Triangles and tribulations: The gay appropriation of Nazi symbols

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 34, Winter 1996/97.

The pink triangle was originally a Nazi symbol — and it was only worn by gay men, not lesbians. Amy Elman questions whether the pink triangle can be ‘reclaimed’ as a symbol of gay pride. As well as obscuring the different histories of lesbians and gay men under the Nazi regime, the rehabilitation of the triangle risks glossing over the horror of the Holocaust.

I stood before a T-shirt shop in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. There, hanging in the window was a white T-shirt emblazoned with a tree. Within the tree a pink triangle dangled like a leaf from a branch. Beneath the graphic, the designer inscribed: ‘The family tree stops here.’ This specific attempt to embrace comically an alternative to conventional heterosexuality struck me as tragic as the ever-homophobic Nazi Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the SS, who exclaimed, ‘We must exterminate these people root and branch… the homosexual must be eliminated’ (Richard Plant, The Pink Triangle, p 99). Apparently unaware that gay men (and lesbians) can procreate through the sexually uncomplicated procedure of inter­course, Himmler depicted the homosexual man as a ‘traitor to his own people’ who must be ‘rooted out’ for his failure to reproduce. Consciousness of the Holocaust fades. Amnesia cloaks the distasteful irony of contemporary jest.

First adopted by American gay men in the early 1970s after the Stonewall riots of 1969, the pink triangle is now promoted by many as an international symbol of gay and lesbian pride and liberation. In a political culture that Americanises history, sexualises dominance and is undeniably imperialistic, this should come as no surprise. Here I explore the history asso­ciated with this symbol and argue against its use as an affirmation of gay identity more generally and lesbian identity in particular. Because the pink, down-turned triangle served as a distinc­tive emblem of Nazi heterosexism which signified and even hastened the destruc­tion of gay men, I argue that it should be abandoned as a positive symbol for the move­ment. Like all Nazi symbols, the pink triangle is unregenerate. Moreover, the lesbian adoption of pink triangles conceals the specific struggles associated with being lesbian by conflating the experiences of lesbians with those of gay men.

As Julia Penelope notes: ‘Our invisibility, even to ourselves, is at least partially due to the fact that our identity is subsumed by two groups: women and gaymen’ (Call Me a Lesbian, p 48). Consequently, the truths of lesbian (hi)story and present being often dissipate because lesbianism itself, autono­mously, is rendered socially unthinkable. This condition is exacerbated by the gender-neutrality of queer politics. Lesbians have lost their autonomy (i.e., their ‘lesbian nation’) and, not coincidentally, their distinctive symbol of pride. The lavender two women symbol is nearly extinct.

It is unseemly that girls and women long taunted by forced pink, feminine identifiers are now, as lesbians, to believe that a pink triangle signifies gendered rebellion. Failure to critically assess this situation contributes to an ever-increasing inability to distinguish between those strategies and associations that enhance visible integrity with those that seek to destroy it.

Pink triangle: gay identity

The Third Reich used myriad colored triangles to classify the various groups of peoples they interned in concentration camps. The selection of this emblem was not insignif­icant. For Hebrews, the triangle was a symbol of truth. Within cosmic, geometric symbolism, triangles symbolise connection between heaven and earth. In the Greek sacred alphabet, triangles repre­sented the vulva of the ‘Mother Delta’. It is understandable, given the Nazi’s contempt for truth, Jews, and all that is female, that the Third Reich used the triangle, down-turned, to denigrate those whom they forced to wear it.

The colours of the triangles were as follows: red for political dissidents, green for criminals, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, blue for emigrants, brown for Gypsies, black for lesbians and other ‘anti-socials’, and pink for homo­sexual men. The pink triangles symbolised the femaleness of this group of detainees whose masculinity was diminished within the context of Nazi heterosexism. Jews, by contrast, were marked by six-pointed, yellow Stars of David within which the word ‘Jew’ was inscribed. Jewish gay men were forced to wear a yellow triangle beneath the pink one. From this combination, the six-pointed Jewish star of David was formed. Additionally, Jewish communists wore the yellow triangle beneath the red and so on.

Pink triangles identified the thousands of gay men who were sent to concentration camps as ‘175ers’. Researchers estimate that between 5,000 to 15,000 gay men died in these camps. This figure does not include those who were interned and later released. The number 175 refers to the paragraph within the penal code, adopted in 1871, that criminalised male homosexuality. The law was later broadened by the Nazis in 1935 to include any form of ‘lewdness’ between two men. This meant that the slightest display of affection was a crime for which the ‘criminal’ was to serve six months. After 1936, homosexual men were deported to concentration camps, and while at no time were they sent en masse, as gay men, to the extermi­nation camps of Auschwitz, few survived the concentration camps. Still, the persecution of gay men was never methodical. Unlike Jews, whose religious affiliation was routinely noted on birth certificates, or leftists, whose political sympathies were determined by party lists, gay men were not as readily identifiable. More importantly, in countries conquered by Nazis, gay men comprised the only group exempt from outright extermination. Equating gay men with weakness, Himmler believed their presence expedited the demise of conquered commu­nities. Consequently, non-German homosexuals were often not punished as their German counterparts were. Indeed, during the Olympic Games of 1936, some Berlin gay bars were permitted to reopen and police were ordered not to bother foreign gay visitors.

The regime’s reaction to male homo­sexuality was not uncomplicated. Although male homosexuality was vigorously denounced and out(ed) gay men usually paid the penalty with their lives, homoeroticism was a central component of ‘male bonding’ within the Reich’s all-male paramilitary organizations. When complaints of blatant homosexual behaviour within the SA reached Hitler, he stated that the private lives of officers ‘cannot be an object of scrutiny unless it conflicts with basic principles of National Socialist ideology’ (The Pink Triangle, p 61). It was only when the SA proved unruly that Hitler demanded the killing of his gay SA chief Ernst Röhm and the immediate expulsion of other gay men from the SA and the Nazi party. Nonetheless, homo­eroticism continued to characterise the nation­alist propaganda that fuelled the movement and valued gay male artists even lived under security extended to Nazi officials. Moreover, even the interactions that Hitler had with his immediate subordinates were tinged with an element of the homoerotic. Hermann Göring once said of Hitler, ‘Every time I face him, my heart falls into my trousers’ (Dorchen Leidholdt, ‘Where pornography meets fascism’, p 21). Throughout the reign of the Third Reich, many distinguished gay men lived undisturbed in Germany while thousands of others perished in concentration camps.

The Nazis did not unanimously regard male homosexuals as biological degenerates. Many believed that homosexuality was a contagious, though curable, social disease. Indeed, barely two per cent of those found guilty of being gay were considered ‘incorrigible’. ‘Re-education’ provided a possible cure for the majority of others. This meant compulsory visits to brothels. There the Nazis forced lesbians, Jewish and Gypsy women into sexual slavery and watched to determine if the ‘175ers’ had been suffi­ciently cured. Castrations and injections of testosterone were also used to ‘convert’ gay men to heterosexuality.

Black triangles: Lesbianism obscured

The fact that the pink triangle is regarded as a symbol of gay and lesbian liberation is disturb­ing because pink triangles were exclu­sively worn by those men the Nazis had identified as gay. Lesbians freed from the risks of other stigmas (e.g., being Jewish) remained exempt from prosecution. This was not the result of a greater acceptance of lesbianism. Rather, love between women was so intolerable that lesbian existence had been vociferously denied. Measures to criminalise lesbians were consid­ered in 1910 but abandoned as feminist opposition proved politically effective. Conse­quently, paragraph 175 never extended to lesbians. Gay men were, and are, conceived as exclusively synonymous with ‘homosexual’ and publicly persecuted as such via criminal proceedings; contempt for lesbians, then as now, was expressed through concealment.

The most effective way to render lesbians powerless was to sever their connection(s) to other women. With the rise of Nazism, lesbian meeting places and private homes were raided and their visibility was obscured. Thereafter, actions against lesbians abated as almost all efforts focused on the extermination of Euro­pean Jewry. Prior to 1939 lesbians were among those imprisoned as ‘asocials’, a broad category applied to all people who evaded Nazi rule. These detainees were considered socially maladjusted. All asocials were identified through black down-turned triangles.

It is politically significant that the asocial category was not exclusively lesbian; it was a diverse grouping that included prostitutes, vagrants, murderers, thieves, and those who violated laws prohibiting sexual intercourse between Aryans and Jews. Precisely because the asocial group was so heterogeneous, lesbians were not as readily identifiable as were gay men whose pink marking exclusively signified their homosexuality. Universalizing the pink triangle today renders lesbians almost as invisible as the black triangles did in the past. Failure to appreciate this obscures some vital aspects of fascist history.

Even within the newly established Holo­caust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC one is unable to find any accurate information on lesbians. The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust is accessible via the museum’s computer center. Search commands involving the word ‘lesbian’ execute the release of information that focuses exclusively on male homosexuals. The pink triangle and paragraph 175 appear on screen as if one could assume that both the triangle and the law extended to lesbians. At a time when Holocaust deniers readily prey on any errors and use them to explode the credibility of scholar­ship concerning the Holocaust, one must be exceedingly careful with the facts.

In an attempt at historical accuracy, some lesbians wear black triangles. It is under­standable why a lesbian, possessing a desire for historical precision, might wish to regard herself as the descendant of black-triangled women as distinct from pink-triangled men. Yet, this is an unsatisfactory solution because the issue of historical accuracy is inextricably linked to an ethical question that is too rarely asked, and impossible to answer definitively. Still, that question, put simply, is this: Is it not unethical to suggest that a symbol whose horrific use has denoted the destruction of a group of people be claimed as a symbol of liberation? And, what might it be like for survivors to witness the sight of what to them is so brutal a symbol? While young gay men and lesbians have the luxury to put on and take off the symbol of hatred that the pink and black triangles represent to many of us, those who have survived the camps cannot erase the tattooed numbers from their skins. They are as permanent and painful as the memories that cannot be extinguished.

The yellow star and the Jewish community

The Jewish community does not wear yellow stars. That is not because anti-semitism has been exhausted. Rather, the Jewish community rightfully rejects for itself anti-semitic emblems and labels. The community is very much aware of the politics of symbolism.

In the first stages of anti-semitic policy, the Nazis insisted on undoing assimilation. The Zionists, by contrast, insisted that anti-semitism be countered by Jews asserting their identity with pride. In response to the first organised ban on Jewish businesses on Boycott Day, April 1, 1933, Zionists insisted that Jews wear yellow stars. Robert Weltsch, editor of a Jewish newspaper, urged his readers to wear the star and ‘Wear it With Pride’. This slogan was specifically directed against the assimilationists, whom the Zionists blamed for betraying the Jewish community. In turn, assimilationists blamed Zionists for their persecution. They asserted that Zionists, who insisted on their distinctiveness as Jews, were an obstacle to peaceful co-existence with gentile Germans. In bickering over whom to blame for their subordi­nation, these Jews failed to seriously consider that the anti-semite stood at the root of their dilemma. Six years after Weltsch had issued his statements on stars, the Nazis compelled all Jews to wear them.

In hindsight, Weltsch later stated that he would have never suggested that the badges be worn had he been able to anticipate the develop­ments. Ironically, the star facilitated the enforcement of residence and movement restrictions for Jews. It was an additional control measure that permitted police to detain any Jew, anywhere, at any time. More importantly, such identification paralysed the Jewish community. Constantly identifiable and scrutinised, Jews became more docile and responsive to Nazi orders than ever before. This, the Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg suggests, was the most devastating function served by the yellow star.

The politics of reclamation

It is incongruous that those pursuing liberation can reflect upon the past and insist, as Robert Weltsch could not, that any Nazi symbol can be used with pride for the purpose of liberation. With the exception of gay men, no other group that has survived the camps has proudly claimed the identifier that denoted their demise. Yet, unlike any other persecuted group, the requests of gay men to be commemorated as the victims of Nazism has gone largely ignored. This is not because historians dispute their victimization but because most seem indifferent to it. While the refusal to acknowledge Nazi tyranny against gay men is inexcusable, embracing the symbols of such persecution is likely to offer affirmation only among those ignorant of or careless with the past. Indeed, the adoption of such symbols might have the unintended consequence of concealing rather than promoting consciousness of the Holocaust. Many who wear and/or display the triangles possess little, if any, accurate information about the Holocaust. Still fewer appear to know about the particular history of the triangles. One of the greatest appeals of this symbol may be its obscurity and not the revelation of its historical significance. Stated simply, the pink triangle is a ‘discreet’ and politically safe (i.e., gender neutral) signifier for those caring little about the survivors and the (Jewish) communities that may object to its being worn.

Far from promoting an understanding of the past, the gay male movement has appropriated and utterly commercialised this Nazi symbol. The pink triangle is now used as an artsy back-drop to promote gay owned and operated businesses. Those whose aspirations are more political have similarly trivialised the past. Claiming the symbol to highlight current injustices is crass. It implies that gay men and women share a similar history of state-spon­sored genocide on the North American conti­nent. Consequently, all bigotry is reduced to a horrifying and simplistic uniformity. That the Holocaust involved a state and political move­ment dedicated to the destruction of a people is conveniently overlooked; Jewish memory is desecrated.

The feminist philosopher and Holocaust scholar, Joan Ringelheim, asks: ‘Can we so blithely reclaim and make right what has caused so much oppression without some careful scrutiny of our motives and politics?’ She considers the use of words like ‘kike’ and ‘faggot’ to suggest that attempts at ‘reclamation’ cannot be accomplished ‘without retaining some of the negativity that infests and infects the oppressor’s use of the words’ (‘Women and the Holocaust’, p 386). Similarly, I claim that the ‘transformed’ pink (or black) triangle cannot be altered through ‘reclamation’. The down-turned triangles never really belonged to those marked by them in the way that ‘reclaiming’ would suggest. Furthermore, in using them as a commercialised symbol of pride one is implic­itly promoting a denial of their horrific dimen­sion. Consequently, wearing Nazi triangles may even be interpreted as a form of Holocaust denial.

Why not, instead, adopt the symbols of life and love rather than sadism and destruction? Why has the rebellious colour become pink and not lavender? Why not two male symbols or two women’s symbols? The answer, in part, may be historical ignorance. It may also be internalised heterosexism; the willingness to embrace the very symbols of one’s destruction reflects an incredible degree of hatred and self-contempt. In an age of AIDS, historical amnesia and outright denial, it is frightening that the current identi­fiers are symbols from a period of death and totalitarianism. Despite efforts to the contrary, the triangles cannot be extricated from their use in concentration camps. Attempts to decon­textualise this past run counter to the struggle to remember. And, in the absence of a past, opportunities for liberation are lost. Only through the rigours of memory is any community afforded a will to dismantle the pernicious conditions of the present.

One cannot effectively eliminate oppression by mimicking the language, actions, and symbols of the oppressor. To best avoid what Ringelheim calls the ‘valorization of the oppressor’, we need our own spaces, language, and symbols if we are ever to claim a future that is markedly different from the past. In ‘repack­aging’ the cruel symbols of Nazism, we do not transcend the parameters established by them; rather we delude ourselves into thinking we have control — we become complacent and perhaps complicitous in our own undoing.


An earlier version of this article appeared in Journal Of Homosexuality Vol 30(3) 1996.


Dorchen Leidholdt ‘Where Pornography Meets Fascism’ WIN News (March 15, 1983).

Julia Penelope Call Me a Lesbian: Lesbian Lives, Lesbian Theory (Crossing Press, 1992).

Richard Plant The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (Henry Holt, 1986).

Joan Ringelheim ‘Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research’ in C. Rittner and J. Roth (eds) Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust (Paragon, 1993).

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