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History of GLBT Symbols

The Lambda Symbol

The Lambda Symbol

One symbol which continues to remain popular is the lower case Greek letter lambda. The symbol was originally chosen by the Gay Activists Alliance of New York in 1970. The GAA was a group which broke away from the larger Gay Liberation Front at the end of 1969, only six months after it's foundation in response to the Stonewall Riots. While the GLF wanted to work side by side with the black and women's liberation movements to gain unity and acceptance, the GAA wanted to focus their efforts more concisely on only Gay and Lesbian issues.

Because of its official adoption by the GAA, which sponsored public events for the gay community, the lambda soon became a quick way for the members of the gay community to identify each other. The reasoning was that the lambda would easily be mistaken for a college fraternity symbol and ignored by the majority of the population. Eventually though, the GAA headquarters was torched by an arsonist, destroying not only the building but all of the organization's records, and the movement never recovered from the loss. The symbol, however, lived on.

Now what the symbol means or meant when it was introduced are a prime topic for speculation and a morass of public rumoring. Some of the more popular rumors are:

  • Simply, the Greek letter "L" stands for "liberation."
  • The Greek Spartans believed that the lambda represented unity.
  • The Romans took it as meaning "the light of knowledge shining into the darkness of ignorance."
  • The charged energy of the gay movement. This stems from the lambda's use in chemistry and physics to denote energy in equations.
  • The synergy which results when gays and lesbians work together towards a common goal (a gestalt theory which also stems from the physics-energy theory)
  • The notion that straights and gays, or gays and lesbians, or any pairing of these three, are on different wavelengths when it comes to sex, sexuality, or even brain patterns. This again comes from the lambda's presence in chemistry and physics, where it is sometimes used to represent the wavelength of certain types of energy.
  • An iconic rendering of the scales of justice and the constant force that keeps opposing sides from overcoming each other. The hook at the bottom of the right leg would then signify the action and initiative needed to reach and maintain balance.
  • The lambda is also though by some to have appeared on the shields of Spartan and/or Theben warriors. The Thebes version is more popular because, as legend has it, the city- state organized the Theban Band from groups of idealized lovers, which made them extremely fierce and dedicated warriors. Eventually however, the army was completely decimated by Kind Philip II, but was later honored by his son Alexander the Great.

There is no actual evidence though that the lambda was ever associated with this group. However, there was Hollywood movie in the 1960s called The 300 Spartans starring Diane Baker, Richard Egan, and Ralph Richardson that showed Spartan warriors who appeared to have lambdas on their shields.

Whatever the lambda meant or means today, it's everywhere. Even though at one time it acquired a strictly male connotation, it is used by both gays and lesbians today. December of 1974, the lambda was officially declared the international symbol for gay and lesbian rights by the International Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Purple Hand

The Purple Hand

On Halloween night, October 31, 1969, sixty members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) staged a protest at the offices of the San Francisco Examiner in response to another in a series of news articles disparaging LGBT people in San Francisco's gay bars and clubs. The peaceful protest against the "homophobic editorial policies" of the Examiner turned tumultuous and were later called "Friday of the Purple Hand" and "Bloody Friday of the Purple Hand". Examiner employees "dumped a bag of printers' ink from the third story window of the newspaper building onto the crowd". Some reports were that it was a barrel of ink poured from the roof of the building. The protestors "used the ink to scrawl "Gay Power" and other slogans on the building walls" and stamp purple hand prints "throughout downtown San Francisco" resulting in "one of the most visible demonstrations of gay power". According to Larry LittleJohn, then president of SIR, "At that point, the tactical squad arrived -- not to get the employees who dumped the ink, but to arrest the demonstrators who were the victims. The police could have surrounded the Examiner building... but, no, they went after the gays... Somebody could have been hurt if that ink had gotten into their eyes, but the police came racing in with their clubs swinging, knocking people to the ground. it was unbelievable." The accounts of police brutality include women being thrown to the ground and protesters' teeth being knocked out.

Inspired by "Black Hand" (La Mano Nera in Italian) extortion methods of Camorra gangsters and the Mafia, some GLBT activists attempted to institute "purple hand" as a gay and lesbian symbol as a warning to stop anti-gay attacks, with little success. In Turkey, the LGBT rights organization MorEl Eskisehir LGBTT Olusumu (Purple Hand Eskisehir LGBT Formation), also bears the name of this symbol.

The Red Ribbon for HIV/AIDS Awareness

The Red Ribbon for HIV/AIDS Awareness

The Red Ribbon Project was created by singer/songwriter Paul Jabara and the New York-based Visual AIDS group in 1991. Visual AIDS is a charity group of art professionals aimed at recognizing and honoring friends and colleagues who are living with, or have died of HIV/AIDS. Visual AIDS not only encourages art organizations, galleries, museums, and other AIDS organizations to commemorate those who have died of AIDS, but also to educate the public about the transmission of HIV and the needs of those living with AIDS. It's raises funds for research and treatment of AIDS.

The red ribbon was originally inspired by the yellow ribbons prominently displayed during the Gulf War in support of U.S. soldiers. The color red was chosen because it is the color of blood- AIDS and HIV being blood-related diseases- and its symbolic connection to passion and love. The red ribbon made its public debut when host Jeremy Irons wore it during the 1991 Tony Awards. Since then, wearing the red ribbon has become a fashion statement and extremely politically correct. Some feel that the red ribbon has lost it's importance, and is now simply lip service to AIDS causes.

However, the Red Ribbon Project is still going strong and remains a driving force behind AIDS awareness. It is the Project's sincerest hope that one day it will no longer be needed.

The Gay Pride Rainbow Flag

The Current Gay Pride Rainbow Flag

The Rainbow flag or Pride flag of the LGBT community (also known as the gay pride flag) is a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) pride and LGBT social movements in use since the 1970s. The colors reflect the diversity of the LGBT community, and the flag is often used as a symbol of gay pride in LGBT rights marches. It originated in the United States, but is now used worldwide. Designed by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978, the design has undergone several revisions to first remove then re-add colors due to widely available fabrics. As of 2008, the most common variant consists of six stripes, with the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. The flag is commonly flown horizontally, with the red stripe on top, as the colors would appear in a natural rainbow.

hot pink: sexuality
red: life
orange: healing
yellow: sunlight
green: nature
turquoise: magic/art
indigo: serenity/harmony
violet: spirit

The original gay-pride flag was hand-dyed by Gilbert Baker. It flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. It has been suggested that Baker was inspired by Judy Garland's singing "Over The Rainbow". Another suggestion for how the rainbow flag originated is that at college campuses during the 1960s, some people demonstrated for world peace by carrying a Flag of the Races (also called the Flag of the Human Race) with five horizontal stripes (from top to bottom they were red, black, brown, yellow, and white). Gilbert Baker is said to have gotten the idea for the rainbow flag from this flag. Thirty volunteers hand-dyed and stitched the first two flags for the parade. The flag consisted of eight stripes, and Baker assigned specific meaning to each of the colors.

The Original Gay Pride Rainbow Flag circa 1978

Baker himself and thirty other volunteers hand-stitched and hand-dyed to large prototype flags for the 1978 parade. It was an immediate hit. However, when Baker took his design to the San Francisco Flag Co. to have it mass-produced for the 1979 parade, he had to remove the hot pink stripe. Baker had hand-dyed the color, and unfortunately pink was not a commercially available color.

The Gay Pride Rainbow Flag circa 1978-1979

After the November 27, 1978 assassination of openly gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, demand for the rainbow flag greatly increased. To meet demand, the Paramount Flag Company began selling a version of the flag using stock rainbow fabric consisting of seven stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and violet. As Baker ramped up production of his version of the flag, he too dropped the hot pink stripe because of the unavailability of hot-pink fabric. Also, San Francisco-based Paramount Flag Co. began selling a surplus stock of Rainbow Girls flags from its retail store on the southwest corner of Polk and Post, at which Gilbert Baker was an employee. Thus, today's six-color flag was born and displayed during the 1979 Pride Parade.

The flag quickly caught on like wildfire in cities across the country. It was even officially recognized by the International Congress of Flag Makers. In 1989 the flag was given international recognition when West Hollywood resident John Stout successfully sued his landlords after they tried to prohibit him from hanging the flag from his apartment balcony. At New York's Stonewall 25 Parade in 1994, a gigantic 30-foot wide, one mile long rainbow flag was carried through the parade route by over 10,000 volunteers.

The rainbow flag celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2003. During the gay pride celebrations in June of that year, Gilbert Baker restored the rainbow flag back to its original eight-striped version and has since advocated that others do the same. However, the eight-striped version has seen little adoption by the wider gay community, which has mostly stuck with the better known six-striped version.

In autumn 2004 several gay businesses in London were ordered by Westminster City Council to remove the rainbow flag from their premises, as its display required planning permission. When one shop applied for permission, the Planning sub-committee refused the application on the chair's casting vote (May 19, 2005), a decision condemned by gay councillors in Westminster and the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. In November the council announced a reversal of policy, stating that most shops and bars would be allowed to fly the rainbow flag without planning permission.

Many variations of the rainbow flag have been used. Some of the more common ones include the Greek letter 'lambda' (lower case) in white in the middle of the flag and a pink triangle or black triangle in the upper left corner. Other colours have been added, such as a black stripe symbolising those community members lost to AIDS. The rainbow colors have also often been used in gay alterations of national and regional flags, replacing for example the red and white stripes of the flag of the United States. In 2007, the Pride Family Flag was introduced at the Houston, Texas pride parade.

The Gay Pride Rainbow Victory over AIDS Flag circa 1980s

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, AIDS activists designed a "Victory over AIDS" flag consisting of the standard six-stripe rainbow flag with a black stripe across the bottom. Leonard Matlovich, himself dying of AIDS-related illness, suggested that upon a cure for AIDS being discovered, the black stripes be removed from the flags and burned.

Today many LGBT individuals and straight allies often put rainbow flags in the front of their yards and/or front doors, or use rainbow bumper stickers on their vehicles to use as an outward symbol of their identity or support.

The Leather Pride Flag

The Leather Pride Flag

The Leather Pride Flag was created by artist Tony DeBlase and was first displayed on May 28, 1989 at the Chicago Mr. Leather contest. It stands as a symbol for the leather community - people who are into leather, sado-masochism, bondage, domination, uniforms, rubber and other kind of sexual fetishes. This flag is most often found in the gay community, but it encompasses all orientations.

The Bear Pride Flag

The Bear Pride Flag

The International Bear Brotherhood Flag was designed by Paul Witzkoske for Bear Manufacturing. Bear is an affectionate gay slang term for those in the bear communities, a subculture in the gay community and an emerging subset of LGBT communities with events, codes and culture specific identity. Bears tend to have hairy bodies and facial hair; some are heavy-set; some project an image of working-class masculinity in their grooming and appearance, though none of these are requirements or unique indicators. Some bears place importance on presenting a hyper-masculine image; some may shun interaction with men who display effeminate style and mannerisms, although some actually exhibit these traits themselves. The bear concept can function as an identity, an affiliation, and an ideal to live up to, and there is ongoing debate in bear communities about what constitutes a bear.

Some state that self-identifying as a bear is the only requirement, while others argue that bears must have certain physical characteristics - such as a hairy chest and face or having a large body - and a certain mode of dress and behavior. However, the concept clearly has certain boundaries of plausible self-identification, and an individual identifying as a bear with none of the usual bear attributes would not be accepted as such by others in the gay community or re-labeled as a bear-chaser or another subset like cub or otter.

"Bears" are almost always gay or bisexual men although increasingly transgender men and those who shun labels for gender and sexuality are also included within bear communities.

The Transgender Pride Flag

The Transgender Pride Flag

The three color transgender flag was designed by Monica Helms and made it's debut in a Phoenix, Arizona pride parade. It is the most widespread and recognized symbol of the transgender community.

The light blue is the traditional color for baby boys, pink is for girls, and the white in the middle is for those who are transitioning, those who feel they have a neutral gender or no gender, and those who are intersexed. The pattern is such that no matter which way you fly it, it will always be correct. This symbolizes us trying to find correctness in our own lives.

The Master/Slave Pride Flag

The Master/Slave Pride Flag

Unveiled during the Master/Slave Conference on July 29, 2005, this flag was designed by Master Tallen of Washington, DC. The black field has an indented white border on a black field. The vertical stripe is a universal symbol of dominance. The set of three horizontal red stripes is a universal symbol meaning passive of submissive. The flag was created to provide a universal symbol that represents the foundation of the Master/Slave relationship, and create a symbol of unity and pride.

Triangles during World War II

The Pink Triangle

One of the oldest of these symbols is the pink triangle, which originated from the Nazi concentration camp badges that homosexuals were required to wear on their clothing. It is estimated that as many as 220,000 gays and lesbians perished alongside the 6,000,000 Jews whom the Nazis exterminated in their death camps during World War II as part of Hitler’s so-called final solution. For this reason, the Pink Triangle is used both as an identification symbol and as a memento to remind both its wearers and the general public of the atrocities that gays suffered under Nazi persecutors. ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) also adopted the inverted pink triangle to symbolize the “active fight back” against the disease “rather than a passive resignation to fate.”

The Black Triangle

While the pink triangle was used exclusively with male prisoners, lesbians were not included under Paragraph 175. However, women were arrested and imprisoned for "antisocial behavior," which include anything from feminism, lesbianism, and prostitution to any woman who didn't conform to the ideal Nazi image of a woman: cooking, cleaning, kitchen work, child raising, passive, etc. These women were labeled with a black triangle. Modern-day lesbians have reclaimed this symbol for themselves as gay men have reclaimed the pink triangle.

The Pink over Yellow Triangle

The pink triangle overlapping a yellow triangle was used to tag Jewish homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps.

German Concentration Camp Markings

A chart of prisoner markings used in German concentration camps, circa 1938-1942. The vertical categories list markings for the following types of prisoners: political, professional criminal, emigrant, religious minorities (such as Jehovah's Witnesses), homosexual, Germans shy of work, and other nationalities shy of work. The horizontal categories begin with the basic colors, and then show those for repeat offenders, prisoners in punishment kommandos, Jews, Jews who have violated racial laws by having sexual relations with Aryans, and Aryans who violated racial laws by having sexual relations with Jews. In the lower left corner, P is for Poles and T for Czechs. The remaining symbols give examples of marking patterns.

Other Symbols

In addition to these major symbols of the LGBT community, other lesser symbols have been used to represent members’ unity, pride, shared values, and allegiance to one another:

  • The polyamory movement has introduced the Purple Mobius symbol for use by polyamorous and non-monogamous people and LGBTQ individuals. It is intended to be an abstract symbol to fill the niche left by the other available symbols, which have criticisms. The triangle shape and purple color was intended to reference the pre-existing GLBT and other social and civil rights movements symbols, while the Mobius was a nodding reference to the pre-existing heart/infinity symbol for polyamory (the infinity being one example of a Mobius Strip). The symbol was designed by Joreth InnKeeper and is intended to be public domain.
  • The polyamory movement has introduced the "love outside the box" symbol for use by polyamorous and non-monogamous people and LGBTQ individuals.
  • American poet Walt Whitman used the calamus plant to represent homoerotic love.
  • Nineteenth-century poets used the ladslove plant to symbolize homosexuality.
  • In ancient Rome, as in 19th-century England, green indicated homosexual affiliations. Victorian men would often pin a green carnation to their lapel as a signal.
  • A green carnation has been associated with homosexuality, due to the author Oscar Wilde often sporting one. The term wearing a green carnation, however, is sometimes used as a derogatory term.
  • In the early years of the 20th century, a red necktie was worn by some men to signal their homosexuality to others.
  • The pinky ring was a fashionable jewelry accessory for male homosexuals during the 1950s through the 1970s.
  • Gay activists in Boston chose the purple rhinoceros as a symbol of the gay movement after conducting a media campaign for this purpose, selecting this animal because, although it is sometimes misunderstood, it is really both docile and intelligent - but when a rhinoceros is angered, it fights ferociously.
  • Lesbians in the mid-twentieth century would tattoo a blue star on a part of the body, commonly the arm, that could be covered during the day and revealed at night/in clubs.
  • Bisexual women and lesbians would give violets to the woman they were wooing, symbolizing their "Sapphic" desire. Sappho described, in a poem, herself and a lover wearing garlands of violets. The giving of violets was popular in the 1920s, 30's and 40's.
  • In the United Kingdom, the Pink Jack has been widely used in recent years to demonstrate a unique British Gay and Lesbian identity.

Conversely, since the first century, the hare, the hyena, and the weasel have been used in literature as negative symbols of male homosexuality, with connotations of sexual perversion.

Information researched and shared by dbmathews.

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