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The Pink Triangle: From Nazi Label to LGBTQ Pride

If you’re familiar with the imagery of the LGBTQ community, the pink triangle might be a well-known symbol to you. But it’s far from as prominent as the iconic rainbow flag or many of the pride flags

However, throughout history and continuing today, the pink triangle has remained a symbol for gay identity and the LGBTQ community as a whole.

Read on if you’re wondering about the pink triangle’s meaning and origins. We’ll discuss how it was developed and how its meaning has changed over time.

Inverted pink triangle

The Pink Triangle’s History

The symbol of the pink upside-down triangle originated in World War II when the German army imprisoned gay men.

Homosexuality technically became illegal in Germany in 1871, but it usually wasn’t enforced until the Nazi Party came to power in 1933. 

As part of the Nazi persecution of minorities and their exclusionary and harmful ideas of “purifying” Germany, the Nazis arrested thousands of LGBT individuals (mostly gay men).

Homosexuality was a felony in East Germany until 1968 and in West Germany until 1969.

The German army used a complex color-coded identification system to identify their prisoners. The inverted pink triangle was used to identify homosexual prisoners, as well as those who had been convicted of incest or pedophilia. 

The German army made no distinction between these categories, conflating the actions of homosexuality, incest, and pedophilia and treating them as equally harmful to one another. 

Prisoners wearing inverted pink triangle in German camp
Prisoners wearing inverted pink triangle in a German camp, 1938

In fact, they were given the worst labor assignments and, more often than not, were rejected by their fellow prisoners.

“There was no solidarity for the homosexual prisoners; they belonged to the lowest caste,” Pierre Seel, a gay concentration camp survivor, wrote in his memoir I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror.

To this day, many people still don’t know that the German Army targeted not only Jews and other social, ethnic, and political minorities but also members of the LGBTQ community.

Also, according to Auschwitz Organization, “no financial compensation has been paid to the victims of Nazi homosexual policies, despite the fact that the German government offered compensation to victims of Jewish ethnicity, political prisoners, and other groups that survived the Nazi concentration camps.”

However, the German government issued an official apology in 2002 to gay men persecuted during the war.

Why Did the Nazis Choose the Color Pink?

San Francisco Pink Triangle at Sunset
San Francisco Pink Triangle at Sunset for Pride Month – SnapASkyline / Shutterstock

Today, pink is seen as a feminine color in the Western world. But that hasn’t always been the case. The social meaning of colors changes over time, sometimes drastically.

Before the inverted pink triangle was developed and brands marketed the idea of colors as gender signifiers, the soothing color blue was considered a color for girls. 

Pink is related to red, a color associated with passion and aggressiveness, so it was considered a color for boys. But in the early to mid-20th century, the associations to pink and blue started to change. 

Men started to wear darker, more somber colors, while women turned to brighter colors and pastels, including pink. This formed the basis for the “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” stereotype.

Why Did the Nazis Choose a Triangle Shape?

German Identification system chart
Identification system chart

In addition to the famous use of the Star of David to identify Jewish prisoners, which is formed by two yellow triangles superimposed pointing opposite ways, Nazis used different colors and styles of triangles to identify different types of prisoners.

As such, black triangles for lesbian women and “anti-socials,” brown triangles for Romani people, red for political prisoners, green for criminals, blue for immigrants, and pink for gay people.

Usually, Jewish prisoners would wear the yellow star unless included in one of the other prisoner categories.

The Downward-Pointing Pink Triangle During and Immediately After World War II

When the German army began using the pink triangle to identify gay prisoners (specifically gay men), this solidified the association with pink in opposition to masculinity. 

Reports say the concentration camp guards singled out prisoners who wore the pink triangle to receive the harshest treatment. Sometimes other prisoners would also harass and harm the pink triangle prisoners, adding to the brutality.

When the concentration camps were liberated at the end of the war, nearly all prisoners were freed – except those who wore the pink triangle. Many of them were put back in prison. 

When they were finally released, many feared to tell the world about the brutality they’d suffered since homophobia was still rampant.

What Does the Pink Triangle Mean Today?

Nowadays, the pink triangle is often used as a symbol of pride. It’s been largely embraced by the LGBTQ community, reclaimed as a positive symbol of self-identity.

The Pink Triangle as an Activist Symbol

Pink triangle in a monument to the LGBT victims - Sitges, Spain
Pink triangle monument in Sitges, Spain, to the LGBT victims – Liam Estero / Shutterstock

This began in the 1970s when activists revived the use of the pink triangle as a protest against homophobia and to raise awareness of the symbol’s use in Nazi Germany. 

In 1973, Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin, a German gay liberation group, called for gay men to wear it to memorialize past victims and symbolize solidarity with victims of ongoing discrimination.

Starting in the 1980s, the use of the pink triangle as a positive symbol of the LGBTQ community began to increase. Its meaning also expanded to include lesbians as well. 

Many organizations and businesses that catered to the LGBTQ community incorporated the pink triangle into their logos. The symbol was also often used as a code to identify other members of the LGBTQ community in social settings while remaining discreet.

In addition, the gay activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) used the upward-pointing pink triangle to draw attention to the impact of the AIDS crisis on the LGBTQ community and to call for government action to address the growing problem. 

A History of Reclamation

Pink and blue triangles, also known as biangles, represent bisexuals

The LGBTQ community has a strong history of reclaiming labels, terms, and symbols initially designed to harm them.

The pink triangle is just one of many examples of iconography that, though developed initially to stigmatize other gay men, has been taken up as a symbol of pride, solidarity, and LGBTQ dignity.

The pink triangle has also been adapted to create other symbols for the LGBTQ community. It was altered to create the “biangles,” a symbol of bisexual pride that includes overlapping pink and blue triangles with a purple middle. 

This is in keeping with the LGBTQ community’s ability to adapt symbols to be more inclusive of the entire group as a whole.

The pink triangle continues to be used by the LGBTQ community and is often used in memorials and monuments, like in San Francisco and Sydney, which honor LGBT victims of the Holocaust. In 2018, Nike released the collection Betrue featuring pink triangles for Pride Month.

Criticism of the Pink Triangle’s Reclamation

Modern use of the pink triangle isn’t without its controversy. In 1993, historian Klaus Müller voiced his dissent about reusing the symbol. 

He claimed the fact that the pink triangle had become a symbol of the LGBTQ community worldwide was only possible because modern members of the community were distanced enough from the horrifying original use of the symbol so as not to have a negative association with it.

However, the use of the pink triangle worldwide has continued to march on. If you spend time in LGBTQ spaces, you’re likely to encounter it.