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Refashioning Oppression–The History of the Pink Triangle

When Martin Sherman’s play Bent premiered on Broadway in 1979, it introduced many audiences to the story of gay persecution in the Holocaust.  Over the past few decades, this history has become more widely known, thanks in part to the re-appropriation of the pink triangle the Nazis forced gay male prisoners to wear.

For Moisés Kaufman, who is currently directing Bent at the Mark Taper Forum, being confronted by this pink triangle on a visit to the concentration camp Dachau was the source of a revelation.

“If you were gay you had to wear a pink triangle. I kind of knew that. But the Germans were so specific that if you were a Jew and a homosexual, you had to wear a pink triangle with a yellow Star of David on top of it.” Kaufman explained, “I remember having this horrific moment: yes, as a Jew I would have been in a concentration camp, but there was this object that tried to encompass all of my identities.”

Following World War II, it remained difficult for men and women to embrace their gay identity. Gay persecution continued around the world, often by the same people and countries that had liberated the camps. In Germany, gay survivors of the Holocaust were denied reparations, and many were quickly re-imprisoned for their original offenses.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century sexual revolution and the civil rights era that campaigns for equality gained ground. The Stonewall riots of 1969, and the many smaller scale protests that preceded them, galvanized the nascent gay rights movement into fighting oppression more directly and aggressively.

To this end, many groups and organizations repurposed the signifying pink triangle as an act of defiance. The historian Erik Jensen and others have traced this resurgence and reuse of the symbol to the 1972 book Die Männer mit dem rosa Winkel (The Men With the Pink Triangle) by Josef Kohout (writing under the pen name Heinz Heger). One of the few works to document the history of gay men in the Holocaust, it is a firsthand account of Kohout’s experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, as well as the persecution that continued after he was liberated.

The German gay liberation group Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin advocated using the pink triangle as both a memorial to gay Holocaust victims and a protest against continuing discrimination as early as 1973. Emerging gay publications such as San Francisco’s Gay Sunshine and the Toronto’s The Body Politic ran several stories on the use of the triangle in the camps and urged its use among everyday people as a memorial and a radical act of advocacy.

“We have chosen the pink triangle as a symbol. A symbol of the history that others have tried to obliterate, the history that we must recover. And a reminder of where gay oppression can lead if gay people neglect the active struggle for their rights.”
The Body Politic

Ultimately it was the AIDS epidemic that inspired the widespread use of the pink triangle worldwide. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, also known as ACT UP, used the pink triangle as a defining logo along with the motto “Silence=Death” beginning in the late 1980s. However, they turned the symbol on its head, facing the triangle point up and transforming it into an active response to the apathy of the government and the medical industry.

In recent years, the triangle has become a defining symbol of the gay rights movement, comparable to the rainbow and the Human Rights Campaign’s iconic yellow equality symbol on a blue background. Several memorials commemorating persecuted gay people in the Holocaust are based on the pink triangle, including the Homomonument in Amsterdam and Pink Triangle Park in San Francisco. Pink triangles, point facing up or down, now also find prominence on T-shirts, mugs, and as tattoos, continuing to draw attention to the horrors the Holocaust visited on gay people and the ongoing fight for an equitable future.

In the final act of Bent, the pink triangle takes on an even deeper meaning. As Kaufman said in explaining the play’s relatability; “Bent really is about owning up to who you are.”

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