A look at gay symbols and their meaning

7 Mar

Just as sports fans wear their team’s colors and corporations can be recognized by their specific logo, the gay community has it’s symbols to show our pride in who we are. Every faction of the LGBTQI (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer/Intersex) community has their own specific symbols as well. Some of them such as the rainbow or interlocking male symbols are well known, others like the pansy slowly faded away to an afterthought. Sometimes things like red ties and pinkie rings became adopted by the mainstream and no longer specific to gay culture. Where did the symbols of today’s gay society originate and what do they really mean?

The rainbow has long been the symbol of the entire LGBTQI. It was first developed by a San Francisco artist named Gilbert Baker in 1978 as he felt there was a need for a gay symbol which could be used year after year. He was correct in his choice as thirty years later it is still the banner we of the LGBTQI community wave proudly to let the world know who we are. The colors individually are symbolically important as each represents some aspect of gay life. Hot pink he said symbolized sexuality and red life. Orange was for healing while yellow and green symbolized the sun and nature respectively. Blue stood for art, and the indigo and violet stripes represented harmony and spirit. When combined this was the rainbow and was not only meant to represent the above aspects of gay life, but the diverse nature of sexual preferences and identities.

The pink and black triangle found a renewed prominence in the 1970’s when it was adopted as a symbol of the gay liberation movement. Originally as many of us are aware of, this was a symbol used by the Nazis in concentration camps, something which had nothing but ugliness and pain associated to it. As those labeled as criminals were marked with colored triangles to identify their status, homosexuals were marked with the pink triangle. Women bearing the black triangle were generally lesbians, but also included feminists, prostitutes, and any woman not conforming to Nazi ideals of womanhood. It has been rumored but never proved that transgender prisoners were denoted with a burgundy triangle. In the 1980’s the organization ACT-UP adopted the pink triangle as well but inverted it to symbolize an active ongoing fight against AIDS. It is worth note that gay prisoners were not liberated immediately after the war with other prisoners due to paragraph 175 of West German law until 1969, a full twenty four years after World War II ended. Lesbians were freed however due to a double standard within the same statute.

The male symbol when paired with another is also a symbol of the gay community. The symbols originated in Roman mythology. The male symbol is the same symbol which was used to identify the god of war Mars and stood for strength and masculinity. This is one of the more common and popular symbols that can be found as it is not unusual to see everything from stickers, tee-shirts, and jewelry which sport this symbol. In a likewise manner the same is true of the combination of two female sex sign symbols representing the lesbian community and the combination of each symbolizes the transgender community. At one time the same was true of the bisexual community, but they have recently moved to using a pair of rainbow colored crescent moons.

The Lambda symbol which is the Greek lower case letter for “L” is believed to have first been used as a symbol of the gay community around 1970 in New York City by the New York Gay Activist Alliance. In 1974 the International Gay Rights Congress also adopted it as their symbol which is what is believed to have spurred it universal popularity. Nobody is really sure why this symbol was chosen but there are voluminous theories which attempt to provide an answer. Some say the Lambda stands for liberation while others espouse it was chosen because it is the symbol used in physics for energy. Another theory is that it is a rendering of the scales of justice and the constant force that prevents opposing sides from overcoming each other. According to historians the lambda meant unity to the Spartans and “Knowledge shed on ignorance” to the Romans. In current times the Lambda is connected more with gay and lesbian people working together for a common goal. It is unlikely we will ever know why the Lambda was chosen as a symbol of the gay community as many of the original New York Gay Activist Alliance are no longer with us, but after nearly forty years in use it would appear as if it is here to stay.

Freedom rings are coming back in vogue after making their first appearance in the late 1970’s. Freedom Rings are simply six rings which are usually metal, but other materials are being used now as well, in which each ring bears a color of the rainbow. Freedom rings aren’t actually worn as a ring on your fingers, but rather as bracelets (Which are extraordinarily popular at Pride festivals right now), an attachment to necklaces, key chains, zippers, or anything else that can be hooked on. While there is argument to what they really mean it is most widely accepted the rainbow colors of the rings carry the same symbolism as they do in the flag, and the rings symbolize unending unity and freedom.

While there are ribbons to denote everything from breast cancer awareness to the red ribbon of HIV awareness, there are two ribbons exclusive to the gay culture. The white ribbon is the creation of Xavier Neptus a gay survivor of attempted teen suicide. The color white was chosen to symbolize “Clarity of thought and innocence of youth.” The inspiration behind this was a speech given at the Lansing Michigan Pride March by Jason Bolton whom was thrown out of his high school in Detroit for being gay. An American teen of the LGBTQI attempts suicide every five hours. Then, it was used in a movie about violence against women and became a symbol of that with the original meaning almost completely forgotten now. The lavender ribbon was created to remind us of the countless gay and lesbian fathers and mothers denied visitation of their children based on sexual orientation alone  – but then the Komen foundation said screw that, trademarked it for them self and decided it was another cancer awareness color. That, in part, is why the Komen foundation sucks.

These are the most common symbols of the gay community although there are surely many in the past we are not of aware and will likely be more yet to come. Some new additions like rainbow hued computer icons are beginning to make their way to use more regularly and in a few years may be commonplace in the virtual world. Likewise a few like the Sephis Axe have come and gone and come back again regionally. These are far from the only symbols specifically representing the gay community as many have fallen by the wayside like the purple rhino, purple hand, harlequin diamonds, and even the yin-yang back in the 1930’s. While not all have withstood the test of time and become internationally known, they are all important to our history of the gay community.

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