The origin of the pink triangle

June 24, 1992

By Michael Schembri

The pink triangle is the symbol of gay and lesbian pride, chosen by the new wave of gay liberation following the June '69 Stonewalll riots in New York City. The riots marked a new wave of radical gay liberation politics, but not the rise of gay liberation. There had been a "first wave" of homosexual politics prior to the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. The "modern" pink triangle is a link between the two periods. It is also a key to a history which had been almost forgotten, a history which had been deliberately suppressed.

That history included an extensive gay (and to a lesser extent lesbian) social, cultural and sexual scene in many of Europe's major cities, but especially in Berlin. It included a homosexual rights movement, based in Germany, which spread through Europe with contacts as far away as Japan and the USA.

It all came to a brutal end in the early 1930s. Stalin finally consolidated his absolute hold over power and reversed all the gains made by the October Revolution. Divorce, abortion, legality of homosexuality, freedom from the imposition of a family model — all these gains were lost. Simultaneously in Germany the Nazis came to power, with all the known consequences. And other consequences not so well known.

The infamous burning of books, in 1933, started with books, manuscripts and priceless case studies from the Institute for Sexual Studies, the headquarters of the homosexual movement. The institute also housed the office of the World League for Sexual Reform. Historic film footage of the event also shows the Nazis carrying a bust — that of Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the institute.

In June 1935, the Nazis extended the anti-homosexual laws. Paragraph 175 was extended to include kisses, embraces and even homosexual fantasies.

Tens of thousands of German homosexuals were thrown into concentration camps. From 1934 on, homosexuals from occupied countries were also transported to these camps. Here they were forced to live in terrible conditions, were worked to death in quarries, shot at on shooting ranges while still working, experimented on in clinics. How many died is not known. One estimate puts the number at 60,000.

Camp inmates were given colour-coded triangles: yellow for Jews, red for political prisoners, green for criminals, brown for Gypsies, blue for emigrants, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, black for anti-socials and pink for homosexuals. That's how we got our pink triangle. The pink triangles were bigger than the rest, and so were more visible. It also meant that prisoners with the pink triangle were at the bottom of the scale among all prisoners.

While in most cases the pink triangle applied only to homosexual men, lesbians were not imprisoned. There was no specific anti-lesbian law, so lesbians were incarcerated under the anti-social laws. Lesbians were not exemplary women, marrying Aryan men to give birth to more children for the Reich, so they were anti-social. They had to wear a black triangle. (Nowadays there is a tendency among some lesbians to assume the black triangle as their symbol, rather than the pink triangle.)

When does liberation not mean liberation? When the allied liberators opened up the concentration camps and released all prisoners except the criminals and homosexuals. To them, homosexuals were criminals; they had deserved to be placed in the camps. So they were transferred to other prisons. While others were compensated, homosexuals remained incarcerated.

In West Germany homosexuality among adults was only decriminalised in 1969. In East Germany slightly less harsh anti-homosexual legislation was abolished in 1968.

Perhaps the most amazing thing which can be seen in this history is the huge amount of hatred against homosexuality. Our history was almost completely suppressed. It was only rediscovered by chance, in the early '70s, by gay socialist historians. It could only be widely publicised because of the existence of a strong, dynamic and radical gay liberation movement.

And yet our history is still not found in school text books. Each new generation of homosexuals has to be taught through the efforts — solely — of gay and lesbian organisations and activists. The struggle for gay liberation started in the first half of last century. It hasn't finished yet.

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