Hidden Queer Symbols in Art History
Queer coded symbols in art history have made it possible for creative queers to share their true selves... when their true selves weren't considered socially acceptable. In this article, we're going to explore a bunch of queer coded symbols in art, history and culture at-large. Each with their own curious mystique. Being signs of self expression + freedom of thought... as well as symbols of Otherness.
For now, these codes are mostly specific to gay men. Art history's been written by many of them. Whether their's was the most intriguing and transformative queer art ever created... is up for debate. History can be rewritten. But not here. Not now. Today, we're diving into the fascinating nerdery of lives lived in code. Exploring how dual existences + intersectionality have affected queer aesthetics and culture at-large.
Coded visual language has been significant in queer art through history. But all the queer coded symbols in art history we'll be examining are concentrated in the last couple of hundred years. Why? The notion of sexual identity is a relatively recent invention, which dates to the late nineteenth century and is tied to the formation of modern science and medicine. Most notably in modern contexts due to the criminalization of homosexual acts and the social stigma associated with homosexuality.
Queer artists have employed visual codes to signify queerness in clandestine ways, which were left open to viewers' interpretation. These codes allowed artists to express their experiences and identities without arousing suspicion among the general public. But would allow those familiar with the tropes of the subculture to glean the hidden meaning.
The transition from hidden symbols to a wider and more expressive queer visual language has been significant in the history of queer art, sure. But also queer love, mental health, and many more things besides.
But What Even Is Queer Art?
Queer art refers to the art and experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people 1. Throughout the annals of time, the carnal dance of erotic love has found itself in the hallowed halls of art. An eternal muse and enigma to the creative souls who seek out its essence. But queer love, that untamed beast, has lurked in the shadows, its presence shrouded in the fog of societal disdain and the relentless grip of legal persecution. To unmask it, to let it breathe in the open air, one must peer deeper into the annals of artistic creation, uncovering the hidden gems obscured by the weight of history and the bitter sting of prejudice.
Queer art has darted from photography to portraiture, abstract painting to sculpture and even dabbled in the chaotic world of collage. It's this ever-changing, chameleon-like nature that allows queer art to dig deep, to unearth the many layers and nuances of what it means to be queer. Each new medium, every shift in style, offers a fresh opportunity to explore the depths of identity against the beautiful, unpredictable nature of our one brief life.
There's just something about queer artists. The way they wrap their arms around the fringes of society. Finding solace in the spaces that others might shun. From this vantage point, they've crafted stories of strength and self-reliance. Weaving tales that defy the tired old notions of gender, race, and class... as well as propping them up sometimes because queer folk can be racist, misogynistic fear mongers, too. Sorry to say, but it's true.
Back to the good news: (most) queer artists don't give a damn about the worn-out stereotypes we've been sewn into. So many examples of queer art through history have shown how to learn the rules so you can break them. Reshaping them. Creating something fresh and alive and free. Queer artists have almost always been the rebels, the pioneers, the ones who stare at the world and say, "No, not like that. Like this." And in doing so, they give voice to the voiceless. A visual language for those who refuse to be silenced. Which is why queer art remains a powerful political and celebratory way of capturing gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people's lived experiences to this day.
The Green Carnation
The green carnation became a popular symbol of queer identity when Oscar Wilde instructed his friends to wear them on their lapels to the premiere of his play 'Lady Windermere's Fan' in 1892. The green carnation served as a symbol of queer pride and was a way for Wilde and his circle to identify each other discreetly.
The green carnation was also associated with the Aesthetic movement, which celebrated beauty and art for art's sake. The flower embodied the decadent, the unnatural, and the artistic. Some folks even say these "unnatural" green carnations, worn with a wink and a smile, were a sly way for gay men to thumb their noses at uptight Victorians. A secret language. A bold statement hidden in plain sight. A splash of color and rebellion, daring to defy the world that kept their love (and desires) in the shadows. And as they wore their green carnations, they carved out a space for themselves, a place where love could bloom, no matter the color or form it took.
A number of organizations still use the name or iconography of the green carnation today.
Other Flowers That Have Become Queer Symbols
Other flowers that have been used as symbols of queer identity include violets, which have been associated with lesbian love since the 6th century thanks to the work of the Greek poet Sappho from the isle of Lesbos. Pansies were also used as a symbol for flamboyant gay men in the early 20th century, during the "Pansy Craze". The term "pansy" was used as a homophobic or transphobic slur, but many activists and artists have since taken ownership of the term and changed its derogatory meaning.
Flowers have often been used by queer artists to symbolize beauty, sensuality, and a celebration of difference, transcending time and place. It's no surprise, then, that flowers have been a recurring motif in queer art. From Karl van Vechten's photography of Harlem residents in the 1930s and 40s, and Robert Mapplethorpe's black and white flower photography.
The use of peacock feathers as a symbol of queer identity came about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Victorian Aesthetic Movement, fashionable symbols were the playful language of the day. Flowers, handkerchiefs and fans acted like secret agents in a world of gray. A celebration of self-expression and connection. Helping men and women find joy and camaraderie in the most unexpected places.
The male peacock's flamboyant tail feathers were seen as a representation of non-heteronormative beauty. Men would wear peacock feathers to identify themselves to other homosexual men, and artists would incorporate the feathers into their artwork as a subtle way to signal their sexuality. All around the same time as the green carnation was a popular symbol of gay male identity, thanks to Oscar Wilde.
One example of peacock feathers being used as a queer symbol in art is Edmund Dulac's painting "Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints" (1920). In this painting, Charles Shannon is depicted holding a peacock feather, juxtaposing religious imagery with a knowing symbol of queer identity. The masterful composition not only captures the eye but also invites the observer to explore the layers of significance, as the painting becomes a visual conversation between the overt and the clandestine.
The male peacock's flamboyant and extravagant appearance, which is more striking than the female peahen's, also contributed to the association of peacock feathers with queer identity.
The Hanky Code
The gay male hanky code, or flagging, is like a secret handshake. A colorful wink and nudge for those in the know. The hanky code involved wearing different colors of bandanas in your pockets to indicate different kinks, sexual preferences, and roles, such as top/dom or bottom/submissive.
The hanky code originated in San Francisco in the 1970s, where the wearing of colored bandanas as a practical accessory was common among gay men. Creating a significant impact in the history of gay culture by allowing gay men to communicate their sexual preferences and desires in a discreet and nonverbal way — during a time when homosexuality was stigmatized and criminalized.
Just a swatch of fabric, a little splash of color tucked away, and suddenly, you're telling a whole story about what you're into, like a walking billboard for desire. A clever way of chatting without saying a word, making connections and finding your tribe in the swirling chaos of life.
The hanky code also helped to create a sense of community and belonging among gay men, who could identify and connect with others who shared similar interests and desires. The hanky code has since undergone a revival and is still used today in some LGBTQ+ communities, although the use of handkerchiefs specifically may not be as prevalent as it once was.
The nautical star tattoo was commonplace in lesbian communities as a symbol of guidance and protection since the 1940s and 1950s when many lesbians got a nautical star tattooed on their inner wrist to advertise their sexuality. During this era, homosexuality was frowned upon and not spoken about, and the nautical star tattoo was a discreet way for lesbians to identify each other. The tattoo was easily covered if need be and was a symbol of guidance and protection for sailors and soldiers who often got these tattoos for navigation purposes. The nautical star tattoo was also popularized among punk rockers by Sailor Jerry, a renowned tattoo artist known for creating retro tattoos.
Picture this: the year is 1970, and the New York Gay Activists Alliance is on the lookout for a symbol, something to represent their burgeoning movement for gay liberation. Along comes the lambda, a humble Greek letter with a flair for the dramatic. They scoop it up, and suddenly it's transformed into something much more – a beacon of hope and unity for a whole community fighting for change. That little lambda, once just a squiggle on a page, now stands tall and proud, shouting to the world, "Here we are, and we're not backing down!".
Fast forward to 1974, and there's a big gathering in Edinburgh, Scotland – the International Gay Rights Congress, to be exact. They're looking for a symbol to represent lesbian and gay rights on a global stage, and guess who gets the call? That's right, our trusty friend, the lambda. It's plucked from its New York City roots and thrust into the international limelight. And just like that, this once-simple Greek letter becomes a worldwide sensation, a rallying cry for love and acceptance across borders and cultures.
Slight hiccup... the exact meaning of the lambda symbol in queer history is not definitive, which just speaks to the diversity and inclusiveness of the queer community. Some suggest the lambda is simply the Greek lower-case letter "l" for liberation. Others cite its use in physics to denote energy. Historically, the lambda symbol embodied a fairly militant connotation, but today it is used to denote the concerns of both lesbians and gay men together.
The lambda symbol is significant to queer art history as it is one of the many visual symbols throughout history that hinted at secret sexualities and hidden identities.
The Pink Triangle
The pink triangle began in the shadows — originally used by the Nazis in concentration camps to identify and shame homosexuals. Gay men were forced to wear the pink triangle on their breast pockets to set them apart from other prisoners and to subject them to further persecution and violence from other inmates. The pink triangle was as a weapon.
As the war drew to a close and the concentration camp gates were flung open, a bittersweet moment unfolded. Most prisoners were set free, embracing a chance to rebuild their lives. Yet, for the gay male prisoners adorned with the pink triangle, their journey was not yet over.
These men, still bearing the mark of their perceived difference, were cast back into the shadows, returning to prison and facing ongoing persecution. A sobering reminder that, while the world may change, the path to acceptance and understanding has been a long and winding road, fraught with challenges.
Ultimately, the pink triangle found its way to the light. With the LGBTQ+ community reclaiming it and turning it into a beacon of hope and pride. Becoming emblematic of life and death during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. Used as a universal symbol of LGBTQ+ pride and an international declaration of resilience and demands for justice. A metamorphosis that demonstrates the power of transmuting pain into triumph.
The pink triangle has been used in LGBTQ+ rights demonstrations worldwide. Serving as a reminder of the atrocities committed against LGBTQ+ people in the past, and as a symbol of the ongoing struggle for equality and acceptance around the world.
Classical and Mythological Identities
Queer artists throughout history have employed coded visual language that would not arouse suspicion among the general public, but would allow those familiar with the tropes of the subculture to glean the hidden meaning. They did it cleverly, disguising their passions in academic masks like the ancient, enthralling tales of Greek mythology. Like Frederick Leighton’s “Daedalus and Icarus” hinting at the sexual relations between older mentors and young men in Ancient Greece.
The Olympian Gods got up to all sorts of queer shenanigans, but their position in the Western canon has given artists license to connect their own desires with socially acceptable tropes through these figures. A way to pour their hearts out while dancing around the edges of societal norms. Allowing LGBTQ+ audiences of the time to find meaning and connection through the work.
Contemporary LGBTQ+ artists continue to draw inspiration from classical and mythological figures, using them to explore and express their identities and experiences in new and innovative ways.
Alexander Glass, a London-based sculptor, manipulates spaces traditionally associated with heterosexuality, like locker rooms, with a queer aesthetic.
Victoria Sin, a London artist who identifies as genderqueer, has initiated the Dream Babes project, which gives queer artists of color a platform to showcase their work.
These artists are continuing the tradition of using classical and mythological figures to express LGBTQ+ identities and desires, while also pushing the boundaries of what is possible in queer art.
Polari: The Secret Language
Polari is a secret language that was spoken by gay men, drag queens and more in the UK from the 1930s to the 1960s. It allowed folks to communicate with each other discreetly and without risk. Incorporating an evolving mix of ingredients from Romance languages, Romani, Cockney rhyming slang and the codes of sailors and thieves. With words borrowed from Yiddish and 1960s drug subcultures, too. But it did have a small core lexicon and two main versions: one Cockney rhyming slang version + a "West End" version that stressed theatrical and classical influences.
Polari grew out of the world of entertainment, stretching back from West End theatres, through to 19th-century music halls and beyond that to the circus and fairground showmen. So it was never just used by the gay community. Polari was spoken in London fish markets, the theatre, fairgrounds, and circuses. The gays used it at a time when homosexual activity was illegal... probably because it's fun, too, but that's harder to factually verify. Subjectivity and all.
Polari has had a significant cultural and artistic impact, with many of its terms gifting British, modern LGBT, and mainstream slang. It has seen a renaissance in recent years as young LGBT people are eager to learn Polari and discover their cultural heritage. Polari has also been featured in popular culture, such as in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, where two characters speak Polari while in a London nightclub. In 2002, two books on Polari were published, Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang.
The Queer Aesthetic
Defining a singular "queer aesthetic" is challenging, as it risks stereotyping or limiting the diverse experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals. However, throughout art history, certain themes, motifs, and visual languages have emerged that resonate with queer artists and viewers. These recurring elements often reflect a sense of otherness, a departure from societal norms and heteronormativity.
Some common themes in queer art history include:
Exploring gender and sexual identity: Queer art often delves into the complexities of gender and sexual identity, challenging traditional binary notions and celebrating the diverse spectrum of human experiences.
Challenging societal norms and heteronormativity: Queer artists frequently question and subvert societal expectations surrounding gender roles, relationships, and family structures, pushing boundaries and creating alternative narratives.
Embracing marginality: Many queer artists use their position on the fringes of society to create self-empowered narratives that resist dominant understandings of gender, race, class, and sexuality.
The male nude: Ah, the male nude - an artistic expression that has long captured the hearts and minds of many queers. A taut but supple canvas upon which alternative stories of love and sexuality are drawn.
Queer love and relationships: Queer art often portrays intimate relationships and connections between LGBTQ+ individuals, highlighting the universality of love and desire.
Visibility and representation: Queer art aims to shine a light on marginalized communities and experiences, increasing visibility and representation for LGBTQ+ individuals in the art world.
Intersectionality: Queer art often intersects with other areas of study, such as feminist theory, cinema studies, and social and cultural history, reflecting the diverse and interconnected nature of queer experiences.
LGBTQ+ artists have frequently drawn inspiration from their predecessors, often reinterpreting and re-appropriating the symbols and visual languages used in the past. This process of recycling and reusing imagery is an essential part of queer artistic expression, as it allows for a continuous dialogue between past and present experiences.
Some important examples of contemporary queer artists reinterpreting and re-appropriating queer symbols and visual languages used by artists in the past include:
David Wojnarowicz: A multidisciplinary artist, Wojnarowicz's work often incorporated queer themes and imagery, addressing issues such as the AIDS crisis, homophobia, and censorship. His art was deeply influenced by his own experiences as a gay man and activist.
Catherine Opie: A photographer known for her portraits of LGBTQ+ individuals and communities, Opie's work explores themes of identity, gender, and sexuality. Her photographs often reference historical art, such as classical portraiture, to challenge traditional representations of gender and sexuality.
Kehinde Wiley: A painter who reinterprets classical European portraiture, Wiley's work often features Black and LGBTQ+ subjects in positions of power and prominence. By placing these individuals in historical contexts, Wiley challenges traditional art historical narratives and highlights the importance of representation.
Zanele Muholi: A South African photographer and visual activist, Muholi's work focuses on documenting the lives of Black LGBTQ+ individuals in South Africa. Their photographs often reference historical art and visual languages to challenge stereotypes and raise awareness about the experiences of marginalized communities.
These artists, among others, engage with queer symbols and visual languages from the past to create new narratives and challenge traditional representations of LGBTQ+ individuals in art.
Re-appropriation of Imagery
Queer artists have often had to find themselves in existing imagery, repurposing and reinterpreting it to reflect their own identities and experiences.
The process of artistic re-appropriation highlights the resilience and creativity of queer artists and serves as a testament to their ongoing search for representation and visibility within the artistic canon:
Challenging traditional narratives: By reinterpreting and re-appropriating queer symbols and visual languages, queer artists challenge dominant art historical narratives and create new perspectives that reflect their experiences and identities.
Subverting stereotypes: Queer artists often use re-appropriation to subvert stereotypes and societal expectations, showcasing the diversity and complexity of LGBTQ+ experiences.
Empowering marginalized voices: Re-appropriation allows queer artists to create self-empowered narratives that resist dominant understandings of gender, race, class, and sexuality, giving voice to marginalized communities.
Engaging with art history: Queer artists often engage in dialogue with art history, reinterpreting and re-appropriating past works to create new meanings and connections that highlight the presence and contributions of LGBTQ+ individuals throughout history.
Encouraging visibility and representation: By re-appropriating queer symbols and visual languages, queer artists increase visibility and representation for LGBTQ+ individuals in the art world, fostering greater acceptance and inclusivity.
Demonstrating resilience: The act of re-appropriation showcases the resilience of queer artists, who continue to create and express themselves despite facing societal stigma, discrimination, and marginalization.
Evolution of Queer Art... By Law
Legal changes in recent decades have made the lives of LGBTQ+ people more open and free. Queer art has similarly evolved. Becoming bolder, louder, and more mainstream. This shift has led to a decreased reliance on secret symbols and codes, as artists can now express themselves more openly and directly.
Decriminalization of homosexuality: The decriminalization of homosexual acts in many countries has reduced the stigma and fear associated with being LGBTQ+, allowing artists to express their identities more openly and honestly in their work.
Anti-discrimination laws: The implementation of anti-discrimination laws has provided LGBTQ+ artists with greater protection and opportunities in the art world, enabling them to pursue their careers without fear of discrimination.
Marriage equality: The legalization of same-sex marriage in many countries has further legitimized LGBTQ+ relationships and identities, allowing queer artists to explore themes of love, commitment, and family in their work.
Greater visibility and acceptance: Legal changes have contributed to increased visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals in society, which in turn has allowed queer art to gain more mainstream recognition and support.
Supportive organizations and initiatives: The establishment of organizations and initiatives, such as Queer|Art, that support LGBTQ+ artists and their work has helped to foster the creation of new art history and promote the visibility of queer art in the mainstream.
These legal changes have created a more supportive environment for LGBTQ+ artists, allowing them to push boundaries and explore their identities more openly in their work, ultimately contributing to the evolution and growth of queer art.
Modern Queer Art and Symbolism
Despite the increased openness in modern queer art, many artists still choose to incorporate hidden symbols and references in their work. These nods to the past serve as a reminder of the rich history of queer artistic expression and the ongoing struggle for representation and visibility within the art world.
Many contemporary queer artists choose to incorporate hidden symbols and references in their work as nods to the past for several reasons:
Acknowledging history: By using coded symbols and visual language, queer artists pay homage to the rich history of queer artistic expression, acknowledging the struggles and resilience of LGBTQ+ artists who came before them.
Celebrating queer identity: Hidden symbols and references serve as a reminder of the unique and diverse experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals, celebrating the complexity and richness of queer identity.
Connecting with the past: Incorporating hidden symbols allows contemporary queer artists to connect with the past and create a sense of continuity and lineage within the queer art community.
Challenging societal norms: The use of hidden symbols and references in queer art challenges societal norms and expectations, encouraging viewers to question and reevaluate their understanding of gender, sexuality, and identity.
Ongoing struggle for representation: Despite progress in LGBTQ+ rights and visibility, queer artists still face challenges in achieving representation and visibility within the art world. By using hidden symbols, they remind viewers of the ongoing struggle for recognition and acceptance.
Nuance and complexity: The use of hidden symbols and references adds layers of meaning and complexity to queer art, allowing artists to explore the nuances of their identities and experiences in a subtle and sophisticated manner.
The history of hidden queer symbols in art is a testament to the resilience and creativity of LGBTQ+ artists. Through their use of visual codes, secret languages, and re-appropriation of imagery, these artists have managed to express their identities and desires, despite the challenges they faced. Today, as queer art continues to evolve, it is important to recognize and celebrate the contributions of these trailblazing artists who have paved the way for future generations.