Pink Triangle: From Discrimination to Defiance
By Meghann Crusinberry, EQCA Intern
The pink triangle shows up on posters and placards, forms the logo of many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations, and is an instantly recognizable symbol of pride and solidarity. But it wasn’t always like that. Here’s how an emblem of discrimination became a symbol of defiance.
The pink triangle came from the Holocaust when between 5,000 and 15,000 LGBT people were put into Nazi Concentration camps, and although the pink triangle was specifically used for the male prisoners, it now symbolizes both gay and lesbian Holocaust victims. Most were sent to concentration camps where they were forced to do hard labor, but the unlucky few were sent to the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, or to Buchenwald, where they had to endure anti-gay medical experiments by Dr. Carl Vaernet, which included castration and attempts to inject testosterone capsules in hopes of finding a cure for homosexuality.
Within all camps there was a filing system on the prisoners clothing. For gay victims, it was a pink triangle that was larger than any of the other prisoners’ triangles so that fellow prisoners and guards alike would be able to identify gays even from a distance. This symbol meant that other prisoners shunned them due to the fear of the extra punishment for associating with gays. For the unlucky individuals who happened to also be Jewish, they were forced to wear both a yellow and pink triangle, which showed that they were the lowest of the low.
Although the pink triangle has a dark past, that past helped the pink triangle become a symbol for liberation. In 1972, “Heinz Heger” (pen name for Josef Kohout) wrote “The Men With the Pink Triangle,” about his experiences as a gay Holocause survivor. “The Men With The Pink Triangles” is credited by a lot of LGBT scholars as reintroducing the pink triangle to common knowledge, especially among LGBT folks. The memoir wasn’t just another survivor’s story — it was the first big survivor’s story that dealt with being gay during the Holocaust. Up until 1969, being gay was still illegal in Germany, and Heger’s memoir was instrumental in reclaiming the history of gay Holocaust victims.
Then, in 1987, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, chose an inverted pink triangle as their logo — an explicit reference not just to the intolerance that surrounded them, but also to the effects of the AIDS crisis, which ACT UP founder Larry Kramer explicitly labeled a holocaust, in line with ACT UP’s slogan, “Silence = DEATH.”
Although LGBT victims were liberated from the camps, anti-sodomy laws in Europe kept most silent for years on their experiences, and the community still faces intolerance today. With the voices of the survivors of the Holocaust fading, it is up to the present and future generations to keep the meaning of the pink triangle alive, and to never forget.