Through LGBTQ history, symbolism has been integral to who we are. We have used symbolism to raise our spirits and causes. We have also used various symbols as a means of identifying who we are to one another. Modes of dress, buttons emblazoned with logos, flags, and even speech have been the symbols that we bear to live our lives. Many you may be familiar with, but there are hundreds more that have fallen to the annals of history and left our collective conscious. Thanks to Andy Campbell and his book Queer X Design: 50 Years of Signs, Symbols, Banners, Logos, and Graphic Art of LGBTQ we have documentation of what they once were. In this article, I will share my views of this book and some of the lesser known symbols. With Pride in the CLE, and Pride Season in general, just around the corner, it is important to draw some attention on our past.
This books shows 50 years of history, but actually goes back to a time before the Stonewall Riots. It hints at a history of terminology such as “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” and when they came into usage. It also speaks of the era of Vaudeville, roughly the 1920s, and some of the earliest mentions of same sex love. It’s important to show this, because many feel that the history of LGBT people didn’t start until Stonewall, when the truth is in American there is a documented history easily tracing back to the 1860s. That’s almost 200 years of LGBT history that many of today’s generation aren’t familiar way. These were the pavers to our present time, the ones who only wanted to be with the ones they loved and not have to fear for who they are.
Some of the earliest forms of drag known happened in Vaudeville performances. One of the first Drag Kings was Florence Tempest, born Claire Lillian James. Tempest ran a show where she always played the male role and was known for her hair stylings that hide the fact that she was actually a woman. Her sister, Marion, always played the female to Tempest’s male role. While Tempest was not LGBT, her role is one of the earliest popular forms of drag. In 1928 Ma’ Rainey released a song called Prove It to Me Blues, which spoke of sexual encounters with women.
They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
Sure, got to prove it on me.
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men
It is reported that Ma’ was arrested in 1925 for an orgy that took place in her home with the women of her choir. Political activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis noted that this song was the precursor of the Lesbian Cultural Movement of the 1970s. Ma’ was probably one of the first known Women of Color to speak about relations with other women.
During the 1950s some of the first LGBT publications came into existence, One and the Ladder being the earliest ones. One came into creation after a meeting with the Mattachine Society saying there needed to be a gay publication. This magazine almost failed before it started after they were brought up on charges of indecency, these charges were later dropped as the magazine, itself, never had advertisements for sexual behaviors or risqué pictures. The Ladder was the first exclusively Lesbian publication. The founders Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin wrote a conservative approach to the gay agenda and politics. They argued that women should give up the “butch/femme” modes of dress and style for wearing dresses and fitting in.
With the onset of the 70s, the division of how the LGBT population should act was becoming wider and wider. There was still the carry over groups that suggested we needed to assimilate in order for the dominant culture to accept us and be allowed into resources such as universities, health insurance, and even marriage. This was also the era that the hippy generation from the 60s was still influential and gave rise to groups who felt needed to change instead of the LGBT people. The symbols of this era showed the struggles of both sides and help gain visibility. December 21st, 1969 the Gay Activists Alliance was born, and the founder Tom Doerr created the Lambda symbol for the organization. He felt it representation since, in chemistry, it represented the complete exchange of energy. This felt appropriate coming on the coattails of the Stonewall Riots. Another popular symbol that went by the wayside over the years was the Labrys. This symbol became associated with political and social action of the early LGBT activists. Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig gave the definition to is as a “name for the double-headed axe of the ancient amazons and to the representation of this arm as the emblem of amazon empires.” The Amazons, according to ancient Greek literature, were a matriarchal society of women warriors. This symbol was the representation of radical lesbian feminism. Symbols like these were printed on buttons and handed out en masse to people. They became emblems to put power behind to bring recognition to gay liberation. This was the rallying point for a generation as a means to focus our anger and direct it in a way to work towards change.
The 70s also brought us the Gilbert Baker Flag. Gilbert Baker was asked by Harvey Milk to design it for the first upcoming Gay Freedom Day celebration. At the time, Milk wanted to move away from the Pink Triangle as he felt it carried to much negative connotations with it being a symbol from the concentration camps. The original Baker Flag had eight colors and meanings tied to them. Hot Pink – Sex, Red – Life, Orange – Healing, Yellow – Sunlight, Green – Nature, Turquoise – magic/art, Indigo – Serenity, and Violet – Spirit. They were characteristics Baker felt the LGBT people had and needed to work on to move forward in our struggle. It was meant to inspire and motivate. After the death of Milk, Baker wanted the flags mass produced, but hot pink was not easy to replicate in mass quantities and the Pride committee decided they wanted equal representation of the colors on each side of the street. With that the Baker flag became the six striped rainbow flag we have today.
The 80s changed many minds of LGBTQ people. As the seventies came to an end and move forward, a new killer started to take its toll on the population of gay men in San Francisco and New York. What was known then as GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) was quickly reaching epidemic proportions and was leaving bodies and confused doctors in its wake. Through the Reagan era it was known as a “Gay Disease” or “Gay Cancer” and as such never received the funding or attention it should have. Once it was found to be targeting more than just the “homosexual scourge” and became HIV/AIDS (Human Immunodeficiency Virus/ Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) that the focus changed. By this time thousands of gay men had died. During this time frame the Pink Triangle, left behind in the 70s) made its way to popularity again with ACT UP!’s poster Silence is Death.That iconic image solidified this to be the symbol of queer resistance and empowerment. From this lead to the AIDS quilt that was started in 1985. It has been called the largest collectively ongoing community arts project in history and bears testament to the impact this disease has had on our community and the community at large. This iconic image has its roots from Cleve Jones, who had participants write down the name of a loved one lost to AIDS onto a white poster board. They were walked through the streets of San Francisco and later taped to the wall of a government building. During one such parade it began to rain and the names on the boards started to blur. It is said that at that point, Jones remarked that it “looks like a quilt,” thus giving rise to the quilt.
The 90s brought a lot of focus onto LGBT culture, our people were becoming more seen in television and movies, though not always in the most positive of light. Shows like the Golden Girls and the Simpsons often showed gay men in a campy light or lesbians is a lipstick view of themselves. This era gave rise to DAM! (Dyke Action Machine!) and the underrepresentation of butch lesbians in pop culture. The Human Rights Campaign became one of the focuses of driving conversation about LGBT people in mainstream media. They symbol, that we now all know, went through many iterations. HRC wanted a symbol that would showcase the values and virtues and first incorporated the groups torch as a focus for the symbol. They were passed up for the next three signs that incorporated the equal sign. After discussion and rebranding it ended with the current logo of blue background and the yellow equal sign. Both the Bisexual and Transgender flags rose out of the 90s because these groups were underrepresented in the current LGBT movement. We saw thrift stores catering specifically to the LGBT community as well as clothing brands, like 2(x)IST come into large acceptance. The founder of 2(x)IST, Gregory Sovell, was a former Calvin Klein employee decided to head out on his own course. Building upon the homoerotic nature of many Calvin Klein ads, Sovell decided to pitch is campaign on sexually provocative poses and scantily clad men. This gave him the ground he needed to be the premier brand some on most stores catering to gay men.
With the 21st century, we have seen many logos and companies grow and be replaced with new ones. Gay.com was popular when surfing the web was best done on a home pc and now has been replaced with the likes of Grindr and Tinder. We have seen the birth of gender-neutral bathrooms and the NOH8 logo. All things that show we are moving forward in our fight for our places in this world. We are finally seeing the HRC symbol being replaced with the Against Equality Logo. Many of the LGBTQ people of this era feel the HRC logo simply does not look out for our best interests anymore. That Equality was only given to those of certain affluency and many of us are left by the wayside in the wake of their forward movement. Many of us feel it was HRC focus to only include gay marriage as their focus and in essence slipping back to earlier times where the only way we could/should get rights is by assimilation into the dominant culture. This leaves out people of color, those who focus are not on marriage but basic rights, and those who economically cannot benefit from the standings of HRC. Perhaps it is a calling to return to our activists’ ways. We have seen that history changes constantly and when most needed, perhaps this is the stirrings of the voice wanting us to fight once again. Fight for our next level of acceptance and to move beyond the bigotry that is returning to us a thousand-fold. Are you hearing the call?