The Pink Triangle

ImageThe historicization of homosexual persecution during the Holocaust in the United States 1960-1980.

“Before we can wear the triangle, or carry the banner that reads ‘Never Again,’
we must first remember.”

Sara Hart, “A Dark Past Brought to Light,” 10 Percent

Historical study, both in the Federal Republic of Germany and within the United States of America has undoubtedly achieved significant results in shedding a large quantity of light on the events of the Holocaust. However it cannot be recognised that a consistent representation of all who were persecuted under National Socialism has been achieved. The persecution of Roma, for example, has not received sufficient scholarly attention, nor have those who were persecuted under the T4 euthanasia programme.

Out of the many groups singled out and persecuted by the Nazi regime, the Jewish experience has so far dominated scholarly research. The publication of The Pink Swastika encapsulates the perils of the negligible research that has been afforded toward the persecution of homosexuals under National Socialism. Lively and Abrahams have attempted to subvert the limited research on the subject by adopting and manipulating the political, social and cultural fears toward homosexuality within American society. The gay rights movements in the USA between the 1960’s and 1980’s instilled much weight toward both historicizing the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, and the development of the cultural awareness of the subject. By analysing the events which both hindered and developed scholarly analysis, I will explore how the gay rights movement brought witness’s to initiate research on the subject, but conversely distracted a sufficient historicization of the homosexual persecutions in the Holocaust.

The historiography of the homosexual persecution in Nazi Germany failed to ignite in the USA and in any other countries due to a reluctance to address the past on both the part of German society and those homosexuals who had survived. Vestal states that an “…almost three decade long erasure of this history—either due to a mainstream/dominant culture of homophobia or lack of interest or concern… caused a gap between the events and the historical”. This analysis ignores the effect that those who had adopted the history of the homosexual experience within the American society, namely the gay rights movement. This espousal often championed the memory of survivors, and transferred the potency of its historical merit to that of political and social awareness toward contemporary issues. Primarily, the delay of scholarly research on the subject prior to the 1960’s owes much to the illegality of homosexuality acts under paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which was not revised until 1969, and not repealed until 1994.

Parallel to pre 1933, and, indeed, formulating part of the Nazi ‘justification’ toward persecuting Roma, discrimination was carried out “…by official state institutions under the ideological pretext of dealing with an anti- social, indeed criminal, layer of the population.”Paragraph 175, founded in 1871, far outdated the Nazi regime, and although the severe nature of the legislation was undeniably heightened in 1935, the formative law wasn’t divergent to those in use throughout Europe, and parallel to that of the USA, founded in 1778. Putting testimony to their experiences in concentration camps ultimately placed the survivor back into the same legal spotlight. With no willing testimonies, historicizing the events was deterred because of a lack of ability to seek reconciliation and to demand justice from its victims; an essential factor that had made historicizing the Jewish persecution achievable. The Nuremburg trials heard no evidence from Roma or homosexual witness, for example, and homosexual survivors, as well as Roma and political criminals, were excluded from the 1956 Reparation Act. In essence, there was no legal, fiscal or public incentive for these groups to explore their past. An indication of the public hostility and level of social acceptance of homosexuality can be seen within the comments made by the Mayor of Dachau in 1960. When asked about commemorating the holocaust, he told an interviewer that “…you must remember that many criminals and homosexuals were in Dachau. Do you want a memorial for such people?” Heinz Heger (the name that Josef Kohout wrote under) recalls in his book The Men with the Pink Triangle “…I had been condemned for a criminal offence… the contempt of our fellow humans, and social discrimination, is the same as it was thirty or fifty years ago. The progress of humanity has passed us by.” With no public demand from survivors for recognition, and no legal offers of such, the impetus for survivors to record their experiences did not manifest until the late 1060’s and early 1970’s, when gay rights movements challenged the medical and political fears surrounding homosexuality.

The Kinsey report on male sexuality, printed in 1948, should recognised both as a landmark in understanding, but also a defining publication which irritated and heighted societal fears toward, homosexuality within the USA. Kinsey stated that “…at least 37% of the male population has some homosexual experience between the beginning of adolescence and old age…. This is more than one male in three of the persons that one may meet as he passes along a city street.” The growing threat of the ‘unidentifiable’ homosexual is encapsulated within the June 1964 edition of Life magazine, which dedicated 14 pages to “Homosexuality in America.” It asserts that ’85 percent looked and acted like other men, and could not be spotted for certain even by experts.” Further potency to the latter point is can be analysed in on the front page of The New York Times with the explicit title: “Do the homosexuals, like the Communists, intend to bury us?” Acting upon the New York Academy of Medicine’s report on homosexuality of 1964, they argue that “American homosexuals want far more than to be merely tolerated…their true goal… is to convince the world that homosexuality is a desirable, noble, preferable way of life.” Social fears of homosexuality had been heightened with the public announcement of Burgess and Maclean’s defection from Britain to the Soviet Union in 1956, which had been accompanied with explicit references made in the US media to their ‘perverted’ homosexuality. This concept of homosexuality as an enemy within during the cold war era is comparable to the Nazi ideology of homosexuality being a ‘betrayal of, and as a threat to, nationalist ideals and goals,” which was being recognised by a state funded medical panel within the USA. The gay right movements, both within German society and within the USA would adopt the persecution of homosexuals as a homogenising focal point in which to express and defend their human rights. In doing so, they evoked the necessary primary fabric, testimony, with which to initiate the historicization of the homosexual experience. In doing so, they also complicated and at times compromised scholarly fluidity.

The revision of Paragraph 175 in 1969 in Germany had a profound effect on establishing witness and testimony to evoke the historicization of the homosexual persecutions under the Nazi’s. Prior to the amendment to the 1933 act, gay rights activists such as ‘Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin’, used the pink triangle, which had been used by the Nazi’s to identify homosexual prisoners in camps, as a political statement for justice. In the same token, the newly established journal Gay Sunshineadvocated in 1973 the use of the pink triangle as a mark of respect to those homosexuals who had suffered under National Socialism.17 The American gay rights movements had rapidly established an identity in the light of the Stonewall riots of 1969, which brought a visual representation of oppression to the fore; however the image of the pink triangle with regards memory of its origins became a secondary factor in its potency. The publication of Heinz Heger’s The Men with the Pink Trianglein 1972 has been accredited by Jensen for being a ‘pivotal moment’ for the gay community, by taking into account the perspectives of the a preceding generation, and embracing the pink triangle as a symbol of gay identity. The politicization of the pink triangle is evident in the New York Times in September of 1975. Pleading the case for the rights of homosexuals in employment, Ira Glasser stated: “Many know about the yellow star, but the pink triangle still lies buried as a virtual historical secret. As a result, there is tolerance among good people of discrimination against homosexuals.” Glasser does not, however, make explicit the events to which she recognises are ‘buried’; why they occurred, and how relevant they are in comparison to the cause she is fighting. The potency of the survivor accounts of persecution in Nazi Germany, and the image of the pink triangle were used, not to inspire recognition and incite analysis, but primarily as a political measure to bring awareness to a cause in need of a ‘similar’ historical precedent. The adoption of the pink triangle became representative of an event that encapsulated the need to reform, however this did not incite a focus on exploring the events to which the triangle originally represented. A far greater impetus initiated toward the popularisation of the memories of survivors through popular culture than scholarly research.

‘Queer’ popular culture depicting the National Socialist persecutions of homosexuals has ultimately relied upon survivor memory in their narratives, and has tended to ignore other primary research upon the subject. It can also often be placed as a catalyst for misinterpreting key facts, which have ultimately distorted and distracted scholarly research. Jean Baudrillard stated in 1997 that “…history is our lost referential, that is to say our myth,” and must be “…effaced by an artificial memory.” The flaw in the popularisation of the homosexual experience in the 1970’s and 1980’s is in the very fact that dedicated historical analysis upon the primary material had yet to emerge, and that the reliance upon memory alone provided a highly subjective understanding of the events as a whole. Tending to present popular culture from an individual viewpoint, relative culture in turn became a narrative in which to champion contemporary issues. Martin Sherman’s Bent is arguably the most identifiable example of a cultural representation of the homosexual experiences under National Socialism. It is also an evocative example of the implications of transposing a survivor’s account into popular culture, the lasting effect that it has made on gay communities, and also on historicization. Published in 1979 it borrows idea’s formulated from survivor testimonies; mainly those made by Heinz Heger. During their journey to Dachau, Sherman’s character Horst advises Max the significance of each of the symbols used within the camp, and advises that “…pink’s the lowest.” Max, a homosexual Jew, is made to rape a young dead female Jew to obtain the ‘higher’ Star of David from the Gestapo. The statement was a powerful and controversial one, in effect prioritising the persecution of homosexuals above that of the Final Solution. Golstein criticized Sherman’s decision for its inaccuracy in his Village Voice article, commented on the ‘inevitability’ of the homosexual ‘needs’ of the holocaust’ in light of liberation events of the 1970’s. The Spectator also rebuked Sherman’s decision for becoming “…dangerously close to enlisting the unspeakable horrors of Dachau in the propaganda services of Gay Liberation.” Sherman’s inspiration for the play is made clear in his interview in the New York Times, attributing his London friends’ belief that ‘…250,000, perhaps 500,000’ homosexuals had died in the camps. It was a belief unfounded in historical research, and its effect can be seen in the first major scholarly analysis of the homosexual experience: Frank Rector’s The Nazi Extermination of Homosexuals. His analyses lead him to believe that it seemed “…reasonable to conclude that at least 500,000 gays in the Holocaust died because of prejudice against homosexuals … In reality, the 500,000 figure may seem too conservative.” He also insisted that homosexuals had been part of a Final Solution, with thousands killed in the refuted ‘gas chamber’ of Dachau. Seifert believes that “…fictional and autobiographical works have in part engendered historical research and vice versa.”  The adoption of the homosexual experience within popular culture both encourage a vague awareness of the fact that persecution took place, but as Seifert acknowledges “…without…specific or differentiated knowledge of dates, events, and figures. With gay rights movement at the fore of enlightening the historicization of the persecution of homosexuals under National Socialism, the value of its message had often been placed higher than establishing fact.

The AIDS epidemic, identified in the late early 1980’s became a focal point for a greater exploration of the homosexual persecution during National Socialism, in light of a more identifiable parallel that AIDS had established with the gay rights movements. Spurlin traces many similarities between the oppression faced by the gay community in the early stages of AIDS awareness to that experienced under National Socialism, particularly in analysing the inaction of the US government when the virus was associated within a ‘disposable’ section of the community. GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) became a term coined by the US press for the then unnamed virus, and the social implications of this un-curable disease were heightened by the US media. The Holocaust thus became not only a parallel to social inequality, but a metaphor to the rapidly increasing numbers of AIDS victims who were receiving little governmental response. ACT-UP, an early US AIDS organisation, adopted the now commonplace pink triangle, but turned it on its head to demonstrate a willingness to survive. Their slogan ‘Silence = Death’, as Marshall has observed, being the converse ethos for homosexuals in Nazi Germany, when silence would equal survival. It is the ‘reversal’ of the pink triangle which denotes a shift in the historicization of the homosexual experience of the Holocaust. With a rapid death toll, and distinction from the ‘gay only’ virus from 1982, the publication in 1989 of Reports from the holocaust: The making of an AIDS activist demonstrates the extent to which the AIDS connection to an altogether new definition of ‘holocaust’ had emerged. Although comparable in the many areas that Spurlin has suggested, they are two separate events in time and place, and the potency of ‘memory’ in the precedential event does not instil a drive to historicize it, rather to simply highlight comparisons to bring meaning to a contemporary cause. Stein summarises that …the spectra of a Holocaust has been utilized by lesbians and gay men to dramatize their plight as an oppressed group in American society…reflect(ing) the historical oppression of homosexuals during the Nazi reign of terror, (homosexuals) use the frame as metaphor, drawing parallels between contemporary homosexuals and the victims of Nazism fifty years earlier.

Although it is undeniable that without the persistence of the gay rights movements to establish solidarity through examining their past, the experience of homosexuals during National Socialism would not have been brought to fore to the extent that it had by the 1980’s, it is important to question to what extent the facts were examined for their historical merit. Memory has been prioritised over analysis. The establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial has set a foundation in which to build a comprehensible historicization of the homosexual persecutions within Nazi Germany. Writing in 1992, Müiller questioned the reasons for the persistence in aligning contemporary homosexual issues to those in Nazi Germany. He warned against the use of false analogy, and asks the question at hand: “Who do we remember?” He notes the extremity of exaggeration used by both gay groups and academics: “…up to 1 million dead gays and lesbians? Although big numbers create big emotions, here they only document a disturbing attitude in our community. Is there something within us we need to satisfy by inventing an even harsher history than history itself has been for us?” The same need to attach historical precedent toward a cause does not only occur within oppressed and marginalised fractions of society who fight against injustice, they inevitably espouse to those who wish to subvert truths. Could Abraham’s and Lively’s Pink Swastika have been received as a ‘thoroughly researched, eminently readable, demolition of the ‘gay’ myth’, had more emphasis been made toward historicization in place of comparison? Are their ‘facts’ of a homosexual-lead Holocaust any easier to refute that the ‘millions of murdered homosexuals’ claimed by historians? The failure to establish a firm historical discourse on the persecution of homosexuals during National Socialism not only leaves room for manipulation, but also repetition. It is no co-incidence that The Pink Swastika was born in a climate fraught with opposition to same-sex adoption and marriage. Sara Hart said “…Before we can wear the triangle, or carry the banner that reads ‘Never Again,’ we must first remember.” With homosexuals who were persecuted under National Socialism acknowledged and recorded within the United States Holocaust Memorial, it is now time transform popular memory into the well established Holocaust forum of scholarly debate.


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