The Pink Triangle: how a symbol moved from one of persecution to power

The Pink Triangle is a symbol of resistance and solidarity among the LGBTQIA+ community but its beginnings in Nazi Germany are dark. How has the meaning of such a simple icon changed so much? And why has it endured so long?


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In 1979, an American playwright called Martin Sherman released Bent, a stage production set in 1934 Berlin. Its story unfolds after the Night of the Long Knives, during which Adolf Hitler ordered the execution of a series of perceived political opponents in a bid to consolidate his power, and follows Max, a gay man living in Berlin who brings home a member of the SA on the infamous night. After Max and his boyfriend Rudy witness the man’s execution, they are forced to flee Berlin but are caught by the Gestapo and sent to Dachau.

A pivotal moment in the story occurs when Max arrives at the concentration camp and tells the guards he is Jewish, rather than homosexual, as he believes being branded with the yellow star and not the Pink Triangle – the classification for those the Nazis had singled out as homosexual, bisexual or transgender – will afford him an easier ride. With the knowledge we have of the horrors Jews were subjected to in Nazi concentration camps, this seems an incomprehensible decision. But when the play premiered in London, with Ian McKellen as Max, it revealed to audiences across the globe a lesser-known tale. That of the persecution of homosexuals under Nazi Germany and, importantly, the significance of the Pink Triangle as a symbol.

Today, the Pink Triangle is an image associated with resilience, togetherness and power, having been adopted by the LGBTQIA+ community as an emblem of resistance and overcoming adversity. A major reason for the Pink Triangle’s traverse from a representation of persecution to one of power is its inclusion on the world-renowned Silence = Death poster campaign, associated with activist organisation AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the fight against the US AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and 90s. It’s an empowering and fascinating tale, and one that proves how so much meaning can be embedded within such simple iconography.

How and why we attach significance to symbols or objects has fascinated humans for centuries. In the West, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Charles Sanders Peirce and, more recently, Umberto Eco, have studied semiotics in an attempt to understand the production of meaning and its important anthropological and sociological impacts. What is clear is that codes and patterns dictate much of our experience of the world; it is human nature to dig out meaning in everything we see, and to respond accordingly whether it’s a visual cue like an aubergine emoji, a non-verbal one like someone shrugging their shoulders, even just reaching for the red tap instead of the blue when we want hot water. There are things we just know and there are associations we learn.

When looking at this in the context of logos, semiotics can be a powerful tool for organisations and brands. And the Pink Triangle is the perfect example of how meaning becomes embedded within an icon; how it can communicate on such a high level and be disseminated widely because of what it communicates. Everything the Pink Triangle represents exists because of the history associated with it. It has endured through the decades, being utilised in varying contexts, each of which has added to its multifaceted and quite incredible story. And the more you learn, the more incredible it becomes.

It’s estimated that 100,000 gay men were arrested during the Nazi regime and that between 10,000 and 15,000 of them were sent to concentration camps, having had their names added to so-called “Pink Lists”. 65 per cent of those are believed to have died as a result. The wearing of badges in concentration camps to classify why you had been arrested was commonplace and while the yellow star is perhaps the most well known, prisoners were also branded with a red triangle if they were deemed a political prisoner: communist, socialist, trade unionist, etc. A black triangle was affixed to your clothing if you had been singled out as a lesbian, a symbol also used to denote the mentally ill, drug addicts, prostitutes or pacifists, among other things. Initially, gay or bisexual men and transgender women wore a variety of badges but the Pink Triangle emerged as the standard.

When the Allies defeated Germany, the majority of survivors in concentration camps were set free, and the Allied Forces demanded the dissolution of all laws instated by the Nazi Party. However, they left it up to the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) to decide whether certain laws which had existed prior to Hitler’s reign would remain in place. One such law was Paragraph 175, which made homosexual acts between males a crime and which, deemed not to be a product of Nazi ideology, wasn’t overturned fully until 1994. As a result, many gay men continued to be imprisoned. The law was reformed somewhat in 1969, narrowing the crime to include sex with a man less than 21 years old, homosexual prostitution, and the exploitation of a relationship of dependency (such as employing or supervising a person in a work situation). This perhaps begins to explain why the Pink Triangle, of all the symbols associated with concentration camps, remained in the consciousness of the community it had persecuted.

It’s following the reform of Paragraph 175 that we begin to see the use of the Pink Triangle in activist circles, like the gay liberation group Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW) which rallied gay men in Germany, asking them to wear the Pink Triangle as a memorial to past victims and in protest of continuing discrimination. It also found footing in the US in the 1980s, especially after the release of Bent, as the queer community found itself amidst a shocking epidemic: the AIDS crisis. It was in the latter half of the 80s that Avram Finkelstein, an activist and member of an anonymous collective decided to print the Pink Triangle on a poster reading “Silence = Death” in response to the crisis that was gripping the US, the need for transparency within the gay community and to form a connection to the government’s lack of response to the epidemic which meant gay men were dying on a colossal and devastating scale. That poster went on to become the central visual for AIDS activism and, as a result, the Pink Triangle is synonymous with the cause to this day.

Avram grew up in a political household during the 60s – his parents were heavily involved in civil rights and social justice issues. “I was kind of born with a poster in my hand,” he tells It’s Nice That on a video call from his New York City studio, where he is now a practising artist, author and teacher. It wasn’t until the AIDS crisis that Avram’s politics connected with his personhood as a queer man though. “I was a practising artist, and the man that I had decided to build my life around started showing signs of immunosuppression in the late 70s. And by 1984, he was dead,” he recalls. Because of his political background, he had the idea to form a small consciousness-raising group which turned out to include five other gay men – Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccarás – by late 1985. The idea was to remain anonymous, borrow ideas from feminist consciousness-raising organising principles, instigate riots in the upcoming election (hence the anonymity) and bring awareness to the mass mortality happening in front of their eyes.

“We started meeting and talking about our anxieties about that moment in history – people were still not saying the word AIDS – and at the end of every session, we were talking about the political environment surrounding these questions,” he explains of the context from which the idea to create a poster developed. “It was very much my emotional and political vocabulary… [the way] young people used to communicate with each other, outside of power structures, was to place posters in the streets.” They spent a total of nine months working on the design and began pasting it in the streets of New York in early 1987, two weeks before ACT UP (now an organisation known worldwide and often credited with creating Silence = Death) formed.

It’s a long time to spend working on a single poster design, especially on one which appears so simple: a black background with a Pink Triangle pointing upwards and block white capitals below reading “Silence = Death”. But there was a lot riding on the success of the campaign; lives were at stake and the potential controversy of using a symbol associated with the Nazis needed sensitive handling. “The poster had two primary objectives,” Avram explains. “One was to create an organising space within the queer community about the politics of AIDS, but to also simultaneously imply that we already were organised. The poster is densely coded and that’s why we spent such a long period of time considering and rejecting ideas.” The Pink Triangle was, in fact, the very first of their ideas but “half of the membership was Jewish, and Jews don’t take Holocaust analogies lightly. And we had concerns about it, in a way, intoning victimhood.” An inflammatory article written by William F. Buckley Jr, published in the New York Times, in which Buckley suggested those with HIV should be tattooed, quashed any worries about the use of the symbol, however. In that shocking proposition, Buckley made society’s toxic attitude towards the queer community clear, highlighting how individuals were losing their lives due to a lack of care. The article also makes a connection between the crisis and the Holocaust, and has further led to descriptions of the AIDS epidemic in the US as genocide. What’s more, he lit a fire under the collective to respond accordingly and “after months of arguing about it, we decided that it was the best option.”

Notably, the triangle on Silence = Death appears pointing upwards, in direct contrast to how triangles were attached to clothing in concentration camps. Over the years, this has come to represent an act of reversal, of protest and reclamation. And it is how you will often see it when featured on pin badges, in the work of artists like Keith Haring to signify a space queer space or, even, on Nike trainers. As it turns out, however, this now-momentous design choice was in fact a mistake. When designing the poster, one member of the collective, Chris Lione, was adamant that the triangle should be pointing upwards, and a debate ensued. “And remember, we didn’t always carry computers around [gesturing to his phone],” Avram explains. “So researching something like that was a more complicated thing.” They decided to let Oliver Johnston who was doing the actual layout decide, off the back of some research he promised to undertake. Fortunately (with hindsight), no such research took place and the triangle was printed facing the wrong direction. “We had this conversation about whether we should reprint it or not,” Avram remembers, “but we thought, ‘Oh, this is actually perfect. This signifies that code, but it doesn't adhere to it’.”

While the direction of the triangle was serendipitous, the rest of the design was meticulously thought-out. At the time, MTV and its aesthetic was taking hold of visual culture, particularly the design world. The collective, therefore, rejected the pale pink that had been used in concentration camps and instead made the triangle fuchsia “because we were wheat-pasting alongside commercial posters and wanted it to feel current.” The black background too was chosen to mimic the zeitgeist: “In the entire publishing industry, in the fashion world, in the music world, it was all about black.” Their strategy all along was a situationist one. Following in the footsteps of organisations like Adbusters and the Guerilla Girls, the poster needed to borrow the visual language of the capitalist mainstream in order to hide their message in plain site and deliver it to the masses, and it worked.

The medium mattered too. There’s a reason the collective created a poster in the end and not a leaflet, for example. “It’s one of the things we debated ad nauseam,” Avram says. The context in which they were creating the campaign is important regarding this decision. It was during Reagan’s America that the AIDS conversation was first promulgated (we now know the crisis began much earlier) and that was a singular political moment. “One of the things that Reagan did was deregulate just about everything in America,” Avram explains. “And one of them was the removal of the Fairness Doctrine, which enabled Fox News to exist. It was also the deregulation that created 24/7 cable news.” The world was changing and the image-led (and obsessed) landscape we know so well today was just beginning. The digital age was waiting around the corner, but it hadn’t yet taken hold. With their activist experience to date, the collective discussed the potential of a manifesto as this had, until this very moment, been the primary medium for political and activist groups to communicate with the public. One savvy member of the collective Charles Kreloff, however, recognised that “no one’s going to read a manifesto [posted in the streets], this isn’t the 60s,” and so a poster was decided on for its immediacy; for how it catered to the new way of assimilating information.

Understanding this historical and political context is also helpful when attempting to understand why this symbol has managed to endure. What is it about this simple image which has meant it’s retained significance through the latter half of the 20th Century and into the 21st? The answer seems to be that the release of Silence = Death came at the perfect time – as information was beginning to be shared more easily, but before imagery grew to dictate our daily lives. “Trying to manipulate the world of images now is a much more complicated thing than it was then,” Avram muses. “There were so many things happening at that moment that contributed to the efficacy or the universality of this particular image. It would have been like putting a message in a bottle if we did it this year, on the internet. Getting seen now involves a whole different set of questions.”

There’s also the fact that Silence = Death, surprisingly, has never been copyrighted; it’s still in the public domain and it features in several archives, including MoMA and the Library of Congress. What Avram explains is that, since the very beginning, the poster has existed to be seen by as many people as possible. And copyrighting would limit its use, limiting how many people would see it in turn. Yes, there have been numerous copies over the years but so what? It was yet another stealth gesture. “I was fully conscious of creating a cushion for continued research, historicisation, or conversation around it. It feels amazing to me that we seem to have crafted something that is still resonant across a very broad spectrum of people,” he says. It’s also interesting to consider how keeping the poster in the public domain radically changes its meaning, especially in comparison with symbols like the pride rainbow which has come under more and more scrutiny for its increased commercialisation and adoption by corporations, something many deem an act of virtue signalling. The Pink Triangle, on the other hand, and Silence = Death with it, has retained a certain authenticity. There is no disputing its place in the queer studies landscape and its relevance in furthering such an important cause.

Reflecting on the small but significant decisions Avram and the collective made, we can unpick the relationship between visual culture and activism on a broader scale, and the role of the former in making social change happen. Clearly, imagery has the power to facilitate progress. It’s a sentiment Avram not only agrees with but takes one step further when remarking that design in relation to activism is “essential, I mean we live in an image culture, we’re saturated with images… I think it’s naive to think that you can participate in any way in our culture, without the use of image and text.” Of the six members of the anonymous collective, five of them were art directors, and so incorporating imagery into their work – and taking the time to make sure it was done right – was always paramount. “It was very much the way we were thinking about how to present these very complex social justice and extremely political questions around genocide and homophobia,” he continues, adding that they kept a particular question front of mind: “How would we participate in culture in a way that would advance radical causes or radical set of ideas?”

So what does it feel like to have been involved in the creation of such an iconic piece of culture? “I’m honoured to still be asked about it,” Avram simply responds. “I feel like there seems to be a bottomless pit of inquiry about how this image was crafted and how it functions and how it sustains itself. It seems that there are generations of people discovering it, and thinking of it differently, and I think that will always be true.” And that, as a consciousness-raising project, it is so perfectly, fully functional.

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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