I Saw The Sign: LGBT Symbols Then And Now

click for other “the way we were” posts

June is LGBT Pride Month, so we’re celebrating all of our pride by feeding babies to lions! Just kidding, we’re talking about lesbian history, loosely defined as anything that happened in the 20th century or earlier, ’cause shit changes fast in these parts. We’re calling it The Way We Were, and we think you’re gonna like it. For a full index of all “The Way We Were” posts, click that graphic to the right there.

Previously:

1. Call For Submissions, by The Editors
2. Portraits of Lesbian Writers, 1987-1989, by Riese
3. The Way We Were Spotlight: Vita Sackville-West, by Sawyer
4. The Unaccountable Life of Charlie Brown, by Jemima
5. Read a F*cking Book: “Odd Girls & Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th-Century America”, by Riese
6. Before “The L Word,” There Was Lesbian Pulp Fiction, by Brittani
7. 20 Lesbian Slang Terms You’ve Never Heard Before, by Riese
8. Grrls Grrls Grrls: What I Learned From Riot, by Katrina
9. In 1973, Pamela Learned That Posing in Drag With A Topless Woman Is Forever, by Gabrielle
10. 16 Vintage “Gay” Advertisements That Are Funny Now That “Gay” Means “GAY”, by Tinkerbell
11. Trials and Titillation in Toronto: A Virtual Tour of the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives, by Chandra
12. Ann Bannon, Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Autostraddle Interview, by Carolyn
13. 15 Ways To Spot a Lesbian According To Some Very Old Medical Journals, by Tinkerbell
14. The Very Lesbian Life of Miss Anne Lister, by Laura L
15. The Lesbian Herstory Archives: A Constant Affirmation That You Exist, by Vanessa
16. I Saw The Sign: Queer Symbols Then and Now, by Keena
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You’re sitting in your day parlor, sipping a cup of tea and needlepointing a screen with your female relatives. Then, a maid enters the parlor and informs you that you have a visitor waiting for you in the drawing room. You excuse yourself and enter the drawing room where you find Elizabeth Bennett, holding a bouquet of violets that she picked just for you.

Hi, everyone! Welcome to my fantasy. For years I’ve daydreamed about what gift Elizabeth Bennett might bring me to express her true intentions (which ranged from a beautifully-written letter sealed in wax to a corgi puppy in basket), but now I know she would bring me violets. Violets are beautiful and adorable flowers in general, but they’re also one of the more famous symbols of female homosexuality, possibly dating back to a poem in which Sappho describes herself and her lover wearing garlands of violets:

If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared

all the violet tiaras
braided rosebuds, dill and
crocus twined around your young neck

Sappho

In the early 20th century, women used to give each other violets as a way of telling each other, “Hey, I LIKE like you,” in times when it wasn’t easy or accepted to say so in a more overt manner. And, though the historic origins of the violet as a symbol of women liking women may have faded, the color purple is still often associated with homosexuality, particularly in the naming of the Lavender Menace and in the use of the term “lavender lads” to describe gay men during the “Lavender Scare” in the 1950s in the U.S.

Sadly, as we all know, it’s only recently that open displays of homosexuality have begun to be accepted by society, and obviously there are still many places in the world where they are still met with disapproval, violence, and/or legal and social persecution. But! The good thing is that even in unfriendly societies, us homos have always managed to find our way to each other (call it the silver lining in the lavender cloud, if you will). We’ve done so in a variety of ways, though visual symbols are often among the most recognizable. Some of these symbols may be familiar to you, but even if they aren’t, perhaps they’ll give you an idea of how to decorate your messenger bag or expand your tattoo sleeve.

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The Greek Symbol “Lambda”

Lambda was selected as a symbol by the Gay Activists Alliance of New York in the 1950s and was declared the international symbol for gay and lesbian rights by the International Gay Rights Congress in 1974. It’s unclear how exactly lambda was adopted by the LGBT community or what it actually means but some popular theories include: the charged energy of the gay and lesbian rights movement (since lambda symbolizes “energy” in chemistry and physics), the Roman interpretation meaning “the light of knowledge shining into the darkness of ignorance,” or “the notion of being on different wavelengths when it comes to sex and sexuality.” There’s also this idea kicking around that lambda appeared on the shields of Spartan and/or Theban warriors in ancient Greece. The Thebes version is more popular because, as legend has it, the city-state organized the Theban Army from groups of idealized lovers, which made them exceptionally fierce and dedicated soldiers–though eventually the army was completely decimated by King Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. Lending credence to this theory is the fact that the 1962 version of “300″ depicted soldiers with lambdas on their shields. I never saw the 2006 version so someone else will have to confirm or deny the perpetuity of lambda in that whole situation.

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The Rainbow Flag(s)

Gilbert Baker

In the 1970s, San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker recognized the need for a gay symbol that could be used during the Pride Parade each year. Baker drew inspiration for the first version of the iconic rainbow flag from a variety of sources and came up with a flag with eight color stripes, each representing a different aspect of gay and lesbian life: hot pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, blue for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit. Baker and 30 volunteers hand-dyed and stitched the original flag, but had to remove the pink stripe for mass production due to a lack of commercially-available pink dye. When Harvey Milk was assassinated later that year, the 1979 Pride Parade Committee selected Baker’s flag as the symbol for the gay community to unite in honor of Milk’s memory.

The Original Rainbow Flag

In the 1979 San Francisco Pride Parade, the color indigo was also removed so the colors could be evenly-distributed along the parade route, leaving us with the flag we know today, with stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. Today, there are many, many varieties of the rainbow flag–you can stick a lambda on it, a colored triangle, a star of David, whatever you want! People seem particularly fond of the rainbow flag/rainbows in general because they are all-encompassing: a rainbow flag endorses gay rights without making a statement about the person displaying it. And this, to me, is the most rockin’ thing about rainbow flags. If you chose not to, you don’t have to say anything about yourself, your sexytime partners, your experiences, thoughts or feelings–you’re just rocking a rainbow, and under the rainbow we’re all family. Rainbow flags and stickers are often used to denote gay-friendly businesses, gay-friendly health facilities and really, who doesn’t want to paint their face in rainbow colors and go to a parade filled with like-minded rainbow-philes? No one, that’s who. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a member of the LGBT community or simply a supporter of gay rights, rainbows mean love for everyone and are therefore wonderful.

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Black Triangles

One of the oldest symbols associated with the LGBT community is the triangle, which originated as one of the symbols used in Hitler’s Nazi concentration camps as a way to label prisoners: male homosexual prisoners were made to wear a pink triangle, while women imprisoned for “arbeitsscheu” (“antisocial behavior”, including feminism, lesbianism and prostitution) were made to wear black triangles. Though there isn’t definitive evidence to prove that the black triangles were worn by lesbians in the same way that pink triangles were worn by gay male prisoners, over time the black triangle has evolved into one of the more prominent symbols of lesbianism, contemporaneously symbolizing defiance against repression and discrimination.

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Labrys

I know you all totally know what a labrys is already, but juuuust in case you don’t: a labrys is a double-headed axe. The labrys was first associated with the Greek goddesses Artemis (goddess of the hunt) and Demeter (goddess of the harvest) and used in battle by Scythian Amazon warriors. The Amazons ruled with a dual-queen system and were known for being ferocious in battle. Though the labrys originally stood for independence/strength/chopping prowess, it has also been appropriated as a symbol of lesbianism.

Note from commenter Nancy: The labrys is actually even older than Artemis as goddess of the hunt, it goes all the way back to the Minoan civilization on crete around the 15th century BCE, although we are not really sure what it meant then because it is sooo long ago! And while there were definitely women warriors in Scythia and nearby regions, it’s super speculative that they had the whole two-queen system and everything…that comes out of some quasi-history written by guys like Herodotus.

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Double Venus

The double Venus symbol takes the scientific symbol for “female” (or “Venus”) and doubles it–two females = girl and girl; Bette and Tina; Ellen and Portia, etc.

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Bisexuality Symbols

In 1998, the official Bisexuality Flag was designed by Michael Page to represent the bisexual community. The magenta stripe represents same-sex attraction and the blue stripe at the bottom represents opposite-sex attraction, while the smaller deep lavender (lavender!) stripe in the middle represents attraction to both genders. Overlapping pink and blue triangle are also used to symbolize bisexuality.

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Transgender Symbols

In 2000, Monica Helms designed the first Transgender Pride flag, which debuted at the Phoenix Pride Parade in Arizona. Helms planned the flag to represent the spectrum of trans* experience. ”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.” Another popular symbol used to identify members of the the transgender community comes from the same roots as the double Venus: a circle with an arrow projecting from the top-right, as per the male symbol, and a cross projecting from the bottom, as per the female symbol, with an additional striked arrow (combining the female cross and male arrow) projecting from the top-left.

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The Other Stuff

Purple Rhinoceros: In the 1970s gay activists in Boston chose the rhinoceros as their symbol because, like the gay rights movement, while the rhino is often misunderstood it is actually a docile and intelligent animal until it is attacked–at which point it’s probably going to steamroll your car. And guess what? It’s purple. Bam. Purple rhino.

Hare, Hyena and Weasel: These three animals were mentioned in an apocryphal text of the Bible, Barnabus, in which God warns against eating the flesh of the hare (associating it with anal sex), the hyena, which was at the time was believed to change gender once a year, and the weasel, which was associated with lesbian sex. Why? Who knows. Look how cute, though!

Thumb Rings: Popular culture seems to believe that if a woman wears a silver thumb ring, she’s telling the world she’s a big ole lesbian–though there seems to be some confusion over whether to wear it on the left or right thumb and what that signifies.

Purple String: In some places, wearing a piece of purple string or hemp around your wrist is a sign of liking other girls: wear it on your left wrist if you are single, right if you are in a relationship. But then sometimes girls from the UK say that this is reversed in Europe, adding to the dilemma of what to do when you go to London on vacay.

Sign Language for “Lesbian”: On one forum I read, a girl said that she and her friends signal “lesbian” by the American Sign Language sign,” which involves making your thumb and forefinger into an ‘L’ and sticking your chin between the two. I find this amusing and wonderful and will use it all the time.

Nautical Star Tattoo: In the 1940s, many lesbians got a nautical star tattooed on their inner wrist to advertise their sexuality. But then so did sailors and punk rockers. Not that the groups are mutually exclusive by any means (if you are lesbian sailor punk rocker, I want to meet you). What does seem to be a defining feature of tattoos indicating lesbianism is that they were often on the inner wrist, so ladies could cover them up with a watch during the day and expose them at night when they were out.

Also, dolphins: In almost every online discussion I read, some sad-sounding girl would chime in to ask, “I thought dolphins were symbols of lesbianism. What about dolphins?” Um, PREACH. Lack of historic precedent be damned, I say if we want dolphins, we can have dolphins. DOLPHINS!

LGBT symbols are ever-evolving as time, culture and civil rights allow. While it’s crucial to give a nod to the historic significance of using LGBT symbols during times and in places where one had to be covert, the use of symbols, raised some interesting questions that maybe you have thoughts about. How effective is an LGBT symbol if members of the community may not recognize what it means? At what point do “symbols” merge into the larger topic of gaydar?

It really depends on what you want, whether it be acknowledging the struggle of the past, your personal feelings about your own present, or pride in and of itself. In the end symbolism and the use of symbols is just that–it’s the user of the symbol who gives it meaning and significance. Ultimately it’s a pretty wonderful thing that in many places, we don’t have to use symbols to say what we mean and feel. But I’m just sayin’–if I see a girl with an Autostraddle ‘A’ sticker on her laptop, I’m going over to say hi.

Avatar of Keena

Keena has written 4 articles for us.

94 Comments

  1. Thumb up 6

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    “What does seem to be a defining feature of tattoos indicating lesbianism is that they were often on the inner wrist, so ladies could cover them up with a watch during the day and expose them at night when they were out.”

    The origin of gaydar-signalling big watches perhaps?

  2. Thumb up 14

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    I find it ironic that when I was in the closet I innocently wore both a silver thumb ring and a piece of purple wool on my wrist everyday, without ever guessing what I was signalling. Ha.

  3. Thumb up 14

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    Ha, like my non-existant gaydar would even pick-up symbols. I can just see it now…

    Random person: Oh hey antiant, check out my new dolphin tattoo!
    Antiant: Herp a derp… uh cool, you got it inside your wrist?!?! Omfg I bet that hurt, what, with all the veins there…
    Random person: Yeah, somewhat. *touches antiant’s wrist and points where it hurt*
    Antiant: *uh, why is she touching me like that?!* (o_0)… *hey that kind of feels good, hmm maybe she is just being extra nice…. yeah, that’s it.” Oh, I see how that could hurt. *she must really like that show Flipper.. flipHER, I’d totally flip her! Er wait no, stfu brain*
    Random person: Yes, do you? *looks into antiant’s eye’s*
    Antiant: I, uh, gotta go now, kthnxbye!

  4. Thumb up 6

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    so I’m being a nittpicky nerd bc I love autostraddle but I’m also a classicist: the labrys is actually even older than artemis as goddess of the hunt, it goes all the way back to the minoan civilization on crete around the 15th century BCE, although we are not really sure what it meant then because it is sooo long ago! and while there were definitely women warriors in scythia and nearby regions, it’s super speculative that they had the whole two-queen system and everything…that comes out of some quasi-history written by guys like herodotus.

    but great article! I love me some lesbian herstory!

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      I’m so glad that you pointed this out! Though no one can be sure, it’s very probable that the labrys got its name because of its particular ceremonial importance at the palace of Knossos in Minos. For anyone who’s rusty on their mythology, the palace of Knossos was the real life basis for the story of the labyrinth that housed the minotaur. Minotaur/Minos, Labrys/Labyrinth.

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        I am also glad someone pointed this out. I am also going to nitpick a little more.

        Charlotte is correct, but has it reversed. The labrys was an important symbol at the Minoan palace at Knossos and the suffix “-nth” meant “hall”. So the palace was referred to as “labyrinth” or “hall of the double ax”. The palace was also pretty complicated and difficult to manage if you didn’t know where you were going. So, the word labyrinth came to be associated with mazes. They also had a bit of an obsession with bulls, which is why we have a myth about a minotaur trapped in a maze there.

        As far as I understood, the labrys became a symbol for gay ladies because it is associated with empowered women. There is a ton of evidence that Minoan women enjoyed a relatively high status before the arrival of the Mycenaeans. Played sports, ran temples, etc.

        go go gadget useless classical civ degree.

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          late but it was worth the try ….. Is not useless !!!!, I will love to take a “carajillo” while we talk about this …

  5. Thumb up 3

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    I love this site! What a great article.. I so didn’t know all of those things about our history.
    And I am definitely going to give more pretty ladies violets in the future ;)

  6. Thumb up 1

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    I’m pretty sure that the story about the Greek soldiers is a bit mixed up. I’m not sure what the Thebans are doing in there, but the Spartans are famous for encouraging their soldiers to take male lovers and pairing them in battle to make them fight more fiercely. It was also the Spartans at the battle of Thermopolae, where three hundred Spartans captained by King Laerties famously fought to the death against the invading Persians.

    Google tells me that the Thebans are according to Plutarch supposed to have had an elite band of soldiers who took lovers within the group who were then defeated by Phillip II of Macedon.

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      It probably is a bit mixed up. I read like twelve different versions of that symbolism and this seemed the most legit, which is why I wrote it. I was a Greek myth junkie as a kid so I hear ya. Don’t even get me started on Achilles and Patroclus, it annoys me to no end that people ignore the fact most modern versions of the Iliad ignore that love story. Also, Xena.

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      Greek reader here,
      I would generally suggest to never ever rely on Hollywood movies or series (yes, this means “Hercules” and “Xena” too) for historical or mythological facts, the script writers usually mess everything up.

      So, for the “Lambda” symbol on the shields, I found nothing mentioned for the Theban warriors (more info on the Sacred band of Thebes here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_Band_of_Thebes).

      Concerning the Spartans, they indeed used the “Lambda” on their shields standing for “Lacedaemon”, though not on the battle of Thermopolae (480 BC), where the Spartans were captained by king Leonidas, but later on during the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC). More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spartan_army#Clothing.2C_arms_and_armor

      On the male lovers: “Sparta, is thought to be the first city to practice athletic nudity, and some scholars claim that it was also the first to formalize pederasty. According to these sources, the Spartans believed that the love of an older, accomplished aristocrat for an adolescent was essential to his formation as a free citizen. The agoge, the education of the ruling class, was, they claim, founded on pederastic relationships required of each citizen, with the lover responsible for the boy’s training.

      However, other scholars question this interpretation. Xenophon explicitly denies it, as does Plutarch. Aristotle in his critique of the Spartan constitution claims that the lack of homosexuality among Spartan men explained the, in his opinion deplorable, power of Spartan women. Aristotle’s assessment is intriguingly conform with the argument of modern pyschologists that pederasty produces misogyny. Since there was no society in the ancient world in which women enjoyed higher status, greater freedom or more economic power than in Sparta, the role of Spartan women would appear to refute the allegations of widespread, institutionalized pederasty.”
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sparta#Military_life

      And on the role of women: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_ancient_Sparta

  7. Thumb up 7

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    Guys, I hate to be that person, but lambda doesn’t signify energy in chemistry or physics. It’s either the wavelength or the rate of decay, depending on the context.

    Also now I want a rhino bumper sticker for my car.

  8. Thumb up 1

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    I’m going to be THAT person who totally points out that decimate means to reduce by a tenth. As such, total decimation and decimation is the same. ;)

    That term originated in the Roman army as a method of discipline in disloyal units. One out of every ten soldiers would be selected at random, and the other nine would be forced to beat that soldier to death, thus making them painfully aware of what further disloyalty would cost, and also complicit in the punishment.

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      This is what I think every time I run across the Timbers logo.

      Well, that and “do straight people confuse my labrys tattoo with a Timbers tattoo?”

      Also, I would like to point out that I have three of the symbols mentioned above tattooed on my body and still people assume I’m straight. WTF Portland queers?

  9. Thumb up 1

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    my thumb ring is tarnished, so does that mean that my inner gay is tarnished as well? also: I’d never noticed that florida’s state flag is the rainbow flag, a fact that greatly confused me while I was watching the news one evening.

  10. Thumb up 3

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    This article just made me want to get a black triangle tattoo even more. I thought about getting one, but didn’t know black was for lesbians – And I really don’t want a pink triangle on my ribcage.
    Let’s see if I actually go through with it.

  11. Thumb up 3

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    I find it hilariously coincidental that I’ve been wearing the same silver thumb ring for almost a decade AND my partner has a tattoo on the inside of her wrist…both of us on the left side. I hadn’t heard of either of these signs, but obvs they must be true.

  12. Thumb up 5

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    Yesss, I’m so happy to see violets on this list. No one seems to believe me when I say they’re a sapphic symbol. Totally want to get a violet tat one of these days. In fact, when I got keys to my girlfriend’s apartment made, I picked one in a enameled violet print. VIOLETS FOR ERRYBODY.

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      I have a violet tat on my wrist. Hopefully, thanks to Autostraddle, people* will finally get it.

      *and by ‘people’, I of course mean “hot queer ladies who read Autostraddle”, aka the only people I care to meet. :)

  13. Thumb up 5

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    Actually, as far as the star tattoo myth goes, it wasn’t necessarily a nautical star they got, and not necessarily on the inner wrist. It had to be blue, though, and able to be covered by a watch. I have a blue star tattoo on my wrist, I did a ton of research before getting it to make sure I didn’t end up doing it wrong, thereby signalling to all those in the know that I’m down for cannibalism or something.

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    It seems there is a trend to use the logo of LGBT resource sites as signs for “gaydar” as only girls who were would really know what it meant unlike the pride flag so its more discreet. The below was originally taken from this website, http://www.Quiivr.com (which by the way has full episodes of Lip Service Season 1 & 2 all on one page free to watch!) pretty popular in some colleges and in Vancouver:

    http://lesbodar.tumblr.com/lesbiansticker

  15. Thumb up 5

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    The teaser text thing for this article (Roses are red, violets are gay, if you want a queer symbol, we’ve got an array.) was my favorite thing about it, which is a big compliment to the teaser, not a diss to the article.

  16. Thumb up 2

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    I love the Double Venus symbol and have it on about 4 pieces of jewelry that I wear;

    on another note, uber intelligence is such a turn on for me and the IQ juices running through these comments are unreal. just…wow.

  17. Thumb up 2

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    I knew I wanted a star tattoo even when I was younger and when I read (before I got the tattoo) the trivia about it’s meaning for lesbians, a light bulb just went bright on top of my head. But since my jerk of an ex gf has a nautical star tattoo on her left ankle, I punked it up and instead got a blue 1.75″x1.75″ tribal tattoo at my right inner wrist. #outandproud

  18. Thumb up 1

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    When I was in 7th grade, we had a teacher who everyone thought was a lesbian. Being the little lesbian that I was, I asked why they thought that, and someone responded “duh, because she is wearing her lesbian ring….all lesbians wear the ring, didn’t you know?!” needless to say, I spent the 6th months staring at her hands trying to determine which ring exactly it was….now I know!

  19. Thumb up 2

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    I have a sudden desire to to get more tattoos… I have a bright blue nautical star on my left ankle, when people who might not be cool with it ask I just tell them its because Dad was a sailor. Which is true, and also might explain a lot about me ;)

    Also I know its not the best film in the world (or most recent), but nobody read the list of lesbian symbols and thought of Bound??

  20. Thumb up 1

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    the book The Color Purple was somehow left out of the part about the color purple. I don’t know how, because it has an obvious title and features a pretty damn lesbian relationship.
    also I wear a silver thumb ring and had no idea!! XD

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    Actually, that’s right, but in the reverse. A symbol of Knossos was the labrys. The -nth ending means “hall”. The palace of Knossos was therefore called “labrynth” or “hall of the double ax”. Labrynth came to mean a maze because the palace of Knossos was very complicated to navigate. Then toss in the Minoan obsession with bulls, as seen by the horns of consecration all up in that place, and you have the myth of the Minotaur trapped in the labrynth of Knossos.

    The labrys became a symbol for empowered females because the Minoan ruins show evidence to support that women had a fairly high status there. Competing in sports, running temples, and possibly being the first rulers (although that is likely just mytos).

    go go gadget useless classical civ degree.

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