The Symbols Of Our Pride

At least there’s not a lavender rhinoceros on your bumper.

Sticking on bumpers, hanging around necks and dangling in front of windows are a few of the places you’ll find the symbols of lesbian and gay pride.

There might even be one tattooed on your partner’s arm. Rainbow flags, pink triangles and that odd wishbone-like Greek letter called lambda are the most popular symbols today, but there were many others before them.

And, by the way, what does a lavender rhinoceros have to do with gay pride? Stay tuned.

Because our community has been forced into hiding and secrecy throughout much of time, lots of our history was locked into closets that were never opened. Today, many closet doors are flung open and the symbols of lesbian and gay pride are displayed prominently. We are attempting to reclaim the bits of history that remain — and openly make tomorrow’s history.

The exact reasons we choose to put these symbols on our clothes or cars are usually personal and vary a lot. Some of us do it so other gay people can identify us; others say the symbols notify the world that they are lesbian or gay. Whether most people recognize the symbols is not clear, but most gay people do — and our staunchest enemies do, too.

“Whether the general populace recognizes the rainbow flag or other queer symbols for what they are, the two primary camps in the struggle for queer civil rights certainly do,” one man wrote in an internet post.

Perhaps more people know the origin of the pink triangle than any other symbol. During World War II, Nazis herded gays and many others into concentration camps along with Jews. Gay men were forced to wear downward-pointing pink triangles on their sleeves. Other colors and configurations denoted other prisoners.

Red triangles marked political prisoners; green labeled habitual criminals. Jehovah’s Witnesses, emigrants and others each got their own color, too. Black triangles labeled vagrants and antisocials, the category into which most sources report lesbians were placed. A yellow triangle pointing upward marked a Jew.

But gay men were the most mistreated of the prisoners, many say. “The fate of homosexuals in the concentration camps can only be described as ghastly,” Eugen Kogon, who was a political prisoner of the Nazis for six years, said in his book The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them — available on Amazon. “[They were] the lowest caste in camp… Theirs was an incluble predicament and virtually all of them perished.”

A pink triangle over a yellow one forming a Star of David marked the people who were even lower than the lowest in camp, gay Jews.

Because Nazi records of concentration camps are incomplete and often falsified, there is no reliable way to know how many gays and lesbians may have died in German death camps.

The gay and lesbian community began using the symbol as a sign of pride in the 1970s to upturn their oppression. Claiming a symbol once used to label gays for prison and death as a symbol of pride is a way of overcoming the scars of oppression that the symbol once represented, according to the reasoning behind the symbols use.

The other symbols of our pride don’t carry with them the baggage the triangle bears.

Lambda is an “officially” recognized symbol of pride. In 1970, the Gay Activists Alliance chose the Greek letter, which looks like a lowercase “y” flipped upside down, as the symbol for the gay movement. The International Gay Rights Congress adopted it in 1974.

It is not known for sure why lambda was chosen. In physics, lambda signifies change; that may be the reason. Others say it was because in ancient Greece it symbolized reconciliation and justice. Whatever the case, in the seventies, the lambda was the symbol of choice, if there was one, for the lesbian and gay community. The word “lambda” is still sometimes a code word for the whole gay, lesbian and bisexual community.

The lambda and the triangles seem to be going out of style these days, though, and a more colorful symbol is in. Rainbow flags, in many versions, hang from windows, adhere to bumpers and even wave down from flagpoles. The six-striped flag would be even more colorful, but a flag manufacturer changed the form of the symbol fated to become associated nationwide with gay and lesbian pride.

The flag dates back farther than many know. It was first stitched together by its designer, Gilbert Baker, and a group of thirty volunteers who hand-dyed and assembled two large flags for the 1978 San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade.

The rainbow flag had eight stripes then, and each had a meaning: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit.

When Baker tried to get the flags mass-produced, he was informed that hot pink fabric was not commercially available, so Baker’s flag became seven-striped. In 1979, turquoise was removed and today’s six-stripe version was born. The flag is now recognized by the International Congress of Flag Makers.

Some people like the flag because the rainbow is a Biblical symbol; others like it because rainbows appear in nature.

“When I see a lambda or pink triangle in the sky, I might change my mind,” one gay man said.

Today, the rainbow flag may be the symbol of choice, but the pink triangle, lambda and many others are still around, too. Triangular rainbow flags and lambdas superimposed on rainbow backgrounds are common. Texas-shaped rainbow flags are also gaining popularity. Freedom rings and even rainbow-colored coasters and candles are among jewelry and other items inspired by these three signs of pride.

Historically, lots of symbols have been used to represent the gay and lesbian community. These symbols are as diverse as the times and the people from which they came.

Earlier this century, before red power ties became common in the corporate world, a red tie worn by a man might have indicated he was gay.

In 1955, the five-year-old Mattachine Society, a gay group, used harlequin diamonds as their symbol. The icon presented four diamonds placed in a pattern to form a larger diamond. Before that, the ancient Chinese yin and yang, featuring black and white interlocking commas forming a circle was associated with lesbians and gays. In 1933, a flag bearing that symbol flew over the International Commission for Sexual Education, according to the International Gay and Lesbian Archives.

That flag predates the rainbow banner by decades, but, of course, even it was not the first pride symbol. In ancient Crete, the labrys, a two-edged ax, was a symbol of feminine strength and eventually lesbianism.

No one knows for sure how far back signs of lesbian and gay pride go, and there are dozens of other known symbols that are not mentioned here. In 1974, Bernie Toal and Tom Morganti, Boston gay rights activists, began a campaign in the media using a lavender rhinoceros as the symbol for gay people. They placed placards on subways for three months beginning in December 1974.

They intended a longer campaign, but since they didn’t qualify for the public service rate for subway advertising, they had to pay more than three times that amount for the commercial rate (seven dollars). They finally decided to spend their time focusing on something else.

According to the Alyson Almanac, Toal said, “The rhino is much a maligned and misunderstood animal and, in actuality, a gentle creature — but don’t cross him or her.”

So what does a lavender rhinoceros have to do with the signs of our pride? Well, fortunately, not very much.

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