WANTED: SYMBOL to inspire, empower, and unite newly downtrodden fighters in the latest battle of our nation’s culture wars . . .

Every four years, nearly a half of our country’s voting age citizens gathers to show the world that the U.S. is a vital, working democracy. Amazingly, this year, concerns about the economy and health care registered low with many voters. Such bread and butter issues are hardly as captivating as the quadrennial red meat inevitably served up by the media and known as the “culture wars.” By which they mean, the puritans versus the libertines, or, those who don’t get laid versus those who do.

Since gay men seem to get laid more than most, we make the easiest enemy. And since we seem to have more causes than the common cold, we also make the biggest target. HIV/AIDS, discrimination, violence, bigotry, marriage, adoption, teen suicide, homelessness . . . there are thousands of organizations and splinter groups fighting for and against each of these issues, more than each of us can possibly donate to, letter-write for, or even shake magic sticks at. And while this may be just an effort to compensate for the lack of affect that we have in this country at this time in history, it’s not difficult to see that the more causes we have, the more fucked we are. In Dubya’s America, circa 2005, we’re as impotent as blue state votes.

Recently, Larry Kramer laid out the situation in all its pitiful detail: we’re back on the bottom and the gang rape by fundamentalists and “pro-family” groups has only just begun—a position only masochists, subversives, or crystal-meth whores can be truly optimistic about. Last time Mr. Kramer addressed the faithful in such a highly publicized way, a movement was born that not only empowered us and prolonged the lives of many, but successfully challenged the country’s political landscape, medical establishment, and the idea of bare tuxedo lapels at televised awards shows.

The red ribbon (which made its first appearance at the 1991 Tony Awards) may not have seemed like much but p.r. kitsch, but as its visibility ascended, so did ours, and we ended up just shy of the mainstream, accepted by some (thankfully, younger Americans) and derided by others (sadly, those in power for the next four years).

Long before the red ribbon (or the up-ended pink triangle given to us by the Nazis and revived in the 60s, or even the mawkish yet universal rainbow flag first sewn in 1978), our symbols were self-empowering affectations that helped us define ourselves and signal one another discreetly, from the green carnation of the late 19th Century to the red tie of the early 20th. It wasn’t until 1970, when the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) chose the eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet, or λ (lambda), that a symbol was used to signify a cause.

A pre-cursor to the myriad gay rights organizations of today (such as the Human Rights Campaign, whose gold equal sign against square blue background can be found on the bumpers of many tri-state Subarus), as well as a direct influence on ACT-UP’s “direct action tactics” and their incredibly effective civil disobedience in the 80s, the GAA sprang from the chaos of the Gay Liberation Front, six months after Stonewall. They chose the λ to stand for liberation, and the impression of a single person walking upright and free cannot be denied.

The GAA was also a fairly “radical” organization for its time, aiming to further the steps first made at Stonewall, to speed up our acceptance and spin it into full-fledged equality—this at a time when same-sex relations were criminal in most states and being gay was still considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

At the end of 1974, the International Gay Rights Congress (held in Edinburgh, Scotland) chose the λ as the international symbol for lesbian and gay rights and although today it has all but disappeared from bumper stickers, necklaces, and t-shirts, the word “lambda” has survived in the titles of a number of diverse gay and lesbian causes across the world and in this sense, still has an affect.

At the risk of parroting Kramer: Where is the “next movement” now? What are our true causes and what is our ultimate affect? Where are our Harry Hays, Gilbert Bakers, and Richard Plantes? Our GranFury, our Haring, our Wojnarowicz, our next Kramer? And what symbol could possibly raise us up as we slog ahead these next four very steep years? The rainbow flag and combat boots never did quite go together.

Papotage will be taking suggestions. The person who comes up with the winning queer symbol of the 21st Century will be feted in high gay style and remembered fondly by the unshackled and free-fucking gays of tomorrow. Send your suggestions to: info@papotage.com.


Adapted from “Lambdas, Triangles, and Flags, Oh My!” (My Life as a Euphemism: A Lexicon of Gay American English in the Form of a Memoir) by TOM EUBANKS —a blue state faggot who also serves as the editor of Papotage.