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LGBTQIA+ Symbols and Tattoos: A Bold Statement of Pride


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To our fellow Brummies, Birmingham Pride is upon us, are you going? And how will you celebrate Pride Month this year? If you're going to events up and down the country over the next few months or somewhere abroad, have fun! If you're keeping it low-key and want to mark it an alternative way, how about an LGBTQIA+ symbol for a tattoo?


Symbols are an important means of communication; they act as a short-form of language and can take form as pictures, gestures, sounds and words. Perhaps the most recent evolution of symbols are emojis, introduced back in ye olde 1998 by Japanese interface creator Shigetaka Kurita 😉🫶

 

Symbols can be instructional, they can convey ideas, characterise objects, though one of the most significant uses for symbolism can be to identify other communities in society. Historically, the LGBTQIA+ community have embraced various symbols to establish unity, allegiance, and pride. 


Rainbow Flag

The most popular and well recognised symbol is that of the rainbow flag, created in 1978 by artist, designer, former drag performer and Vietnam War veteran, Gilbert Baker.

Rainbow Graphic with symbolised meanings per colour.
'Graphic with the flag's symbolism', Jeff Raby, courtesy of Jeff Raby/CREATIS Group

The rainbow flag originally consisted of eight colours, each representing different pieces of the community. Nowadays, there are many variations of the rainbow flag, as well as many other pride flags that are expressive of other identities within the community.


LGBTQIA+ flags

Triangles

Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag because up until that point, symbolism for the gay community had been the downward pointing pink triangle, a symbol instituted by the Nazis as a means to identify male homosexuals in concentration camps. The icon was later reclaimed by gay men and is now symbolic of unity and pride. The triangle has also evolved to represent other identities, such as the Biangle – an overlapping pink and blue triangle with a purple intersecting triangle – representing bisexuality…


Pink triangle and Biangle - representing gay and bisexuals

Gender Symbols

The rainbow flag and pink triangle are international symbols of the LGBTQIA+ community, but there are so many more representative of the various subcultures, sexual orientations and gender identities…

 

The interlocking gender symbols first appeared in the 1970s, having derived from the astronomical symbology of Mars (representing the male sex) and Venus (representing the female sex).

 

Combining the male and female symbols is expressive of androgyny and/or transgender people, furthermore, combining this with the male and female symbols represents gender inclusivity. 


Types of gender symbols

Gender symbols make for a great tattoo as they are creative expressions of identity, with celebrities such as Arianna Grande, Tove Lo, and Sam Smith amongst those who have them.


Celebrity Instagram photos featuring Ariana Grande, Tove Lo and Sam Smith
Images courtesy of Instagram

Lambda

Continuing in part along astronomical symbolism, and staying in the 1970s, we arrive at graphic designer Tom Doerr, who elected the 11th letter of the Greek alphabet, lambda, as the symbol for the Gay Activist Alliance in New York during this period.

 

According to the alliance, the symbol was chosen by Doerr because of its contextual meaning in accordance with chemistry and physics – "a complete exchange of energy". The intention for the symbol was to encourage liberation and defend the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, and it worked too because the symbol was later associated with Gay Liberation, and by December of 1974 it had become the official symbol for the International Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh.


Lambda symbol - lesbian movement

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Common, by Poccil


It was during this period of the 1970s that the labrys symbol (an Ancient Greek double-headed axe) was also established by the lesbian community; it signifies lesbian feminism, strength and self-sufficiency. 

The symbol was a powerful emblem of the emerging lesbian movement, and remains so today.

The lesbian feminist pride flag consists of a white labrys, set over a black triangle and violet background.

white labrys, set over a black triangle and violet background flag

Image courtesy of Wikimedia             


Flora and Fauna

Nature and symbolism go perfectly hand in hand, and this is particularly so for the LGBTQIA+ community.

 

Floriography, aka the coded language of flowers, has long since been used to convey meanings and messages across all manner of cultures. Most notably, as early as the 6th century, violet flowers were used as a code to identify and signify allegiances between lesbian and bisexual women.

 

The origin of this code was drawn from the lyrical poetry of Sappho (c. 600 BCE), an Archaic Greek poet from the island of Lesbo. Though her sexuality is in dispute between scholars, plenty believe her works suggest homoerotic feelings, and this idea is strengthened when considering her more famous poetry, where she writes of a lost love wearing many crowns of violets and roses”.


Similar to the violet flower, green carnations came to represent homosexuality in 19th century England, and was propagated by author Oscar Wilde in 1892, when he had an actor wear the flower during the opening night performance of his play, Lady Windermere’s Fan.

 

The green carnation became synonymous with Wilde, as he and those in his circle would often be seen wearing the flower. When asked what the flower meant by a follower, Wilde answered, “Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess.” In the same conversation, however, he encouraged his enquiring follower to go buy a green carnation at Goodyear’s, (a renowned flower shop in London) as “they grow them there.”

On the surface this is a relatively innocent remark, though when considered in the context of Decadence, a movement which Wilde was a member of, the symbolic meaning behind the green carnation can be related to homosexuality.


Oscar Wilde with a green carnation Boutonnière

 Image courtesy of Oscar Wilde Tours


Lavender rhinos. Perhaps on the surface is an odd choice of symbolic representation for anything, and yet it’s conceivably amongst the more meaningful symbols covered thus far?

 

Daniel Thaxton and Bernie Toale, two artists from Boston, designed the lavender rhino for a public ad campaign steered by Gay Media Action-Advertising. Toale explained that they chose the rhino due to the fact “it is a much maligned and misunderstood animal”. As to the colour lavender, it was a fusion of pink and blue; a symbolic merging of masculine and feminine.

 

The intention for such an ad was to promote visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community in Boston. However, in March of 1974, Metro Transit Advertising announced their lawyers were "unable to determine eligibility of the public service rate" for the Lavender Rhino ad, and subsequently the rates tripled in cost, making it unattainable for Gay Media Action to run the ad.

 

Despite challenging this decision, it was only through donations that Gay Media Action were able to raise funds enough to begin circulating the ads, strategically placing them along the Green Line, which was the direct route through the city and beyond. 

 

A life-sized papier-mâché Lavender Rhino made its debut at the Boston Pride march of that year, and was even seen on t-shirts, pins and signs!


 papier-mâché Lavender Rhino that marchers pushed along the route of Boston Pride in 1974

Images courtesy of WBUR


Glitter Rhino sculpture in Gay Village, Birmingham UK

Despite its fascinating history, we don’t see much of the lavender rhino today unfortunately, though we do have our very own in Birmingham, Gay Village! 


In more recent years we have seen a growing popularity with unicorns. This mythical creature has been linked to rainbows as early as the Victorian Era, though only since the 21st Century has it become a gay icon, predominantly due to the links between Baker’s rainbow flag.


The unicorn is actually mentioned in certain versions of the Bible, referred to as a “re’em”, which translated means “unicorn” or “rhinoceros” – a very interesting coincidence! 🦄🦏

 

The unicorn takes on different symbolism for different people in the community; some say it’s the gender fluidity of the creature they relate to, whilst others determine it’s the mythical prestige and the ideal of living outside societal norms, as well as its individuality, ambiguity and gender fluidity. Whatever the relatable reasoning may be, they’re fabulous!


Symbolism and the LGBTQIA+ community share a rich history, and we’ve only skimmed the surface! Which is why there are links throughout this piece to all the source material referenced for this post if you wish to delve deeper (and fact-check us).


Kirstie Trew Tattoo Pride Flash Birmingham UK
Check out Kirstie's portfolio via Instagram: @kirstietrew

Here are a few tattoo ideas to get you started, courtesy of our resident artist, Kirstie! Head over to her Instagram to see examples of her work.

 

And if we’ve inspired your next tattoo, awesome! We look forward to hearing from you soon – check out our blog on how to get in touch! 😘👋🌈
















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