Lambda Lore

Lambda Ascending

I call my column “Lambda Lore.” Probably few know why. There’s a whole generation of Stonewall2 queers who do not appreciate the historical significance of this lower case Greek letter and its relation to the modern gay civil rights movement. So, gather round and you shall hear the early days of being queer.

The lambda symbol was originally chosen by the Gay Activists Alliance of New York City in 1970 to represent its mission. The GAA had broken with the larger Gay Liberation Front at the end of 1969 over differences about the best way to promote Gay Rights. The GLF, whose symbol was a bloody hand print, wanted to work with the Black Power and Women’s Liberation movements to change America. The GAA wanted to focus their efforts only on gay and lesbian issues.

In the early 70s the GAA sponsored public events called “zaps,” held mostly in New York City. These zaps were peaceful confrontations with public officials meant to draw media attention to injustices perpetrated against gay people. Some of the GAA’s more visible actions included protests against an anti-gay episode on the then-popular Marcus Welby, M.D. television series, a zap of then-New York City Mayor John Lindsay and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and a zap at the New York Marriage License Bureau demanding marriage rights for gays.

The Lambda symbol was drawn on signs and clothing and banners and soon became a quick way for the members of the emerging gay community to identify a gay “happening.” The effectiveness of the GAA came to an end in 1974 when an arsonist torched their headquarters. All of the organization’s records were destroyed in this fire and the movement never recovered from the loss. Among the documents burned up were records and minutes on why the lambda was chosen as a symbol. One of the more popular suggestions is that the lambda was the Greek letter “L” which would stand for “liberation” and could easily be mistaken for a college fraternity symbol, and thus ignored by the majority of the population. Another accepted view is that it was adopted as a symbol for gay energy from its scientific use to designate kinetic potential. However, I doubt that many of these early radical activists were that geeky.

The most popular view — and the most romantic — is that the lambda is believed by some to have appeared on the shields of ancient homosexual Greek warriors. The Thebes version of the story has it that the Theban Band of warriors was formed from groups of idealized lovers, which made them extremely fierce and dedicated on the field. The Spartan version claims that the lambda was a symbol of Sparta. There is no actual evidence that the Spartans were associated with the lambda — however, a 1960s movie called The 300 Spartans showed Spartan warriors with lambdas on their shields. When the historic version and the Hollywood version conflict I say always go with Hollywood.

By 1974 the lambda had gained such an acceptance within the gay rights movement that the International Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland officially declared it the international symbol for gay and lesbian rights. Today the symbol lives on most noticeably in the names of Lambda Legal and Lambda Rising. Lambda Legal (Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund) was founded in 1971 but was not allowed to practice law until 1973. It is an American civil rights organization that serves gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities as well as people living with HIV/AIDS through litigation, education and public policy work.

Lambda Rising is a Washington, D.C. bookstore known for 35 years as the “capitol’s bookstore that celebrates the gay and lesbian experience.” It is closing its doors this year. In 1987 the “Lambda Book Report,” a bimonthly review of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender literature, was first published to encourage writers and publishers to produce quality books of interest to the community. That publication spawned the Lambda Literary Awards. The first “Lammys” were given out in a black-tie awards ceremony held in Washington, D.C. in 1989. The Lambda Literary Foundation continues to run the annual awards program today. In 2003 Lambda Rising also stepped in to buy New York City’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop, saving it from imminent closure. Oscar Wilde Bookshop was the first gay bookstore in the world when it opened in 1967. It was the inspiration for Lambda Rising and other queer bookstores.

The lambda may not be as well known today as the rainbow flag or the pink triangle or the Human Rights Campaign’s yellow equal sign, but it is the grand dame symbol, if you will, of our heritage.

So, since lore is all the facts and traditions about a particular subject that have been accumulated over time through education or experience, now you know why I call my column “Lambda Lore.”


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