Pink Triangle Lights Up for 26th Year

The annual ambitious public artwork symbolizes a long history of oppression — and resilience — for the LGBTQ community.

Nearly 20 years after Harvey Milk was assassinated, gays were still fighting for visibility and equal treatment in San Francisco. Sure, things were better: In 1995, the first major out candidate for mayor, Roberta Achtenberg, took third place in the election. That same year, the FDA approved the first protease inhibitor to treat HIV, marking the introduction of a new, life-saving class of drugs. In August of 1997, a Bay Area Reporter headline read “No Obits,” marking the first time since the start of the AIDS epidemic that the newspaper didn’t have to publish an obituary for someone who died from the disease. 

But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Police were still known to harass queers in the Castro, especially those who were suspected of frequenting loosely-protected medical cannabis clubs. Interpersonal bigotry, whether it be non-consensual groping, slurs, or outright violence was relatively common compared to today. Liberation for trans people still lagged far behind. 

Former Mayor Willie Brown pops champagne at a celebration of the Pink Triangle in 1998. Photo courtesy of Hossein Carney

Recognizing this reality, Patrick Carney gathered a group of friends one night in June 1996 to arrange a group of pink canvases in the shape of a large triangle on the Twin Peaks hillside. The installation would make sure nobody celebrating Pride in San Francisco that day would forget their history, as the pink triangle is meant to symbolize the pink triangle homosexuals were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Carney describes it as the “yin” to the iconic rainbow flag’s “yang”: a less optimistic counterpart rooted in decades, if not centuries, of oppression. 

“The big display is a reminder and a warning of what could happen,” Carney says. “The ceremony, then, is where we go from the darkness of the Holocaust to all of the beautiful, positive things that have happened in more recent years.” 

The next year, Carney went through a more formal, legal route by obtaining permits from the city to install the pink canvas triangle. By 1998, the triangle had doubled in size, and Mayor Willie Brown and Supervisors Tom Ammiano, Mark Leno, and Sue Bierman would all be in attendance. Speaking off the cuff, Mayor Brown connected the pink triangle to Black oppression in the United States and, specifically, the Texas murder of James Byrd Jr. According to Carney, the unrecorded speech was one of the best Mayor Brown ever gave. 

This year marks the 26th anniversary of the Pink Triangle, and the ceremony has blossomed into an all-day affair. On June 1, Mayor Libby Schaaf will kick off the Pink Torch Procession in the late morning, leading a torch that will be used to symbolically “light” the pink triangle through downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt with the help of 30 torchbearers. The torch will then start its day in San Francisco at the Ferry Building before making its way past Market Street and through the Tenderloin and the Castro. A private escort from Dykes on Bikes will then take the torch to the top of Twin Peaks, where Mayor London Breed will officially “light” the Pink Triangle for all of San Francisco to see. 

The creation of the focal piece, once a DIY project, is a little more carefully orchestrated now, too. Illuminate, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that also designed show-stopping lights for the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Park Observation Wheel, and the top of the Salesforce Tower will be lighting up the Pink Triangle for the second time this year. While a triangular outline made of canvases is still used for posterity, Illuminate’s lights draw an outline filled in with multiple horizontal lines of lumens. The organization lit up the triangle for the first time in 2020, amid a small-scale ceremony designed for the pandemic. The lights installed then shone for three weeks, whereas this year they will shine for the entire month. 

“We honor Patrick and his historic efforts and we are grateful for the opportunity to vibrantly augment his extraordinary commitment to the LGBTQ movement,” said Illuminate CEO Ben Davis in a press release. “And we’re thrilled to shine this year for the full month of June.”

People pop champagne at a celebration of the Pink Triangle. Photo courtesy of Hossein Carney

Illuminate and Friends of the Pink Triangle (the group which organizes the triangle’s creation every year) have fundraised just over $54,000 as of May 28 to pay for lights and materials for the project. Their goal is $75,000. The organization is also still gathering volunteers to set up the Pink Triangle on May 29, prepare for the ceremony on June 1, take down the triangle on July 1, and watch over the hillside through the month of June. Volunteers can sign-up here.

“Part of celebrating any Pride weekend is knowing where you’ve been,” Carney says. “This is it. We point to this thing up on the hill and say this is what could happen again.” 

Pink Torch Procession
Tuesday, June 1 | 11:30 a.m.
Oakland City Hall, the procession then continues downtown, through Lake Merritt, and through downtown San Francisco
www.thepinktriangle.com

Dedication Ceremony and Lighting
Tuesday, June 1 | 8 p.m.
Twin Peaks
www.thepinktriangle.com

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