

Remember this history when you see a pink triangle. It is important to remember the histories of persecution, even when it’s more comfortable to forget them – and especially when they’re easily erased. Homosexuality is still persecuted around the world – the news from Chechnya is terrifying – and we need to act. Ignorance = fear. Silence = death.

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