Susanna Cassisa, review of W. Jake Newsome’s “Pink Triangle Legacies: Coming Out in the Shadow of the Holocaust”

W. Jake Newsome. Pink Triangle Legacies: Coming Out in the Shadow of the Holocaust. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022. 286 PP. Cloth $34.95. ISBN: 9781501765155. 

Newsome book cover

Since its appearance on the iconic “Silence = Death” political poster created by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the pink triangle has become synonymous with queer activism, solidarity, and resilience. But before it became emblematic of LGBTQ+ mutual aid and self-determination, Nazis used the pink triangle as a tool for persecution.

With the National Socialist takeover of Germany in 1933, the period of sexual liberation characteristic of Berlin in the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) came to a screeching halt. Aside from challenging normative gender roles, homosexuality, according to the Nazi worldview, was especially threatening because it prevented the reproduction of the “master race.” This was compounded by the belief that homosexuals could and would seduce others into a lifestyle of sexual transgression.

Because the Nazis understood homosexuality as a set of undesirable behaviors rather than a fixed identity, they also treated it as a “problem” that could be “cured.” Gay men were therefore imprisoned and subjected to violent, often deadly, dehumanizing methods of “rehabilitation,” rather than explicitly targeted for genocide. While the most famous of the complex color-coded system of badges in concentration camps was the well-known yellow Star of David for Jews, those imprisoned for violations of Paragraph 175—Germany’s anti-sodomy law since unification in 1871—were identified by an inverted pink triangle.[1] In his debut book, Pink Triangle Legacies: Coming Out in the Shadow of the Holocaust, historian W. Jake Newsome traces the transformation of the pink triangle from “a badge of damnation, shame, and imprisonment into a visual marker of resistance, pride, and liberation” (5).

Much has been written about the pink triangle and the Nazi persecution of queer people, but Newsome’s ambitious temporal and geographical scope—from Nazi Germany to contemporary North American pop culture—offers an important intervention in scholarly conversations about the pink triangle’s role in queer activism.[2] In addition to secondary scholarship from pioneers of queer Holocaust studies, such as Geoffrey Giles, Günter Grau, Rüdiger Lautmann, Claudia Schoppmann, and Hans-Georg Stümke, Newsome uses an impressive array of transnational archival records, autobiographical accounts, and original interviews to support his analysis. In so doing, Pink Triangle Legacies contributes to a growing field at the intersection of Holocaust Studies and LGBTQ+ studies, an area underrepresented in scholarship but central to gay liberation movements of the West.

By tracing the evolution of the symbol’s usage, the book documents how LGBTQ+ activists in West Germany and the United States marshalled what he refers to as “pink triangle memories” (5)—memories of Nazi-era violence against queer people—to advance gay liberation efforts. Newsome argues that as activists beginning in the early 1970s on both sides of the Atlantic researched, documented, and publicized the previously neglected history of queer Holocaust victims, they “grafted” (7) these memories onto their own unique political and cultural contexts, creating a “shared gay history” (8) that led to the emergence of the “modern, transatlantic gay identity” (4).

Newsome begins by describing the Nazi persecution of queer people during the Third Reich, seamlessly interweaving personal narratives of victims with his own analysis. While the Nazis amended Paragraph 175 in 1935 to encompass a wider array of punishable activities, existing homophobic sentiment within the broader German public facilitated the Nazi campaign against gay men, in particular. The relative sexual freedom of Weimar-era Berlin did not extend beyond the capital city. By the time the Nazis rose to power, many Germans, regardless of their political inclinations, reported on their queer neighbors, family members, and coworkers, such that even those who objected to the Nazis’ violent methods reserved little sympathy for “sexual deviants.” Of the estimated five thousand to fifty thousand “175ers” imprisoned in concentration camps, only around thirty-five percent survived.

In the postwar period, the situation for queer people in West Germany only marginally improved, and the relief of the liberation from the camps was short-lived. Many 175ers had to serve out the remainder of their sentence because homosexuality was still a crime. Viewing queer survivors as criminals, rather than victims, legitimized West Germany’s continued implementation of the Nazi version of Paragraph 175.[3] Queer victims were silenced, as speaking up about their persecution also meant confessing to a criminal offense.

Nevertheless, activists made their voices heard, and in 1969, the West German State reformed Paragraph 175 to legalize consensual sex acts between men twenty-one years of age or older (notably, the age of consent for heterosexual relations was sixteen). In response, queer activists of the West German “1968 generation,” intent on raising the visibility of gay activists to combat stereotypes and misinformation, began to reclaim the pink triangle to gain support for gay emancipation. United States activists John Lauritsen, David Thorstad, and James Steakley learned about the history of the pink triangle from their West German comrades and brought the symbol back across the Atlantic with them, meaning that “the gay rights movements in the United States and West Germany were not simply international; they were truly transnational” (112). Newsome compellingly argues that by invoking Holocaust memory in a uniquely US American context, gay activists contributed to the development of a collective gay memory that galvanized gay rights activism for decades to come.

These same activists were dedicated to the documentation of queer Holocaust victims through various media. Die Männer mit dem rosa Winkel (The Men with the Pink Triangle, 1972), the ground-breaking first book-length autobiography of a gay concentration camp survivor, documented the experiences of Josef Kohout under the pseudonym Heinz Heger. In 1974, James Steakley published “Homosexuals in the Third Reich” and later that year, John Lauritsen and David Thorstad published The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864–1935), which documented the early gay rights movement in Germany. These publications demonstrate that the LGBTQ+ community had been writing its own history for decades by the time mainstream scholarly debates emerged over how to characterize the Nazi campaign against homosexuality.

Similarly, grassroots activists were the first to make efforts to publicly commemorate queer Holocaust victims in both West Germany and the United States. However, memorials for queer victims, particularly lesbians, were often met with resistance. It was not until 2021, more than a decade after the installation of a plaque commemorating gay men at Ravensbrück, that a monument for lesbian victims was approved.[4] At other moments, efforts to silence particular victim groups came from within the queer community itself. In the early 2000s, many gay men opposed the inclusion of lesbians in a German national memorial dedicated to queer victims of the Nazi regime, claiming that the persecution of gay women was not comparable to that of gay men. Such infighting over which queer groups should be memorialized mirrored prior debates over whether persecuted gay men deserved to be recognized as victims of fascism.

Newsome’s carefully researched analysis enhances understandings of queer liberation movements of the twentieth century by delineating the transnational ties between West German and US American activists who reoriented memories of Nazi persecution to make strides toward a more equitable future. There were a few instances where readers could benefit from a more thorough critical analysis. For example, in describing the queer community’s usage of Holocaust memory to incite political action, Newsome quotes a speech during which Harvey Milk told listeners, “[w]e are not going to sit back in silence as 300,000 of our gay brothers and sisters did in Nazi Germany” (119). As Newsome illustrates, activists at this time did not have access to accurate historical information about the LGBTQ+ experiences under Nazi rule; however, despite Newsome’s accounts of queer resistance efforts during the Third Reich in Chapter 1, he offers no commentary on Milk’s claim that queer people did not resist Nazi violence.

This missed opportunity notwithstanding, Newsome’s analysis is rich and comprehensive. Importantly, Pink Triangle Legacies explores the shortcomings of pink triangle symbolism in adequate detail, while still recognizing its important role in queer activism. He notes that the progress the symbol achieved for gay men sometimes came at the cost of others, particularly lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, who were not explicitly targeted by Paragraph 175. Newsome uses secondary scholarship, archival evidence, and personal interviews to emphasize other queer stories in addition to those of gay men during and after the Holocaust, particularly highlighting their all-too-frequent exclusion from histories of Nazi persecution.[5] Newsome also directs readers to the work of scholars including Jennifer Evans, Anna Hájková, Laurie Marhoefer, and Katie Sutton, who study the experiences of these groups during the Third Reich and notes the lack of research on bisexual experiences during this period (155-166).

Newsome makes a significant contribution to the fields of Holocaust studies, memory studies, and gender/sexuality studies. Academics, history students, and interested members of the general public alike will find Pink Triangle Legacies thoroughly researched and highly readable. Read alongside Samuel Clowes Huneke’s recent monograph States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany, readers will glean a detailed understanding of queer persecution and activism on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This book will surely become a staple on the shelves of both scholars and queer history buffs.


[1] The Nazis labelled other prisoners with triangles of various colors. Newsome quotes Josef Kohout, a gay concentration camp survivor, who described the badges as “yellow for Jews, black for asocials, red for politicals, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, green for criminals, blue for emigrants, pink for homosexuals, brown for Gypsies” (43).
[2] See, for instance, Günter Grau and Claudia Schoppmann, eds., Hidden Holocaust? Gay and Lesbian Per­secution in Germany 1933–45, translated by Patrick Camiller, (London: Cassel, 1995); Erik N. Jensen, “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 11, no. 1/2, Special Issue: Sexuality and German Fascism (January–April 2002): 319–49; Lautmann, Rüdiger, “The Pink Triangle: Homosexuals as ‘Enemies of the State,’” in The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 345-357; Richard Plant, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals, (New York: H. Holt, 1986); James D. Steakley, The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany, (New York: Arno, 1975); Hans-Georg Stümke, Homosexuelle in Deutschland: eine politische Geschichte, (Munich: Beck, 1989); Sébastien Tremblay, “‘The Proudest Symbol We Could Put Forward?’: The Pink Tri­angle as a Transatlantic Symbol of Gay and Lesbian Identities from the 1970s to the 1990s,” PhD diss., (Freie Universität Berlin, 2020).
[3] The pink triangle appeared far less frequently in East Germany than in West Germany, and the unique social, political, and cultural circumstances of the Cold War meant that East German activists’ tactics differed from their West German counterparts’. Despite some contact between activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the gay rights movement in East Germany developed somewhat separately. Therefore, Newsome does not address East Germany in Pink Triangle Legacies. For an analysis of East German and West German gay activism, see Samuel Clowes Huneke, States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022).
[4] According to Newsome, the Nazis imprisoned some 132,000 women in Ravensbrück, the largest camp exclusively for women, between 1939 and 1945. Under the Nazi regime, lesbians fell under the broad category of “asocial,” so unfortunately no estimates are available of how many of these women were lesbians (168-170).
[5] For scholarship on the experiences of these groups during the Holocaust, see, for instance, Samuel Clowes Huneke, “The Duplicity of Tolerance: Lesbian Experiences in Nazi Berlin,” Journal of Contemporary History 54, no. 1 (April 2017): 30–59; Laurie Marhoefer, “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: A Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939–1943,” American Historical Review 121, no. 4 (2016): 1167–95; Claudia Schoppmann, Days of Masquerade: Life Stories of Lesbians during the Third Reich, trans. Allison Brown. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).


Susanna Cassisa is a Mississippian living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in German Studies at the University of British Columbia and earned her B.A. in International Studies and German from the University of Mississippi in 2021. Her thesis focuses on queer activism in Germany and the United States in the early twentieth century. Her broader research interests include the relationship between mass media, gender, and sexuality. Susanna is committed to producing accessible scholarship and plans to pursue a career writing for public audiences.

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