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Symbols and signs

Signs and symbols

Over many years, lesbian and gay communities around the world have used symbols to identify who we are. Often worn as badges and displayed as flags, some of the better known symbols include the rainbow flag, the pink triangle, the lambda and gender symbols. Probably the most recognisable symbol today is the rainbow flag, but other symbols have been an integral part of our history in the fight for recognition and equality. While the red ribbon is not a symbol of being gay, many gay men wear it, which is why it is interpreted by some as an indication that the wearer is gay; this is not necessarily so. This section is by no means exhaustive, in fact it's just the tip of the iceberg.

LGBT Symbols | Wikipedia

Rainbow flag

Use of the rainbow flag by the gay community began in 1978 when San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag in response to the need for a symbol that could be used year after year. The flags had eight stripes, each colour representing a component of the community: 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. Due to production difficulties (hot pink was not commercially available), pink and turquoise were removed from the design, and royal blue replaced indigo. This six-colour version spread from San Francisco to other cities, and soon became the widely known symbol of gay pride and diversity that it is today. If you’re looking for a gay venue, a flag above the door is a welcome signpost.

Rainbow flag | Wikipedia
History of the Rainbow Flag | Time | 29 Jun 2015 | 1m32s
Gilbert Baker: The Gay Betsy Ross | In The Life Media | 16 Jun 2010 | 7m39s
2014 Rainbow Flag | Gilbert Baker | 28 May 2014 | 6m08s

Pink triangle

The history of the pink triangle begins before WWII, during Hitler's rise to power. Paragraph 175, a clause in German law, prohibited homosexual relationships. Convicted offenders were sent to prison, and then later to concentration camps. Their punishment was to be sterilized, and this was most often accomplished by castration. In 1942, punishment for homosexuality was extended to death. Concentration camp prisoners each wore a coloured inverted triangle to designate the reason for their incarceration. Criminals wore a green triangle, political prisoners a red triangle, Jewish prisoners two overlapping yellow triangles (to form a Star of David) and the pink triangle was for homosexuals. Stories of the camps reveal that homosexual prisoners were given the worst tasks and were the focus of attacks by the guards and other inmates. Although homosexuals were only one of the many groups targeted for extermination by the Nazi regime, it is, unfortunately, our group that history often excludes.

Estimates of the number of gay men killed during the Nazi regime range from 50,000 to twice that figure. In the 1970s, gay liberation groups resurrected the pink triangle as a symbol for the gay rights movement. Not only is the symbol easily recognized, but it also draws attention to oppression and persecution – then and now. In the 1980s, ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) began using the pink triangle for their cause. They inverted the symbol, making it point up, to signify an active fight-back rather than a passive resignation to fate. Today, for many, the pink triangle represents pride, solidarity, and a promise to never allow another Holocaust to happen again.

Pink triangle | Wikipedia

The Pink Triangle | Richard Plant/ Holt Books
The Men with the Pink Triangle | Heinz Heger/ Alyson Books

Bent (1998) Trailer | Film 4 A 9 Jan 2014 | 2m27s
A Love To Hide (2008) Trailer | Peccadillo Pictures | 29 May 2009 | 1m29s

The Holocaust | Imperial War Museums
Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals | United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The lambda

The lambda symbol seems to be one of the most controversial of symbols, as regards its meaning. However, most sources agree on a few things: the lambda was first chosen as a gay symbol when it was adopted in 1970 by the New York Gay Activists Alliance. It became the symbol of their growing movement for gay liberation. In 1974, the lambda was adopted by the International Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland.

As their symbol for lesbian and gay rights, the lambda became internationally popular. However, no one seems to have a definitive answer as to why the lambda was originally chosen as a gay symbol. Some suggest that it is the Greek lower-case letter for ‘liberation’, others cite its use in physics to denote energy, eg: the energy we have when we work harmoniously. It’s also thought to mean a ‘wavelength’, eg: gays and lesbians on a different wavelength. Lambda may also denote the synergy of the gay movement, the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The lambda may also represent scales and balance, and the constant force that keeps opposing sides from overcoming each other. The ancient Greek Spartans regarded the lambda as meaning unity, while the Romans considered it “the light of knowledge shed into the darkness of ignorance”. Reportedly, Ancient Greeks placed the lambda on the shields of Spartan warriors, who were often paired off with younger men in battle. (There was a theory that warriors would fight more fiercely knowing that their lovers were both watching and fighting alongside them).

Lambda | Wikipedia

Gender symbols

Gender symbols are common astrological signs handed down from ancient Roman times. Gay men have used double interlocking male symbols since the 1970s.

Double interlocking female symbols have often been used to denote lesbianism, but some feminists have instead used the double female symbols to represent the sisterhood of women. In the 1970s, gay liberation movements used the male and female symbols superimposed to represent the common goals of lesbians and gay men.

 Gender Symbol | Wikipedia

The red ribbon

The red ribbon is a symbol of solidarity and of the commitment to the fight against HIV and AIDS. The Ribbon Project was conceived in 1991 by Visual AIDS, a New York-based charity group of art professionals that aims to recognize and honour friends and colleagues who have died or are dying of AIDS. The ribbon made its public debut at the 1991 Tony Awards, but since then – in some circles – has become a popular and politically correct fashion statement for celebrities at other awards ceremonies. Because of this popularity, some activists have rightly worried that the ribbon is simply paying lip service to AIDS causes. Nevertheless, it is a powerful symbol for all of us around the world, and a unifying symbol on World AIDS Day (1 December). Today, the red ribbon is an international symbol and, for many, stands for care, concern, hope and support.

Red ribbon | Wikipedia
World AIDS Day | National AIDS Trust
The Red Ribbon Project | Visual AIDS
World AIDS Day | UNAIDS
Commemorative HIV/ AIDS Red Ribbon | The White House | 1 Dec 2012 | 0m43s

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