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BOOKS Ken Setterington on 'Branded by the Pink Triangle'
by Sarah Toce
2013-06-26

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Photo of a gay monument from Branded by the Pink Triangle. Image by Ken Setterington


Rainbow flags and pink triangles scream "Happy Pride" to a generation that has never known suppression in the form of concentration camp persecution. But what does the pink triangle really mean and…are we forgetting our history?

Author Ken Setterington sets the record straight—so to speak—about the origin of the pink triangle and why even those in the LGBT community have, at times, overzealously tried to conceal its past. In his new book, Branded by the Pink Triangle, Setterington explores German culture during the Holocaust and percolates on the topic of homosexuality specifically relating to the pop-up death camps that exterminated generations in one fell swoop. Utilizing first-person accounts and mastering the art of storytelling through all forms of available media, Setterington bravely delivers a project unlike any other of its time. The result is a haunting narrative that must be shared.

Windy City Times: According to your book, Branded by the Pink Triangle, Berlin was one of the most accepting cities for gay people in the world before World War II and the rise of the Nazi regime. Why was this such an important story to tell?

Ken Setterington: I think it is important to remember that there was time in Germany that homosexuals lived in a relatively free and open society. A society that they didn't think was under threat. It is always important to remember that society can change and we must be vigilant in moving society forward with acceptance of the LGBT community and not complacent.

WCT: Is there a specific reason it's imperative to tell this story now versus 20 years ago?

Ken Setterington: I can't say that there is a specific reason other than if the story had been told 20 years ago to students then perhaps there wouldn't be the same need today. The first books that came out about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals were published in the 1980s and there were a few others, but this tragic episode in gay history has not been frequently told. I feel that we need to remember the past and remember the suffering of the men who wore the pink triangle.

WCT: Please take us through the process of locating storytellers and victims personally involved in the tragedies that encrypted the world via the Holocaust, specifically gay folk. How difficult was it to find firsthand accounts?

Ken Setterington: The challenge in finding the homosexual victims of the Nazis was by the time I started working on this book, there were only two men left alive that had been victims. Both died while was I was working on the book and I was unable to interview them. What I did find were testimonies of the men online, there were also the testimonies recorded for the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute for visual history and education.

Also, I was able to read books written by a number of victims who wrote their memoirs as a way to tell the world what happened and to help them heal themselves. I have to add that the documentary film Paragraph 175 by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freedman was extremely useful; the film included a number of survivors telling their own stories.

WCT: What was a typical day like for an LGBT person during World War II?

Ken Setterington: That is a difficult question, as I wasn't studying LGBT everywhere, but there were laws in place making homosexual sex illegal in many countries, including the U.S. and Canada at that time. However, the laws were not enforced as strictly as in Germany. If you were in Germany, then it was a horror story for the LGBT community. For a homosexual male it was a daily fear of arrest. Citizens were encouraged to denounce men if they were homosexuals. Any past homosexual activity could be used to arrest a man and send him to be worked to death.

For lesbians the fear was different. Lesbians were not accepted, but there wasn't a fear of arrest as the laws against homosexuals did not include lesbians. However, any lesbian culture in Germany was over. Also one has to remember that for any LGBT members who were Jewish—none of that mattered because you were already marked for extermination being a Jew.

WCT: Once in the camps, how were LGBT people treated?

Ken Setterington: I need to clarify that the people who were sent to the camps were the homosexual men. There were a small number of lesbians sent to camps as anti-social members of society, but lesbians were not targeted by the Nazis in the same way as homosexual men. In the camps the men were treated terribly. From survivor accounts it is recorded that they were treated the worst of any of the groups aside from the Jews who were sent to the gas chambers. The men were basically worked to death.

WCT: Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann were activists involved in the civil-rights movement in Germany. Can you tell us about their social-justice work?

Ken Setterington: In Berlin prior to the war, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld ran the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and one of the projects he worked on was a petition to overturn Paragraph 175—the law which made homosexuality illegal. Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein, along with Hermann Hess and Martin Buber, were among the influential German signatories on the petition.

WCT: The pink triangle. Why the pink triangle? Who created this symbol that we still associate with the LGBT community today?

Ken Setterington: The triangles—or badges of shame—were used to identify the reasons for imprisonment. Why the color pink was chosen is simply not known. There is no documentation to prove why pink was used to identify homosexuals. The Nazis had a color chart for prisoners which included the following: red—political, green—criminals, purple—religious (primarily Jehovah's Witnesses), black—asocial members of society including anarchists and Gypsies, and brown—Roma and Sinta (Gypsies). The yellow Star of David was for Jews.

The color pink may have been chosen as it was regarded as a feminine color suitable for men who were considered to be effeminate, but that is simply conjecture.

WCT: Any guesses as to why this part of Holocaust history has been so underrepresented?

Ken Setterington: At the end of the war, the homosexuals did not want to draw attention to themselves. They simply wanted to live. Other groups, including the Jews, demanded the world pay attention to what had happened. For the homosexual community it was different—the men could still be arrested for homosexual activity. Indeed some men who had been in concentration camps were re-arrested after the war for sex crimes. It wasn't until the sexual revolution in the sixties and gay activists fought against persecution of gays that the laws were changed.

It wasn't until the book The Men with the Pink Triangle was published in 1972 that people took notice. When the play Bent by Martin Sherman was produced in 1979, international attention was brought to the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.

It took decades to establish monuments to the men and women who suffered because of their homosexuality. The Homomonument in Amsterdam is spectacular and, in 2008, the monument to the homosexuals persecuted in Berlin was unveiled. It has taken a very long time to recognize the suffering of the homosexuals.

WCT: Have we forgotten our brothers and sisters, and the pink triangle?

Ken Setterington: I think the pink triangle is being forgotten and the men and women who suffered during the Nazi period, but I think we are also forgetting that there are people around the world who still suffer because they have a preference for their own sex. I believe that it is important that the LGBT community recognize and [make an effort] to understand our history and support our brothers and sisters internationally who still suffer.

WCT: How accepting is Germany now? Is there any reciprocity for victims' families and such?

Ken Setterington: When I visited Germany a couple of years ago, I was amazed at how accepting Germany is. Berlin is once again gay center in Europe. Compensation for homosexual victims of the Nazis was made available in 2001, and men were encouraged to come forward, but by that time most of them were very elderly or dead.

WCT: The Holocaust Museum in D.C. has a very small section dedicated to the LGBT community. Might we expect this to expand with more materials—and books—like yours?

Ken Setterington: Actually, I was struck by how much information was available through the Holocaust Museum in D.C. They have an amazing archives and extremely helpful librarians and archivists who assisted me greatly in my efforts to tell the story of the pink triangle. I certainly hope that my book will be included there—and sold in the book store!

WCT: Personally speaking, please tell us why this was a story that you needed to tell. How has it affected you?

Ken Setterington: I was asked to write this book, and I wondered if there really was a need for a Holocaust book about homosexuals. At the time I was working as the Children and Youth Advocate at the Toronto Public Library; I knew that there weren't many books on the topic. But it was when I talked to some of the young gay staff [and asked them] if they knew what the pink triangle stood for, [that] I was shocked that they didn't even know that the pink triangle was a gay symbol.

I realized that the pink triangle has been replaced as a universal gay symbol by the rainbow flag and that gay culture was losing part of its history. I have always believed in the importance of learning from the past and I felt that this story desperately needed to be told to a young audience.

How it affected me—basically, I became more aware of just how lucky I have been.


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