"Better Gay than Grumpy"
"Better Gay than Grumpy"
"My Unicorn is a Lesbian. Is Yours?"
"I'm Straight. But not Narrow"
The National Museum of American History recently received more than 400 buttons representing a snapshot of LGBT visual and textual culture spanning three decades from the 1970s through the 1990s. I helped Curator Katherine Ott organize the buttons into categories in order to better understand the scope and depth of the collection. In the process of cataloging and documenting the buttons' words and images, I was continually amazed by their diversity. There were protest buttons, buttons from marches and pride parades, buttons for gay-friendly destinations and businesses, and buttons to raise awareness around ballot initiatives, the AIDS crisis, and boycott movements. But to me, the most interesting buttons (and certainly one of the largest categories) centered on humor, puns, and a certain tongue-in-cheek affirmation of what scholars categorize as "queer culture."
Thus a button with the letter combination "IMRU" exists as both coded language and an invitation to connect with others who are LGBT-identified. The button "How Dare You Presume I'm Heterosexual," evokes both campy indignation as well as a serious call to reconsider normative assumptions. "Come Out, Come Out," simultaneously references the sing-song cadence of fairy tales as well as serving as a modern-day statement for proudly self-declared "fairies." The use of language could also work in reverse. "Closets are for Clothes" is an attempt to retire a double meaning deemed demeaning and unhealthy—returning the term "closet" to its original purpose.
As the LGBT-rights movement grew in size and prominence during the 1970s and 1980s, the use of queer humor became more overt, graduating from small buttons to T-shirts, signs, and—later still with the advent of online media—readily shared memes, gifs, and photos. One milestone in this chronology came in 1990 when Skyler Hynes printed up some "Nobody Knows I'm Gay" T-shirts for a booth at the annual Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Festival. In three months, Hynes had sold more than $30,000 worth of shirts, and went on to launch Don't Panic! Designs, which produced iconic T-shirts for LGBT's who came of age (and out) in the 1990s and early 2000s. "2QT2BSTR8" and "I Can't Even Think Straight" evoke the same techniques of wordplay that historians of LGBT history see in earlier eras.
While connected to their historical antecedents, the marketplace's assortment of consumer goods including T-shirts, buttons, coffee mugs, and refrigerator magnets ultimately helped alter the course of LGBT history moving forward. Though tempting to dismiss as campy or kitschy today, objects like these also were part of moving queer language and puns (and thus gays and lesbians themselves) into the mainstream. As the question of marriage equality recently advanced to the Supreme Court's ultimate affirmation, the new venue of online memes continued the tradition of relying on humor.
Thus the LGBT buttons currently being evaluated and processed can be seen as important pieces of American history—one born out of a need for secrecy and camouflage that later became a celebrated hallmark of queer culture for everyone to enjoy.
The manager of Museum Advisory Committees in the museum's Office of External Affairs, Daniel Gifford is a scholar of holidays (see his post on Thanksgiving cartoons) and the history of vacationing in America. Have a question for Daniel about the history of holidays, postcards, or other aspects of American culture? Ask in the comments and he may answer it in a future blog post!