Humans have used symbols and iconography to communicate and identify things going back to when cave people made the first drawings on the cave walls. This use pre-dates language and the written word, but symbols have remained in use even after language became commonplace.
This use includes symbols and icons used to identify, segregate, promote intolerance and hate for groups of people. This use was especially true when it came to the persecution and systematic targeting by the Nazis under Hitler. The SS created a unique classification system to identify Jews who had to wear a yellow star formed by two triangles and criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and anyone deemed nonconformist, including homosexuals who wore the pink triangle.
As with other groups, the Nazis forced anyone known or suspected to be engaged in homosexual behavior to don the Pink Triangle, proven or not. This behavior included bi-sexuality and those who were transgender men. Typically, this did not include lesbians and transgender women.
It is important to note that early on, we were not singled out for who we were but instead lumped in with criminals or political prisoners and made to wear a colored triangle representing that group of individuals, perhaps giving us more “cover.” Later, the Pink Triangle became one of many colored triangles used to identify individuals and were often combined to show those belonging to more than one group.
It is no wonder that Hitler would target our community given the prominent and visible gay and lesbian culture in Berlin at the time. Even though homosexuality was technically illegal before the rise of Hitler under the Paragraph 175 statute, it was rarely enforced. As was true of so many groups of people, Hitler saw us as a threat to his creation of the perfect race. Similar in many ways to what we continue to face politically and socially today, Hitler was afraid of us. As a result of that fear, he used hate and fear as his weapon and the Pink Triangle as a way to identify, shame, and target us.
Like others persecuted by the Nazis, individuals wearing the Pink Triangle were easily identifiable, making them instant targets by other prisoners and guards in the concentration camps. The Pink Triangle also made it easy to continue the persecution even after the war ended. Many who wore the Pink Triangle were transferred from concentration camps to prisons because it was illegal to be a homosexual.
What is unique about the Pink Triangle, compared to other symbols of identification, segregation, and hate, is that it was reclaimed and turned into a symbol of perseverance, strength, and unity.
Heinze Heger’s 1972 book “The Men With The Pink Triangle” brought greater awareness to the origins and use of the Pink Triangle by the Nazis. As a result, a German gay liberation group used the symbol as a memorial to those early victims and a new symbol of protest. After the Stonewall rebellion, our community took what had once been a symbol of hatred and turned it into a symbol of pride. We have also used it as a symbol of protest, as was seen during the early years of AIDS.
While it has been a small minority, it is important to note that some have criticized using a symbol that originated from hate to represent us. In 1993, senior editor Sara Hart of the gay magazine 10 Percent expressed this and received significant backlash.
As unique as it is to have reclaimed the Pink Triangle as our own, it is easy to overlook its historical significance as time goes by. I look at my lack of knowledge and understanding as a young gay man coming out in the early 1980s and how I initially just knew it to be a symbol of our community without proper context.
Yes, the Pink Triangle is now a symbol of pride, but it should also serve as a reminder of how easy it is to have all we have fought for and earned stripped away from us. As we come upon another season of Pride, we need to understand what our community’s symbols represent now, but we also need to understand their origins and what they represented before.