Sharing stories of forgotten gay victims
TORONTO — Ken Setterington decided he needed to write a book about the pink triangle when he realized so many people had never heard of it, or knew what it stood for.
The pink triangle badge was used to identify gay men in concentration camps during the Holocaust. After the war, it was reclaimed as a symbol of gay pride, although the rainbow flag eventually overshadowed it, he said.
“I thought there was no need [to write a book about it] until I went to talk to the young people I worked with,” said Setterington, a children’s author as well as a librarian with the Toronto Public Library.
He asked one young gay man what he knew about the pink triangle. He said nothing. Most of the staff gave similar responses, which made him realize there was, indeed, a need.
“Most people know about the millions of Jews who were murdered, but what about the other victims, including the gay victims?” he asked. “I felt, as a gay person, our history needed to be told, too.”
The author of Branded by the Pink Triangle shared what he uncovered in his research for the book during a Holocaust Education Week lecture at the University of Toronto. He explained his book tells the stories of numerous gay men who were persecuted during the Holocaust.
He talked about the history of the gay community in Berlin, and how it was quite vibrant in the 1920s, despite homosexuality being illegal. He discussed how, after the Nazis came into power, they began to more actively persecute gay Aryan men, who they saw as lowering the Aryan birthrate.
Thousands of men were arrested for being gay and they were taken to Nazi concentration camps.
“They were being sent to work,” Setterington said, but “the work they were sent to do would most likely kill them.”
Men who were hurt or lost limbs were sent to the infirmary, where they almost certainly would die.
He described how gay men were disproportionately used for torturous Nazi medical experiments.
“The Nazis wanted to discover reasons for homosexuality and did tests on those men,” he said.
The gay men’s experiences were particularly brutal because even when they were being liberated, they were not treated well. Homosexuality was still illegal in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and most other major nations after the war, which is why many survivors never talked about their experiences.
“We don’t have the same number of witnesses, and the people are now dead, so the stories are just being forgotten,” Setterington told The CJN.
In 1970, a group of activists were arrested for trying to place a lavender wreath at the National War Memorial in Amsterdam in memory of the gay men who died in the Holocaust. It wasn’t until 1987 that a memorial was unveiled there.
Nowadays, there are several memorials around the world dedicated to gay Holocaust victims, but not enough to help the world learn this history, Setterington said.
As Setterington spoke, he became emotional, explaining that it happens no matter how many times he shares these men’s stories.
“It’s just hard, because each one of those men deserves to be remembered, and we need to make sure those stories are kept alive,” he said.
If there’s one message he hopes people will take away from the book, it’s about respect.
“Respect others no matter what their religion, their sexual orientation, or the colour of their skin,” he said. “We need to respect diversity.”