The secret language that helped queer-owned businesses identify themselves to those in the know

Viersen, Germany - May 9. 2022: Closeup of vinyl record cover of singer Judy Garland
Viersen, Germany - May 9. 2022: Closeup of vinyl record cover of singer Judy Garland Photo: Shutterstock

In an age of restriction and secrecy where LGBTQ+ people lived in fear, the community devised a clever system that, for the sake of this piece, I have deemed the Lavender Line. It wasn’t a physical line. No one could trace it on any map. Instead, it was made up of coded messages and subtle symbols that connected dozens of LGBTQ+-owned businesses. At the time, it seemed like the only thing keeping them alive.

Imagine bustling city streets as they might have appeared in the 1950s. Shop windows glimmer with bright lights against clear glass; neon signs flicker into life along every block; crowds shuffle hurriedly past one another. And yet, there’s something the average day-to-day bystanders don’t know about this regular old street. But if you’re “in the know,” you’d be able to pick up on subtle clues that tell an entire story.

One store may display volumes of Walt Whitman’s poetry front and center, while another arranges its bouquets to form a triangle with carnations. Perhaps there is even one bar in town whose jukebox plays campy classics by artists known for their LGBTQ+ following, like Judy Garland, incessantly all night long. These weren’t random actions by employees or shopkeepers — each little choice was part of the Lavender Line’s secret code that only few would ever understand.

The need for the Lavender Line came from risks unspoken for fear of consequence. In those days gone by it simply wasn’t safe to openly claim your LGBTQ+ identity — discrimination (or worse) could happen at any moment without warning or reason at all. Running businesses that catered explicitly to queer patrons was fraught with danger as they often had to operate on murky legal grounds.

The clandestine language formed to help everyone move through this hostile environment without attracting too much attention from the wrong kinds of people.

Pinpointing the exact origin of this coded language is difficult. Evidence suggests it likely emerged organically in various LGBTQ+ communities across the United States, particularly in major cities like New York, which have higher concentrations of LGBTQ+ people. Further research might reveal variations in the specific symbols and codes used in different regions.

Badges of pride

What made the Lavender Line so genius was its subtlety. There was no one single code but rather a plethora of symbols and references that all pointed toward the same hidden truth. With a little tweak in meaning, the small pink triangles used across concentration camps to identify individuals as gay became a badge of pride.

These new incarnations could then be sown into clothes or posted in windows for anyone who knew where to look closely enough at them. Artists and authors known for queerness or coded messaging would become silent rallying points as well: Oscar Wilde’s plays, Gertrude Stein’s novels or any number of songs by Marlene Dietrich could sound off like a dinner bell to let everyone else know it was safe.

Buildings themselves transformed into canvases for their occupants’ declaration. Peacock feathers displayed prominently against walls signaled LGBTQ+ pride (the slang term “peacock” referring to an extravagant homosexual); certain record stores carried an abundance of music created by queer icons (Billie Holiday, Judy Garland). Business names themselves were not exempt either: A bookstore called “The Unbound Page” might hint at liberation from society’s grip.

Connecting strangers

While it is true that economic transactions were made behind the counters of these businesses, it wasn’t really about money in the end.

Instead, they offered spaces free from fear — havens where anyone who felt unwelcome elsewhere could simply exist without worry while surrounded by strangers who loved them just the way they are. Bartenders turned into therapists; barbers acted like psychologists; bookstore owners curated selections specifically tailored to resonate within LGBTQ+ hearts and minds.

Creating this world allowed LGBTQ+ folks to regain a bit of control, both individually and as a group. The Lavender Line let them find each other in ways that were nearly impossible, yet so desperately craved. And beyond city limits, too. It allowed every one of us to be connected across lands, something that’s difficult even today with the internet at our fingertips.

Imagine two strangers striking up a conversation at a bar somewhere out in America. They talk about their jobs when they both notice separately there’s a little pink triangle above the bartender’s head. Neither has to say anything, but they both share an understanding.

And just like that, both leave feeling less alone.

Replacing the whispers

After the Stonewall Riots in 1969 sparked the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, visibility increased and self-acceptance started becoming more common. LGBTQ+-owned businesses and community centers followed suit in change along with the line’s reputation as its coded messages became less needed over time.

But its spirit has not disappeared altogether.

Queer establishments today continue to serve as critical hubs for community building, safe spaces, and activism. The rainbow flag — once a secret symbol displayed only on store windows — has become an internationally recognized emblem of pride.

Although progress has been made since the days when the Lavender Line thrived, there is still much work to be done to ensure acceptance and equal rights for all queer people around the world. This history reminds us to keep fighting for full inclusion: To celebrate how far we’ve come; to advocate for those who are still hiding; to replace whispers with powerful voices.

What we still don’t know

Much about these hidden messages has been lost over time. But we can begin piecing them back together by collecting oral histories from older LGBTQ+ adults who might remember how they were used or saw them in print or in storefronts across their cities. Imagine what historians could do with such information if they had it:

  • Mapping out known locations: Could we create a map featuring each spot believed to have participated in the Lavender Line? Might newspapers or other sources contain business directories that identify more potential members?
  • Understanding regional differences: Did different places use different codes? Or even different languages altogether? Examining LGBTQ+ history throughout various regions could yield some interesting variations.
  • Looking beyond business: Did individuals communicate with one another using these symbols outside of commercial spaces? For example, did friends send coded cards during holidays? Wear specific outfits for parades? Use secret vocabulary words? Uncovering any such evidence could fill in the many blanks still present in our timeline.
  • Unveiling an international network: Was there ever a similar, underground LGBTQ+ code used outside of the United States? If so, this could demonstrate a powerful global resilience shared by queer people everywhere.

By unearthing this history — fragile despite its relative youth — we stand to learn so much about what queer people before us endured and how they managed to create a better world for themselves.

This is about more than nostalgia; it’s about acknowledging the incredible bravery and creativity that led previous generations to build communities against all odds. It’s about appreciating the human need for connection and the fact that we will always seek it out —even when society tries so hard to drive us apart.

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