I wore a lot of buttons in high school, but none of them excited so much comment as the pink triangle. At the time it was rare for anyone who wasn’t gay, lesbian or bisexual to wear the symbol, and national progress toward justice was slow. The Supreme Court had just ruled sodomy laws constitutional, and the right to marry was a distant dream. The AIDS epidemic in the United States was at its deadliest moment, and the enduring image of the time, created by AIDS activists, was a big black poster with a pink triangle and the words “SILENCE = DEATH.”
The pink triangle itself came from Nazi concentration camps, in which gay men were identified with a pink triangle on their shirts. Tens of thousands were imprisoned, many were killed, and some were not released even at the war’s end. (Lesbians were not identified by pink triangles, but many were arrested for “antisocial behavior” and made to wear black triangles in the camps.) In the 1970s, the triangle began to appear as a symbol of gay pride and a warning of the dangers of oppression.
During the 1990s, the pink triangle began to fade from use. The rainbow “welcoming flag,” celebrating diversity, appealed to straight allies as well as bisexual, lesbian and transgender people. It was a less harsh, more positive symbol, a way of saying, “all kinds of people are welcome and valued equally.” Today the pink triangle seems all but consigned to history.
With the news of draconian anti-gay measures in Russia, Nigeria and Uganda, a new ban on gay sex instituted by the Supreme Court of India, and nouveau Jim Crow laws proposed in Arizona and elsewhere, I wonder if it might be time to bring back the pink triangle. While the world has made great progress in the struggle for equality, the current backlash is proving powerful and dangerous. In the United States, measures permitting discrimination on the basis of “religious freedom” will inevitably prove unable to withstand constitutional scrutiny by even the current Supreme Court. More pernicious are the American religious extremists who have given up on the United States and turned their energies toward countries that offer no such protections, or who have weak governments in need of distraction or scapegoats. Ironically, both Russia and Uganda have couched oppressive new laws as reactions to colonialism by Western gay culture when the truth is exactly the reverse.
I love the welcoming flag, and fly it proudly – but maybe we need to hold onto the pink triangle as well. Maybe we need a reminder of the cost of hatred, in real human lives and livelihoods. Maybe we need to remember that silence really does equal death, and the worst thing we can do is remain silent in the face of oppression.
Our voices matter, and we can save lives. Sometimes what matters most is a word of encouragement and welcome to a teen just coming out. Sometimes it’s our support of equal marriage rights, and equal protection in housing and employment. At other times we need to raise our voices for those around the world whose sexual orientation places them in far more immediate jeopardy. We can do this not only by campaigning against anti-gay laws, and supporting sanctions towards nations (and states) that pass them, but also by calling to account those who would export hatred.
I pray for a world in which a symbol like the pink triangle is can be a historical curiosity, when people are simply regarded as people, whoever they are and whoever they love. I believe in my heart that such a world is both possible and likely – but it will take years of work, and history must never be forgotten.
Meanwhile, it’s time to find that old button.