Interview With The Author of Queer X Design

Andy Campbell is the author of Queer x Design: 50 Years of Signs, Symbols, Banners, Logos, and Graphic Art of LGBTQ. Published by Black Dog and Leventhal, Queer x Design is a compilation of the art and symbology borne from queer social movements. Ranging from pre-liberation lesbian pulp fiction to various modern pride flag designs, the book presents a wide variety of LGBTQ+ symbols from various communities and identities. According to his website, Campbell is an art historian, critic and curator, and an Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design.

My name is Lilli Sher, and I am a summer communications intern at OutRight. I spoke with Campbell after OutRight received a copy of his book. I found myself engrossed in the book during my breaks, and I feel much more informed of the richness of queer history and symbology. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, and for sending OutRight a copy of Queer x Design.

Lilli Sher (LS): Could you please walk us through your general interviewing and research processes?

Mirage Magazine from Transexual Action Organization four years after Stonewall

Andy Campbell (AC): Much of what appears in Queer X Design is indebted to years of research in and around LGBTQ archives. One of the structuring narratives of archival work is that archives are places of mystery and discovery, and truly, in some ways they are! But they are also incredibly mundane places, cataloging the details of the everyday lives of people and organizations. Over the years, I’ve kept a running list of items I come across in archives that I want to know more about -- a kind of “to do” list for my curiosity. Some of them are extraordinary -- like Samuel Steward’s original plastic tattoo flash, which can be found in the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago, and some are mundane, like a button. Assembling the book gave me the time to finally do something with many of those items on my list, and to put them within a broader historical context. It also gave me the opportunity to bring focus not only to the more recognizable symbols of LGBTQ movements and Gilbert Baker’s Pride Flag, but to tell more localized stories, like the fundraiser show poster for Jewel’s Catch One, a lesbian-owned disco catering especially to Los Angeles’s black, queer communities. So most of the book comes through this kind of archival research.

LS: What was the most surprising thing that you learned during your research?

AC: I think it’s a thing I learn and relearn...history is always stranger and more interesting than I can fathom. The pleasure of having narratives shifted or upended because someone...found a thing, a letter, a document that sheds new light on something long-thought to be already understood -- that pleasure is real.

LS: Could you tell us about your involvement with Dykon Fagatron and Dandy Unicorn, and how they shaped your view on symbols and queerness?

AC: Yeah, this is a great example to me of design as a localized practice of community-making. Dandy Unicorn was a figurehead for an LGBTQ news/views/events column run by my editor at the Austin Chronicle, Kate X Messer. She commissioned a designer we knew...Lindsey Taylor, to create an illustration/design for the column’s figurehead: a unicorn by the name of Dandy. What amazed me about Dandy is that because s/h/ze stood for the aggregated knowledge of a localized community, Dandy came to feel more and more like a presence in our lives: both virtually, through things like Facebook profiles, and in lived reality. Sometimes a stranger or acquaintance would call either Kate or myself Dandy. Perhaps no one outside of Austin, and even outside of a fairly limited segment of Austinites, would know a lick about Dandy, but this is precisely the point. A design doesn’t have to be universally understood or be meaningful, impactful [or] interesting on a historical level. A design can keep its circle of confidantes close.

You also asked about Dykon Fagatron, which was a party that I co-founded with some radical queer folks in Houston, while I was working as a Critic-in-Residence with the Core Program. The party was underwritten by a local grant, and in instigating it we meant to provide a space for queer and trans people, who might otherwise feel unwelcome in Houston’s robust -- but mostly cis-male focused -- gay bar scene. My friend Anna Elise Johnson drew what became our mascot while thinking about how to rejigger the bathroom spaces of our host gay bar to be more inclusive of gender non-conforming and trans people. She created a hybrid of a bathroom sign featuring the icon of a person with different genders [and] abilities. This became the sign we put on bathrooms, as well as the primary symbol of the party.

We think sensuously; and vision is one of those senses. Having a designated visual figurehead as a representation for an organization, a party [or] a shared affinity: that can be a powerful thing. Both the Dandy and Dykon Fagatron designs gave anecdotal proof, from my own experience, of that power.

LS: “Dyke dollars” are exemplary of the intersection between design and capitalism to make a point about queer buying power. Could you please inform us about the intersection of money, art, and queerness today? Does this connect with the monetization of Pride?

AC: Dyke Dollars, Gay Money, Gay $: these have been some of the rubber stamps created by everyday LGBTQ activists throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. It’s hard to pinpoint when or where the practice of rubber-stamping dollars in the name of gay liberation and visibility began. I think for the initial creators of the rubber stamp, the idea must have been to reveal the participation of LGBTQ people in the economic marketplace. It may have also served to delegitimize, or at least destabilize, the persistent homophobia that viewed homosexual and/or the trans individuals as personae non gratae in the public realm. I also think it plays, perhaps unintentionally, with transmissibility; putting the test the notion that gayness was “contagious.” If you found yourself in the possession of a “Dyke Dollar,” but were not yourself a dyke; would the cashier at the local supermarket see the text on the dollar and think you were the one that put it there, and that, horror of horrors, you might be a dyke? I like thinking about where the dollar goes after it’s stamped -- perhaps in the hands of a bigot, and then what? It’s a kind of confrontation that pulls away from one of activism’s most-beloved tactics: person-to-person encounter. With the dyke dollar, this encounter is mediated through a shared symbol, money, and the stamp taints or refocuses the believed universality of that symbol.

As for your second question, I think it’s difficult to think about this rubber-stamping of money and not also think about the monetization of pride today. In some ways, my book, which is put out by an imprint of a major publisher, is part of this rainbow-wave of products hurled at the consumer. I do worry about that. For many companies producing goods or organizing human services, it seems as simple as sticking a rainbow colorway on something and cashing in.

LS: While the book highlights intersectional queer movements and movements led by queer people of color, what did your research show about the reality of intersectionality in the LGBTQ community in different time periods?

AC: I think that has changed over time. Black feminist thinkers, some of whom were [or] are also lesbian and/or queer, were responsible for this shift towards thinking intersectionally. You are perhaps right to point out that while the book seeks out an array of examples from a variety of LGBTQ communities, that this would not be an accurate depiction of the historical representation of different groups within the LGBTQ community -- most particularly as it concerns people of color, who are often sidelined, if not altogether absent, from mainstream representations of LGBTQ communities. Like many communities made up of folks who benefit directly or indirectly from racial hierarchies, there is more or less awareness within mixed LGBTQ communities about the need to think coalition ally across siloed identities. I take that to be a mission of the book: to at least gesture towards what a more inclusive history might look like. I don’t think the book is an endpoint on that journey for me. There are still things I wish the book was better about, and more I have to learn.

LS: Why did you decide now was the time to curate a design history book on the LGBTIQ community and movement? And do you have plans to do other design books based on different regions, cultures, and perspectives?

Poster spotted on subway platforms in NYC during Pride

AC: It was really in conversation with my editor at Black Dog and Leventhal that we identified this as a kind of need in the literature around LGBTQ aesthetics. It’s remarkable that beyond biographies of famous LGBTQ designers -- particularly fashion designers -- that there’s really not a lot done on this topic. And I think a series of books like this would be great; but I would insist on other people writing [or] compiling them. One of the strengths, I think, in being a writer, is being joined and connected to other writers who do similar work, but perhaps from different vantage points. Such a series could do a lot to instigate a cohort of design historians sensitive to the politics of identity.