Time explores the history of a Nazi concentration camp symbol that was repurposed for Pride
As detailed by a recent article in Time, as the Nazi Party came into power in the 1930’s, Hitler saw the existence of gay men in Germany as a threat to his philosophy of a new and purified Germany because they could not bear children. During this period, gay friendly bars and clubs were shut down, books at a major German institute devoted to the study of sexuality were burned, and the Nazi’s revised a vague 1871 law known as “paragraph 175” to criminalize men who look at or even touching other men in sexually suggestive ways, in addition to giving the police the ability to arrest people on hearsay. The Gestapo also began to keep a “pink list” detailing those suspected of homosexual behavior.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that around 100,000 men were arrested for violating this law between 1933 and 1945, and half actually went to prison for it. It is believed that between 5,000 and 15,000 men were sent to concentration camps for reasons related to their sexuality in this period, but that number is hard to verify both because of the lack of documentation and the shame which surrounded many survivors after the concentration camps were raided and closed.
Many of these men were castrated by the Nazis, and some were used in experiments to find a cure for typhus fever and homosexuality itself. Some prisoners, called Kapos, were selected to keep other prisoners in line, and a few extracted sexual favors from other prisoners in exchange for protection or extra rations. The prisoners who gave these favors became known as “doll boys”
One of these “doll boys,” Heinz Heger wrote a memoir in 1972 called The Men With The Pink Triangle, describing SS guards torturing prisoners by dipping their testicles in hot water and sodomizing them with broomsticks. That same year, Time ran a story about a group of gay-rights activists in Miami who attached the triangles to their clothes in a show of solidarity protesting housing discrimination against gay people. Time noted that the symbol was merely “reminiscent” of the more popularly known Star of David which Jewish captives were forced to wear, but a reader wrote the magazine to correct the misrepresentation, saying that the two symbols were worn at the same time. The reader also added, “Gay people wear the pink triangle today as a reminder of the past and a pledge that history will not repeat itself.”
In the 1980’s, HIV and AIDS activists in ACT-UP used the pink triangle in their efforts to raise awareness of the issue, even stating in their manifesto “silence about the annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.” Avram Finkelstein is credited with designing the triangle, which repurposes the Nazi symbol of shame by turning it right-side up and trading the pale pink for a more vibrant fuchsia tone across a black background. Finklestein said this year that the symbol was necessary during a period where there was “public discussion of putting gay men into concentration camps to keep the epidemic (of HIV/AIDS) from spreading.”
Pink triangles are still in use today. Gay rights demonstrators outside of the Russian embassy in London in 2014 wrote “Stop the death camps” across the symbol in response to reports that gay men were being persecuted in Chechnya. Three months later, Germany voted unanimously to pardon all the gay men convicted of homosexuality during World War II, roughly twenty years after the country finally removed “paragraph 175” from its law books.
You will see the pink triangle in many Pride parades and celebrations of LGBTQ+ identity and sexuality, a far cry from the shame that once surrounded its initial use by Nazis.
Editor’s Note: June is LGBTQ Pride Month. At BYP, we will be exploring gender, sexuality, transgender issues and queer theory, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.