How this tattoo design became an enduring sapphic symbol

In the past, queer people had plenty of ways to recognize each other. In the 70s and 80s, the famous hanky code was a great way to signal specific interest in others. Way back in the 1890s and into the 1930s, wearing a dyed-green carnation signaled to others that you were a friend of Oscar Wilde, so to speak. For queer women, the art of femme flagging—painting your nails the colors of the lesbian flag, using accents, keeping your nails short—can still signal to other sapphics that you’re a part of the sisterhood.

And for sapphics in the 1950s community of Buffalo, New York—the site of much of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues—there was an even more permanent way to let other women know you were in the community.


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♬ original sound – Eleanor

According to sapphic scholar Eleanor Medhurst, getting a nautical star tattoo on your wrist was a perfect way to signal to other women that you were queer. As Medhurst explains, the trend began one night in the 1950s, when a group of butches all decided to go to the same tattoo parlor and get small nautical stars on their inner wrists.

It didn’t stop there: according to the book Medhurst cites, the 1993 lesbian oral history Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, some of the femmes in the tight-knit group also got stars tattooed later on. The star was small enough that it could be hidden by a watch or long shirt sleeve, but prominent enough that other women could see the signal and realize they were in safe company.

One butch from the scene, Bert, explains that: “they tried to get me to do it but I wouldn’t do it, and the main thing that I can think of that held me back was because of the job I had at the time. There was the pressure, worried about them finding out why.”

Bert’s fears were justified: the book goes on to explain that the Buffalo police department—famously corrupt during this era—quickly caught on to this symbol and were collecting names of lesbians who sported them. During a time when queerness was criminalized, lesbians couldn’t be too careful.

The star tattoo belonged to a specific community of butches and femmes, and, as authors Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis point out, “presage[d] the methods of identity created by gay liberation.”

There was even a star tattoo revival moment in the 1970s, and even today you can find many a nautical star wrist tattoo if you look for it.

We live in a time when, for the most part, we don’t have to rely on secret signals to express our queerness to one another. But keeping these symbols and their histories alive show just how deep our memories go, and how committed we’ve always been to finding one another.

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