The pink triangle has been an iconic staple of LGBTQIA culture and media for decades. In this guide, Team TransLash shares the origin of the pink triangle legacy.
#HolocaustRemembranceDay is an international memorial day on January 27th of each year that commemorates the victims of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was the attempt by the Nazis and their collaborators to murder all the Jews in Europe. The Holocaust era began in January 1933 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. It ended in May 1945, when the Allied Powers defeated Nazi Germany in World War II. The Holocaust is also sometimes referred to as “the Shoah,” the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”
During The Holocaust, approximately six million adults and children were murdered in ghettos, mass-shootings, in concentration camps, and in extermination camps. In addition to singling out Jews for complete annihilation, the Nazis targeted for discrimination and persecution, anyone they believed threatened their ideal of a “pure Aryan race”. This included LGBTQIA people of all backgrounds: Jewish and non-Jewish.
Pink Triangle Origins: Berlin, Germany
Berlin opened The Institute for Sexual Science in Germany in 1919, the place where the word “transsexual” was coined, and where people could receive gender-affirming counseling and other services. Its lead doctor, Magnus Hirschfeld, also consulted on “the Lili Elbe sex change“, the world’s first documented “sex reassignment” surgery. In the 1920s, Berlin had nearly 100 gay and lesbian bars or cafes, and other affirming spaces for queer & gender non-conforming people.
But even though the process to decriminalize homosexuality had already begun in Germany in 1929, Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany successfully brought in penal reform of Paragraph 175, making homosexuality a felony. On May 6, 1933, the Nazis violently looted and closed The Institute for Sexual Science, burning its extensive collection on the streets – a direct attempt to erase the existence of LGBTQIA people.
From 1933–1945, an estimated 50K gay men and gender non-conforming people were sent to police prisons and concentration camps, where they were tortured and often murdered.
In Nazi concentration camps, LGBTQIA prisoners were required to wear a downward-pointing, triangular cloth badge on their chest, the color identifying the reason for their imprisonment. Early on, homosexual male prisoners were identified with a green triangle (indicating criminals) or red triangle (political prisoners), the number 175 (referring to Paragraph 175, the section of the German penal code criminalizing homosexual activity), or the letter A (which stood for Arschficker, literally “arse fucker”).
The use of a pink triangle was later established for prisoners identified as homosexual men, which also included bisexual men and transgender women. Lesbian and bisexual women and trans men who were imprisoned sometimes wore a black triangle, or a pink triangle. The pink triangle was also assigned to others considered sexual deviants. If a prisoner was also identified as Jewish, the pink triangle was superimposed over a second yellow triangle pointing the opposite way, to resemble the Star of David like the yellow badge identifying other Jews.
When Adolph Hitler needed to justify arresting and murdering former political allies in 1934, he often accused them of being gay.
During The Holocaust, an estimated 10-15K AMAB (assigned male at birth) people who were accused of homosexuality were directly deported to concentration camps. Men with pink triangles were particularly singled out for abuse. Most died in the camps, often from being tortured through gruesome medical experiments. The Nazis also tortured and killed lesbians and bisexual women, including sodomy with objects and sexual slavery, as a form of “gay conversion therapy”.
LGBTQIA prisoners wearing a pink triangle were often even ostracized and tormented by their fellow inmates who weren’t LGBTQIA. One gay man attributed his survival to swapping his pink triangle for a red one – indicating he was merely a Communist.
Pink Triangle: Legacy
A pink triangle has been a symbol for many LGBTQIA identities & movements around the world since the 1970s, reclaimed from its origin as a Nazi symbol for LGBTQIA prisoners. In 1972, gay concentration camp survivor Heinz Heger’s memoir Die Männer mit dem rosa Winkel (The Men with the Pink Triangle) brought the symbol to greater public attention. Other key dates to remember:
- The first testimony shared publicly by an LGBTQIA Holocaust survivor was from Josef Kohout in 1972.
- In 1988, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals by Richard Plant was published. This was the first comprehensive book in English on the fate of gay men in Nazi Germany. The author, a German refugee, examines the climate and conditions that gave rise to a vicious campaign against Germany’s gays, as directed by Himmler and his SS–persecution that resulted in tens of thousands of arrests and thousands of deaths during The Holocaust.
- In 2002, after decades of advocacy by LGBTQIA and ally groups, the German Government finally overturned Nazi-era convictions against 50K gay and bi men.
- In 2005, the European Union officially passed a resolution recognizing LGBTQIA people as victims of the Holocaust.
- The German Bundestag finally voted to pardon and compensate the LGBTQIA victims of Paragraph 175 in 2017.
- The last known Pink Triangle survivor, Rudolf Brazda, passed in 2011.
- SAYiT in Sheffield commemorated Pink Triangle survivors through a visual installation in the UK in 2019.
On #HolocaustRemembranceDay, we honor all of the approximately six million Jewish adults and children killed by the Third Reich. We equally honor the untold number of non-Jewish and LGBTQIA Jewish & non-Jewish adults and children who were also imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the Nazis.
There are an estimated 67K Holocaust survivors living in the United States who are still alive, and we’re grateful for their stories and their knowledge.
Unless we learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
Pink Triangle Legacy: Resources & Media
- Time Magazine: Why It Took Decades for LGBTQ Stories to Be Included in Holocaust History
- The University of Michigan Press: Gender, Intersections, and Institutions: Intersectional Groups Building Alliances and Gaining Voice in Germany
- National Post: Cross-dressing Nazis
- COMING SOON: Pink Triangle Legacies: Coming Out in the Shadow of the Holocaust by W. Jake Newsome (September 15th, 2022)