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The History of the Pink Triangle

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Article by: otbsapphics ( bree )

 cw: holocaust, political bias, political crimes, mentions of torture, mentions of murder, mentions of child abuse and beastiality, homophobia


Most people are familiar with the Star of David being used to identify Jews during the Holocaust, but there’s a less widely known symbol that gay men were forced to wear to signify their sexuality: a pink triangle.

Before the Nazis took over Germany, there had already been laws in place against homosexuality. Paragraph 175 specifically, which essentially outlawed any homosexual behavior in any capacity, including with children and animals. They grouped homosexual behavior with beastiality and child sexual abuse in this law. [ref 1.] In 1877, clarification was made that persecution would only be dealt to those who committed an “intercourse like act,” but wasn’t enforced strictly. Thus, police flocked to gay centric areas to try and catch those committing the crime.

Despite these laws criminalizing homosexuality, the queer community had been thriving post-nazi Germany. Unfortunately, most individuals were forced to flee Germany or conform to the heteronormative standards that the Nazis were strictly enforcing. [ref 2.] In the 1930’s when Nazis began to reign, gay-centric areas such as bars and clubs were shut down and sexuality-based books at a major research center were burned. [ref 3.] By the time Hitler had taken over, the queer community had mostly disappeared from Germany, and an unfortunate future was in near sight for those who remained.   

Between 1933 and 1945 was the peak of the cruelty towards homosexuals. When the Nazis started enforcing concentration camps, they created a system to distinguish the “category” of people being held. Every prisoner had an upside-down triangle with a different color to represent why they were incarcerated: Jews wore yellow and sometimes stars, political prisoners wore red, criminals wore green, asocials, such as homeless, alcoholics, prostitutes, anyone deemed “racially inferior,” and lesbians wore black and men prosecuted under Paragraph 175, or gay men, wore pink. The reasoning for these color choices is mostly unknown, but some think that pink was chosen for homosexual men due to the fact that pink used to be representative of “manly” men, hence giving them pink triangles was an ode to the belief that homosexual men weren’t the stereotypical “manly” men like they were supposed to be. This choice played a crucial part in the role reversal of colors that we see today, where pink is for feminine individuals and blue is for masculine ones. [ref 4.]

The color categorization of people took away what makes humans human: control over their identity. It was a form of humiliation and “othering.” Nazis didn’t care if a man had only slept with one man or what they defined themselves as. They used it as a way to put people into boxes and thus, determine how they were treated in prison and concentration camps.

In 1934, letters were sent to every police station in the country to keep track of anybody who engaged in any homosexual act, in any capacity. They managed to draw up a list of approximately 30,000 people, and a year later an SS ( major paramilitary organization under Hitler ) magazine demanded the death sentence for homosexuals. In 1935, Article 175 was expanded to prosecute any man who had any kind of physical contact with another man, thus causing the number of gay men to be arrested. By 1938, a ruling allowed men simply accused of having relations with another man to be sent to concentration camps.

Unlike Jewish and Roma individuals, gay men weren’t sent to the camps to be killed, but rather “reeducated.” Despite being one of the smaller groups of people in the camps, their death rate was far higher than other groups sent to camps for “reeducation.” It’s estimated that anywhere between five and fifteen thousand homosexuals died in the camps, but the number could be very off as it was easier to conceal their identity if need be. They were treated as the lowest group in the camps, and were often mistreated by not only guards, but fellow inmates. They were often given the worst jobs and rarely had contact with anybody on the outside, as many times friends and family would not want to socialize with those wearing a pink triangle. Those wearing pink triangles were often separated from other blocks due to fear that they would commit homosexual acts with other inmates. Homosexuals were forced to sleep with their hands outside the blankets and wear nightshirts in hopes of preventing masturbation. Some Nazi leaders were under the impression that hard labor could change one’s sexual orientation, however it was quickly proven wrong when these men died as gay as they began. Ones who survived were forced to transport corpses and endure beatings from guards. Aside from brutality, Nazis used other forms of conversion therapy, like forcing gay men to sleep with women. When they thought they were “cured” the Nazis would transfer them to combat Russia in war. They were subjected to medical experiments, such as castration and being injected with high doses of testosterone in hopes of “curing” their “disease.” They never got results of the experiments as a yellow fever epidemic broke out in the prison and suspended experiments.

At the end of the war, homosexuals were freed from the camps but the homophobia that they would face would be far from over. Article 175 remained in effect until 1969. Some judges pushed for the completion of serving their sentences—i.e, if a homosexual man had been sentenced to five years, served three in prison and two in the concentration camps, they were pushing for them to serve the two they spent in the camps back in prison. There’s no knowing how many homosexual men were forced to “complete” their sentences. To this very day, no financial compensation has been offered to any homosexual men who survived, despite the German government offering compensation to all other imprisoned groups. They claimed that homosexuals didn’t deserve compensation because they had “nobody to blame but themselves” for their orientation.  

The reclamation of the pink triangle began in the 1970’s as a way of taking back and reclaiming the trauma that they faced, much like the reclamation of the word queer. In the 1980’s when the AIDS crisis was taking over, the six-person collective who created the Silence=Death movement in New York flipped the triangle right-side up and darkened it. They used the triangle to address the silence of politicians during the crisis, much like what happened when Nazis had power. The triangle has now been reclaimed in the queer community, both upside down and right-side up, as a symbol of resilience and as a promise to not allow history to repeat itself. 


ref 1. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/pwh/para175.asp

ref 2. https://www.hmd.org.uk/learn-about-the-holocaust-and-genocides/nazi-persecution/gay-people/

ref 3. https://time.com/5295476/gay-pride-pink-triangle-history/

ref 4. https://hcn.org.uk/blog/reclaiming-the-pink-triangle/

ref 5. https://www.auschwitz.org/en/history/categories-of-prisoners/homosexuals-a-separate-category-of-prisoners/robert-biedron-nazisms-pink-hell/

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