For as long as there has been discrimination and prejudice against the LGBTQIA+ community, there has been LGBTQIA+ resistance and resilience against their oppressors.
Due to the persecution or violence they risked facing, many LGBTQIA+ individuals across the centuries have had to find more subtle ways to seek each other out. One way they did this was through adopting secret symbols or hidden ‘languages’ to communicate and seek solidarity without putting themselves in danger.
While some symbols remain commonly known today such as Pride flags or rainbows, there are many that have not survived the test or time or remain lesser known to the wider community.
This Pride Month, join us as we explore and honour LGBTQIA+ symbols throughout history.
1. Rainbows and the rainbow flag
The rainbow flag is one of the most widely recognised symbols of the LGBTQ community today, with many more Pride Flag variations that represent specific sexualities and gender identities.
The flag was first designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978, and has undergone many revisions since then. The original flag bore 8 colours each of which had a specific meaning: hot pink (sex), red (life), orange (healing), yellow (sunlight), green (nature), turquoise (magic/art), indigo (serenity), and violet (spirit).
Today’s version has just 6 colours with hot pink being removed due to fabric availability, and royal blue replacing turquoise and indigo. The rainbow on its own has also become a common symbol for LGBTQ identity across many mediums and has become a rallying point for LGBTQ communities worldwide.
2. Double Venus or Mars
The Venus and Mars symbols have long been associated with female and male sexes respectively, and are derived from the astrological symbols for their eponymous planets.
As the modern LGBT liberation movement began to take off in the 1960s and 70s, communities used different variations of the symbols to represent different sexualities and genders. For example 2 interlocked Venus symbols to represent lesbianism, or a combination symbol to represent transgender people.
3. Violets, lavender, and the colour purple
One of the oldest LGBTQ symbols in existence is the use of the violet flower to allude to lesbianism, and the roots of this symbol actually date back to ancient times!
Greek poet Sappho – commonly regarded as the first lesbian or woman-loving woman (WLW) in Western literary canon – frequently made references to nature and flowers in her work, including violets, roses, lotus, and hyacinths.
Both the violet flower and the colour purple were used multiple times in Sappho’s work, leading to later LGBTQ communities picking up both as a symbol of general solidarity and specific lesbian or WLW identity. In the late 19th century the colour lavender was even associated with homosexual men in particular.
4. Green carnations
Colour or flower language has been commonly used throughout history as a way to signal solidarity or allegiance - not only for the LGBTQ community but other political or social groups as well.
In Victorian-era England, green carnations came to be associated with homosexuality after they were popularised by author Oscar Wilde. Wilde told several of his friends to wear the flower on their label when attending the opening night premiere of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the signal was soon picked up by those in the know.
5. Handkerchief code
As flower language fell into disuse, LGBTQ communities turned to alternative clothing and jewelry as a way to communicate covertly.
The handkerchief code (also known as the hanky code, bandana code, or flagging) was historically used by gay men in the Western United States in the mid to late-19th century to signal their sexual preferences and seek out sexual partners.
The code was picked up again by gay and bisexual men in 1970s USA, Canada, Australia, and Europe with different colours and tying positions meaning a variety of desires, kinks, or fetishes. The code is still used in some communities today although modern innovations such as Grindr have changed the dating landscape for many LGBTQ men today.
The term ‘pansy’ today is a pejorative for an effeminate or homosexual man but there was a time not too long ago when it was reclaimed in a positive way by drag performers in the USA.
During the Prohibition era of the 1920s and 1930s many underground LGBTQ enclaves emerged in major cities like Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago. Drag performers in these salons and clubs were referred to as “pansy performers” and embraced the term to reclaim some of its energy, fighting back against negative stereotypes and attitudes.
While this history of the term is lesser known today it’s a poignant reminder of the resilience and fight that defines the LGBT community till today.
Supporting Solidarity and Liberation in All Forms
As an alternative jewelry brand, Ask & Embla values and supports solidarity, liberation, authenticity, and diversity in all forms. We recognise that the fight for LGBTQIA+ liberation is still ongoing worldwide, and that much more can and needs to be done before LGBTQIA+ communities can live in dignity and peace.
Support for the liberation of the community can’t stop at mere lip service – donating to LGBTQIA+ community organisations, nonprofits, and charities are what enable such organisations to continue their fight for rights, dignity, and equality. We want to help lead the fight for a safer and more inclusive world for all which is why for the month of June, we will be donating a portion of all sales to the Trevor Project. With our donation, we hope to contribute to The Trevor Project’s work through advocacy, research, public education and provision of support services to help LGBTQIA+ youth navigate topics like mental health, sexual orientation and gender identity in a safe space. Check out the ‘Pride Month’ highlight on our Instagram page and stay tuned as we highlight the diversity, resilience, and uninhibited beauty within the community.
We also want to share helpful resources so anyone and everyone can receive the help they deserve or connect with useful channels to help uplift the community.
Hotlines for LGBTQIA+ individuals and youth:
- The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
- LGBT National Youth Talkline: 800-246-7743
- Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860 (USA) or 877-330-6366 (Canada)
- LGBT National Hotline: 888-843-4564
- DeHQ Helpline for South Asians: 908-367-3374
- LGBT National Online Peer-Support Chat
LGBTQ+ charities and community organisations that deserve your support:
- The Trevor Project
- Human Rights Campaign Foundation
- National Center for Transgender Equality
- SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders)
- Lambda Legal
- The Ali Forney Center
- Family Equality
- Astraea Lesbian Foundation For Justice
Sources we wish to acknowledge: