The most commonly recognized image for gay and lesbian movements in the 1970s, however, had a darker history. This image was the pink triangle. Today the pink triangle is a widespread symbol of LGBTQ+ pride. It is seen on everything from buttons to sweatshirts, such as the pink sweatshirt with blue collar and cuffs from the Dublin-based LGBTQ+ choir Glória (TRC 2019.1991, early 21st century, Ireland).
The pink triangle originated in Nazi concentration camps, where color-coded triangles were sewn on to prisoners’ uniforms as identification. Jews wore yellow triangles, while political prisoners (including socialists, social democrats, trade unionists and others) wore a red triangle. Gay male prisoners wore a pink triangle. Male homosexuality, illegal in Germany under a 1871 law known as Paragraph 175, was seen as a threat by Nazi leaders.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) estimates that 100,000 men were arrested during the Nazi regime for violating Paragraph 175, and that between 5,000 to 15,000 men were sent to concentration camps for homosexuality. In camps prisoners with pink triangles were segregated, for fear homosexuality was contagious, and faced threats such as sexual violence, castration and medical experimentation (e.g, being injected with testosterone to test if this could ‘cure’ homosexuality).
Gay survivors of concentration camps were neither commemorated nor given compensation after the war. Some gay camp survivors were jailed after liberation, as homosexuality was still illegal. Paragraph 175 was only repealed in 1994. USHMM textile conservator Lizou Fenyvesi, who has worked on some 250 camp uniforms for the Museum, speculates that one reason uniforms with pink triangles are so rare, was because of the shame associated with, and the continued criminalization of, homosexuality (see Reading Prisoner Uniforms: The Concentration Camp Prisoner Uniform as a Primary Source for Historical Research by Lizou Fenyvesi, 2006, University of Nebraska-Lincoln 2006, click here).
Lesbians, as women, were viewed by the Nazi regime as lesser threats and as potential wives and mothers. While lesbian publications and bars were shut down, the number of lesbians sent to camps is unknown. In concentration camps, lesbians were identified by a black triangle, a category assigned to ‘asocial’ people such as thieves, the homeless, murderers and prostitutes. In 1940 the Jewish lesbian Henny Schermann was arrested and sent to the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück. The back of her prisoner photo reads: "Jenny (sic) Sara Schermann, born February 19, 1912, Frankfurt am Main. Unmarried shop girl in Frankfurt am Main. Licentious lesbian, only visited such [lesbian] bars. Avoided the name 'Sara.' Stateless Jew." Henny Schermann was murdered by gas in 1942.
In 1972, The Men with the Pink Triangle, written by Heinz Heger, was published in German. It was the biography of survivor Josef Kohout (1915-1994) and one of the first published accounts of a gay concentration camp survivor. In 1973 Germany’s first post-war gay rights organization, Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW), adopted the pink triangle as a symbol.
In 1986, six New York City activists used a pink, upward facing triangle in a poster with the words “SILENCE = DEATH”. The poster protested the inaction and fear around the AIDS crisis in the USA. The design was quickly adopted and spread by the activist group ACT UP. Since then the pink triangle has become an international symbol for LGBTQ+ liberation, replicated on clothes, badges, jewellery, T-shirts and art work (click here).