Queer Coding, Flagging and Language

Is it gaydar or a series of carefully laid clues?

Do you have it? Gaydar? Gaydar is a made-up ability to tell if someone is gay, often by using visual, appearance-based cues. Congrats on picking up a series of carefully laid and ancient clues used by queer people throughout history to “flag” or a “code” to let other people know they are gay.

Something that gives any group of people distinction and dignity is their culture. Cultural symbolism helps community members identify those who are like them and builds the glue of togetherness. Historically, symbols of queer culture developed out of a need to remain hidden for safety. This cultural symbolism manifested in many ways, and we are here to be the starting point for further exploration. Where did these symbols start? How did we come to use them? Are these symbols still used? This rich and vast history awaits you as you scroll.

Womens Street Fair Poster.jpeg

 A poster for a women's street fair in San Francisco featuring three women in goddess-style poses with flowers in their hair. The creator and date are unknown.GLBT Historical Society

Goddess imagery in the queer community dates to Sappho herself; the woman that is fabled to be the first documented woman-loving woman (WLW). Sappho was from the island of Lesbos and is one of the greatest poets of all time. While there has been much debate around the queerness of her work, some even hotly contested, the queer community has found roots within Sappho’s work. She is where we get the words sapphic and lowercase lesbian. Uppercase Lesbian denotes people who reside in Lesbos. She references the flowers being put into crowns to adorn her lovers, much like the flower crowns pictured here.


A man, Terry Beswick, standing next to a purple suitcase carrying the original Pride flag. 2018.  GLBT Historical Society

The color purple has been important to the LGBTQ+ community for what feels like all of time in memoriam. The reference to purple ties back to Sappho’s usage of purple blooms, violets and hyacinths. Many different queer groups have used the color lavender or violet to name their groups to distinguish their queer membership. Time and time again the LGBTQ+ community has come back to reclaim the color purple. Violet was also one of the colors in the original Pride Flag made in 1978 by Gilbert Baker.  We see this flag pictured here being brought back to the GLBT Historical Society as a donation. The men gathering it up to bring from New York to San Francisco knew that it had to be transported in a significant and spectacular container. They landed on a violet suitcase because of its deep ties for the queer community.


A keychain featuring the design of the progress pride flag.

Progress Pride Keychain - Qucciberry

 Pride symbolism has undergone some changes over the years, and now celebrates the diversity of the LGBTQIA+ community, and conveys the message of a more inclusive society. Across the world, the Progress Pride flag can be found flying in front of government buildings, and schools, as well as in mainstream fashion. The keychain pictured here is one such way in which the Pride flag can and has been used to convey queerness and allyship.

Purple Pickle.jpg

The "Purple Pickle" bar in San Fransisco, 1960s - 1970s.

Henri Leleu Bar Photographs

The "Purple Pickle" was a gay bar in San Fransisco in the 1960s and 70s. We see subtle not-so-subtle signaling here that communicates community and allyship. This photo is part of a larger collection of similar bar fronts from the time period, taken by Henri Leleu.

Labrys poster.png

Protest poster that says FIGHT BACK with a labrys axe. Elaine Gay Jarvis. Gay Freedom Day Parade. 1978. DIVA SFSU GLBT 

The labrys is an axe that has been traced back to the Amazons. This axe is traditionally associated with female goddesses as a weapon of choice. It has been adopted by many feminists and particularly lesbians as a symbol of female empowerment. This symbol is not as prominent today as it has been in the past. Here we see a person holding a sign that has the labrys on it at the Gay Freedom Day Parade. The labrys is a powerful way to let other people know if one is a WLW. 


Purple colored leaflet for "The Queer Thang" film and video showcase.

The Queer Thang - GLBT Archives

The pictured leaflet for “The Queer Thang” film and video showcase was a queer and trans of color visibility performance held on the Columbia University campus in the 1990`s. The featured films, listed center and to the right of the leaflet, explored themes that were and still are relevant to queer culture today. In regard to queer aesthetics, the color of the leaflet, lavender, the listed theme of “Noserings” as well as the imagery shown on the left side of the form give an important glimpse into how queer aesthetics have changed, and in many ways remained the same over the years.


Flyer from 2018 for the Lavender Law Queer & Trans Community Potluck. An event that was created to meet-and-greet, as well as celebrate LGBTQ+ identities. November 2018. Lavender Rights Project. FC-WA

This is a form of reclaimed symbolism. In WWII the Nazis used the pink triangle to denote LGBTQ+ prisoners in the concentration camps. Over 250,000 LGBTQ+ people were put to death in those camps along with millions of Jewish, Romani and other groups of human beings targeted by the fascist regime. By turning the triangle upside down, it signifies remembrance of those who lost their lives. It also signifies solidarity against the war of oppression facing the LGBTQ+ community. Reclaiming a symbol meant to other the queer community has helped heal the hate that was associated with it. 


Photo of "No justice No pride" protestors disrupting the annual NYC pride parade.

No Justice No Pride - GLBT Archives

 The protesters pictured here are part of a larger movement called “No justice No pride”. The movement utilizes direct action to upset white-washing, pink-washing, and mainstreaming of LGBTQIA+ movements. The color purple/lavender is seen again here, conveying symbolism that breaks from the standard pride flag colors and instead gives a solemn nod to the origin of the color, and the movement’s larger purpose of total liberation. The organization “…Recognizes that there can be no pride for some of us, without the liberation of all of us.”


The artifacts featured here represent a small sample of what queer symbolism has and may look like, particularly in regard to its roots. Those that came before us set a precedent that has ultimately guided and continues to guide the ways in which LGBTQIA2S+ communities identify and populate safe spaces, convey membership and allyship, and portray themselves to the world. As time continues to flow and the world changes, so too will the ways in which these cultural groups express themselves and their identities.

 After viewing this exhibit, the next time you find yourself out and about; why not take your gaydar for a spin?


We want to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank the many LGBTQIA+ ancestors who came before us and used this symbology to create communities and safe havens for our community. We would be remiss not to acknowledge the Black queer and trans women who have fought so hard for the liberation of us all. We also want to acknowledge the ancestral history of First Nation and Indigenous folx throughout the world for their expansive understanding and embrace of many genders. While colonization has stolen this from their culture, we want to support any and all efforts to expand our own understanding of how gender has been constructed. We are doing this through centering and listening to many different voices and embodying their wisdom. This is a brief touchstone into the world of queer coding that has many different paths to follow for their own respective communities. Below you will find additional resources and our citation list for any further exploration into the world of queer coding.  

We would like also like to express our sincerest gratitude for Dr. Julie Shayne, Penelope Wood, Denise Hattwig, and Tessa Denton for their unwavering support and applied knowledge that made this exhibit possible. Thank you very much!


Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Amsterdam, Netherlands, Amsterdam UP, 1990.

Griffin, G. labrys. In A Dictionary of Gender Studies. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 27 Feb. 2023, from https://www-oxfordreference-com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780191834837.001.0001/acref-9780191834837-e-224. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023

Halley, Catherine. “Four Flowering Plants That Have Been Decidedly Queered.” JSTOR Daily, 8 June 2020, daily.jstor.org/four-flowering-plants-decidedly-queered. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023

Lavender Rights Project. “Queer and Trans Community Potluck Flyer.” UW Bothell Feminist Community Archive of Washington, Nov. 2018, cdm16786.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16786coll12/id/695/rec/402. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023.

Medhurst, Eleanor. “Depicting Sappho: The Creation of the Original Lesbian Look.” Dressing Dykes, 19 Mar. 2021, dressingdykes.com/2021/03/19/depicting-sappho-the-creation-of-the-original-lesbian-look. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023

Medhurst, Eleanor. “From Lavender to Violet: The Lesbian Obsession With Purple.” Dressing Dykes, 20 Aug. 2021, dressingdykes.com/2021/08/20/from-lavender-to-violet. Accessed 6 Mar 2023

Moore, Mary Ann. "Tales of an Amazon." Voice Magazine, vol. 2, no. 5, 1 Feb. 2000, pp. 8+. Archives of Sexuality and Gender, link.gale.com/apps/doc/RONAHN027967949/AHSI?u=wash_main&sid=bookmark-AHSI&xid=1958d282. Accessed 2 Mar. 2023

Moxon, Sharon. “Sappho Speaks: Gay Symbols: The Necessity, Rationality, Obscurity and Symbology of the Gay Subculture.” UCSD Library, Dec. 1985, library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb3006593b/_1.pdf. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023.

“Poster Collection — GLBT Historical Society: Women’s Street Fair Poster.” GLBT Historical Society, www.glbthistory.org/poster-collection. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023.

SafeZones@SDSU: LGBT symbols: SDSU. SDSU. (n.d.). https://newscenter.sdsu.edu/lgbtq/lgbt_symbols.aspx. Accessed March 2, 2023.

Sawchuk, Mark. “A Proud Acquisition in a Lavender Carry-On.” GLBT Historical Society, 9 June 2021, www.glbthistory.org/newsletter-blog-2021/06-feature?rq=lavender. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023.

Wolowic, J. M., Heston, L. V., Saewyc, E. M., Porta, C., & Eisenberg, M. E. (2017, May). Chasing the rainbow: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and Queer Youth and Pride Semiotics. Culture, health & sexuality. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5378595/. Accessed March 3, 2023.

About the Authors

Lo is a 32-year-old undergrad student double majoring in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies and Society, Ethics, and Human Behavior at the University of Washington Bothell. They use both they/she pronouns and identify as genderqueer. They were born to a father born in America and a mother born in Canada, giving them dual citizenship. When not in school, she is a full-time hairstylist who owns her own business. They love to get out into nature to forage mushrooms and take in all the beauty that nature has to offer. Learning the rich and vast queer history of the ancestors who paved the way for the current LGBTQ+ community has helped strengthen her own queer journey and solidified the need for feminist knowledge production to center the voices so often left out of history.

Meera (She/her/hers) is a Senior at the University of Washington Bothell, majoring in Community Psychology. After spending her childhood in the southern United States, she served as a helicopter crew chief in the Navy for several years prior to initiating her transition and putting down her roots in Seattle, WA. Outside of the university, Meera enjoys sport climbing in the cascades, skiing, and tending to her ever-growing collection of houseplants alongside her two cats. She is an advocate for inclusivity in areas of the outdoor industry that have historically been exclusive and is hoping to see those trends change in the coming years.