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
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
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
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.