Fashion can be a way to not just assert our own identity and presence, but reach out to others. To me, when lesbian fashion is at its most powerful is when it is unavoidable – when it cannot be denied. For this reason, I have extensively researched lesbian slogan/activist t-shirts. They are a way for the wearer to be loud and visible, asserting a lesbian space in their wardrobe and in the space around their physical, clothed body. For garments like these, however, which literally speak for themselves with the words, messages or symbols displayed on them, meanings are able to be more complex than in other lesbian fashion statements. A monocle worn by a lesbian in 1930s Paris may have been rich with symbolism, but cultural context was (and is) needed for that symbolism to be apparent. For more overt symbols, their meaning can reach a wider audience; this is why garments like the slogan t-shirt are so useful when lesbian fashion intersects with expressions of community support and solidarity.
This article is about lesbian-focused fashion and activism that stands with other oppressed groups – particularly others within the LGBTQ community, such as bisexual women and trans people, who are deemed to be oppositional to lesbian existence far too often. This is not the case. We are stronger together, acknowledging our different struggles and experiences, but helping each other combat those struggles and live those experiences. Fashion, as a messaging device, is a tool to express solidarity. It is a material statement, physical evidence, a strengthening bond.
Fig. 1: “DYKE FAG SPACE” t-shirt. n.d. Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. Chicago, Illinois, USA. Accessed via wearinggayhistory.com.
Slogan t-shirts in queer communities have historically been the most common at marches, protests and prides. Pride marches are markedly a time when LGBTQ people come together, despite various differences. Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, LGBTQ historians and authors of We Are Everywhere, describe the 1994 Alternative Pride March in New York City as an event where “for one afternoon […] everyone seemed content coming together.”1 This togetherness is then reflected in the clothes of the marchers. The photograph above shows a t-shirt that may or may not have been worn at a Pride march, but definitely expressed the sentiment of community found there.
The t-shirt’s large print shouts “DYKE FAG SPACE,” with a smaller heading which reads “Communities coming out, taking pride in ourselves.” The pride in question is not only about the individual or even a community of “dykes” or “fags,” but pride in the reclamation of the marginalisation that these communities face. To quote the small print at the bottom of the shirt, they are “reclaiming our space, [empowering] ourselves, [creating] positive identity politics (the foundation of coalition building) and resist[ing]/challeng[ing]/oppos[ing] dominant culture.” The shirt acknowledges the need for solidarity among oppressed identities in order to tackle said oppression. By wearing this message, the wearer was part of a united front – something that is the basis of numerous calls to action, from The Communist Manifesto urging the workers of the world to “unite” in 1848 to The Xenofeminist Manifesto arguing for “the labour of large-scale, collective social organisation” in 2018.2
Fig. 2: L with the T marchers at Brighton Pride, 2018. Photograph by Kaleidoscope Shoots. Via Rachelle Foster, ‘Why I Co-Founded a Movement for Lesbians to Stand with Trans People,’ Vice, 9th Oct. 2018.
What about another, recent call to unite? I’m thinking of the L With the T (or #LwiththeT) campaign and its vocal, visible lesbian-trans solidarity. I think of its clear message and the way that the campaign uses banners, placards and t-shirts – primarily at Pride marches, starting with Brighton Pride in 2018 – to bring lesbian-trans solidarity and a unified queer community to the visual and material world. It echoes ideas that are also being voiced in writing and theory. In a 2016 article, ‘Reclaiming lesbian feminism: Beginning discussions on communities, geographies and politics,’ co-written by Kath Browne, Marta Olasik, and Julie Podmore, Podmore asserts that “rather than being placed in opposition to each other, we need to explore the potential alliances between trans populations, queer women and lesbians.”3 This speaks of lesbian specificity, but in a format where lesbians can be specific in support of their trans and bisexual/queer siblings. It’s an assertion that one of these existences does not invalidate the other. In the years since the article was published in 2016, the ideas presented in it have become more and more necessary, as the voices of anti-trans campaigners have reached a fever pitch. Those voices do not speak for us. #LwiththeT shouts back.
Fig. 3: Manchester Lesbians Stand By Your Trans parade group at Manchester Pride. Gemma Parker Photography. Manchester, UK, 2018. Ariel Sobel, ‘In TERF Takedown, Lesbians & Trans March Together at Manchester Pride,’ Advocate, 27th Aug. 2018. www.advocate.com web. 7th July 2020.
The photograph above is from Manchester Pride in 2018, only a couple of weeks after the first outing of the #LwiththeT campaign at that year’s Brighton Pride. Material culture, and within it, clothing, are being used once again. The t-shirt worn by the person on the right of the image reads #STANDBYYOURTRANS, the hashtag for another (non-lesbian-specific) campaign for trans rights and support. This t-shirt combines, however, with the more lesbian-focused imagery around it to still be part of the narrative of lesbian-trans solidarity and the #LwiththeT campaign. The person in the middle of the image, for example, holds a sign that reads “BLACK DYKE ENERGY #LWITHTHET”, and another sign in the background reads “LEZ be friends”. There is a constant, repeated message here: we are lesbians, specifically. We stand with our trans siblings. We speak with everything we have even when our voices become drowned out, because our voices are not our only tool.
Fig. 4: Kat Hudson attended Pride in London 2019 wearing a hand-customised t-shirt reading: “LESBIANS FOR TRANS RIGHTS! Our trans family mean the world to us and our trans lovers don’t make us any less gay”. Photography by Asafe Ghalib. 2019. Via Dazed.
#LwiththeT led the way in Brighton, Manchester, and other cities around the UK in the Summer of 2018, and the next year, in 2019, Pride in London was no different. Amelia Abraham explains this in an article for Dazed, saying how:
this year it felt important to let trans people know that they are welcome at Pride in London – which is why the event was awash with lesbians and cis women wearing T-shirts and carrying signs with slogans such as, “I learned what I know about true feminism from the trans women in my life,” and “Not gay as in happy, queer as in fuck TERFs.”4
One of these lesbians is Kat Hudson, pictured above in a photograph by Asafe Ghalib. She wore a hand-customised t-shirt reading “LESBIANS FOR TRANS RIGHTS! Our trans family mean the world to us and our trans lovers don’t make us any less gay”. Because she personalised this t-shirt, adding the message herself, she was able to reproduce her exact thoughts and position on the matter onto a garment. Her fashion and her socio-political ideals are one and the same. Consider the turn of phrase “wearing your heart on your sleeve” – Hudson is wearing her mind on her chest, her relationships scrawled across her ribcage.
Queer messaging in mainstream fashion is limited to symbols that have been commercialised, symbols that can become non-threatening. Think of the rainbow, printed across cheap, fast-fashion t-shirts sold throughout the summer by brands such as Primark or Boohoo; think of the phrase “love is love” and all of the non-meaning that it carries. By creating or customising a garment by hand, a more powerful, specific and decisive story can be told. As with the example above, so with the photograph below. This is a t-shirt which is housed in the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies in Minneapolis in the USA. It has been painted by hand with pink, purple and blue, with the word “Boudykke” front and center.
Fig. 5: “Boudykke” t-shirt. Painted by the artist Boudykke. [n.d.] c.1980s/1990s. Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Accessed via www.wearinggayhistory.com
Boudykke was a lesbian artist. It is difficult to find out much about her – most online references to Boudykke refer to her lesbian poetry. A scanned page from the Winter 1991 issue of the journal Common Lives/Lesbian Lives, however, has a brief biography of the artist, presumably written by her. It says “Boudykke is an irreverent fat dyke who’s almost done with her Saturn return. […] Her hobbies are trying to outsmart the patriarchy and looking towards a lesbian future.”5 The shirt that belonged to her is particularly interesting because of the elements she chose to feature: not just her artist name, but a wider expression of what she, as an artist, represented.
There are obviously a multitude of symbols included, and I will not go into them all here. What I want to talk about is the use of colour – specifically, pink, purple and blue, the colours that represent bisexuality and now make up the bisexual flag. The bi flag was only created in 1998, but the colours were popularised before that in the ‘Bi Angles,’ two intersecting triangles in pink and blue with purple where they overlapped, which came into being in the 1980s.6 Boudykke, in her usage of the word “dyke” and her biography where she looks “towards a lesbian future,” is clearly a lesbian, but I believe that she was representing solidarity with the bisexual community by choosing to use these three colours.
In the circles that she seemed to have moved in, judging by the ‘Biographies of Graphic Artists’ page in Common Lives/Lesbian Lives, this was not always the case. Another artist on the page is seen to describe herself proudly as a “never-het.” Bev Jo and Linda Strega used this term in their 1990 book Dykes Loving Dykes, which aimed to theorise political dyke-hood, yet did so by condemning bisexuals, transgender people, and many others.7 “Never-het” is a proud referral to a lesbian who has never been involved with a man, insulting lesbians with life stories different from their own as well as invalidating the queer identity of bisexual women. That Boudykke chose to paint her t-shirt in pink, blue and purple, colours which were known as bisexual symbols throughout much of the LGBTQ community, along with her decision to donate it to the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection, which includes transgender material, may suggest that she did not agree with these ideas. It’s possible that she was using her body to campaign for an inclusive lesbian feminist movement. It’s true that this is just speculation, but colours and symbols have always been a rich language within LGBTQ culture and fashion.
Fig. 6: Flags in the march at Brighton Trans Pride, 21st July 2018. Photograph by the author.
This is more true now than ever, when differently coloured pride flags are one of the main ways that young queer people represent themselves and their identities to one another. Variously coloured stripes are labels, or signifiers. Personally, I have worn the colours of the trans pride flag – pastel blue, pastel pink and white – to events such as Brighton’s Trans Pride in order to show my support for the trans community, my trans friends and allies. It’s symbolism that is easily recognisable to many. Even if Boudykke was not representing a solidarity with bisexual woman in her choice of colours, that does not mean that no lesbian has ever done so. Our symbols grow stronger every day, spread online via social media as well as by physical flags waved proudly by queer marchers. These symbols are strongest when they represent community support, safe spaces, and safe people. They exist not to divide, but unite us.
1: Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, We Are Everywhere, (California and New York: Ten Speed Press, 2019) 215.
2: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (UK: Penguin, [1848, 1888] 2015) 52; Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, (UK: Verso, 2018) 41.
3: Kath Browne, Marta Olasik and Julie Podmore, ‘Reclaiming lesbian feminisms: Beginning discussions on communities, geographies and politics,’ Women’s Studies International Forum 56 (2016), 117.
5: Boudykke, ‘Biographies of Graphic Artists,’ Common Lives/Lesbian Lives 37 (1991), 115.
6: Nora Madison, ‘Representing bisexuality in the digital age,’ Sex in the Digital Age, Paul G Nixon, Isabel K. Düsterhöft, eds. (London & New York: Routledge, 2017) 150.
7: I am choosing not to cite this work due to its offensive nature. It is included as evidence rather than a recommendation.