Political Notes: Online curation dives into iconic LGBTQ tees

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday October 30, 2023
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Three of the 75 most iconic LGBTQ T-shirts are, from the GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance, formerly know as the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, left; Harvey Milk for supervisor; and the Lesbian Avengers' famous tee depicting a bomb. Images: Courtesy Inker Pride Diversity Council of Custom Ink
Three of the 75 most iconic LGBTQ T-shirts are, from the GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance, formerly know as the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, left; Harvey Milk for supervisor; and the Lesbian Avengers' famous tee depicting a bomb. Images: Courtesy Inker Pride Diversity Council of Custom Ink

The LGBTQ community has long used art to convey its political and cultural messages, whether to those in the know or the wider public. In addition to creating those images on canvas, another medium has been widely used over the decades, that of T-shirts.

The Inker Pride Diversity Council at the Fairfax, Virginia-based online retail company Custom Ink, which makes custom tees along with a variety of other merchandise for its clients, dove into the past to come up with what it considers to be the LGBTQ community's 75 most iconic T-shirts. It posted its list online in June for Pride Month and promoted it nationally to celebrate National Coming Out Day, observed annually on October 11.

"From Stonewall and ACT UP to Marsha P. Johnson and Harvey Milk, depictions of queer culture on T-shirts have been a significant part of LGBTQ+ history," it noted. "And while some T-shirts may have come from lesser-known parts of history or movements, their impact on the people who wore them is just as crucial to LGBTQ+ culture and progress. No matter their origin, these tees are worth celebrating for their unique contributions."

The council members utilized several archival collections to help them compile the list, such as the website Wearing Gay History. The site began as a graduate student project in 2014 undertaken by George Mason University doctoral student Eric Gonzaba, who digitized the entire T-shirt collection of the Chris Gonzalez Library and Archives, an LGBTQ archive now part of the Indianapolis Public Library.

He did so "in an effort to bring attention to LGBT history of 'fly over' country," according to the website. It now features shirts from nearly all 50 U.S. states and close to 20 countries, and includes shirts from the collections of San Francisco-based institutions the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA+ Center and the GLBT Historical Society.

"If you want to go down an internet rabbit hole, check out the Wearing Gay History website," said Ryan Morrice, a digital PR specialist with the company who works remotely from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Morrice, a gay man who joined Custom Ink last December, is a member of the diversity council and helped oversee the creation of the list. The employee group had put out a call for submissions earlier this year to its colleagues and public partners, then put the 75 selected shirts up for a vote to be ranked.

"More than anything else, I am really just incredibly grateful for the amount of support we got, both in terms of submissions of shirts, both by external sources and also by individual inkers, and the sheer number of people who voted," said Morrice, who told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview that 96 employees cast ballots. "So many great shirts were part of this project."

The diversity council members also delved into the holdings of the J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which has a special King-Henry-Brockington LGBTQ+ Archive, as well as the Digital Transgender Archive and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York.

"I am very grateful for the giants who came before us on whose shoulders we get to stand on to make content like this possible," said Morrice. "The shirts are indicative of that and how far we have to go."

Ties to San Francisco

Coming as no surprise, a number of the 75 selected shirts have ties to San Francisco. With the annual LGBTQ History Month coming to a close Tuesday, the Political Notes column decided to showcase the local tees that made the cut.

Landing in 75th place is a shirt the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco had made for its convention in 1979. The design features a large fish about to be devoured by a school of fish.

The illustration symbolizes "the fight for justice against an unjust system," noted the council in its write-up about it.

Shirt number 70 is from The Basket and the Bow gathering in 1988 for Native American LGBTQ people. It was co-hosted by the San Francisco group now known as BAAITS, for Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits.

"The gathering is now known as the International Two-Spirit Gathering and continues to this day in a different location every year," noted the council.

A shirt created by the San Francisco-based GAPA, the GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance, landed at number 65. It depicts Godzilla attacking the Transamerica Pyramid, which forms the letter A on the tee for the group's name, which formerly had been the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance.

Milk's campaign T-shirt for his San Francisco supervisor bid took 46th place on the list. Elected as the city's and California's first out public officeholder in 1977, Milk's time in office was tragically caught short by an assassin's bullet a year later.

"Milk has remained a cultural and political icon, and you can still find shirts bearing 'Harvey Milk for Supervisor' today," noted the council.

Two shirts relating to Proposition 8, the ballot measure banning same-sex marriage that Golden State voters adopted in 2008, made the list. At number 27 is the "Legalize Gay. Repeal Prop 8 Now!" shirt clothing company American Apparel created in support of the legal fight to have the homophobic law be thrown out by the courts.

The number 16 shirt for the NOH8 campaign was also a response to the passage of Prop 8. Photographers Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley shot photos of numerous celebrities, political leaders, and others with duct tape over the mouths as a symbol of their voices in support of marriage equality being silenced.

Even though the federal courts threw out Prop 8 in 2013, its language remains embedded in the California Constitution. Voters will be asked to remove it via a Prop 8 repeal measure state legislators have placed on the November 2024 ballot.

Also on the T-shirt list are two tees featuring the work of the late gay artist Keith Haring. Morrice told the B.A.R. he is partial to them when asked what his favorite tee was.

"They are so truly iconic and historic," he said.

As for the number one shirt, it boosts the slogan "Sounds Gay. I'm In." The image featured comes from a shirt made by Lettershoppe.com. It is unclear who originated the saying and was first to put it on a T-shirt, Morrice told the B.A.R., as one of the council members had seen it and submitted it for consideration.

"One of the things that stood out to a lot of people about this shirt is it is not only reclaiming the word gay as a positive but also recognizing the fact that saying gay among a lot of younger folks in the company is commonly accepted and an affirmation of something that would otherwise be considered pejorative," said Morrice.

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