In the 1970s, gay people joyously defined themselves out in the open for the first time in our culture’s history. The gay lib movement, largely sparked by the 1969 Stonewall riots, gave a new opportunity for expression, especially in cities like San Francisco.
Combine that with a pre-AIDS existence, and it made for one hell of a party.
Photographer Hal Fisher was especially interested in these newfound gay signifiers, and as part of his 1977 publication Gay Semiotics, he provided detailed itemized descriptions of the gay experience in San Francisco at the time. Note the very early use of the term “basic gay,” though we’re guessing he didn’t mean it quite the same way.
Here’s a sampling of his work. You can purchase a copy of the paperback book today, but i’ll set you back upwards of $500.
Handkerchiefs signify behavioral tendencies through both color and placement. A blue handkerchief placed in the right hip pocket serves notice that the wearer desires to play the passive role during sexual intercourse. Conversely, a blue handkerchief placed in the left hip pocket indicates that the wearer will assume the active or traditional male role during sexual contact. The blue handkerchief is commonly used in the treatment of nasal congestion and in some cases holds no meaning in regard to sexual preferences.
Red handkerchiefs are used as signifiers for behavior that is often regarded as deviant or abnormal. A red handkerchief located in the right hip pocket implies that the wearer takes the passive role in anal/hand insertion. A red handkerchief placed in the left hip pocket suggests that the wearer plays the active role in anal/hand insertion. Red handkerchiefs are also employed in the treatment of nasal discharge and in some cases may have no significance in regard to sexual contact.
An earring in the right lobe may suggest that the wearer prefers to play the passive role during sexual activity. Conversely, an earring in the left lobe may signify active behavior on the part of the wearer. Unlike the other signifiers, however, Right/Left placement of the earring is not always indicative of Passive/Active tendencies on the part of the wearer. Furthermore, the earring or stud is often adopted by non-homosexual men, thus making the earring the most subtle of homosexual signifiers.
Keys are an understood signifier for homosexual activity. A key chain worn on the right side of the body indicates that the wearer desires to play a passive role during a sexual encounter. Conversely, keys placed on the left side of the body signify that the wearer expects to assume a dominant position. Keys are also worn by janitors, laborers and other workers with no sexual significance intended.
Amyl nitrite is a prescription capsule drug used in the treatment of angina pectoris (heart disease). Amyl nitrite, or “poppers” as it is known in slang terminology, is inhaled through either the nose or the mouth. After inhalation the user experiences a quickened heartbeat and the sensation of blood rushing to his head. Amyl nitrite is especially popular on dance floors and immediately prior to sexual climax. Since Amyl Nitrite is available only by prescription, manufacturers have created a number of commercial substitutes as well as a variety of inhalers. Although Amyl is used by heterosexuals, its immense popularity among gays has earned it the title “The Gay Drug.”
ARCHETYPAL MEDIA IMAGE
The western or cowboy prototype is identified by articles of clothing: cowboy or western boots, jeans, flannel or western style shirts and in some instances hats. When the image appears in gay magazines the settings are usually barns, corrals or fence posts. The cowboy represents the frontier and a male-only society. The machismo qualities of the western archetype are vigorously exploited by advertising. Modern cowboys are used by the media to play up masculinity and sexuality in ways that are subconsciously understood by the gay populace.
ARCHETYPAL MEDIA IMAGE
The leather prototype is the most easily recognized look. Black leather items include everything from hoods to jackets, pants, caps and underwear. Accoutrements include motorcycles, chains and various sexual items. In the gay media black leather becomes a symbol for the unknown or untried. It is entirely, vehemently, macho in appearance. While the other archetypes have their roots in myths accepted and celebrated by the culture-at-large, the leather cult, like its straight counterpart is rooted in non-acceptance and non-conformity.