The Long-Lasting Legacy of Lesbian Button Badges

If there’s anything that unites queer people across the wide expanse of the internet, it could very well be some form of badge, button, or pin. In the context of lesbian fashion history, badges have held a prominent role over the last 50 years. Unlike most other items of clothing worn by lesbians that may signify lesbianism through cultural codes and connotations, badges are often explicit in their meaning. Printed with words or symbols, a lesbian identity can be deduced with ease. If a woman is pictured wearing a badge saying “encourage lesbianism,” she will be read as a lesbian. Lesbian badges are an assertion of lesbian visibility – unlike, however, other printed clothing items such as activist t-shirts, they can also easily be hidden or removed if necessary.

Lesbian and gay badges in the 1970s and 80s would have had more reason to be concealable or coded than many do today. This is definitely not to say that LGBTQ people do not suffer violence or persecution in the 2020s, but that homophobic persecution and violence was more common and less protected against half a century ago. Badges existed because there was a fight to be won for liberation and visibility, but the wearer would also have had to consider their own safety. In the words of Joel Penney in his article ‘Eminently Visible: The Role of T-shirts in Gay and Lesbian Public Advocacy and Community Building,’ “the symbols displayed on T-shirts and buttons were sometimes coded […] to protect those who wore them from potential harm.”1 Badges could be removed or hidden if they were explicitly queer, or they could show symbols that may not be translatable to a heterosexual (or homophobic) eye. 

In the 1990 Queer Nation Manifesto, passed out by activist group ACT UP at New York City Pride, there is a section titled “Where Are You Sisters? Invisibility Is Our Responsibility.” It comes from the perspective of a lesbian, and she says the following:

I wear my pink triangle everywhere. I do not lower my voice in public when talking about lesbian love or sex. I always tell people I’m a lesbian. I don’t wait to be asked about my “boyfriend.” I don’t say it’s “no one’s business.”

I don’t do this for straight people. Most of them don’t know what the pink triangle even means. Most of them couldn’t care less that my girlfriend and I are totally in love or having a fight on the street. Most of them don’t notice us no matter what we do. I do what I do to reach other lesbians. I do what I do because I don’t want lesbians to assume I’m a straight girl. I am out all the time, everywhere, because I want to reach you.2

Fig. 1: Lesbian and Gay Pride Badges including the pink triangle from the Lesbian Archive at Glasgow Women’s Library. Glasgow, Scotland. Via Katie Goh, ‘Why the UK’s biggest lesbian archive is so important,’ 23rd July 2018, Dazed. Dazeddigital.com. 

The pink triangle (a symbol reclaimed by the LGBTQ community after its use to persecute gay male prisoners in Nazi concentration camps) was being used here to purposefully identify the wearer as a lesbian. As she explained, however, it wasn’t done for the straight people who may not know or even care about the symbol and its meaning or history. Lesbian badges are most likely to be recognised by other lesbians or queer people – people who know the signs, and are searching for community in the actions and attire of the people around them. 

Our search for community often extends further than this, though. Badges are an important part of our semi-recent history because they provide us with a tangible, material link to it. It is also a link that is undeniable; the words printed on badges speak for themselves and their queerness when the people who originally wore them are no longer here, or unreachable. For decades, centuries, millenia perhaps, lesbians have been invisible and unnamed. A collection of badges printed over and over again with the words “lesbian” and “dyke” insist on naming, and when they are collected in archives those names put down roots to establish our histories.

Vintage lesbian badges exist in their hundreds. They would have been cheap originally to make, and they are small and easy to store, whether in an archive, and attic or a drawer. One collection of LGBTQ badges that springs to mind is Paud’s Pins, a huge collection that was discovered in a London attic and found to have belonged to Paud Hegarty, who ran Gay’s The Word bookshop in the 1980s and 90s. The badges are now on rotating display at the bookshop and digitised online as the Paud’s Pins history project. I myself have handled a personal archive of badges while working on Brighton Museum’s exhibition Queer the Pier. Being able to pick up so many small pieces of history before pinning them onto a jacket to be viewed by new generations made me all the more aware of the link between queer pasts and futures that badges are a material example of.

Fig. 2: Campaign badges worn by marchers across the South East, c. 1980s, on loan from local Brightonian and queer collector, Alf Le Flohic. Queer the Pier, Brighton Museum. 

Some archives and collections are lesbian-specific. The Mazer Lesbian Archives, for example, holds a collection of badges that for the most part are lesbian feminist. It is important to look at lesbian examples in badge collections because of the specific conditions of lesbian lives. Solidarity with others within the LGBTQ community is of great importance, but I maintain that this space – Dressing Dykes – exists to prioritise lesbian history and fashion. Collections of lesbian badges are an acknowledgement of the everyday lived realities of lesbian lives. They are mundane items, and yet they allow(ed) the wearer to assert a lesbian presence by pinning words and symbols representative of themselves and their communities to their chests. These words and symbols hold weight. To quote from Clare Forstie’s 2019 article ‘Disappearing Dykes?’: “”Lesbian” as a term, identity, and community continues to hold deep meaning, and material consequences for lesbians’ everyday lives.”3 Lesbian lives are not just theoretical, after all, but real, moving and clothed. 

Fig. 3: Lesbian badges from the Mazer Lesbian Archives Button Collection. mazerlesbianarchives.org/buttons-collection.

We are connected with lesbian badges in ways other than just archival collections. Many designs that were made and worn in the 1970s, 80s or 90s are still being reproduced and worn today. While researching for this post, I came across multiple badges that I personally own versions of. Reproductions are popular for a reason; queer people want to feel a part of their own history, but we are also aware that our history is still ongoing. Our fight is not over, and if these badges are a weapon then we are still armed. Some examples are overtly political – one of the badges with a reproduced design in my own collection reads “gays against nazis.” Others are identity-focused: “DYKE” in all caps, pink text against a white background. Others still are based in comedy, with one badge displaying the phrase “dip me in maple syrup and throw me to the lesbians.” Even comedic badges are political, however, because they assert a presence that is not necessarily wanted and, especially when they were first designed, actively shunned.

Although reproduction badges are popular, queer badges also take other forms. Like with the pink triangle, talked about in the Queer Nation Manifesto, iconography is often favoured over text. These badges assert less of a presence within a heterosexist society but rather reach out to their own community. Queer iconography, in recent years, equals pride flags. There is so much to be said about the rainbow pride flag, its use and appropriation, but this is neither the time nor place. What I want to reference is the pride flags that are not the standard 6-stripe rainbow. More obscure flags – designs that are newer or lesser used – are less and less likely to be recognised by a heterosexual audience, meaning that they hold a very different purpose (though not an unimportant one) from word-based designs.

The lesbian flag, as changeable as it is, is not a cemented cultural code, and if I wanted to be visibly lesbian in a straight space I would not choose to wear it on its own. Even in a queer space, I would be visible to different people depending on which flag I chose to embellish myself with; the orange/white/pink lesbian flag, designed only in 2018, may be recognisable to the internet-savvy, but the 1999 labrys flag would have a broader generational reach (especially since the labrys had already been used by lesbians for years before the 1999 flag was designed). The clothes and the accessories that we wear as lesbians are recognised completely differently depending on the audience. It is up to us to decide how we traverse this landscape, what we wear and how we interpret what is worn by the people around us. In a world that is already full of uncertainty, sometimes a “DYKE” badge is a strangely comforting thing.

Fig. 4: “DYKE” badge, from the Lesbian Herstory Archives, New York City. Digitised by Kam Yan (Teresa) Lee under the supervision of OutHistory Project Coordinator. Via http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/lesbian-buttons

Thank you for reading this post on Dressing Dykes! If you enjoyed, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter, or leave a tip on Ko-fi.

Endnotes

1: Joel Penney, ‘Eminently Visible: The Role of T-shirt in Gay and Lesbian Public Advocacy and Community Building,’ Popular Communications: The International Journal of Media and Culture 4.1 (2013).

2: Queer Nation Manifesto, passed out by hand at New York City Gay Pride, 1990. Historyisaweapon.com 

3: Clare Forstie, ‘Disappearing Dykes?’ Post-Lesbian Discourse and Shifting Identities and Communities.’ Journal of Homosexuality (2019): 7.

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