Sunday 22 October 2017

Pioneering Pink Triangles

The first truly international symbol adopted by gay rights groups was the pink triangle. The origin of the pink triangle in the Nazi persecution of gay men in the Holocaust is covered extremely well in media and print. But I’m always trying to find more about how, when and why it was adopted by the lgbt community.

It is often stated that the use of the pink triangle was pioneered by gay rights groups in Germany and, shortly afterwards, in the USA. However, they may have widely advocated it’s use but the first actual national display of the pink triangle by gay rights groups was on the other side of the world.

But how did it come to be used at all? Why did a symbol of Nazi oppression become a symbol of gay pride?

Very little, if anything, was known outside Germany of the use of the fabric triangles attached to the clothing of people interred in concentration and labour camps. People were generally aware of the yellow stars worn by Jewish internees. Those liberated from the camps were in no mood to perpetuate the memories of the hell they have lived through and little truth about what happened in the camps remained hidden, though some people considered the testimony of survivors as vitally important in recording the atrocities and revealing the true extent of the evil Nazi regime.

One of the few survivors who decided to record their experiences was Eugen Kogon (1903-1987). In his book “The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the Systems Behind Them” (originally published in German in 1946 and translated into English in 1950) Kogon wrote about the use of various triangles to denote the types of prisoner. For the first time in print the general public was made aware of the pink triangle.

Of the Holocaust survivors who wrote about their experiences in the concentration camps in the following years none of them admitted to being homosexual. Despite liberation from the camps, homosexuality was still illegal in Germany.

As the gay rights movements around the world began to spring into action at the beginning of the 1970s one gay Holocaust survivor, Heinz Heger (1917-1994), wrote “The Men With the Pink Triangle” (published in German in Hamburg in 1972). The newly-formed gay rights group, Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW), were looking for a unifying symbol for their activism and the pink triangle seemed to be just right.

HAW urged all of their members and supporters to wear a pink triangle as a memorial to gay victims of the Holocaust. HAW’s claim to be the first gay rights organisation to adopt the pink triangle as a logo in October 1973, however, may not be correct, as I’ll explain later.

During the summer of 1973 several gay journals wrote about Holocaust victims and the use of the pink triangle. The UK journal “Come Together” and the San Francisco journal “Gay Sunshine” both urged their readers to wear a pink triangle in remembrance of gay Holocaust victims. However, there is no documentary or visual proof that the wearing of these triangles was anything more than individual personal choice.

And that takes us to the southern hemisphere and gay rights activists in Australia. The Sydney Gay Liberation group proposed a Gay Pride Week for 7th to 14th September 1973. Other gay groups across Australia – in Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne – were enthusiastic about this idea, having only begun to hold Gay Pride events in the previous two years and eager to produce something that would produce more publicity for gay rights. The national, co-ordinated event would help to unify their activism.

From the very start the use of the pink triangle was to be pivotal in the Gay Pride Week publicity. The image below is of an A6-sized poster designed to promote the events. Is this the first use of the pink triangle by an lgbt organisation? It doesn’t merely ask people to wear one. It is being used quite deliberately, without the need of explanation, or as an illustration of its use by the Nazis, but as a symbol for the national Gay Pride Week.
In all of the Australian cities which celebrated Gay Pride Week in September 1973 the pink triangle was highly visible on banners, flags, posters, leaflets and badges. This was a month before HAW adopted it as their logo. In Adelaide further recognition of Holocaust victims was made with the planting of 60 pink crosses on the lawn next to the war memorial. There are many images online showing the pink triangle being used during Gay Pride Week clearly in all participating cities – just Google “Gay Pride Week 1973 Australia”. If any reader out there can point me to any image online to show a definite earlier use elsewhere I will be eternally grateful.

Australia was proudly displaying the pink triangle in the manner to which many later Pride events all around the world would follow.

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