In the twenty-first century, it’s hard to imagine a social movement without hashtags. Social media has influenced issues ranging from local elections to global geopolitics (just ask anyone involved in the Arab Spring), and hashtags have become forms of communication and customizable symbols representing specific movements. But what about social protests in a pre-Internet age? What were the “hashtags” of the 1960s? Organizers had to develop symbols that were simple yet powerful; unique yet easy to reproduce; something that spoke to the widest possible audience yet symbolized a specific movement or issue.
The pink triangle became such a symbol for the gay rights movement. But how did an emblem that was used as a concentration camp badge in Nazi Germany become an international logo for gay rights activism, one that ultimately shaped how people understood human rights, civil liberties, and the definition of citizenship on both sides of the Atlantic? The answer demonstrates the relationship between history and social activism.
One of the most significant of West Germany’s gay liberation groups was the Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (Gay Action Group of West Berlin, or HAW), which was founded in August 1971 by a group of college students. An early concern of the group was how to make gay activists visible to the rest of the West German public. Much of the homosexual rights activism of the previous decades was based on the assertion that citizens had the right to perform consensual (homo)sexual acts in private. The gay liberation movement of the 1970s renounced the claim to privacy, asserting instead that all citizens in a democratic society had the right to personally claim a sexual identity and the right to express one’s sexuality freely and openly.
Members of HAW asserted that adopting and wearing an official “gay symbol” in public would promote gay emancipation by forcing the symbol’s wearer to publicly identify as gay. This personal coming out would be the first step to ending the societal oppression of gays and lesbians more broadly. But what would this symbol be? During their earliest meetings, members of the HAW suggested several logos, but none seemed adequate.1
In 1972, a Hamburg publishing house released the first autobiography of a gay concentration camp survivor. The title of the slim book offered a solution to the HAW’s problem of identification and visibility: The Men with the Pink Triangle. For one of the HAW’s founding members, the symbol was perfect for the emerging gay liberation movement not only because it solved the problem of visibility, but because, “at its core, the pink triangle represented a piece of our German history that still needed to be dealt with.”2
In October 1973, the HAW became the first group in the world to officially adopt the pink triangle as a gay rights logo. Gay groups across West Germany soon followed their lead. One group in the city of Wuppertal named their organization “Pink Triangle Wuppertal.” Members of the group stated that the pink triangle was not just a reminder of a past that had been silenced for decades. “At the same time, we want our group’s symbol to highlight the continued oppression of homosexuals in 1970s Germany, too.”3
For German gay rights activists using Holocaust imagery in their advocacy, it was clear that drawing attention to and reconciling past injustices was understood as inseparably linked to ending discrimination in the present.
Like other movements of the “long sixties,” the gay rights movements in West Germany and the United States were truly transnational. Individuals traveled across national boundaries, sharing information, culture, political strategies, and history. Within ten months of the HAW’s adoption of the pink triangle, gay activists in New York, Miami, and San Francisco donned the symbol in their demonstrations. By the end of the decade, the pink triangle had become the most important symbol of the international gay rights movement.
By the 1980s, the pink triangle had become so synonymous with gay rights that the official logo of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights was a silhouette of the US Capitol Dome superimposed over a pink triangle. A letter from the organizers rhetorically linked civil rights, privacy, the act of coming out, and the Holocaust: “Dear friends, we are not going back into the closet. We are not going to be herded into any concentration camps. We are not giving back the hard-won rights we have fought for. And we are not going to tolerate the police in our bedrooms. Not now – not ever.”4
The debates resulting from the rising death toll of the AIDS crisis also drew rhetorical ties between sexuality, citizenship, and the Nazi past. The death of thousands of people – many of whom were gay men — paired with inaction on the part of the Reagan administration, resulted in numerous comparisons with the Holocaust. In 1986, six leftist organizers in New York City unveiled a poster that was meant to motivate gay and lesbian communities to aggressively demand support during the AIDS epidemic. The poster, composed of a fuchsia triangle with the peak facing up, imposed over a solid black background and the bold motto: “Silence = Death,” was adopted the following year by the activist group AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP). The poster would come to represent AIDS activism around the world.
AIDS activists using the pink triangle and “Silence = Death” motto asserted that all citizens had the right to healthcare, regardless of sexuality or HIV-status. There was an expectation that the government should do everything in its power to protect its citizens – a clear stance against the position held by some conservatives who suggested that the rights of healthcare were not universal. In short, the use of the pink triangle further fueled an intense renegotiation of the ties between sexuality and citizenship.
Shared History, Shared Identity
In the context of social activism in the 1970s and 1980s, history became a tool to advocate for rights in the present. By raising the specter of the Nazi past, the pink triangle was a powerful reminder that democratic nations founded on the ideals of equality could no longer treat gays and lesbians as second-class citizens. In the end, however, the pink triangle became more than a political tool. As American gay activists adopted the pink triangle, they also adopted a chapter of German history as their own.
The symbol came to represent a collective past, a history that gay activists on both sides of the Atlantic could share because they were gay. Claiming a shared history contributed to the transformation of gays and lesbians into an international political minority and helped establish a gay identity that transcended local and national boundaries. The pink triangle represented membership in a transnational community, courage to come out, and pride in claiming a positive identity.
Considering the divisive and often hostile state of our current political climate, perhaps it’s time to revive the pink triangle as a political symbol, but with a twenty-first century twist. Given new life through social media and resonating with the echoes of history, #PinkTriangle can stand as a moral lesson about the fragility of civil liberties and a call to protect the hard-earned rights of not only the LGBTQ community, but of all minorities in modern democratic societies.
Herzog, Dagmar. Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Jensen, Erik N. “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution” in Sexuality and German Fascism, edited by Dagmar Herzog, 319-349. New York: Berghahn, 2005.
Newsome, W. Jake. “Liberation Was Only for Others: Breaking the Silence in Germany Surrounding the Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals.” In The Holocaust in History and Memory, Vol. 7 (2014): 53-71.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Learning Materials and Resources. “Homosexuals: Victims of the Nazi Era.”
Wahl, Angelika von. “How Sexuality Changes Agency: Gay Men, Jews, and Transitional Justice.” In Gender in Transitional Justice, edited by Susanne Buckley-Zistel and Ruth Stanley, 191-217. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
- Schwules Museum archives, Sammlung Holy. Feministenpapiere. Return to text.
- Peter Hedenström, Interview with W. Jake Newsome, Berlin, February 11, 2014. Return to text.
- “Aus den Gruppen,” Emanzipation Nr. 3, 1978, 35. Return to text.
- Letter from the March on Washington Committee, Inc. to their members. The History Project-Boston archives, Ms Coll: 5, Series I: March on Washington (1987) – Subseries B: Meetings, Agendas, Minutes, National Organizing Committee 08/1986–09/1987. Return to text.