Exploring the role of protest t-shirts in the history of LGBTQ+ activism

We take a closer look at the history of protest t-shirts and their use as a form of rebellion.

Split screen of three models wearing LGBTQ+ protest t-shirts.
Image: Twitter via @WearingGayHist and GCN

When we think about Pride, we often think about its origins as a protest and its importance in LGBTQ+ history. We think of the marches celebrating queer love, defying and dissenting societal expectations. With these moments follow artefacts of a queer material culture, symbols worn to show solidarity and demonstrate that we aren’t afraid of being ourselves. And while merchandise celebrating Pride has become more commodified by corporate ‘pinkwashing’, the importance of protest t-shirts in LGBTQ+ culture shouldn’t be overlooked.

Eric Gonzaba, a professor at California State University, knows this better than most. In 2014, Gonzaba launched Wearing Gay History, a virtual archive of tees made by and celebrating the queer community that has over 4,600 pieces catalogued as of 2023. 

These tops have historically been ways for LGBTQ+ people to quite literally wear their identity on their sleeves. The oldest recorded shirt in the archive dates back to the 1940s, and was a Yale University shirt worn by queer activist Loring Hayden. While this shirt doesn’t contain any references to queerness, it still serves as a documentation of queer fashion and life in the US at the time.

The next grouping of t-shirts, dating back to the 1950s to 1970s, relies heavily on hidden LGBTQ+ symbolism. These tees come from an era where not many people were out to anyone except their local queer community, so items like these served as a means of identification and solidarity for LGBTQ+ people at the time.


As the Gay Liberation Movement gained speed after the Stonewall rebellion, many of the artefacts in the collection show a shift toward more political messages about queerness and a more open desire to express it publicly. Of particular note is the wide variety of t-shirts from during the AIDS crisis related to destigmatising the infection and promoting public health measures to protect queer lives during that time. Queer merchandise was no longer simply a means of identification but a protest in and of itself.


Some of the items in the collection were DIY projects, including a t-shirt celebrating the release of lesbian novel Lover in 1976, or one from 2002 honouring the names of the “27+” known transgender people who were murdered in that year.


Amongst moments of remembrance and solidarity, the collection also features pieces celebrating queerness in everyday life. Gay rodeos, film festivals, musicians, and even LGBTQ+ religious groups are represented.

Wearing Gay History challenges the idea that all modern queer liberation movements originated from big American cities like New York or San Francisco. Instead, the collection features items from around the world, including a Belong To “Don’t Stand For Homophobic Bullying” shirt from the organisation’s 2011 campaign.

The story doesn’t stop here. Queer artists are still designing Pride t-shirts today, even amongst rising tensions and public backlash. GCN has its own collection of merchandise, with the 2023 Pride range having recently been released. It features an array of protest tees and powerful slogans, allowing you to show your colours all year round, while supporting Ireland’s national LGBTQ+ press.


The collection is available online or at the Dublin Pride Hub, a shop and community space that features art, jewellery, t-shirts, accessories, and more designed by local LGBTQ+ artists and organisations. So when you’re looking for ways to honour, remember, and celebrate this Pride season, consider shopping local to directly support the community.

© 2023 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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