6 moments in contemporary LGBTQ design history you should know

4 min read
Shayna Hodkin
  •  Jun 28, 2019
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There is no discussion of queer history without art, and no discussion of art history without the queer community. Many of the world’s greatest visual artists were, and are, queer, and for every one we know of, there’s more whose secrets we’ll never learn.

We stand on the shoulders of those that come before us. So, as Pride month draws to a close, we wanted to reflect on six of the most monumental art and design moments from the last century.

1. Queer zine culture (1940 – onwards)

Queer zine culture is a still-happening cultural mainstay—in part because it’s accessible to everyone. Zine scholar Elizabeth O’Brien explains it as, “To make one, only three things are needed: paper, something to write with, and access to a photocopier…it is possible to create and distribute a zine with the very barest essentials: you, your ideas.” 

Queer zine history goes back to the 1940’s, with publications “…slyly presented as a ‘celebration’ of the male form to avoid obscenity laws.” Their size and ease of publication let zines be amorphous, moving from trend to trend, maker to collaborator.

Especially as gender identity becomes a more nuanced and public discussion, zines and zine authors are becoming more influential voices in the public discussion. 

Source: Cee Lavery

2. Gay Liberation Front fist (1970)

Founded in 1969 after the Stonewall Riots, the Gay Liberation Front was a leftist organization for gays and lesbians fighting for sexual liberation. The name made the organization’s mission clear: as written in a February 1970 newsletter, they described themselves as “a militant coalition of radical and revolutionary homosexual men and women committed to fight the oppression of the homosexual as a minority group and to demand the right to the self-determination of our own bodies.”

The raised fist, long recognized as a symbol of solidarity and resistance, is printed in purple, a color adopted by the LGBT resistance. 

3. SILENCE = DEATH (1985)

Created by six men (Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccarás), the Silence = Death project was originally printed as a poster to be wheatpasted around New York City. 

The image was soon adapted by AIDS activism organization ACT UP, who continue to use the slogan and the pink triangle (the symbol used for homosexuals by Nazis) as their primary branding.

Finkelstein holding an original poster in his living room. Photo credit: James Emmerman, Slate

In an interview with Slate magazine, Finkelstein said explained that the poster was created because “…we wanted to speak to two completely different audiences simultaneously. It was meant to help organize the community around the politics of AIDS, but it also had to imply to everyone outside of the community that we were completely organized already.“

4. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel (2006)

Recognized as a seminal piece of literature in the LGBT community—I first read it in Queer Lit 101—Fun Home is a look into a house built upon hidden queer secrets.

Excerpt from Fun Home

Written as a comic-memoir, Bechdel explores her coming out experience as a moving part in the history of her family and the way they take the news—and the secrets it brings out.

Tl;dr (and this is by no means a spoiler) her dad spent his whole life in the closet, hiding behind a family and elaborate home.

Fun Home turns the turmoil of coming out to your family into a medium that can be understood by the masses (literally the masses: it was adapted to a Broadway musical). 

5. The Smithsonian’s queer collection

The Smithsonian’s collection of LGBT artifacts is unlike any other. The collection dates back to photos from 1915, and includes “periodicals, ephemera, posters, postcards, advertisements, photographs, organizational records, publications, correspondence, and other materials related to all aspects of the LGBT community and the civil rights issues pertaining thereto.”

Though there are LGBT museums and memorials around the world, the Smithsonian Collection is special in that it cements LGBT history into American history. 

6. Transgender Pride flag, designed by Monica Helms (1989)

2019 marks the trans pride flag’s 20th birthday. Created by trans activist Monica Helms, the flag incorporates pink, blue, and white for boys, girls, and intersex or gender-undefined children. According to Helms, “the pattern is such that no matter which way you fly it, it is always correct, signifying us finding correctness in our lives.“

Source: HRC

Though the rainbow flag is for the entire spectrum of the LGBTQ community, the trans flag signifies the pride and strength of the transgender community on its own.

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