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 seeking to regulate everything from LGBTQ+ participation in sports to bathroom access. These bills also aim to limit discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in class and curricula with what was deemed to be “sexually explicit” content.
The pink triangle, once a mark of persecution, has become a symbol of pride
Censorship of information about marginalized communities is nothing new and has enabled the continued oppression and persecution of these communities. Now, as before, the story of the pink triangle – a concentration camp badge turned symbol of LGBTQ+ rights – offers important insight into the consequences of historical erasure as well as the importance of writing inclusive histories. .
The origins of the pink triangle can be traced back to Germany in the early 1930s. With popular German support, the new Nazi government presented the “homosexual way of life” as a threat to the nuclear family, social stability, and therefore , national strength. Additionally, 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 series of “crimes against morality” laws. About 10,000 weird 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 code system triangular badges label concentration camp prisoners. Jews, the main targets of the Nazis, were forced to wear a yellow triangle. Other groups of prisoners each had a colored badge to indicate their “crime”: political opponents (red), Jehovah’s Witnesses (purple), Roma (brown), so-called “anti-social” (black) and those considered as habitual criminals (green).
Men tagged as “gay” 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-social” and forced to wear a black triangle.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, some Pink Triangle survivors in the new democratic West Germany called for official recognition of crimes against LGBTQ+ people under the Nazi regime. But, in an effort to promote reproductive, married, and heterosexual relationships as the ideal German family, politicians, judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officials have used state authority to silence the voices of queer survivors.
The delegitimization of queer suffering during the Holocaust also helped to justify the West German government’s anti-LGBTQ policies. This included the government’s decision to maintain and apply the Nazi version of Paragraph 175, the infamous and old German law criminalizing “unnatural indecency” between men. In 1953, the government also passed the Act Against the Distribution of Written Material Endangering Youth, which prohibited the sale of printed material promoting “immorality”, which included LGBTQ+ topics.
These laws, and the policies and rulings that supported them, stifled the only media that portrayed homosexuals under the Nazi regime as victims rather than criminals, and thus helped to justify the continued persecution of homosexuals sanctioned by the Nazis. ‘State.
Additionally, most history books published in the decades immediately following the end of the Holocaust have completely excluded LGBTQ+ people. William Shirer’s 1959 “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is a rare exception, even though he argued that some Nazi leaders were “homosexual perverts”, thus linking the horrors of Nazism to an allegedly deviant sexuality. Meanwhile, museums, research institutes and academic journals in Europe and North America have refused to fund or support research into the lives of LGBTQ+ people targeted by Nazi policies. As recently as 1996, a state archive in Hamburg was caught destroying files on homosexual victims of the Nazis because they were “not archival worthy.”
In the 1970s, queer field researchers in West Germany began to study the fate of queer people during the Holocaust. They understood that documenting the past was essential to combat systemic homophobia in their daily lives.
In 1972, a German publisher published “The men with the pink triangle», the first book written by a gay survivor of the concentration camps. Inspired by the title of the book, a left-wing 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 recognize how gays were victimized under the Nazi regime and highlight the continued persecution of gays. sanctioned by the state.
Although the pink triangle was first picked up by gay activists in West Germany, others soon began to adopt it. In August 1974, the Alliance of Gay Activists became the first group in the United States to use the pink triangle as a symbol of gay activism when they displayed it at a New York rally supporting a gay rights ordinance.
LGBTQ+ activists across the United States quickly began using 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 recognizable symbol of queer activism in North America and Europe.
In March 1986, amid rising death tolls from the AIDS crisis, conservative political commentator William F. Buckley Jr. written in the New York Times that everyone with AIDS should be tattooed as a national health measure so the public can avoid them. In response, a group of artists and activists calling themselves the Silence=Death collective devised a now iconic poster adorned with a fuchsia triangle on a plain black background.
First placed throughout Manhattan in the spring of 1987, it was intended to rally people to end the epidemic while chastising the inaction, homophobic measures and harmful statements of conservative leaders like Buckley. The motto “Silence = Death” – written in bold, white letters – implied that remaining silent in times of need for education, awareness, funding and support would lead to fatal consequences. After 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 has come to represent a wide range of powerful ideas for the LGBTQ+ community. “Our goal was to create our own identity and start creating our own community,” explained Marc Segal, who took part in the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York. “Part of the community building was starting to look at our history. How can you be proud of yourself if you don’t know your history and what you have contributed to civilization? ” For Jose Gutierrez, a Latino gay activist in Washington, DC, wearing the pink triangle connected him to an international LGBTQ+ community with a shared history that transcended national borders. “The pink triangle is a burning memory,” Gutierrez said, “like a scar, but on your heart. It may be cured, but it’s a reminder of the pain the LGBTQ community has endured.
Originally, the pink triangle marked LGBTQ+ people as deviants, criminals and enemies of the German state facing persecution, imprisonment and even death. In their reclamation of the symbol’s violent past, however, LGBTQ+ activists have reclaimed the pink triangle as their own and stripped it of its hateful meaning. They wore the pink triangle as a badge of pride and maintained that citizens of a democratic society had the right to express their sexuality freely and openly.
This message remains true today, as LGBTQ+ people and experiences are attacked with efforts to purge them from history books, school curricula and more. The pink triangle offers an important lesson: while historical silence is destructive, remembering and preserving history can be a rallying cry for community building, solidarity and justice.