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Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities have adopted certain symbols for which they are identified and by which they demonstrate unity, pride, shared values, and allegiance to one another. LGBT symbols also communicate ideas, concepts and identity both within their communities and to mainstream cultures. Arguably the two most-recognized international LGBT symbols are the pink triangle and the rainbow flag.

Triangles used for persecution during the Nazi regime

Main article: Pink triangle

One of the oldest of these symbols is the pink triangle, which originated from the Nazi concentration camp badges that male homosexuals were required to wear on their clothing.[1] Many of the estimated 5–15,000 gay men and lesbian women imprisoned in concentration camps died during the Holocaust.[2] For this reason, the pink triangle is used as an identification symbol and as a memento to remind both its wearers and the general public of the atrocities that gays suffered under Nazi persecutors. AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) adopted the inverted pink triangle to symbolize the "active fight back" against HIV/AIDS "rather than a passive resignation to fate."

The pink triangle was used exclusively with male prisoners—lesbians were not included under Paragraph 175, a statute which made homosexual acts between males a crime. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum stipulates that this is because women were seen as subordinate to men, and that the Nazi state feared lesbians less than gay men. However, the USHMM also claims that many women were arrested and imprisoned for "asocial" behaviour, a label which was applied to women who did not conform to the ideal Nazi image of a woman: cooking, cleaning, kitchen work, child raising, and passivity. These women were labeled with a black triangle.[3] Lesbians reclaimed this symbol for themselves as gay men reclaimed the pink triangle.

Pink Triangle Black Triangle Pink & Yellow Triangles

Pink triangle.svg

Black triangle.svg

Pink triangle jew.svg

The pink triangle was originally used to denote homosexual men as a Nazi concentration camp badge.

The black triangle was used to mark "asocial" and "workshy" individuals, including lesbians, Romani people and others in the camps. It has been adapted as a lesbian symbol.

The pink triangle overlapping a yellow triangle was used to tag Jewish homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps.


The labrys symbol.

The labrys, or double-bladed battle axe, was a symbol used in the ancient civilization of Minoan Crete (sometimes portrayed as having certain matriarchal tendencies), and in ancient Greek legends it was supposedly used by Scythian Amazon women warriors (sometimes said to be ruled by two queens at a time). It can also be associated with the Greek goddess Demeter (Ceres in Roman mythology) and occasionally the Greek goddess Artemis (Diana in Roman mythology). The labrys is often used used to represent lesbian and feminist strength and self-sufficiency.[4]


The Greek symbol lambda

In 1970, the Greek letter lambda (λ) was selected to symbolize the Gay Activists Alliance’s campaign in New York, and four years later, the International Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, chose the same symbol to represent lesbian and gay rights. As a result, the lambda has become internationally known. It is traditional for the lambda to be shown in lavender, a color which, like pink, is often associated with homosexuality. In physics the lambda represents wavelength, associated with energy, and therefore is used to symbolize the energy of the Gay Rights Movement. Also, the lambda is said to signify unity under oppression. The gay rights organization Lambda Legal and the American Lambda Literary Award derive their names from this symbol.[5]

Purple hand

The purple hand.

On October 31, 1969, sixty members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) staged a protest outside the offices of the San Francisco Examiner in response to another in a series of news articles disparaging LGBT people in San Francisco's gay bars and clubs.[6][7] The peaceful protest against the "homophobic editorial policies" of the Examiner turned tumultuous and were later called "Friday of the Purple Hand" and "Bloody Friday of the Purple Hand".[7][8][9][10][11] Examiner employees "dumped a bag of printers' ink from the third story window of the newspaper building onto the crowd".[7][9] Some reports state that it was a barrel of ink poured from the roof of the building.[12] The protesters "used the ink to scrawl 'Gay Power' and other slogans on the building walls" and stamp purple hand prints "throughout downtown San Francisco" resulting in "one of the most visible demonstrations of gay power".[7][9][11] According to Larry LittleJohn, then president of SIR, "At that point, the tactical squad arrived – not to get the employees who dumped the ink, but to arrest the demonstrators. Somebody could have been hurt if that ink had gotten into their eyes, but the police were knocking people to the ground."[7] The accounts of police brutality include women being thrown to the ground and protesters' teeth being knocked out.[7][13]

Inspired by Black Hand extortion methods of Camorra gangsters and the Mafia,[14] some gay and lesbian activists attempted to institute "purple hand" as a warning to stop anti-gay attacks, with little success. In Turkey, the LGBT rights organization MorEl Eskişehir LGBTT Oluşumu (Purple Hand Eskişehir LGBT Formation), also bears the name of this symbol.[15]

See also: Gay Mafia

Rainbow flag

Current version of the gay pride flag

Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag for the 1978 San Francisco's Gay Freedom Celebration. The flag does not depict or show an actual rainbow. Rather, the colors of the rainbow are displayed as horizontal stripes, with red at the top and purple at the bottom. It represents the diversity of gays and lesbians around the world. The purple stripe is sometimes replaced with a black stripe to show masculinity or leather pride. Red stands for life, orange stands for healing, yellow stands for the sun, green stands for nature, blue stands for harmony, and purple stands for the soul. The original rainbow flag had two additional stripes: a pink stripe and an aqua stripe. These two colors are in the Bisexual Double Triangle and the bright pink is also similar to the Pink Triangle. The original eight color rainbow flag flies over the Castro in San Francisco and from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in New York City.

Gay and lesbian gender symbols

Pairs of male gender symbols and female gender symbols are used to form symbols for gay and lesbian, respectively. Variations on this theme can be used to represent bisexuals and transsexuals.

Freedom rings

Freedom rings

Freedom rings, designed by David Spada, are six aluminum rings, each in one of the colors of the rainbow flag. Symbolizing independence and tolerance, these rings are worn as themselves or as part of necklaces, bracelets, and key chains. They're often referred to as "Fruit Loops".[16] For National Coming Out Day (held in the United States on October 11) students have made home-made versions of the "freedom rings" with actual Fruit Loops cereal. A subtle distinction often ignored is if the red ring is toward the wearer's right hand, they are gay. If the red ring is toward the left hand, they are straight and gay-friendly.


Bisexual Pride flag

The blue and pink overlapping triangle symbol represents bisexuality and bi pride. The exact origin of this symbol, sometimes facetiously referred to as the "biangles", remains ambiguous. It is popularly thought that the pink triangle may represent homosexuality, as it does when it stands alone, while the blue stands for heterosexuality. The two together form the color lavender, a blend of both sexual orientations and a color that has been associated with homosexuality for almost a century. It's also possible that the pink may represent attraction to females, the blue attraction to males and lavender attraction to both.

In 1988, Michael Page designed a bisexual pride flag to represent the bisexual community. This rectangular flag consists of a broad magenta stripe at the top, representing same-gender attraction; a broad stripe in blue at the bottom, representing opposite-gender attraction; and a narrower deep lavender band occupying the central fifth, which represents attraction towards both genders.

Transgender symbol

Popular transgender symbols, used to identify transvestites, transsexuals, and other transgender people, frequently consist of a modified biological symbol, originating from a drawing by Holly Boswell. In addition to the arrow projecting from the top right of the circle that comprises the biological symbol for the male (from the astrological symbol for Mars), and in addition to the cross projecting from the bottom of the circle that comprises the biological symbol for the female (from the astrological symbol for Venus), the symbol incorporates both these devices as well as a cross topped by an arrowhead (combining the male and the female motifs) which projects from the top left of the circle.

Transgender Pride flag

Another transgender symbol is the Transgender Pride flag designed by Monica Helms, and first shown at a pride parade in Phoenix, Arizona, USA in 2000. The flag represents the transgender community and consists of five horizontal stripes, two light blue, two pink, with a white stripe in the center. Helms described the meaning of the flag as follows:

The light blue is the traditional color for baby boys, pink is for girls, and the white in the middle is for those who are transitioning, those who feel they have a neutral gender or no gender, and those who are intersex. The pattern is such that no matter which way you fly it, it will always be correct. This symbolizes us trying to find correctness in our own lives."

Other transgender symbols include the butterfly (symbolizing transformation or metamorphosis), and a pink/light blue yin and yang symbol.


Intersex flag

Main article: Intersex Pride flag

Intersex people are those who do not exhibit all the biological characteristics of male or female, or exhibit a combination of characteristics, at birth. They are estimated by some to be about 1% of the population.[17]

The Intersex flag was created by Organisation Intersex International Australia in July 2013 to create a flag "that is not derivative, but is yet firmly grounded in meaning". The organization aimed to create a symbol without gendered pink and blue colors. It describes yellow and purple as the "hermaphrodite" colors. The organisation describes it as freely available "for use by any intersex person or organisation who wishes to use it, in a human rights affirming community context"[18][19][20]

Bear community

The International Bear Brotherhood Flag designed in 1995 by Craig Byrnes(VA Copyright 760-763), digital graphic by Paul Witzkoske for Bear Manufacturing [21]

Bear is an affectionate gay slang term for those in the bear communities, a subculture in the gay community and an emerging subset of LGBT communities with events, codes and culture specific identity. Bears tend to have hairy bodies and facial hair; some are heavy-set; some project an image of working-class masculinity in their grooming and appearance, though none of these are requirements or unique indicators. The bear concept can function as an identity, an affiliation, and an ideal to live up to, and there is ongoing debate in bear communities about what constitutes a bear. Some state that self-identifying as a bear is the only requirement, while others argue that bears must have certain physical characteristics—such as a hairy chest and face or having a large body—and a certain mode of dress and behavior.

"Bears" are almost always gay or bisexual men although increasingly transgender men and those who shun labels for gender and sexuality are also included within bear communities. The Bear community has spread all over the world, with Bear clubs in many countries. Bear clubs often serve as social and sexual networks for older, hairier, sometimes heavier gay and bisexual men, and members often contribute to their local gay communities through fundraising and other functions. Bear events are common in heavily-gay communities.

Leather sub-culture

Leather Pride flag.

Leather culture denotes practices and styles of dress organized around sexual activities and eroticism ("kink"). Wearing leather garments is one way that participants in this culture self-consciously distinguish themselves from mainstream sexual cultures. Leather culture is most visible in gay communities and most often associated with gay men ("leathermen"), but it is also reflected in various ways in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight worlds. Many people associate leather culture with BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sado/Masochism, also called "SM") practice. But for others, wearing black leather clothing is an erotic fashion that expresses heightened masculinity or the appropriation of sexual power; love of motorcycles and independence; and engagement in sexual kink or leather fetishism.[22]

The Leather Pride flag was designed by Tony DeBlase, and he first presented the design at the International Mr. Leather event in Chicago, Illinois, USA on May 28, 1989.

"The flag is composed of nine horizontal stripes of equal width. From the top and from the bottom, the stripes alternate black and royal blue. The central stripe is white. In the upper left quadrant of the flag is a large red heart. I will leave it to the viewer to interpret the colors and symbols."

Other symbols

In addition to these major symbols of the GLBT community, other lesser symbols have been used to represent members’ unity, pride, shared values, and allegiance to one another.

  • American poet Walt Whitman used the calamus plant to represent homoerotic love.
  • Nineteenth-century poets used the ladslove plant to symbolize homosexuality.
  • In ancient Rome, as in 19th-century England, green indicated homosexual affiliations. Victorian men would often pin a green carnation to their lapel as a signal.
  • In the early years of the 20th century, a red necktie was worn by some men to signal their homosexuality to others.
  • The pinky ring was a fashionable jewelry accessory for male homosexuals during the 1950s through the 1970s.
  • Gay activists in Boston chose the purple rhinoceros as a symbol of the gay movement after conducting a media campaign for this purpose, selecting this animal because, although it is sometimes misunderstood, it is really both docile and intelligent - but when a rhinoceros is angered, it fights ferociously.
  • Lesbians in the mid-twentieth century would tattoo a blue star on a part of the body, commonly the arm, that could be covered during the day and revealed at night/in clubs.
  • Bisexual women and lesbians would give violets to the woman they were wooing, symbolizing their "Sapphic" desire. Sappho described, in a poem, herself and a lover wearing garlands of violets. The giving of violets was popular in the 1920s, 30's and 40's.
  • In the United Kingdom, the Pink Jack has been widely used in recent years to demonstrate a unique British Gay and Lesbian identity.[23]

Conversely, since the first century, the hare, the hyena,[24][25][26] and the weasel have been used in literature as negative symbols of male homosexuality, with connotations of sexual perversion.


  1. Plant, Richard (1988). The pink triangle: the Nazi war against homosexuals, revised, H. Holt, 175. ISBN 978-0-8050-0600-1. 
  2. Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945.
  3. LESBIANS AND THE THIRD REICH. USHMM. Retrieved on 16 January 2015.
  4. Origin of Gay & Lesbian Symbols. Retrieved on 22 January 2012.
  5. Riffenburg IV, Charles Edward (2008). Symbols of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Movements: The lambda. LAMBDA GLBT Community Services.
  6. Gould, Robert E. (24 February 1974). What We Don't Know About Homosexuality. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved on 2008-01-01. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Alwood, Edward (1996). Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media. Columbia University; ISBN 0-231-08436-6. Retrieved on 2008-01-01. 
  8. Bell, Arthur (28 March 1974). Has The Gay Movement Gone Establishment?. Village Voice. Retrieved on 2008-01-01. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Van Buskirk, Jim (2004). Gay Media Comes of Age. Bay Area Reporter. Retrieved on 2008-01-01.
  10. (November 15–30, 1969) Friday of the Purple Hand. The San Francisco Free Press. Retrieved on 2008-01-01.  courtesy the Gay Lesbian Historical Society.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Gay Power" Politics. GLBTQ, Inc. (30 March 2006). Retrieved on 2008-01-01.
  12. Montanarelli, Lisa (2005). Strange But True San Francisco: Tales of the City by the Bay. Globe Pequot; ISBN 0-7627-3681-X. Retrieved on 2008-01-01. 
  13. (24 April 1974) Newspaper Series Surprises Activists. The Advocate. Retrieved on 2008-01-01. 
  14. Jay Robert Nash, World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime, Da Capo Press, 1993. ISBN 0-306-80535-9
  15. MorEl Eskişehir LGBTT Oluşumu. Retrieved on 2012-01-23.
  16. Green, Jonathon (2006, ISBN 0304366366). Cassell's Dictionary of Slang. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.. Retrieved on 2007-11-15. 
  17. How common is intersex? | Intersex Society of North America. Retrieved on 2009-08-21.
  18. An intersex flag, Organisation Intersex International Australia, 5 July 2013
  19. Are you male, female or intersex?, Amnesty International Australia, 11 July 2013
  20. Intersex advocates address findings of Senate Committee into involuntary sterilisation, Gay News Network, 28 October 2013
  21. History of the Bear Flag
  22. "Elegy for the Valley of Kings," by Gayle Rubin, in In Changing Times: Gay Men and Lesbians Encounter HIV/AIDS, ed. Levine et. al., University of Chicago Press
  23. Pink News interview with David Gwinnutt, creator of the Pink Jack. [1]. Retrieved 1 January 2008.
  24. Forger, Nancy G., Laurence G. Frank, S. Marc Breedlove, Stephen E. Glickman (6 December 1998). Sexual Dimorphism of Perineal Muscles and Motoneurons in Spotted Hyenas; The Journal of Comparative Neurology, Volume 375, Issue 2 , Pages 333 - 343. Retrieved 11 September 2007.
  25. Holekamp, Kay E. (2003). Research: Spotted Hyena - Introduction and Overview. Michigan State University, Department of Zoology. Retrieved 11 September 2007.
  26. Wilson, Sexing the Hyena: "The males mount each other" University of Chicago Press. Retrieved 11 September 2007.

External links

  • (This web page shows images of some of these symbols and offers a brief historical account of each of them.)
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