Before the rainbow flag became synonymous with the LGBTQ+ community, the emblem of queer activism was the pink triangle, a symbol that originated as a Nazi concentration camp badge. How did this repressive symbol become a liberating emblem of queer identity? The history of this transformation offers both a warning and inspiration in the face of Republicans’ attack on LGBTQ+ rights today.
The proponents of the anti-LGBTQ+ bills in Republican-led states couch their efforts in the rhetoric of protecting children from knowledge that Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law says is not “age-appropriate.” This rhetoric is nothing new. Mainstream society has always predicated its acceptance of LGBTQ+ people on whether or not we act in a “respectable” or “appropriate” manner. We’re only acceptable if we dress right, get a steady job, spend money, settle down, and get married. The “politics of respectability” has been used by many LGBTQ+ advocacy efforts.
I’m thankful to have personally benefited from these efforts. But, the rights that LGBTQ+ folks win by conforming aren’t based on our fundamental humanity but instead hinge on our falling in line. This leaves all of us vulnerable to changing tides when any politician can fan the flames of homophobia and transphobia to redefine the meaning of “appropriate.”
Ninety years ago, the tides changed in Germany with devastating consequences. During the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democracy, LGBTQ+ people in urban centers worked to establish an unprecedented level of social tolerance for themselves. In Berlin alone, there were over one hundred queer bars, cafes, clubs, and organizations. Queer publications enjoyed a collective readership of approximately one million across Germany. Queer advocates also led concerted campaigns against discriminatory laws and policies. But, many Germans saw the increasingly public LGBTQ+ community as a sign of Germany’s moral decline. The rising Nazi party promised to reassert Germany’s values and protect youth from the alleged dangers of the “homosexual lifestyle.”
In May 1933, college students and Nazi stormtroopers raided the famed Institute for Sexual Science, which offered a library, healthcare, counseling, social activities, and political advocacy for queer people. In the infamous book burnings, Nazi supporters torched nearly 20,000 documents, books, and rare artifacts from the Institute. The message was clear: the LGBTQ+ “lifestyle” should not exist in the new Germany, not even in books.
Under the original version of Paragraph 175, Germany’s notorious anti-gay law, courts required proof of “intercourse-like acts” to convict men. In 1935, the Nazis amended the law, reworking the phrasing to criminalize “indecency” between men. The definition of the term – like Florida’s law about what’s “age-appropriate” – was purposefully vague so that the regime could apply it whenever and wherever it liked.
After 1936, the German government consolidated its efforts out of the Reich Central Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion. The name of the office demonstrates that the attack on queer people and on reproductive rights went hand in hand. Using a web of laws and policies, the Nazis dismantled the vibrant pillars of LGBTQ+ life and arrested over 100,000 queer people. Because men had access to positions of authority, the Nazis viewed queer men as more direct threats to the state than queer women, who had no leadership roles in the economy, military, or national politics. As such, the Nazis prioritized their efforts on targeting queer men. They ultimately sent between 7,000 and 10,000 queer men and trans women (they lumped together gay men, bisexual men, and trans women under the label “homosexual”) to concentration camps, where they were forced to wear a pink triangle on their uniform. Two-thirds of pink triangle prisoners died in the camps.
By the end of World War II, the Nazis had destroyed the most progressive queer movement the world had seen. One of Weimar’s most urgent lessons is that progress is fragile and must be actively protected. Just because marginalized communities win rights doesn’t mean that they can’t be taken away. The Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade clearly demonstrates that.
When the Federal Republic of Germay (“West Germany”) was founded in 1949, the government enshrined the Nazi version of Paragraph 175 in its criminal code. Amidst challenges to the law’s constitutionality, the Federal High Court ruled in 1957 that it was still needed to “protect the moral fortitude of the German people.” Between 1949 and 1969, the democratic West German nation arrested 100,000 men under this Nazi-era anti-gay law.
In the 1970s, gay liberation activists in West Germany sought to mobilize queer people across the nation into political action. “Coming out” and publicly claiming one’s gay identity was a pivotal step toward personal liberation and a necessary precursor to ending social discrimination against LGBTQ+ people more broadly.
Gay activists suggested they out themselves by wearing a gay symbol in public. Naturally, that raised questions about what a gay symbol would look like. In 1972, the publication of The Men with the Pink Triangle, the first book by a gay concentration camp survivor, provided the answer. That year, members of the leftist gay liberation group RotZSchwul in Frankfurt used the pink triangle in gay activism for the first time. Soon, other gay organizations across the country followed suit. As these activists reclaimed the symbol, they used it as a historical warning of the dangers of homophobia and transformed it from a mark of death into a rallying cry of visibility, liberation, and resistance.
The public display of the pink triangle signaled a break with past activism. Through arguments based on the right to privacy, previous generations helped establish the closet as a necessary safe space for queer people. Beginning in the 1970s, the pink triangle sought to tear the closet door off its hinges. In wearing the pink triangle on pins, plastering it on park benches, trains, and flyers all over West Germany, gay activists asserted that citizens in a democratic society had the right to express their sexuality freely and openly.
Within months of the pink triangle’s resurrection in West Germany in the early 1970s, the symbol arrived in the US. Martha Shelley, a pioneer in the feminist lesbian movement and cofounder of the Gay Liberation Front, told me with her characteristic grit, “I liked the pink triangle. It was reclaiming this thing as a badge of pride rather than shame. And it was a way of giving the middle finger to the Nazis.”
In 1987, six activist-artists in New York City catapulted the pink triangle into mainstream consciousness when they unveiled the now iconic Silence = Death poster. After the group ACT UP adopted the poster, it became a powerful logo of AIDS activism worldwide.
In 1978, and on the other side of the U.S., San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and artist Gilbert Baker wanted a new symbol for the gay community, “something joyful… something with soul,” for the upcoming pride parade. What Gilbert ultimately created was the rainbow flag. The rainbow has achieved a level of visibility that the pink triangle never did. But in order to become so ubiquitous, it has been depoliticized, made less radical, and more palatable to the mainstream. In many cases, this symbol born from gay activism has been tamed and turned into a PR tool and marketing tactic. Major corporations love to use the rainbow to make money, but where are they when state governments dismantle queer rights?
Despite the cliches, there is not always a rainbow after the storm. We can’t hope to ride out this growing surge of right-wing extremism until the midterms; it will be too late. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which went into effect July 1, is already creating an impact beyond its supporters’ stated goal, which was to ban classroom instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade. The General Counsel’s office of Orange County Public Schools advised teachers in its district to remove pictures of their same-sex family members, not to display any rainbow imagery, and remove “safe space” stickers from their classroom, lest authorities interpret that as “classroom instruction.” More horrifying still, the Leon County School Board unanimously approved a new policy that will send a notice to all parents if there is an LGBTQ+ student in their child’s PE class or participating in an overnight school trip. While the law silences nuanced and inclusive discussions of LGBTQ+ topics, policymakers such as the Leon County School Board are using the homophobic and transphonic spirit of the law to actually draw attention to LGBTQ+ children by presenting them as physical and moral dangers that warrant warnings sent to parents.
LGBTQ+ people were among the communities the Nazis targeted first because they knew that doing so could help shore up votes and help them achieve the political power they so desperately wanted. Similarly, today, it’s not a coincidence that we’re witnessing a resurgence of white supremacist, right-wing nationalism, and the worst years on record for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and violence. “Family values,” “parent’s rights,” and other dog whistles for homophobia and transphobia are used to rally and unify disparate factions of the right wing, just like they did in the 1920s.
In the era of “Don’t Say Gay,” we need the pink triangle more than ever. It’s time we revive it as an intersectional proclamation that queer people have the right to be represented, including in curriculum and all the ways we talk about the world. We have every right to be here, and we need to fight like hell for it. The pink triangle warns us what happens if we don’t.
- Robert Beachy, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015); and Laurie Marhoefer, Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis (University of Toronto Press, 2015). ↑
- For more on Magnus Hirschfeld, his work at the Institute for Sexual Science, and his relationship with Chinese sexologist and gay activist Li Shiu Tong, see: Laurie Marhoefer, Racism and the Making of Gay Rights: A Sexologist, His Student, and the Empire of Queer Love (University of Toronto Press, 2022). ↑
- W. Jake Newsome, Pink Triangle Legacies: Coming Out in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 2022), chap. 2. For a comparison of gay and lesbian life in East and West Germany, see Samuel C. Huneke, States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany (University of Toronto Press, 2022). ↑
- Craig Griffiths, The Ambivalence of Gay Liberation: Male Homosexual Politics in 1970s West Germany (Oxford University Press, 2021). ↑
- Jannis Plastargias, RotZSchwul: Der Beginn einer Bewegung (1971-1975) (Querverlag, 2015). ↑
- Martha Shelley, interview with Jake Newsome, February 26, 2021. ↑
- Avram Finkelstein, After Silence: A History of AIDS through Its Images (University of California Press, 2018). ↑