A symbol is something that represents something else. Symbols concerning LGBTQ identities and culture take on distinctive qualities due to social conventions concerning sex that demand coded language. In addition, there is a tendency for those symbols to be placed exclusively the domain of orientation and gender variance. Once something is associated with “gay,” its status as an LGBTQ referent often eclipses all other associations.
History: Cryptic Symbolic Language
Much of the language dealing with homosexuality and the spectrum of gender/embodied identities (from partial cross-dressing to complete gender/sexual transformation to intersex) dealt with subjects so scandalous that they were unfit for open discussion. Nevertheless, they were discussed despite censure, so indirect references were created that, once popularized, also became scandalous language.
Symbolic language for same-sex love, for example, might be given a geographic referent, such as the city of Sodom for men and the island of Lesbos for women, with variations on these two terms in many European languages. In English, one could speak of anal sex between men as “sodomy” (and such men as “sodomites”) because of the story of Sodom in Bereshit/Genesis where men of the city tried to rape angelic visitors. The alignment of same-sex love between men with sexual assault reinforced the notion that any sexual relationships between men would be immoral. Association of Lesbos with same-sex love between women (“lesbian”), however, was less morally charged. “Lesbian” was based on the Greek Isle of Lesbos as the home of Sappho, who is remembered as a great poet who wrote romantic verses to other women. Association of women who love women with Sappho has been so strong that “Sapphic” refers to both a meter of verse used by Sappho and to same-sex love between women.
Not all symbolic language about male homosexuality was negative before Stonewall. Catamite comes from Ganymede, the young man who was kidnapped by Zeus to be Zeus’ lover and cupbearer. Other terms in eighteenth and nineteenth century England were women’s names, such as molly (nickname for Mary, also a folk term for “prostitute”) and Mary Margaret. This continues today with Mary (which is also used in various forms in Spanish, such as maricón for men and marimacho for masculine women), Nancy, and nelly. When a name such as Molly or Nelly is used so often for Gay men, it tends to no longer be capitalized in English, just as popular spelling of “sodomite” and “lesbian” no longer follow rules for geographic identity. Non-human symbolic terms are found in English and other languages, such as pansy, fairy, faggot, finnocchio, (Italian: “fennel”), bicho (Portuguese: vermin), and mariposa (Spanish: “butterfly”).
Isolation and Exclusivity of Gay Symbols
When something becomes strongly associated with the LGBTQ community, it no longer has a primary referent to anything else in popular speech, reflecting a form of linguistic panic that typically occurs among Straight English speakers. For example, the word “gay” was understood to mean “happy” or “carefree” during the 1800s. In cryptic urban folk speech of the early twentieth century, it was associated with prostitutes and homosexuals. The term entered popular discourse around the 1960s. With the Stonewall Uprising and the message of “gay liberation,” gay has become a popular referent to orientation-variance, gender-variance, and nontypical sexual physiologies to the point where “gay” has entered official discourse, and is internationally recognized in many major languages as having that referent. In English, the common definition of “gay” as non-heteronormal is standard, and any other use of it may be taken as a double-entendre.
Since the rainbow Pride flag was designed in 1978, similar dynamics have acted to slowly but surely make the rainbow a nearly exclusive symbol for the LGBTQ community. This was not true before 1990, however, when rainbows were a popular symbol for any number of things. But with the Gay community’s pervasive use of rainbows in the Pride flag, bumper stickers, jewelry, etc., the general public in many countries recognizes the rainbow as a symbol for LGBTQ people, thus prompting organizations that formerly used the rainbow to discontinue its use. One striking example is the University of Hawai‘i Manoa’s (UH) football program and the moniker “Rainbow Warriors.” The University dropped “Rainbow” so that football players were simply “Warriors,” even though the importance of anuenue (Hawaiian: “rainbow”) in Native Hawaiian traditions pre-dates the modern Gay community by centuries. Nevertheless, “Rainbow Warriors” returned to UH’s men’s teams in 2013 due to popular demand and, unofficially, recognition of the homophobia that inspired the change in the first place.
That same tendency can be seen with other symbols, such as triangles (two points up, one point down), especially if pink, lavender, or black. This comes from the use of pink triangles in Nazi concentration camps to mark homosexual men, and black triangles for deviant women. The labrys (double-headed ax popular with the Lesbian community) is another example, as is the single red loop ribbon, symbol for AIDS awareness, often seen as Gay despite the efforts of Straight celebrities to make the red ribbon a recognized symbol for all people who have AIDS. One symbol seems not to have caught on as representing the Gay community: the Greek letter lambda that was popular early in the Gay liberation movement.
Flags are symbolic means for distinguishing various communities comprising the LGBTQ community, many of them incorporating horizontal lines with the rainbow six-color spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and lavender) that would become the standard Pride flag. There are also Leather, Bear, Bisexual, and other flags for various activities-based groups.
The symbols of Venus (a circle with a small cross extending from the bottom) and Mars (circle with a small arrow extending diagonally from its right side) represent women and men, respectively, in popular culture. For the LGBTQ community, double interlocking Venus symbols represent Lesbians (alternate: the sisterhood of all women), double interlocking Mars symbols represent Gay men, intersecting Venus and Mars symbols represent Bisexuals, and a circle with a cross on the bottom and a diagonal arrow represents Transpeople. The symbol for Mercury, a circle with a cross on the bottom and a crescent on the top, may also represent Trans.
Blumenfeld, Warren J. and Diane Raymond. Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life. Boston: Beacon, 1993.
Cage, Ken and Moyra Evans. Gayle: The Language of Kinks and Queens: A History and Dictionary of Gay Language in South Africa. Houghton, South Africa: Jacana, 2003.
Herdt, Gilbert. Same Sex, Different Cultures: Exploring Gay and Lesbian Lives.