The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pink triangle, once a mark of persecution, became a symbol of pride

Historical silencing is destructive — but remembering and preserving LGBTQ history can be a rallying cry.

Health care and LGBTQ rights activists hold signs as they stage a protest outside the San Francisco Federal Building. Several signs include the pink triangle, once a symbol of oppression, before activists turned it into a symbol of pride and remembrance. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Although the year is not yet over, 2022 has already become the worst year on record for anti-LGBTQ legislation. More than 300 bills have been introduced in legislatures across the United States aiming to govern everything from LGBTQ+ participation in sports to bathroom access. These proposed laws also seek to limit discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom and curriculums with what has been deemed “sexually explicit” content.

Censoring information about marginalized communities is nothing new and has enabled the continued oppression and persecution of those communities. Today, as before, the history of the pink triangle — a concentration camp badge turned LGBTQ+ rights symbol — offers important insight into the consequences of historical erasure as well as the importance of writing inclusive histories.

The pink triangle’s origins stem from Germany in the early 1930s. With popular German support, the new Nazi government cast the “homosexual lifestyle” as a threat to the nuclear family, social stability and, thus, national strength. Moreover, the Nazis demonized “homosexuals” as a direct threat to procreation and the rise of an Aryan “master race.”

Between 1933 and 1945, German law enforcement and Nazi organizations arrested more than 100,000 LGBTQ+ people using a range of laws governing “crimes against morality.” Approximately 10,000 queer men and trans women were also sent to concentration camps across Germany. There, they were forced to do hard labor and undergo medical experiments to “cure” them of their “vice.”

The Nazi regime implemented a color-coded system of triangle badges to label concentration camp prisoners. Jews, the Nazis’ primary targets, were forced to wear a yellow triangle. Other prisoner groups each had a colored badge to denote their “crime”: political opponents (red), Jehovah’s Witnesses (purple), Roma (brown), purported “anti-socials” (black) and those deemed habitual criminals (green).

Men marked as “homosexuals” were forced to wear a pink triangle, possibly based on a slang word for men who had sex with men for money: Rosarote (“pinkies” or “rosies”). Queer women were also persecuted, but were classified as “anti-socials” and made to wear a black triangle.

In the wake of the Holocaust, some pink triangle survivors in the newly democratic West Germany sought official recognition of crimes against LGBTQ+ people under the Nazi regime. But, in an effort to promote procreative, married and heterosexual relationships as the ideal German family, politicians, judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials used the authority of the state to silence queer survivors’ voices.

The delegitimization of queer suffering during the Holocaust also helped justify the West German government’s anti-LGBTQ policies. This included the government’s decision to uphold and enforce the Nazi version of Paragraph 175, Germany’s infamous and long-standing law criminalizing “unnatural indecency” between men. In 1953, the government also passed the Law against the Distribution of Written Material Endangering Youth, which prohibited the sale of printed material that promoted “immorality,” which included LGBTQ+ topics.

These laws, and the policies and decisions supporting them, stifled the only outlets that portrayed queer people under Nazi rule as victims rather than criminals, and thus helped justify the continuation of state-sanctioned persecution of queer people.

Plus, most history books published in the immediate decades after the end of the Holocaust excluded LGBTQ+ people altogether. William Shirer’s 1959 “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is one rare exception, though it argued that some Nazi leaders were “homosexual perverts,” thus tying the horrors of Nazism to allegedly deviant sexuality. Meanwhile, museums, research institutions and academic journals in Europe and North America refused to fund or support research on the lives of the LGBTQ+ people targeted by Nazi policies. As late as 1996, a state archive in Hamburg was caught destroying case files on the Nazis’ queer victims because they were “not archive worthy.”

In the 1970s, queer, grass roots researchers in West Germany began studying the fate of queer people during the Holocaust. They understood that documenting the past was essential to combating systemic homophobia in their everyday lives.

In 1972, a German publisher released “The Men with the Pink Triangle,” the first book written by a gay concentration camp survivor. Inspired by the book’s title, a leftist gay group in Frankfurt called RotZSchwul became the first organization in the world to use the pink triangle as a symbol of gay rights activism. Knowing that the West German public would recognize the pink triangle as a concentration camp badge, gay activists used it to simultaneously force society to acknowledge how queer people were victimized under the Nazi regime and highlight the ongoing state-sanctioned persecution of queer people.

Although the pink triangle was first reclaimed by gay activists in West Germany, others soon began to adopt it. In August 1974, the Gay Activists Alliance became the first group in the United States to use the pink triangle as a symbol of gay activism when they displayed it in a New York rally supporting a gay rights ordinance.

LGBTQ+ activists across the United States soon began employing the pink triangle as a warning of the dangers of homophobia and the need for legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community. By the 1980s, the pink triangle had become the most widely recognizable symbol of queer activism in North America and Europe.

In March 1986, amid the growing death toll of the AIDS crisis, conservative political commentator William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in the New York Times that everyone with AIDS should be tattooed as a national health measure so that the public could avoid them. In response, a group of artists and activists calling themselves the Silence = Death collective designed a now iconic poster featuring a fuchsia triangle on a solid black background.

First plastered all over Manhattan in spring 1987, it was meant to rally people to end the epidemic while also chastising the inaction, homophobic measures and harmful statements put forth by conservative leaders like Buckley. The motto “Silence = Death” — written in bold, white letters — implied that remaining silent in a time of need for education, consciousness-raising, funding and support would lead to fatal consequences. After the activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) adopted the poster, the pink triangle and its origins in Holocaust history were catapulted into public consciousness around the world.

The pink triangle came to represent a wide range of powerful ideas for the LGBTQ+ community. “Our whole purpose was to create our own identity and to begin to create our own community,” explained Mark Segal, who participated in the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City. “Part of community building was beginning to look at our history. How do you have pride in yourself unless you know your history and what you’ve contributed to civilization?” For Jose Gutierrez, a Latino gay activist in Washington, D.C., wearing the pink triangle connected him to an international LGBTQ+ community with a shared history that transcended national boundaries. “The triángulo rosa is a burning memory,” Gutierrez said, “like a scar, but on your heart. It may be healed, but it’s a reminder of the pain that the LGBTQ community has gone through.”

Originally, the pink triangle marked LGBTQ+ people as deviants, criminals and enemies of the German state condemned to persecution, imprisonment and even death. In their recovery of the symbol’s violent past, however, LGBTQ+ activists reclaimed the pink triangle as their own and stripped it of its hate-filled meaning. They wore the pink triangle as a badge of pride and argued that citizens in a democratic society had the right to express their sexuality freely and openly.

That message remains true today, as LGBTQ+ people and experiences are under attack with efforts to purge them from history books, school curriculums and more. The pink triangle offers an important lesson: While historical silencing is destructive, the act of remembering and preserving history can be a rallying cry for community building, solidarity and justice.

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