I have a friend who has a tattoo of a black outlined triangle on her wrist. For someone with a love of history, I instantly knew what it stood for. It’s a symbol that traces back to the Nazi concentration camps. A symbol originally used to identify homosexuals as a badge of shame, now reclaimed as an international symbol of gay pride and gay rights. Something that we all as part of the LGBTI community should be aware of, right?
As the two of us sat down one day talking about it, I was surprised when she told me how many younger guys actually had no idea what the triangle stood for. I later took it upon myself to ask a few people and discovered blank looks very similar to those my friend had seen.
Like with the rainbow flag, some people will proudly display the design at rallies and marches, not fully understanding its history and symbolism. But do we throw our arms up in the air because of the lack of knowledge or do we do something about it?
The pink triangle was one of the numerous badges used in the Nazi concentration camps to identify prisoners. Every prisoner had to wear a downward-pointing triangle on their jacket, the colour categorising them by their “kind”. Homosexual (almost always male) prisoners wore a pink triangle, and pink and yellow triangles were combined if the prisoner was both gay and Jewish. Lesbians were sometimes marked with a black triangle.
While it has been hard to estimate the number of homosexuals in German concentration camps, it has been reportedly estimated that between 50,000 and 63,000 men were convicted for homosexuality between 1933 to 1944.
Looking further into the history of the the pink triangle, it’s clear the persecution didn’t stop once the concentration camps were liberated at the end of the second world war. Many of the pink triangle prisoners were often re-imprisoned by the allied-established Federal Republic of Germany.
One such openly gay man was Heinz Dormer, who served a total of 20 years, first in the concentration camp and then behind the jail bars of the new Republic. The Nazi amendments to Paragraph 17, that turned homosexuality from a minor offence into a felony remained in both East and West Germany after the war for another 24 years.
East Germany reverted to the older version of the law in 1950, limiting it to sex with youths under 18 in 1968, and later abolishing it in its entirety in 1988. However, West Germany retained the Nazi-era amendments until 1969. It was amended in 1973, and finally revoked in 1994 after the German reunification. While there were failed lawsuits seeking monetary compensation, in 2002 the German government issued an official apology to the LGBTI community.
It was in the end of the 1970’s that the pink triangle was adopted as a symbol for gay rights protests. Some have linked the reclaiming of the pink triangle with the publication of ‘Men with the Pink Triangle’ concentration camp survivor’s Heinz Heger’s memoir that was released in the early ‘70s.
Since then the pink triangle has earned its place alongside the rainbow flag as one of the most recognised international symbols for the gay rights movement and LGBTI pride.
We are so fortunate we were born in this new era of enlightenment about LGBTI people. A part of me wonders what it would have been like to be gay in generations gone by and if I could have shown the strength and perseverance in times of oppression. I honestly don’t know, and I don’t pretend to either. All I can do is stand proud and remember the people that have come before me to provide us with the freedoms to live as we do today.
I think as times change, we as a community grow and sometimes risk forgetting the heritage and the foundations the LGBTI community was built from. I believe we each have a responsibility to the brave souls that started the movement, the people who lost their lives for simply being who they are and fighting for equality, and the endless number of people who worked behind the scenes to campaign for change in legislature.
Rather then throw our arms up in disgust at others’ lack of knowledge, we have a responsibility to not only remember those passed but also to educate and inform others so the journey that has created so many aspects of our identity and who we stand as a community is never forgotten.
Along Sydney’s Darlinghurst Road, close to Oxford Street and over the road from the Sydney Jewish Museum, stands a large Pink Triangle in Green Park. Designed by Russell Rodrigo and Jennifer Gamble, it had stood there since 2001, as a permanent reminder of those gays and lesbians killed by the Nazis.
“We remember you who have suffered or died at the hands of others,
Women who have loved women;
Men who have loved men;
And all of those who have refused the roles others have expected us to play.
Nothing shall purge your deaths from our memories.”