In my last post, I talked about the trouble that I and my fellow lecturers got into for wearing anti-racism badges at our college. Looking for those old badges led me to re-discover a musty-smelling bag full of around 175 old badges, buttons and pins of mine sending all kinds of memories whirling through my head. I decided that, for this post, instead of continuing the roughly chronological story of my life, I would instead tell you the stories behind some of the badges in this antique collection of mine.
First of all – terminology. What are called badges in the UK and Australia are called buttons in Canada and the US. Since the vast majority of my badges come from my UK days, that is the term I will use. For North Americans, badges are what sheriffs wear, but we’ll manage.
Badges, in various forms, have existed for more than 150 years but I would say that they didn’t come into mass usage until the hippie/counterculture revolution of the 60s where we all wanted to not only wear our heart on our free love sleeve, but also to wear our political opinions and identities on our clothing. Badges provided a cheap and easy opportunity for us to do that.
Throughout the 70s and 80s and into the 90s, badge wearing was almost ubiquitous and certainly near compulsory at any political demonstration. Into the new century, usage has plummeted, at least in my experience, but that may just be because I’m aging!
Funnily, just as I’m writing this post, a badge for my municipal political party of choice here in Montreal, Projet Montréal, landed on my doorstep, so they’re not dead yet.
Badges from my Youth in the 1960s
I’m going to start with a look at what I found in that musty bag from my teenage/high school years. No badges as such, but lots of enamel pins along with what every stylish teenager (that’s me) from the 60s would have:
- an ID bracelet
- my signet ring
- a tie pin for my narrow ties
Given that I was “the best little boy in the world“, I was particularly proud of the pins on the right showing my 7 years of consecutive attendance at my Sunday School in suburban Toronto at the local Donway United (Methodist) Church.
I doubt I am the only consistent attendee at Sunday School who ended up in gay bars a few years after that achievement.
You can also see:
- achievement pins from my high school in suburban Toronto
- my Bronze medallion for lifesaving – as close as I ever got to a sport
- my pin for 10 blood donations – those were the days when I was allowed to donate blood
- Canada’s 100 years of Confederation pin given out to all schoolchildren in 1967
In the centre is my nametag for my job at Ontario Place in my infamous coming out summer of 1971 which I talk about here.
The Queer Badges
Moving into the 1970s and 1980s, most of my badges were collected at lesbian/gay/queer events of those decades. Certain symbols on them predominated at different times.
Starting with the rise of the Gay Liberation movements in the 70s, wearing a badge became an instant way to show our colours, so to speak; to proudly come out in public. Of course, it was, at the same time, quite subtle because the symbols used were ones that often only those “in the know” would recognize. Therefore it was a way to signal to others that “I’m gay too” at the same time as minimizing the risk of getting bashed by haters who wouldn’t have a clue as to what the symbol meant.
Showing our Pride with the Lambda
One of the first generic symbol for being gay to take hold was the Greek letter, lambda, which is equivalent to our letter “L”. The lower case lambda is written λ.
The story goes that this symbol was chosen by the New York chapter of the Gay Activists Alliance in 1970 for their group. The lambda, they said, represented “a complete exchange of energy – that moment or span of time witness to absolute activity” in the notation of chemistry and physics. Less obscurely, others believed that the lambda “l” simply stood for “liberation”.
Another interpretation that grew in popularity was that the symbol represented the Spartans in ancient Greece. They were a warrior society known for their military which was based on strong bonds between male couples (thought to be lovers) who fought bravely and courageously together in battle, often to death. They had lambdas on their shields. What better way to feel good about ourselves than to be associated with something that has been around since ancient Greece!
In December 1974, the lambda was officially declared the international symbol for gay and lesbian rights by the International Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was at that congress and I write about it here. Do I remember that vote/discussion? No, I’m sorry to say.
Jeffrey Weeks’ first major and very influential book, Coming Out, published in 1977, used the lambda proudly and loudly on its front cover, a copy of which I still have.
Having taken your time to give you all these details, I now will tell you that, interestingly, not one of my badges has that lambda symbol on it!
My guess is that, by the time I started collecting badges, I think the lambda symbol had been taken over by other less obscure symbols.
But I did a bit of research online and, at the wonderful Bishopsgate Institute, I found this London Pride badge from 1976 that did use the lambda – presumably for the last time. That one never made it into my collection.
I have only two badges that refer specifically to the Gay Liberation movement from the early 70s and, interestingly, neither of them use the lambda symbol from that period; probably to differentiate themselves from what they would have seen as a more conservative and closety symbol.
The beautiful, highly stylistic badge on the left is from Australia, designed by David McDiarmid (a friend from my time in Sydney who became a famous artist). On the right is the well known London Gay Liberation Front badge which subtly used the male/female gender symbols along with a powerful fist.
Showing our Pride with Gender Symbols
What you will see on some of my badges is the use of some combination of the gender symbols. During this period, the double interlocking male and female symbols came to represent, somewhat less obscurely than the lambda, gays and lesbians and they turned up in a variety of ways on badges.
The symbol on the far right, meant, at different times, intersex or transgender. But many today would reject these gender symbols altogether, given that they are based on the notion of gender binaries.
Showing our Pride with the Pink Triangle
As you look over my badges, you will see that the pink triangle is by far the most common symbol in the badges I had – from the 70s right into the 90s.
Most of you will know that the pink triangle, worn proudly now, emerged from a dark period in LGBTQ history and world history. The Nazis forced the gay and bisexual men and transgender women prisoners in their concentration camps in the 1930s and 40s to wear inverted pink triangles (or “die Rosa-Winkel”), similar to how they also forced Jews to wear a yellow Star of David. It has been said that the pink triangle represented the lowest rung of the camp hierarchy.
In the early 1970s, this pink triangle of shame was reclaimed as a positive symbol of self-identity in the gay community. It began to be widely used in LGBTQ pride marches and in protests against homophobia.
Here is a black and white photo of me taken by a press photographer at a demonstration against a church in Sydney that had fired its warden because he had came out as gay on Australian television in 1972. It shows that, in those early days, we had to explain, even to other gay men and lesbians, what the pink triangle meant.
Here are four badges from my collection that exclusively use the pink triangle. The faded one on the bottom right I wore on my jacket for years. I hope someone can remind me why the safety pins were added to the two at the top. Something added during the AIDS/HIV crisis? Maybe safer sex?
I’m proud of my almost complete set of London Gay Pride badges from 1977 to 1990. You will see that the pink triangle makes its entrance in 1979 and is part of most Pride badges all through the 80s.
Where are the rainbow colours on my badges?
What surprised me is to discover that NONE of my badges have any evidence of the Rainbow Pride colours that are so commonplace now. I think that can partially be explained by the fact that the Rainbow Pride flag originated in the US and it didn’t take hold in the UK until the 90s – which was after I’d moved away.
Just for fun badges
We queers have always been a bit sassy – it’s the way we learned to survive in a harsh environment. The following are badges that are a bit sassy, smart or funny. Or just plain positive.
The next group of badges are political ones – mostly connected to a campaign or an issue.
The National Abortion Campaign (NAC) was formed in 1975 in the UK and the group defended, successfully, the 1967 Abortion Act against several proposed amendment bills during the 1970s and 1980s. Many demonstrations took place over that period to fight for the right for women to maintain control over their own bodies.
During the late 70s, in England, there was a noticeable rise in far right activity so anti-racist and anti-fascist groups fought back and these were some of the resulting badges. I mentioned these anti-racist badges in my last post and how I got into trouble for wearing them while teaching in my college.
Leftist and union badges
The badges below represent general left and union politics. I was one of those “NATFHE Lecturers who gave good value” and I’ll talk about my experiences with that union in my next post.
Pit closures by the Thatcher government
In 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike to combat the closure of pits around the country by the Thatcher government. For the first time, lesbians and gays worked with the miners in their struggle to keep jobs and, in return, the miners supported us in our struggles. This glorious story is told in the 2014 film Pride and even though I’ve seen it at least 10 times, it has me still crying and dancing at each viewing.
International solidarity badges
Below are different badges for solidarity with struggles against various regimes. The top left one concerns East Timor (now Timor-Leste)’s struggle against the occupation by Indonesia in the 70s to the 90s. I visited what was then Portuguese Timor in 1973 and write about that here.
The Ningla A-Na badge I got at a demonstration in Sydney in July 1973 and it refers to the establishment of an Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra the previous year in an attempt to raise the issue of lands stolen from the aboriginal peoples of Australia. That badge is one of the only two badges from my time in Sydney in 72/73, the other one being David McDiarmid’s Gay Liberation badge I mentioned above.
Defending the GLC
There were many campaigns to defend the Greater London Council (GLC) which was under attack from Tory governments in the 1980s for its progressive policies, especially in the area of LGBTQ+ rights.
Fighting Section/Clause 28
The horrific and homophobic Section/Clause 28 legislation was introduced into the UK Parliament in 1988 and it banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. This meant schools and councils were unable to provide young LGBTQ+ people with any resources or information at all. There was a huge kickback against this legislation including lesbians abseiling into the House of Commons which explains the first badge below. That law was not repealed until 2003 in England and Wales.
From the AIDS/HIV era, I seem to have only these few badges. You’ll notice that the Act-Up badge has a purposely inverted the pink triangle to give it a fresh meaning along with the startling but crucially important phrase for that time – Silence = Death.
Started in 1990, Outrage wasn’t a specifically AIDS organization but it grew out of the rage and anger that was growing at the time because of the lack of effective action by police to stop gays and lesbians from being attacked and murdered in London. Instead the police were spending time policing gay men (toilet surveillance etc). It grew to be “a broad based group of queers committed to radical, non-violent direct action and civil disobedience advocating for lesbian, gay and bisexual people to have have the same rights as heterosexual people, to end homophobia and to affirm the right of queer people to their “sexual freedom, choice and self-determination”.
German and Dutch badges
Here are a few badges I have from Germany and the Netherlands I picked up when living in Germany from 1978-81:
- The “Heterosexual? No Thanks” badge is a spoof of the famous “Nuclear Power? No Thanks” badges of that era
- “Fags Against Oppression and Fascism”
- “This poofter/fag is a red (a socialist)”
- “Hey faggot/homo. You’re free!”
These political badges all have their own stories
Badges from organizations I belonged to
London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard
I worked for the still-existing London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard as a volunteer from 1982-1987 answering the phones and I picked up these badges at different events at the time. As a sidepoint, our phone room from that time was wonderfully recreated as a set for several scenes in the recent “It’s a Sin” series, right down to that pre-digital clock on the wall.
London Gay Teenage Group
In 1982, I was hired as the first paid youth worker for the London Gay Teenage Group. I’ll write more about that in a future post but it was a marvellous experience.
London Lesbian and Gay Centre
The delightful London Lesbian and Gay Centre (LLGC) was set up by the GLC and it survived from 1985 until the abolition of the GLC and, after many scandals, it closed in the early 90s. Located in a disused former meat warehouse near Smithfield market in Farringdon, it provided a safe space for gay men and lesbians with cafe, bar and dance areas. I often hung out there, enjoying its fabulous vibe.
From 1988-90, I volunteered as a counsellor for PACE whose offices were located in the Centre. The Project for Advice, Counselling and Education (PACE) provided low-cost counselling, therapy, group work, employment and other services.
How many bands of these bands do you recognize? I can’t remember what band had that stylized “M” and fedora. Can anyone help me?
In 1990, I threw a 40th birthday for myself and these are the badges that arrived with some of the birthday cards from my friends. I thought I was so old then. Ha! What did I know?
As you will have noticed, most of my badges are from the UK, but I do have these random Canadian/US ones – and one Australian one for the eagle-eyed.
I’ll give a free year-long subscription to my website to the first person who can explain what this badge is all about in the Comments section. Hint – it refers to something that happened in 1992.
To bring this post to a close, I would like to honour an old friend of mine, Paud Hegarty, who passed away in 2000. He was a sweet and very funny man and a manager and major figure at Gay’s the Word bookshop for almost two decades. He had an even bigger collection of badges than me! They were recently discovered in a basement and brought to life. You can see his story here. Also the BBC told his story here.