The Birth of the Queer T-Shirt

Gay T-Shirt
An argument about what to wear in a family photo set off a new direction in gay rights protests Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty

We were to have a new family photo, paid for and orchestrated by my brother as an anniversary gift to my parents. My siblings and I were all now more or less adult and this was to be the first family picture to include our various spouses and offspring, and thus the first family photo since we lived altogether as one family.

But it almost didn’t happen, and by day’s end, my siblings were furious at me, my parents said this time I had gone too far, and even the very patient photographer’s wan smile grew thin and tight. What happened, they said – indeed, they still say – was my fault. But in trying to explain myself, I hope as well to explain the power of activist drag, and why I held our family photo hostage to it.

Weeks before the shoot, we received explicit instructions as to what to wear. Jackets were mandatory for the males, with a preference for suits. But I was having none of it. In the stilted lexicon of the formal family photograph, this preference for formal wear serves to telegraph many things: class status (or aspiration), gender, adherence to social norms and, not least, an untroubled evocation of that social code, visible only in its breach, marking the traditional nuclear family.

But the nuclear family, at least in 1990, had indeed gone nuclear, making heterosexuality the sole available option, and moreover mobilizing explicitly against queer families, my other, elected family. Amidst an era in which “the family” was deployed on a national scale to police people like me, and “family values” was taken actually to mean something, and that something was not queer; when Bush Senior was in the White House; Reagan had just left it; the radical Religious Right was still ascendant and AIDS stalked the land leaving horror in its wake, I couldn’t elect simply to camouflage myself and blend seamlessly in the comfort and security of my own family.

Too much was at stake as the 1990s dawned: we were in the middle of a national culture war, including vicious right wing attacks on what they then still called “gay art.” Only the previous year, the Corcoran Gallery of Art censored a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition and explicit Federal regulations, promulgated by that über-bigot, Senator Jesse Helms, began to police what could be said or done in addressing our lives publicly.

Helms, working hard to conflate queerness with AIDS in the public imagination, actually said on the Senate floor on June 23, 1989, “Mr. President, instead of denouncing the homosexual ‘lifestyle,’ countless politicians, some in this Chamber, fall in line with a repugnant organized political movement – and that is what it is– attempting to persuade the American people that this is a desirable way to conduct their lives . . . In the meantime, thousands more in this country will continue to die from AIDS while the homosexuals continue to proclaim the virtues of their perverse practices.”

But the sad truth was that we were dying, and I went to more funerals than parties in my youth. At the time of the photo, I was a thirty-two-year-old veteran street activist with an arrest record I held like a badge of honor, and, from my vantage point in San Francisco, it felt like there were two Americas; one placid and prosperous, where people talked of and planned for the future, and the other, the one where I lived, where everyone was either dying or talking about death, and the future was no more than an abstraction, a figure of speech.

Hounded into a tiny sliver of America by this onslaught of “family values.” I wasn’t about to blend smoothly into this politicization of the family. Let me underscore that my own family, progressive and educated, were as horrified by those who held my kind in contempt as was I. I had no beef with my family, but still I showed up at the family photograph not in a suit but in jeans and a red tee-shirt with black letters that read “queer.”

After much argument, one in which I kept repeating that there were only two options, a photo without me, or a photo with me in my queer shirt, this photograph was snapped, printed, and circulated. No one in the family likes it, including me.

From an historical perspective, my queer family photograph is worthy not because I sought to make a statement about my queerness, but because I sought to make my statement by wearing an actual statement, the word “queer.” Fashion, of course, had always sought to make a statement, but doing so literally, in the queer world, was still relatively new. But beginning in the 1980s, statements everywhere adorned queer activist tee-shirts, leather jackets, muscle shirts, and sweatshirts.

While queers had traditionally identified each other through various kinds of queer uniforms (including literal uniforms) for purposes of solidarity, visibility, and not least sexual intimacy, these queer fashions used color, fabric, and tailoring to declare solidarity, not literal declarations. But soon, speech act fashions were sold at Act Up and Queer Nation protests, and at marches and rallies, and literally every new activist organization or affiliated group made the design and manufacture of a tee-shirt bearing a slogan among their very first acts.

The rise of sloganeering in activist fashion can be tied to two key developments, the beginning of mainstream media coverage of queer protests, and the development of a truly collective queer politics. A slogan on your chest was tailor-made for a politics of mass visibility, and marches, sit-ins, and other collective acts of public dissent were quick to capitalize on their televisual appeal. Hordes of people dressed the same send an unmistakable message, one that was, moreover, notably easier to convey than hand lettering cardboard at two in the morning.

Still, from our current vantage point, the advent of sloganeering clothing seems vastly less of a defining break with the past than in fact it was. Queer fashion once spoke sotto voce to insiders, at once defining membership in a subculture while excluding interlopers; its illegibility to the straight world was very much to the point.

But wearing a tee-shirt that literally reads “queer” articulates a very different kind of politics, one that no longer ratifies any distinction between the inside and outside of a culture, but instead sees the overcoming of that distinction as a central tenet. In this sense, the rise of the tee-shirt was predicated on the development of a new historical identity, one that embraced the forthright declaration of visible difference as a strategic political advantage.

Pre-Stonewall activist fashion instead turned not on a declaration of visible difference but an essential sameness. The pre-Stonewall “homophile” rights organization, the Mattachine Society, in fact promulgated the following “Regulations for Picketing,” to govern the behavior of their membership: “Precepts: Picketing is not an occasion for an assertion of personality, individuality, ego, rebellion, generalized non-conformity or anti-conformity . . . Men will wear suits, white shirts, ties; women will wear dresses.” For these queer pioneers, establishing a vision of equality demanded that sexual minorities look, act, and dress in an equivalent way to their straight peers.

The early lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis even offered workshops on make-up and dress for lesbians, a move intended to challenge the social visibility of the butch dyke, very much as the Mattachine’s efforts were intended to counteract the social visibility of drag queens as the sole public face of the gay movement. Among conservatives, various strains of this ideology continued well into the 1980s: Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen argued in their 1989 book, After the Ball: How America will Conquer its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s that gay pride parades should regulate the visibility of drag queens lest the movement continue to promulgate a vision of manifest distinction, a differentiation that they argued would set the movement back.

In short, the argument here is that while queers may be distinct in terms of our expression of intimacy within the generally invisible sphere of private life, we were otherwise the functional equivalent of straight people and looked the part.

At an earlier historical moment, this was a useful activist strategy, but one that waned in favor of a mass queer politics. And by a queer politics, I mean a specifically anti-identity model of sexual dissidence, one that turned not on the declaration of one’s individual and “authentic” self as lesbian or gay or bi or even trans, but rather one that saw queerness as a broad refusal of sexuality as a useful or socially necessary classificatory system. Lesbian and gay politics were seen by a nascent queer movement as having won the battle, but lost the war, for no matter how liberated we’d eventually become, we’d still be a minority identity appended to a normative mainstream – and thus always reliant on the kindness of strangers.

Better, queer politics held, to challenge the primacy of the classificatory system itself and manifest not an “authentic” identity in keeping with its terms, but a deep political kinship with all those of any sexuality who refused to attribute to desire a gender, who saw sexuality as no more important than any other taste. But while we readily acknowledge that there are countless individual differences in taste, and that these differences don’t really signify in any important way, this is not so with sexuality. Thus queerness built ideological connections across sexual differences, permitting even the most confirmed heterosexuals an equal claim to queerness, so long as they, too, refused a binary understanding of something as complex as desire.

Once queerness as a category took hold across our individual differences, it was hardly necessary to assert that we were a broad constituency of many different types and identities, for we were plainly visible as such. No longer tied together by an essentialized sexuality, but by an ideological predisposition, queerness was many different things to many people, but at core, it was a refusal of heteronormativity.

A new politics of visibility then took hold, one that used activist fashion not to declare one’s individual selfhood, but to knit a broad array of ages, races, gender identifications, body types, and indeed sexual orientations into a visible instantiation, a public queer face. In short, once we became manifest as a diverse community we reinvested in a politics of queer visibility, seeking to mark out our queerness in a way that had otherwise become culturally invisible given our diversity.

Hence the rise of the queer tee-shirt. That queer activist fashion took up typography is in fact one of the most notable, but least acknowledged markers of change in the post-Stonewall queer activist world.

Not surprisingly, tee-shirts were first deployed as a means of statement in electoral politics, and the 1960 presidential election featured Kennedy tee-shirts. Very quickly, however, the roving billboard quality of the tee-shirt was recognized and they soon came to feature messages of every stripe.

In queer terms, the tee-shirt’s first glorious moment was probably the disruption of the National Organization of Women’s (NOW) Congress to Unite Women in 1970 in New York City. At that event, a group of women wearing lavender tee-shirts reading “Lavender Menace” took the stage and seized the microphone, disrupting the proceedings, generally to the delight of the audience. Their slogan was inspired by the ostensible dismissal of lesbians in the women’s movement as a “lavender menace” by NOW founder and then president Betty Friedan. In response to that comment in 1969, the editor of the NOW’s New York newsletter, the celebrated lesbian author Rita Mae Brown, quit and with other women, founded the organization Lavender Menace.

Lesbian and gay tee-shirts were visible from that moment on, but they were not yet the workhorse of the activist closet that they would eventually become. This began to change in the 1980s as an ascendant Christian right and their friends in the Republican leadership put us squarely in their crosshairs.

While in the early 1980s the Republican party actually briefly flirted with the gay community as a way of boosting their cool quotient – no less a Republican stalwart than Nancy Reagan gave her premier interview as First Lady to Andy Warhol’s very queer Interview Magazine – AIDS would soon change that. Hideously, AIDS was used by the Right to resuscitate, at an historical moment that threatened its imminent disappearance, that very old homophobic politics of queer pathology – a diseased identity, and alongside it, as its predicates, rampant contagion, infection of the young, unhappy life, and early death.

These old stereotypes were thus newly instrumentalized against us, having been given new credence through the etiology of a virus. As a result of the newly radical Right’s attacks against us, we began to organize, and build a truly national movement.

With the Supreme Court’s Bowers v Hardwick decision, a 1986 decree that, in upholding a Georgia anti-sodomy law, essentially ratified the illegality of homosexuality, a relatively new national activist movement came to rely on the tee-shirt as a statement of mass affiliation. Protesting the Supreme Court decision on October 13, 1987, activists belonging to the affiliate group Queer and Present Danger, who had trained in civil-rights era techniques of civil disobedience such as passive resistance, for example not walking to the waiting police van, but requiring the cops to drag you there, donned black tee-shirts to better contrast with the white steps of the Supreme Court.

They knew that images of activists’ limp bodies while under arrest were irresistible media fodder and too good an opportunity to ignore, so they made sure the tee-shirts bore the words “Queer and Present Danger” framing a pink triangle superimposed over the colonnaded façade of the Supreme Court. Since this was a period in which the word “homosexual” was still ubiquitous in the mainstream press, generally preceded by the word “open” or “avowed” as if it was still socially loaded to declare one’s sexuality openly (even the word gay was considered too progressive for the New York Times until 1987) the use of the word “queer” here was truly radical.

In contrast, at the first National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights in 1979, plenty of people dressed in home-made protest tee-shirts, but for the vast majority, signs and buttons were the chosen form of expression. But by 1987, the over half a million activists participating in the Second National March on Washington For Lesbian and Gay Rights were encouraged to buy an array of protest clothing, both at the March headquarters and through private vendors.

Publicly challenging the still widespread presumption of closeted sexuality, the tee-shirts available, such as one reading “I Support Lesbian and Gay Pride in America” and featuring a large pink triangle, were self-consciously donned as emblematic of this ascendant queer politic of mass visibility.

But it was act up, founded in 1987, that helped make the slogan tee-shirt ubiquitous, and its activist graphics arm, the collective Gran Fury, were responsible for some of the most eye-catching tee-shirt images of the moment. Such tee-shirts did double duty as both activist sloganeering and as a source of revenue for the mother organization.

At an historical moment wherein countless obituaries still refused to list AIDS as the cause of death and instead noted only “after a long illness,” or at best, pneumonia, because to admit to having AIDS was still so socially fraught, the wearing of a tee-shirt proclaiming public affiliation with AIDS activism was a powerful gesture of dissidence.

Often riffing on an image vocabulary derived from canonical queer artists like Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol, or deploying Madison Avenue catch phrases such as Silence = Death, act up’s imagery was at once vaguely familiar and memorably formidable. Especially notable was the fact that many HIV-negative individuals, including a number of lesbian and bisexual women from a community with a historically low HIV infection rate, were key organizers of act up.

This embracing of stigmatized identities that one did not even necessarily share personally would emerge as a defining tenet of the new queer activism – in keeping with this queer politics, to wear a tee-shirt was to express a political opinion, not to declare one’s identity.

Indeed, central to this new queer politics was the idea that activist drag was now actually drag, which is to say dress that didn’t confirm but instead challenged notions of authenticity and truthfulness. Of course, this was hardly new in the queer world, as the legions of Dorothys from the Wizard of Oz regularly made manifest on Halloween.

What was new here wasn’t donning clothing that refuted ostensibly “natural” categories around gender and sexuality– queers had done that forever. After all, a community long persecuted precisely because it was deemed “unnatural” would have a distinct and highly personal investment in revealing nature to be a mere social construct, such that “femaleness” could be realized by men and maleness by women merely through mobilizing the right cultural signifiers.

No, the difference here was the development of historically queer modes of resistance like camp as self consciously activist strategies – ones that elevated fluidity of identity in place of the traditionally earnest declaration of authentic selfhood. For example, members of a Queer Nation–San Francisco affiliate group, S. H. O. P., or the Suburban Homosexual Outreach Project, would travel outside of the city to perform campy street theater, while deliberately refuting any essentialized identity categories.

When, for example, a suburban East Bay street named Gay Court sought a legal name change to High Eagle Road, S. H. O. P. descended on that wealthy enclave, and dressed in Queer Nation drag, invited its homeowners to join Queer Nation, even offering them Queer Nation tee-shirts reading “promote queerness,” since the fact that they sought to change their street’s name testified to the fact that they felt the deleterious effects of homophobia too. Doors were slammed in our faces, but the message we wanted to send was telegraphed by the media nonetheless – homophobia was the problem, whatever our individual sexuality.

In contrast, earlier notions of gay dress tended to make clothing an index of truth, a proclamation of individual and highly personal desires – often as a means of identifying oneself in the hope of finding a sexual partner. One of the earliest post-Stonewall fashion statements was what came to be called the “Clone look.” Visible primarily in coastal gay ghettos, such as the Castro or Christopher Street, the Clone look was a hyperbolized variation of a typical straight blue collar worker’s uniform – jeans, white tee-shirt, plaid or checked shirt, heavy boots.

But unlike his prototype, the tee-shirt was now skin-tight, and even rolled at the arms in 50’s fashion, and the plaid shirt could be left open to reveal the muscled torso, or dispensed with altogether in favor of just the tee-shirt. It was not unusual for the Clone to sand his jeans at the crotch or buttocks better to reveal the body beneath, and the jeans – generally Levis button-up 501s – were complemented with a bandana, itself resonant with meaning depending on its color and placement.

In short, the Clone look sought to accomplish two things. First, it manifested specifically gay desire, emphasizing those parts of the body other men would find erotic. The reason those jeans were buttoned was for the sensual thrill of ripping them open, and the bandana advertised one’s particular sexual proclivities (for example, yellow was for piss play, black for S&M, baby blue meant oral sex, and so on, and if it was worn on the left it meant one was active, while the right was for men who preferred a passive role.) So baroque grew this hanky code that a delightfully arch book Gay Semiotics, by Hal Fischer was published in 1977 to explain it all.

Secondly, in contradistinction to an earlier, softer, effeminized queer look, the Clone signified a redefinition of the value of masculinity. Many gay men were now not only desirous of masculinity in a partner, they could themselves embody the very masculinity they sought, becoming both desiring and the object of another’s desires.

Notably but a few years earlier, such a version of a clean-cut masculinity would have been aggressively denigrated in the gay world, for it carried far more ominous overtones. While the US was still at war in Vietnam, masculine styles were associated with the military and militarism, and thus reviled. Indeed, in the 1960s, queer hippies and straight hippies were largely indistinguishable, for both dressed in performative opposition to the culture of machismo that, it was thought, engendered our involvement in Vietnam in the first place.

A unisex garb of flowered shirts, bright colors and patterns, hip-hugging bell-bottom pants, long hair, and beads were ubiquitous among men precisely because they sought to communicate their refusal of ostensibly masculine prerogatives. For queer hippies, perhaps the only visible difference in this unisex hippie uniform was the addition of more explicitly camp elements such as bouffant hair, ribbons in one’s beard, lots of glitter, and/or make-up.

Almost immediately, however, after the US pulled out of Vietnam in 1973 the hippie style faded in favour of the Clone look; and by 1975, the very year South Vietnam fell to the communist North, the Clone look was already the most visible gay male style in San Francisco and New York.

Ironically, lesbian separatist culture of the same period also elevated flannel shirts and jeans, and even occasionally white tee-shirts, to cultural centrality. This lesbian flannel uniform was sufficiently gender variant to mark resistance to a masculinist construction of female identity, namely all those fashions, like the high heel, that were designed for women but crafted to appeal to men.

At the same time, flannel was just gender neutral enough that it skirted re-inscription in the butch/femme paradigm, a historically valuable and courageous stance of queer visibility that was roundly (and erroneously) attacked in lesbian separatist culture as merely a failed mimicry of heterosexism. Flannel was certainly too butch to be femme, but at the same time it was not on its own butch enough to be stone butch, or conventionally masculine.

One result of lesbian separatism’s resistance to power hierarchies and concomitant celebration of equality in all its forms was thus that a fairly inexpensive, ubiquitous mode of dress, the flannel shirt, could assume the significance of a uniform. But although the Clone and the separatist shared this article of clothing, they invested it with vastly diverging meanings.

The flannel shirt was thus the progenitor of the activist tee-shirt, a legible declaration of queer selfhood, whether the self in question was a separatist telegraphing membership in an egalitarian commune or a Clone advertising his sexual availability to other men. Like the activist tee-shirt, it, too, was a unisex style. But while flannel may have been shared by gay men and lesbians, it signified in almost opposing ways in each community.

Not so the message tee-shirt. And as queers of all genders embraced declarative tee-shirts a decade after the heyday of flannel, in relatively short order the meanings of their declarations grew increasingly ironic, or fuzzy, or redundant, or hard to parse. How else are we to understand such Queer Nation clothing stickers as “promote fag/dyke visibility”; “what causes heterosexuality?” or “militant homosexual,” especially as worn by militants whose queer identity was premised against the notion of a homo/hetero divide.

To wear a tee-shirt today, as I once did, boldly reading “queer” would now not even be read as a non-ironic statement by other queers. That we have no single message to emblazon, as we once did, in bold sans serif on our chests, is, I think, the surest sign we’re winning.

Jonathan David Katz is an art historian and director of the doctoral program in Visual culture studies at State University of New York at Buffalo. He is the founder of the Harvey Milk Institute. His book, The Homosexualization of American Art: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and the Collective Closet, will be published by the University of Chicago Press.

This essay is excerpted from A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, edited by Valerie Steele and published by Yale University Press in association with The Fashion Institute of Technology, New York.

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