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Using an old symbol to combat an old bigotry

by David Gillespie

Growing up in the South, I’ve always been acutely aware of the power of symbols. In the days of my youth, there were two symbols which dominated our lives: the cross, found on every corner, and the battle flag of the Confederate States of America, which flew proudly at the courthouse square, atop my state’s capitol and at Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts.

There have been several symbols for “gayness” since the time the word “homosexual” was first coined in the mid to late 1800s.

With the glory days of a progressive government seemingly a thing of the past — is it time to revive the Pink Triangle to remind people where unchecked discrimination and oppression can lead?
At one time or another, a particular color was symbolic of homosexuality. There were the green carnations of Wilde’s England; there was the “Purple Power” of the late 1960s.

There is, of course, the ubiquitous Rainbow Flag (in various forms) originally created by Gilbert Baker, a San Francisco artist, in 1978. At first the flag had eight colors and was intended to represent the extraordinary diversity of the queer experience; each color signified a particular aspect of our lives. For a couple of pragmatic reasons, the original eight were reduced to the present six and the meaning attached to that symbol has morphed into a generic statement of celebration and pride.

The six-colored flag is recognized by the International Congress of Flag Makers.
I like seeing Rainbow Flags, especially when I travel. Seems like you don’t see them as much these days, however. Go to any queer club on a Saturday night and you’d be hard pressed to find many Rainbow Flag stickers on the bumpers or back windows of the cars there. Even in the uber-gayborhood of Midtown Atlanta, except for that one week in June, you just don’t see a whole lot of them.

Before Rainbow Flags, however, there was another symbol of things gay, one with a much more powerful history and deeper meaning; a symbol we might want to think about reviving.

On June 28, 1935, the Ministry of Justice of the recently come to power Nazi party revised Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code. While Paragraph 175 already criminalized sex between men (punishable by imprisonment and/or loss of civil rights), the statute was expanded to provide legal grounds for the full-fledged persecution of male homosexuals. Eventually even the intent to have sex with another man brought persecution.

During the years leading up to and including World War II, approximately 100,000 men were arrested for violating Paragraph 175 and of those an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 were sent to the concentration camps — all in the name of trying to purify the Aryan race. Homosexual men were weak, the Nazis believed. They were effeminate — they would not produce children (more Aryans).

Those who were put into concentration camps were identified by having a pink triangle sewn onto their clothes. It was a symbol of discrimination, persecution, oppression and hatred.

Some 18 years after the liberation of the last camp, queer citizens of the United States found themselves the object of discrimination, persecution and hatred and their behavior was criminalized. Then came the riots in New York that became known as Stonewall.

Soon thereafter, that old Nazi-created way of identifying homosexuals in the camps was stolen from the realm of shame and became a symbol of proud self-identification.
In November of this year, voters in my home state of South Carolina will decide whether or not to deny certain civil rights to a certain segment of citizens, including gay men and women.

North Carolina continues to face this potential threat year after year. Many states have already taken this discriminatory, persecutory step. No doubt such efforts on a national level will continue to be made — after all, the head honcho himself, George W., supports it. Statistically, the number of reported hate crimes against queer folks has been rising.
I’m not suggesting we are approaching days similar to those faced by gay men in 1930s Germany or even American queers during the 1950s. But face it; the glory days of “Will and Grace” and the Clinton White House are gone.

Without trying to point a finger, the fact is the struggle for gay rights has seemingly been set back on its heels. Discrimination against queer folks in the workplace is still legal in many parts of the country; uttering homo-disparaging remarks is still socially acceptable. Queers are still beat up by gloating homophobes. And in more and more states, full civil rights are being constitutionally denied to men and women who simply love a member of the same gender.

No, we’re not back in the Third Reich, not by a long shot. But maybe it is time to revive that pink triangle, that symbol so full of meaning and history when it comes to the oppression of gays.

Being gay should be a source of great pride and joy and celebration — of Rainbow Flags — but maybe it’s time, by using that rich symbol of the Pink Triangle, to remind people of where unchecked discrimination and oppression can lead.

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