Why do rainbows and glitter and unicorns dominate LGBTQ+ culture?

LGBTQ+ culture, nights out and parades are dominated by an excess of femininity - the more pink, sparkly and bright, the better. How did this come about, and why are these things still such recognisable symbols of such a range of sexualities? Everything from unicorns to rainbows are associated with two core groups of people: the LGBTQ+ community… and little girls. Where does this overlap of identities stem from?

For a long time, being gay was synonymous with men only - lesbianism and other identities were not even considered. Sex was defined only as penetrative, so women could not have sex and relationships weren’t even considered as a possibility. This is one of many reasons that relationships between men were illegal in so many places (and still are!), but relationships between women were not - they were not even recognised. The resistance, therefore, was often dominated by men, and men continue to dominate LGBTQ+ activism in many ways, as they do in other parts of society. Patriarchal structures don’t cease to exist because another area of equality is being challenged.

However, because people are often still uncomfortable with the idea of same sex couples, they reverse gender stereotypes to translate the relationship into their own experience. If you believe in the maintenance of a gender binary, then that makes sense, as LGBTQ+ couples firmly undermine the existence of such simple identities. Lesbians are often displayed with masculine traits, such as butchness and plaid shirts, whilst gay men are displayed with feminine traits, such as thinness, being fashion-focused and being obsessed with glitter. These identities are also performative, but are often lived up to out of a desire to fit in - or at least they will be hammed up with the LGBTQ+ glitter ball on you.

So, sexuality and gender are almost reversed: if you are attracted to men you must be the woman, and therefore ultra-feminine, and vice versa. So, why do the feminine qualities dominate in LGBTQ+ culture, and not masculine? Well, because femininity in this context is associated with men, and men still dominate much of the social setting. We live in a patriarchal society and the LGBTQ+ community is part of that; it is not somehow exempt because it is not heteronormative. Men almost always have more power and social capital than women, and so their identity remains the one that dominates.

You will often see bi and gay women also dressed up as unicorns and looking ultra-feminine. Ideally, you would like to see this as an expression of their individuality only, but the unicorn is a key symbol of LGBTQ+ culture and worn as a mark of belonging. Given this, you end up with the bizarre situation where gay women are performing the symbols of LGBTQ+ culture, which are themselves created from gay men performing the role expected of them, as feminine beings who are made less masculine by their attraction to other men. Women performing men, performing femininity. Is this really necessary?

It takes time to unpick any stereotypes, but we need to undo these parodies, as much as we do the narrow confines of the gender binary. The limited roles we are expected to fulfil within the LGBTQ+ community are also inadequate and need to be challenged. I’m not saying we should throw the glitter and the rainbow flags away; but there is no need for men to continue to dominate the community, or for people to continue to performing reverse-gender-roles. Choose whatever label you like, but don’t be defined by someone else’s expectation of what that should look like.