On display on a Twin Peaks hillside during San Francisco Pride since 1996, the Pink Triangle serves as reminder of the persecution gay people faced during the Holocaust and a celebration of victories since. (Gabrielle Lurie/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Pink Triangle to light up for 25th anniversary

Iconic S.F. gay rights art installation shines on during pandemic

Patrick Carney, creator of the Pink Triangle, never worried that his eye-catching commemorative San Francisco Pride weekend public art installation on Twin Peaks would be curtailed on its 25th anniversary due to the coronavirus.

“I knew something would happen, even if there’s just the outline, even if I had to put it up myself,” said Carney, describing the 200-foot long art outdoor artwork filling a hillside acre.

Typically made from 175 bright pink tarps, referencing Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexuality in Nazi Germany, the piece serves as a remembrance of gay people persecuted during the Holocaust who were forced to wear a pink triangle on their clothing.

Pink Triangle creator Patrick Carney, pictured at the podium in 2015, is marking a big anniversary of his commemorative art installation. (

“It really is a beacon of hope during this time of pandemic. It’s all about remembering the hatred of the past and making sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Carney.

But the Pink Triangle will be different in 2020.

Instead of working with 300 volunteers who stake down dozens of tarps, Carney is collaborating with Illuminate, the nonprofit that organized and installed The Bay Lights project on the Bay Bridge. And instead of remaining in place for Pride weekend’s three days, the Pink Triangle will be on view for three weeks, from June 27 until July 10.

“Every year, my sister, spouse and I put up the outline on Friday, and then volunteers color between the lines. Well, the volunteers won’t be there this year, because they cannot. The middle will still be field. We’re filling in the field with the 43 rows of LED lights, with a much smaller crew, a professional crew with surveyors and stuff. It will look kind of like a vineyard during the day, surrounded by a pink outline,” Carney said.

Illuminate has issued a rendering of how the Pink Triangle will be a beacon at night this year. (Courtesy Christoper Michel & Illuminate)

Ben Davis, founder of Illuminate, got in touch with Carney to develop the project.

“I had been cycling back and forth across Twin Peaks bunches of times and it got me thinking about Patrick’s triangle, and what was going to happen this year, and just suddenly feeling the energy of the possibility of having that symbol be illuminated when people couldn’t gather, but you could sort of pride in place,” said Davis, describing how the monument fulfills Illuminate’s mission to rally “large groups of people together to create impossible works of public art that, through awe, free humanity’s better nature.”

In previous years, Carney brought in floodlights and searchlights to draw attention, in the manner of a Hollywood premiere.

“We’re going with, in some ways, a more vibrant and yet more subdued version of the piece,” said Davis. “Instead of the light shining onto the canvas, you’ll actually see those points of lights.”

While The Bay Lights has about 25,000 LED lights going across the bridge span of 1.8 miles, the Pink Triangle will have 2,700 lights condensed in an acre of space.

Powered by a generator, the lights will go on just after 9 p.m. on June 27 in part of a significantly smaller-than-usual annual ceremony happening in the evening for the first time, at the bottom of the hill rather than top.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, having endured burning temperatures when she came in 2018 and freezing in 2019, is scheduled to attend for the third time.

Through the years, the ceremony has boasted notable guests, including former mayors Gavin Newsom (three times), Ed Lee (four times) and Willie Brown (four times).

Carney remembers an eloquent speech in 1998 by Brown, who related the Holocaust to the 1998 Texas murder by white supremacists of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged behind a truck; the horrific event is part of the continuing violence against black people now coming to international attention after the death of George Floyd by the hands of Minnesota police.

Notable guests at Pink Triangle festivities with Carney, far left, included, from left, Willie Brown, Mark Leno and Tom Ammiano. (Courtesy Patrick Carney)

But in 1996, the Pink Triangle’s first year, there was less fanfare.

“It was kind of a fluke. It was a renegade crafts project that went up in the dark at night so we wouldn’t get arrested. The second year, it went from insurgent to mainstream. I applied for a permit,” said Carney, who at the time didn’t know who owned the land.

The more formal ceremony, today with its signature pink stage and arch of pink balloons, began in 1998, with Mayor Brown, and then-supervisors Tom Ammiano, Sue Bierman and Mark Leno attending and many others since.

“It’s all pink. Everybody’s in their Pink Triangle T-shirts. Even Nancy Pelosi wore one,” said Carney, adding that the U.S. House speaker has been invited this year.

“We label ourselves by choice. In the Holocaust, the ‘undesirables’ had no choice,” said Carney, mentioning that he’s pleased to have T-shirts available in all sizes, down to infant and toddler, yet disappointed that hundreds of volunteers cannot join him in putting down the triangle this year.

“That’s a shame because one of the best things about the Pink Triangle is that it’s a community-building event. All these straight couples bring their children up, to learn about hate at any early age, to meet gay people one on one, it’s really beautiful,” said Carney.

On a typical year, hundreds of volunteers stake down tarps to create the Pink Triangle in a community-building event. (Gabrielle Lurie/Special to S.F. Examiner)

While the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus won’t perform this year, about a dozen members of the long-participating San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band will be on hand.

Even though multitudes won’t be out in force, the triangle will be lit for three weeks, its final days coinciding with the 23rd International AIDS Conference, originally scheduled for July 6-10 in San Francisco and Oakland, but now online.

“We thought we would leave a giant pink light on for the AIDS conference. Now they’ve gone virtual. But we’re going to light it up anyway. So instead of three days, it will be three weeks,” said Carney, who has no plans to make the triangle a permanent Twin Peaks monument: “It’s not supposed to be political. It should be commemorative,” he said.

Illuminate’s collaborators, working on both physical and conceptual levels to set up the installation, include Westover Surveying Inc., California Story Poles, Seabright Lighting and Lightswitch, said Davis, amazed that the nonprofit’s project will be completed in “breakneck urban pacing” of less than three months.

Through the years, the Pink Triangle has slightly changed size, shape and location. Wider and skinnier than it was in 1996, it looks elongated when viewed from above, but from down on the ground, it looks the right shape.

Today tattered from strong winds, Carney said, “I tell people it’s like an aging movie star, better viewed from a distance.”

The display can be seen from 20 miles away on a clear day, said Carney and Davis, who added that this year, “We’re pretty confident that you’ll be able to pick that pink star on the horizon pretty cleanly from the East Bay on a clean night.

“Our friends at NASA Ames were pretty sure that on a clear night, a perfect night, you would be able to sort of see it from space,” Davis continued.

While Carney, 64, admitted the Pink Triangle is “costing a lot of money,” he reached about $61,000 of his $85,000 crowdfunding goal as of June 21 and remains positive, with 2020 being special also for the 50th anniversary of SF Pride.

Despite the damaging rise of hate rhetoric connected with the current presidential administration, the dehumanization of minorities and the pandemic that has shut the world down, Carney said, “One thing’s still live: The Pink Triangle. You can get on your rooftop, get on your balcony, look out your window, or stand in the middle of Market Street, and you can see the Pink Triangle being lit up, and you can see it for three weeks. And it’s real. You don’t have to turn on your computer. It’s right there for you to see.”

Pink Triangle by the numbers

1 acre

20 miles (distance from which it can be seen )

25 years old

27 of June, Global Grand Lighting at 8 p.m. at bottom of Twin Peaks

43 rows of lights

175 pink tarps (most years)

200 feet long

300 volunteers (most years)

2,700 LED nodes

5,000 12-inch long steel spikes (most years)

85,000 dollars fundraising goal, to donate, visit https://illuminatethepinktriangle.org/

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