In piercing studios around the country these questions are still asked today: “Does one side have any special meaning? You know….which ear is the gay ear?”
Despite changing times and modern progress, many people still associate body piercings (particularly a single piercing in the earlobe) as a symbol of someones sexuality. So, just in time for pride month, the team here at Amato decided to delve deeper into where this all started. It’s time to shed some light on what’s true and what’s myth with a little history lesson on how one specific piercing developed such recognition as a gay symbol.
To find out how an ear piercing could carry this kind of symbolism we need to look back to the 70’s and 80’s in America. A different time, when it was not acceptable to be out as LGBTQIA+ publicly. This is a time where there were no legal or social protections for people who were apart of these communities. Many people lived in fear of losing their jobs, homes, families, and even their lives. It was common to be physically attacked if it were found out that you were anything but straight. This need for secrecy led to some creative ways to live a lifestyle that was typically frowned upon. People in these communities would gather together in secret bars, or meet up around trails in local parks after dark, they even used certain forms of code (which varied from location to location) to subtly tell people they were gay. These various codes were a form of protection, a small way to tell people in-the-know what their preferences were without outing themselves and potentially changing/ending their lives.
As people began to catch wind of what the LGBTQIA+ communities were using, a phrase few remember as familiar was born: “Left is right and right is wrong.” (“wrong” here at the time was used to mean gay.) This phrase spread across the U.S. during an era where piercing was just beginning to blossom. Body piercing for such a long time, wasn’t something your average person supported. It was only worn by rock stars and tattoo artists. The transition into being more mainstream, was around the time that people were daring to get second and third earlobe piercings. A particularly rebellious person might even pierce their cartilage! With this slow introduction of piercing into the public eye, it was quickly cemented into many minds that the singular piercing in the right lobe on a man was synonymous with being gay. We can even look back at this (https://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/19/news/piercing-fad-is-turning-convention-on-its-ear.html) New York Times article from 1991 that mentions a piercing in the right ear as a “discreet symbol” of one’s sexuality. We must remember this was a time when discretion was life or death. However, like any game of telephone, information that gets passed along doesn’t always hold its truth. We’ve heard many variations of this phrase between its origin and now. It even changed state by state and city by city.
In some areas it was reversed, and the left ear was a signifier. Others changed the script entirely where both ears being pierced could signify Bi or Trans. As this secret trend began to cross the country, new versions of it were constantly arising. All of this served to muddle the waters to the point that no one could agree which ear was in fact “the gay ear”.
It wasn’t long before the original phrase got lost, and many people forgot which ear meant which and if any ear ever meant anything at all. Over time, whatever meaning remained seemed to matter less and less as piercings became more popular. With acceptance starting to thrive, many didn’t care what others thought; their adornments were for them and them alone. As early as the 90’s people had moved past the “right and wrong”. Piercings were more about punk rock and youthful rebellion then an underground symbol for sexuality. With the positive surge in gay rights, the ability to marry one another and hold hands in public; no one needed to hide behind antiquated codes or symbols anymore, we could be out and proud! Thus finally died- “the gay ear”
Bottom line being, get whatever piercing (on whichever side) your heart desires! It’s only about what makes you feel confidant, beautiful, and happy.