BARRY DUKE poses the question
IN the mid-1970s, shortly after meeting Brian, a lad who was to be my long-term partner, I bought him a silver ring and had engraved on it the 11th letter of the Greek alphabet: the lambda.
Puzzled by the symbol, he asked me what it meant, and I explained that it was a sign of gay liberation that had crossed the pond to the UK from America.
At the time, both of us wore pink triangle button badges to show our commitment to the gay lib movement, of which we were very much part.
Had I had the cash, I would have a commissioned a ring with a triangular pink stone, but I didn’t and Brian had to make do with an engraved lambda, which he loved, particularly as it gave him the opportunity to explain to others what it meant.
Brian wore it until his untimely death in 1996. I would have worn it myself afterwards but it fit none of my fingers. So it languished in a draw until a new man, Marcus, came into my life 20 years ago, and both he and I were delighted to find that it fitted one of his fingers perfectly.
I had practically forgotten about the lambda until mid-October, when I noticed that Marcus, now legally my spouse, was wearing it, and that got me wondering how many people nowadays would recognise the symbol.
So we did a test, showing it to a number of people, mostly in their fifties or older. Not one recognised its significance.
It then dawned on me that, while I was aware of its meaning, I had no idea of how it came to be adopted. A website called Lambda GLBT Community Services provided the answer.
The symbol, it said, was originally chosen by the Gay Activists Alliance of New York in 1970. The GAA was a group which broke away from the larger Gay Liberation Front at the end of 1969, only six months after its foundation, in response to the Stonewall Riots.
While the GLF wanted to work side by side with the black and women’s liberation movements to gain unity and acceptance, the GAA wanted to focus their efforts exclusively on gay and lesbian issues.
Because of its official adoption by the GAA, which sponsored public events for the gay community, the lambda soon became a quick way for the members of the gay community to identify each other.
Eventually though, the GAA headquarters was torched by an arsonist. This destroyed not only the building but all of the organisation’s records, and the movement never recovered from the loss.
But in its hey-day the GAA accomplished a number of high-profile successes, the most dramatic being the targeting of a prominent Upper East Side straight bar which displayed a huge axe it called “the fairy swatter”.
When the bar belligerently vowed that the exe would never be removed GAA members staged “a stunning strong-arm takeover” that led the New York Magazine to publish the headline: “Militant Gays Aren’t Kidding Around Anymore.” After that, the straight bar’s frightened customers never returned and it went bust. Businesses got the message: homophobia doesn’t pay.
The symbol, however, lived on …for a while. It was effectively displaced by rainbow flag, which soon became internationally known. An Internet search showed that some rainbow flags still incorporate the lambda, but I never seen one.
But why did the GAA choose the lambda? The most popular theory is that, simply, the Greek letter “L” stands for “liberation.” Other explanations include:
• The Greek Spartans believed that the lambda represented unity.
• The Romans took it as meaning “the light of knowledge shining into the darkness of ignorance.”
• The charged energy of the gay movement.This stems from the lambda’s use in chemistry and physics to denote energy in equations.
• The synergy which results when gays and lesbians work together towards a common goal (a gestalt theory which also stems from the physics-energy theory)
• The notion that straights and gays, or gays and lesbians, or any pairing of these three, are on different wavelengths when it comes to sex, sexuality, or even brain patterns. This again comes from the lambda’s presence in chemistry and physics, where it is sometimes used to represent the wavelength of certain types of energy.
• An iconic rendering of the scales of justice and the constant force that keeps opposing sides from overcoming each other. The hook at the bottom of the right leg would then signify the action and initiative needed to reach and maintain balance.
• The lambda is also though by some to have appeared on the shields of Spartan and/or Theben warriors. The Thebes version is more popular because, as legend has it, the city- state organised the Theban Band from groups of idealized lovers, which made them extremely fierce and dedicated warriors.
Eventually however, the army was completely destroyed by Kind Philip II, but was later honoured by his son Alexander the Great.
There is no actual evidence, though, that the lambda was ever associated with this group. However, there was Hollywood movie in the 1962s called The 300 Spartans starring Diane Baker, Richard Egan, and Ralph Richardson that showed Spartan warriors who appeared to have lambdas on their shields.
Lambda GLBT Community Services points out that, back in December of 1974, the lambda was officially declared the international symbol for gay and lesbian rights by the first ever International Gay Rights Congress which was held in Scotland.
The Scottish Minorities Group hosted the conference in Edinburgh from December 18 to 22 in that year. It was co-organised by Ian Dunn and Derek Ogg. Ian Dunn had organised the first meeting of what was to become the Scottish Minorities Group in 1969. Derek Ogg later founded SAM (Scottish AIDS Monitor) in the 80s.
The conference aimed to provide an international sharing of experience, so that delegates could find out the social, political and legal situation for men and women from other countries.
The conference included sessions on the rights of young homosexuals and of gay women, and the problem of lesbian invisibility was explicitly addressed by a delegate from CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) in New South Wales. There were about 400 delegates at the conference, which led in 1978 to the establishment of the International Gay Association, later to become the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).