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Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.1 and 2 (2002) 319-349

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The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness:
Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution

Erik N. Jensen
University of Wisconsin—Madison

When, in the winter of 1993, the gay magazine 10 Percent criticized the use of the pink triangle as an emblem of gay identity, it touched a nerve. 1 "As a symbol of shared victimization, it is indefensible," wrote Sara Hart, a senior editor of the magazine. "To equate the discrimination and harassment of the present with the savagery inflicted upon the lesbians and gay men of the Holocaust trivializes their suffering." 2 Readers disagreed, however, and the letters in the following two issues underscored the relevance of the pink triangle to the gay and lesbian community. One reader stated, "You editorialize about how the wearing of this symbol 'trivializes' the suffering of concentration camp victims. . . . Are the deaths of tens of thousands of people (as a result of the Reagan administration's inaction on AIDS) trivial?" 3 Another argued that the pink triangle raised the political consciousness of gays and lesbians and "compels us to take action against homophobic trends, such as current attempts to pass antigay initiatives throughout the country." 4 A third reader, even though she deplored the [End Page 319] commercialization of the pink triangle, still supported its display "on somber occasions, such as in remembrance of victims of queer-bashings." 5

Each of these reactions illustrates the continued resonance of the pink triangle, the insignia that identified homosexual inmates in the Nazi concentration camps. The readers attributed their political consciousness as gay men and women, at least in part, to a particular collective memory of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. This historical memory, refracted in the symbol of the pink triangle, has mobilized vigilance against contemporary oppression, from queer bashings to antigay initiatives. The letters also show that gays and lesbians perceived this oppression as part of a long historical pattern that extended from the Nazi era to the present. Sara Hart concluded her article with the admonition, "Before we can wear the button or carry the banner that reads 'Never Again,' we must first remember." 6 The letters to the magazine indicate, though, that the gay and lesbian community already has remembered the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, albeit in very particular political, social, and national contexts and quite often independently of historical research on the subject.

In the following essay I shall trace the evolution over the past thirty years of collective memories in both the American and German gay communities in order to show what these communities have remembered and why. 7 I acknowledge from the outset the problems associated with speaking of a single gay and lesbian community, even within a national border; and I recognize that a single gay memory of Nazi persecution does not exist. In fact, this essay shows how cleavages in the communities have fostered alternate memories and how the American and German memories reflect different national experiences. Furthermore, many gays and lesbians remain altogether unaware of the historical significance of the pink triangle. Nevertheless, a larger memory has emerged that, despite differences, does contain shared symbols, narratives, and referents and has significantly influenced the consciousness of the broader gay and lesbian community. 8 [End Page 320]

Collective memory, which Iwona Irwin-Zarecka has defined as "a set of ideas, images, feelings about the past," often eludes attempts to locate its sites and delineate its contours. Irwin-Zarecka has argued that one should look for it "not in the minds of individuals, but in the resources they share." 9 For the memory of the Nazi persecution of gays the shared resources include the gay press, which has discussed issues important to gay identity and gay rights over the last three decades; literary works and films; protest demonstrations and memorial actions conducted by gay and lesbian organizations; and, finally, the appropriation of the pink triangle.

A shared memory of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals emerged in...