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Queer X Design
50 Years of Signs, Symbols, Banners, Logos, and Graphic Art of LGBTQ
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The first-ever illustrated history of the iconic designs, symbols, and graphic art representing more than 5 decades of LGBTQ pride and activism.
Beginning with pre-liberation and the years before the Stonewall uprising, spanning across the 1970s and 1980s and through to the new millennium, Queer X Design celebrates the inventive and subversive designs that have powered the resilient and ever-evolving LGBTQ movement.
The diversity and inclusivity of these pages is as inspiring as it is important, both in terms of the objects represented as well as in the array of creators; from buttons worn to protest Anita Bryant, to the original ‘The Future is Female’ and ‘Lavender Menace’ t-shirt; from the logos of Pleasure Chest and GLAAD, to the poster for Cheryl Dunye’s queer classic The Watermelon Woman; from Gilbert Baker’s iconic rainbow flag, to the quite laments of the AIDS quilt and the impassioned rage conveyed in ACT-UP and Gran Fury ephemera.
More than just an accessible history book, Queer X Design tells the story of queerness as something intangible, uplifting, and indestructible. Found among these pages is sorrow, loss, and struggle; an affective selection that queer designers and artists harnessed to bring about political and societal change. But here is also: joy, hope, love, and the enduring fight for free expression and representation. Queer X Design is the potent, inspiring, and colorful visual history of activism and pride.
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Shortly after turning sixteen I was given the keys to my parents’ rusty, gray Chevy Astrovan. Ready to begin exploring my hometown of Austin, Texas, one of the first stops I made was the local gay bookstore, Lobo. There I bought a thin, rainbow-striped bumper sticker with the intention of immediately adhering it to the back of “my new car.” In my head such an action was a declaration—a public claiming of a piece of my identity I was still coming to terms with. But this potential for increased public visibility forced me to pause and reconsider. What if the sticker inflamed a fellow driver, causing an accident on the road? What if I got nasty looks or terrible catcalls? Was I prepared? This is how I came to be petrified in the midst of my teenage liberation—unsure of what I was doing or what the potential consequences might be. This existential crisis likely only lasted half a minute, but I remember time creeping to a halt with the weight of what seemed like a monumental decision. Snapping out of it, I spat on a paper towel and cleaned the grime off the van’s bumper. After peeling the long, slick backing off the sticker, I adhered it to the back bumper.
What I didn’t know, but I suppose intuitively believed, was that minor acts like putting a sticker on a car aggregate and have the capacity to shift lived worlds. A thin rainbow stripe on the back of my car was a relatively insignificant yet nevertheless public indication that the driver was an LGBTQ person or ally. Things weren’t as bad as I had feared, for as many times as I was the target of repulsed glares and shouts—likely due to my bad driving—I received twice as many friendly waves and honks from other LGBTQ folks and allies. Their bumpers sported rainbow stickers, too, and pink triangles, HRC logos, and a variety of queer-positive slogans.
In many respects I was quite privileged. I grew up in a liberal household and city, during a decade when lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, and queers were newly welcomed into popular culture—albeit, not with the same zeal or nuance in all cases. Pedro Zamora and Ellen DeGeneres were on television; I could rent Paris Is Burning from the “gay and lesbian” section of my local Blockbuster (and I did, many times); RuPaul had a talk show on VH1; mainstream bookstores carried a small clutch of lesbian and gay magazines (Out, The Advocate, Curve, and XY) and feminist and gay bookstores carried everything else; I found my first boyfriends in online chat rooms and message boards; and I could avail myself of LGBTQ youth services and counseling if I ever needed them. It seemed that each year more and more people in my own life and in national culture came out publicly, expanding my community by degrees. I didn’t yet understand the substantial importance of the decades of activism, struggle, and losses that preceded the good life I was able to live as a young, white, middle-class, gay kid in a fairly liberal Southern city in the 1990s.
Still—I remember reading about downtown gay bashings on a semi-regular basis; my mother and I watched in horror as the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard garnered national news coverage; and now, years later, I think of the transgender people who were murdered and whose lives and deaths were so stigmatized that their passing did not garner national sympathy or outrage. I never believed, despite the uptick in popular visibility, or the then-current claims to “lesbian chic,” that my friends or I were safe in this world. With visibility comes vulnerability; every new milestone of acceptance prompts virulent backlash and bigotry.
My biological extended family didn’t truly understand this aspect of LGBTQ life until my cousin, Christopher Loudon, was killed in combat operations in Iraq. In the days leading up to his funeral, word arrived that Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church congregation, long famous for their “God hates fags” protests, were planning to picket our family’s tragedy. On the day we all gathered at a local church in rural Pennsylvania, Phelps’s followers showed up, carrying signs that claimed the death of my cousin was evidence of God’s wrath visited upon a nation that too easily accepted LGBTQ people (“fags” was their term of art) into their fold. Phelps overstated the case—reality and sense often escaped him. My aunts and uncles didn’t understand, in the depths of their grief, how anyone could say such vile things. It pressed at the boundaries of my imagination, too, but my world had long included an awareness of people like Phelps. I found that in the midst of our collective mourning, I needed to do a fair amount of educating—and my family, a fair amount of listening.
I relay these anecdotes to point out the ways that LGBTQ life and politics regularly suffuse both the everyday and the extraordinary, just as the histories of LGBTQ communities are littered with mundane and outrageous acts. And for as much as we understand these histories, or think we understand them, there is still much more to uncover and learn. One of the aspects of LGBTQ histories that has yet to receive sustained attention is the profound importance of design in the social and political livelihoods of LGBTQ people.
The history of the ally group PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is an instructive example. When Queens schoolteacher Jeanne Manford marched with her gay son, Morty, in the 1972 Christopher Street Liberation March in New York, she couldn’t have known that her simple, handwritten sign reading “PARENTS of Gays: UNITE in SUPPORT for our CHILDREN” would essentially establish one of the most visible and important LGBTQ ally groups in the United States. Written in bold block letters on an attention-grabbing orange poster board, Manford’s text possessed an educator’s design intelligence—the capitalized words offering a truncated and expedient message to those standing on the sidelines of the march. Three years after the Stonewall uprisings, Manford’s altruistic and visible support of her child speaks beautifully to the intertwined legacies of LGBTQ-identified and non-LGBTQ-identified people acting in concert in coalitional struggles.
Manford’s sign worked. And because of the outpouring of support she received from both LGBTQ people as well as parents and families, she and her husband cofounded Parents FLAG, which eventually became the national organization known as PFLAG. Over the decades of its existence, PFLAG has provided grassroots local and national support to a variety of LGBTQ causes—including anti-discrimination legislative initiatives, the development of educational materials aimed at destigmatizing and supporting LGBTQ people, and the rallying of sympathetic faith communities to larger LGBTQ causes. PFLAG’s designs changed apace with the organization. Buttons from the organization’s first decade sometimes rendered PFLAG’s initialism literally as a waving flag—a clever, visual punning. Years later a poster designed for the organization’s 1985 national convention dramatized the pearl-clutching protestations of their target demographic with visual wit and sophistication. Riffing off the form of a gridlocked suburban neighborhood, the poster moves its viewer from stigmatization to acceptance. One house in the neighborhood features a pink triangular roof, indicating the presence of LGBTQ life inside. The other houses contain question marks—visually manifesting the question rendered in large, pink, capitalized letters nearby: “What will the neighbors say?” But the question marks also signify in another way, questioning what an LGBTQ family member might overlook—that other households, too, might be dealing with the same thing.
In 2004 PFLAG debuted its current logo, comprised of an interlinked red heart and orange triangle placed atop a yellow starburst. The heart represents the love of families and friends, and the triangle has long been recognized as a symbol of LGBTQ communities. The starburst, in the words of the organization, “represents the power of this united front to move equality forward.” Using the associative language of symbolic representation, PFLAG, and many of the groups discussed in this book, use design to leverage visual cues that signal their commitments to a set of shared principles and values. This is not unique to LGBTQ communities and organizations—in fact, it could be argued that anti-LGBTQ groups do the same thing (those heinous Westboro Baptist Church placards were every bit as designed as Manford’s), but this book considers the signs, symbols, banners, graphic art, and logos that power LGBTQ communities in their ongoing struggles and celebrations. In short, these are examples of designs that are largely made for us, by us. Paying attention to the intricacies of their histories can, in the words of queer architectural and design scholar Aaron Betsky, “amaze us, scare us, or delight us, but certainly open us to new worlds within our daily existence.”
A few distinct tensions mark national LGBTQ histories and emerge as key features in LGBTQ design. The first and perhaps most important of these is the ambivalent relationship between seeking broad societal acceptance and finding innate value in homosexuality’s outlaw history. For some, such as bisexual activist Lani Ka’ahumanu, there is a bright line between these two approaches. “Remember,” Ka’ahumanu warns us, “assimilation is a lie, it is spiritual erasure.” Her statement can be read as an excoriation of the values of assimilation—whereby one plays down one’s differences to fit in with a larger social group—but it can also be taken as a call to innately value difference. Not everyone in LGBTQ communities feels the same as Ka’ahumanu. Some are vocal about simply wanting to lead a “normal” life (whatever that may mean), with all the trappings that would come with such a desire. Indeed, this tension exists graphically, too, in the difference between the unabashed flamboyance of Gilbert Baker’s rainbow pride flag and the focus group–tested logo of the Human Rights Campaign—who, in working closely with design firm Stone Yamashita Partners, made LGBTQ concerns palatable to a broad swathe of the U.S. electorate.
Many of these tensions over assimilation play out in the arena of language. LGBTQ people have constantly defined and redefined the words and terms used to describe their desires, gender identities, and political interests. Over the period covered in this book LGBTQ people have called themselves homophiles, homosexuals, gays, lesbians, faggots, dykes, trannies, queers, genderfuck, transgender, and so much more. Such identitarian terms are historical, emerging at particular times and falling away after years of use. Speak of “homophiles” and one hearkens back to a time when men and women spearheaded pre-liberation political organizations such as the Mattachine Society. Saying the word “queer” recalls the activist moment immediately following the start of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Queer Nation, one of the most prolific and vociferous organizations during this time, reclaimed “queer” from its popular usage of denigrating and devaluing the lives of LGBTQ people, and developed the telling slogan and political chant: “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” The same is also true of visual symbols. What was once a symbol of the vilest intolerance—for example, the pink triangle as used by the Nazis to mark homosexual men during the Holocaust—was actively reclaimed and resignified as a badge of empowerment and solidarity. What more convenient foundation for such political alliances than a shared experience of oppression?
The second tension regards who, exactly, is the imagined audience for LGBTQ design. Some items in this book, like the “gay money” stamps created throughout the 1970s, eighties, and nineties, are forthright in their address of a broadly conceived national community. The idea was that money stamped with phrases like “Gay $” and “Dyke Dollars” could make visible the purchase power of LGBTQ people. Gay money could come from the local convenience store or supermarket; anyone could have gay dollars in their wallet or purse. In striking contrast to gay money’s public address, Bob Mizer’s “Subjective Character Analysis”—an ideographic code that identified the sexual characteristics and behaviors of his many hunky male models—was meant to be circulated only among a relatively small coterie of like-minded individuals. Flags, like Monica Helms’s transgender flag, do both at once: affirming the experiences of trans individuals while also announcing their presence within larger LGBTQ and straight communities. In their materiality, composition, typography, iterability, and language, LGBTQ designers identify and aim their messages at particular audiences.
Many of the designs in this book demonstrate a third tension, which is that LGBTQ livelihoods are marked by both struggle and celebration; agitation and compromise. If the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century taught us anything, it is that the terms of liberation must be demanded and taken; for they are not generally given freely by those in positions of power. As one of the historical influences on the gay liberation movement (along with the near-contemporaneous women’s liberation movement), U.S. civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s offered a template for imagining and seizing a different life. The equals sign, the upraised fist—these are common motifs in LGBTQ design derived directly from the civil rights graphics that came before. The equals sign, for example, is central to the “Silence = Death” logotype developed by a small group of graphic designers and artists in the early years of the AIDS pandemic. As one of the most dire and devastating events in LGBTQ history, the AIDS pandemic (which is still ongoing, despite the development and distribution of more and more new pharmaceuticals) is no cause for celebration, but rather for action. The stirring designs of the Silence = Death Collective and the various art and design groups allied with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) rage against government inaction, pharmaceutical opportunism, and public apathy. Performative activist strategies such as “die-ins” and ceremonial scatterings of ashes in places of political power accompany the seemingly more inert graphics developed by these groups. But these signs and graphics must be imagined in motion—in the upraised hands of protestors, covering their torsos and heads as they show up for themselves and their communities. But not everything is doom and gloom. In the midst of the AIDS pandemic, C. M. Ralph, who was witness to the devastation of HIV/AIDS in San Francisco, developed the first queer video game—Caper in the Castro—as a kind of love letter to her communities. Filled with in-jokes and intrigue, Ralph’s game provided lightness in a time of great darkness, a celebration when there seemed to be little to celebrate. It remains, for me, one of the most remarkable designs of the period for this reason alone.
Today, my everyday world is indelibly marked by LGBTQ design. Banners of the rainbow flag are placed at intervals along the University of Southern California’s main thoroughfare during the month of June; ten feet from my office door is a newly minted gender-neutral restroom—a white triangle on a blue circle marking that anyone is welcome; and on top of my bookshelf rests a cardboard sign that I carried in the 2011 QueerBomb! march and rally. Some symbols I have a particularly personal relationship with—such as Dandy Unicorn, the gender-ambivalent figurehead/mascot of The Gay Place, and the weekly LGBTQ section of the Austin Chronicle, an alternative news weekly. During graduate school I worked for The Gay Place, then under the editorship of Kate X Messer. She commissioned choreographer and designer Lindsey Taylor to design a unicorn mascot for The Gay Place. Magical and unique, the unicorn that Taylor created spoke to the values of difference and empowerment so endemic to LGBTQ histories. Soon, Messer and I became Dandy Unicorn—using the persona to comment on people’s Facebook walls and organizing contingents in the local pride parade under the sign of our mascot.
I took these lessons of Dandy Unicorn to heart after moving to Houston. Realizing that there were many gay bars, but no queer spaces that welcomed gender nonconforming and trans revelers, a small group of friends (myself included) started a queer dance party called Dykon Fagatron. Held monthly, the party featured DJ sets and live performances. Before throwing our first event, Ana Elise Johnson—one of Dykon Fagatron’s primary collaborators—created what would be the logo of the party. Realizing that one of the barriers to welcoming genderqueer revelers into an exclusively gay space was the presence of gender-neutral restrooms, the logo Johnson developed ultimately also hung on the doors of the venue’s restrooms. Taking the concept of the pan-gendered restroom to its absurd and playful extreme, Johnson’s design included both male and female pictographs, as well as iconography related to disability, dissent, and monstrosity. It was a ridiculous graphic, meant to poke fun at the gendered separation of spaces; and a signal to all that no matter how you identified, this party was for you. The success of the party proved the intelligence of Johnson’s design—just as the conversations between regular bar patrons and Dykon Fagatron partygoers proved the utter variety of LGBTQ experience.
What Dandy Unicorn and the Dykon Fagatron logo crystallize for me is the fact that design has the capacity to change some of the terms of everyday life, no matter how slight. But for LGBTQ design to move forward, we must be aware of its past. The poet, publisher, and activist Audre Lorde makes this point beautifully, in one of her essays in the compendium Sister Outsider: “But there are no new ideas waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves—along with the renewed courage to try them out.”
LGBTQ design is about audacity, trying things out, and sometimes failing. Because LGBTQ people have historically been denied positions of political and economic power—or even basic protections from those who would threaten our lives and livelihoods—many of the designs discussed in this book share, by dint of circumstance, similar origin stories: namely, courageous individuals and small groups working together to visualize and imagine new political horizons. There is an honesty and earnestness in this task. But for too long these designers’ and activists’ contributions have gone uncollected and untold. I hope that in some small way this book changes that. I have gathered here examples of LGBTQ design from the pre-liberation period to now, giving form to the manifest complexities, contradictions, and innovations of LGBTQ communities. The designs contained in this book have been culled from a variety of archives, public institutions, and private organizations—some are being published for the first time.
One thing is certain: from the homophile movements of the 1950s to the growing concerns of contemporary LGBTQ movements in tackling intersectional oppressions, the depth and breadth of the U.S. LGBTQ experience is deep and vast. In assembling this astonishing collection of LGBTQ design, I take a cue from the poet Essex Hemphill, who wrote, “I need the ass-splitting truth to be told, so I will have something pure to emulate, a reason to remain loyal.” Consider this a first, and not a final, attempt to tell some of these stories.
Homosexuality, and heterosexuality by extension, is a modern invention. The mutually constitutive terms were coined in an 1868 letter sent by Karl-Maria Kertbeny, an Austrian-born Hungarian journalist, to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a writer and sexual reform campaigner in Germany. Up until then, Ulrichs had referred to men who had sex with other men as “urnings” or “uranians”—a term derived from the Greek goddess Aphrodite Urania, formed from the testicles of the sky god Uranus. Ulrichs’s term suggested a third gender, a purposeful melding of male and female energies, whose natural result was the development of same-sex attraction. Although homosexual behavior has been documented in nearly every society—modern and ancient—before Kertbeny coined the term “homosexual,” at least in Europe and in the United States, men who had sex with other men were not known under strict identitarian terms, but rather for their behavior as sodomites—those who engaged in non-procreative, penetrative sex. The term “lesbian” was preceded by the term “tribade,” which derived from the Greek and Latin word for “rub,” erroneously suggesting that lesbian sex was, by default, non-penetrative. Interestingly, the term “bisexual” predates both “homosexual” and “uranian”—having been in use for at least a century by botanists.
This brief rehearsal of some of the key terms of proto-LGBTQ identities is necessary, because identities are historical effects of social conditions, consolidated at specific moments in time. It may be odd—truly queer—to think that a man who had sex with another man in the late nineteenth century was not gay, or that a woman who loved another women in the nineteenth century was not a lesbian (as was the case with Emily Dickinson and her [eventual] sister-in-law Susan Gilbert), but this is essentially the point. Claiming such would be anachronistic—placing the more familiar terms of today onto the past. Although we use the words “lesbian” or “gay” to name female-female and male-male desire today, and “transgender” to name a variety of gendered and sexed identifications outside of the normative male/female, masculine/feminine binaries, these were not terms in circulation in the years leading up to the uprisings at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria (San Francisco), Cooper’s Do-nuts or the Black Cat (Los Angeles), and the Stonewall Inn (New York)—the events that signaled a cultural shift toward the conditions of liberation.
Even without the familiar identifying terms of today, men who had sex with other men, women who had sex with other women, and those who fell outside of normative gender and sex binaries were subject to extreme social pressures and legal persecution and prosecution. Punishment for sodomy and the more vague “crimes against nature” effectively criminalized homosexual activity—even though sodomy covered a range of activities (such as oral sex) not exclusive to male-male or female-female sexual expression. Dress code laws prohibited cross-dressing and other visible forms of transvestite appearance. These laws were enforced selectively, and importantly did not apply to the many vaudeville performers who dressed in the clothes of the opposite gender. Their transgressions were sanctioned because they were assumed to be only temporary and for the purposes of entertainment. All of these restrictions were imposed supposedly to uphold the moral standards of broadly defined and imagined city, state, and national communities. That these communities were never assumed to include other LGBTQ people is evidence of the second-class status of the LGBTQ community. Thus, some of the earliest evidence that we have of LGBTQ life in the United States come in the form of arrest records, individuals arraigned under repressive legal regimes.
As the philosopher Michel Foucault described in the indispensible first volume of his sprawling and unfinished History of Sexuality series of books, such repressions actually occasioned the innovation and sedimentation of sexual cultures. In response to police surveillance and oppression, the first organizations dedicated to the causes of criminal justice reform and mutual support were established. Groups such as Chicago’s Society for Human Rights or the Los Angeles–based Mattachine Society melded a broadly liberal politics—Mattachine’s founder, Harry Hay, was a labor activist and an avowed Communist—with a growing sense of urgency regarding the dismissal and perceived disposability of homosexual lives. Such organizations, because they oftentimes had to operate in secret, developed rich visual codes, which stealthily hid references to homophile political concerns and causes in the guise of benign symbols. Mattachine’s name and primary symbol was that of the jester, a reference to Il Mattaccino—the jester character from the Italian commedia dell’arte theatrical tradition, who often had the ability to speak truth to the power of the king. Hay and the members of Mattachine thought of their role in similar terms; while seemingly frivolous and the butt of many jokes, the jester could also be a surreptitious agent of social change.
The pre-liberation period was a time of innovation in terms of the most common symbols of LGBTQ communities. The astrological signs for Mars and Venus were imported from the natural sciences (most especially the taxonomical writings of eighteenth-century Swiss naturalist Carl Linnaeus) where they identified the effective sex of male and female plants, respectively. Although the history of the interlinked Mars and Venus symbols is murky at best, the presence of astrological symbols in Bob Mizer’s “Subjective Character Analysis,” for example, suggests that these were somewhat known symbols within homophile communities. The pink triangle was a less common, but nevertheless present, signifier, as it had been the symbol used by Nazis to identify and exterminate male homosexuals. Lesbians were branded with a black triangle, the symbol for “asocial” men and women, a broad category that included prostitutes, those who had sex with Jews, and thieves.
"Since Queer X Design was published, it has become a touchstone for the modern history of the graphic design that accompanies queer movements."—BookRiot
"Sometimes, a rebellion begins with a rebrand. In Queer X Design, the professor Andy Campbell weaves a telling visual tapestry of an emerging L.G.B.T.Q. language and identity."—The New York Times
"This illuminating compendium by art historian and curator Andy Campbell is a deep dive into more than 50 years of the extraordinary art and design that came to represent the LGBTQ movement...Queer X Design is a must-read for anyone interested in the convergence of design, politics, and activism."—Metropolis Magazine
"A beautifully bound, well-researched book that draws a lineage of LGBTQ designs richer than a thousand rainbow Ralph Lauren polos. Campbell's book details an uncut LGBTQ artistry, spanning digital, print, paint, and even ink n' skin work (check out the Phil Sparrow's Tattoo Flash for that good stuff) -- tracing back to the days of pre-liberation and upward into the 21st century."—The Austin Chronicle
"An entertaining, insightful, beautifully illustrated book that explains and celebrates the role of LGBTQ graphic design, and designers, since the Stonewall uprising in 1969 -- a sort of history of LGBTQ life and activism told through our symbols... [Campbell's] writing is insightful and entertaining and always interesting."—A&U Magazine
"A pretty comprehensive illustrated history of the gay rights movement and how it's changed over the years.... Discover the stories behind some of the most memorable symbols of the past five decades."—HeSaid Magazine
"[Queer X Design] is an anthology of our trek from invisibility into Pride and beyond. It's a fascinating record that contains images that also predate the Stonewall rebellion by more than a quarter century... Between the covers of Queer X Design, you'll find photos that delight, artwork that seethes with rage, and images that have united the LGBTQ community in victories and setbacks throughout the struggle for equality."—Metrosource
"An empowering visual history of the iconic symbols and designs that defined many eras of the LGBTQ movement."—The Globe and Mail
"Queer X Design highlights and celebrates the many inventive and subversive designs that have helped drive the LGBTQ movement over the years...it's an inspiring and colourful visual history of design harnessed to bring about political and societal change."—CreativeBloq
"A big, bold, and inspiring collection of the visual imagery that both represented and shaped the identity of the LGBTQ movement."—The Advocate
"For the first time, a colorful, visual collection coalesces the iconic posters, symbols and graphic designs that have defined 50 years of LGBTQ pride and activism. By decade, Andy Campbell's Queer X Design traces the lineage of lGBTQ artistry through pre-Stonewall to the present day."—Azure Magazine
- On Sale
- May 7, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal