I attended Leeds Pride last weekend in the north of England. Covering the event for Gay Star News, I shot video of part of the parade. One person’s placard stood out as they walked past. It said ‘Be Gay, Do Crime’
It lodged in my mind because I didn’t understand its meaning.
My curiosity deepened the next day when former Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears posted a photo to his Instagram [top]. It was ostensibly to promote the release of his new single, but what caught my attention was the fact he was standing in front of a graffitied wall bearing the same message: Be Gay, Do Crime.
I have not been able to track down where the Be Gay, Do Crime slogan originated, but a quick search reveals its use has grown exponentially over the last couple of months. Especially so in the San Francisco area.
A search of Google Trends reveals that the term has been getting sporadic searches dating back to February 2011.
The summer of Be Gay, Do Crime
However, its use jumped exponentially in June. Much of this can be linked to a couple of tweets.
On 2 June, Twitter users @citizenion tweeted an illustration. It was an adaptation of an 1880 political cartoon by Thomas Nast. A skeleton bearing a banner saying ‘communist’ and a burning torch representing ‘anarchy’ bears a scroll with a message about California politics. Only, on the amended image, the scroll bears the legend ‘Be Gay Do Crime’.
It has been re-tweeted over 6,500 times.
‘Belongs to nobody’
Io Ascarium tells Gay Star News they added the quote on the bottom from the zine, Black Mask.
‘After I photoshopped it up I made prints of my version to give to a few people who supported a comic book anthology done by queer prisoners called ABO comix and have kept printing them since then.’
‘As far as I know “Be Gay Do Crime” is from the communal grab-bag of anti-assimilationist queer slogans. Like “ACAB” or “Stonewall was a Riot” it was pulled from the chaotic ether, originated nowhere and belongs to nobody.
‘But I guess you could claim this meme popularized it further? After it was released to the internet I suddenly started seeing it used way more on banners at Pride, tagged on more walls, heard it shouted as people jump train turnstiles.’
Ascarium went on to explain what Be Gay, Do Crime means to them.
‘”Crime” is the word used to describe the survival tactics many marginalized people must use to survive under capitalism, one reason queers are among those most likely to be locked up. Especially if you also happen to be trans, PoC, sex worker (especially post-SESTA/FOSTA) or just any identifiable type of lower caste.
‘So what else should we do besides thumb our nose at the very idea of law? We’re still out here risking arrest, filling up the frontlines, countering fascists in the streets.
‘We’re still out here risking arrest just to stay fed, housed and alive while waiting to drown in boiling sea water and no cis-gay winning elected office has done a whole lot to change that material reality. But expropriating entire shopping carts worth of video games, art supplies and baguettes to redistribute amongst all the poor gay kids like faggot Father Christmas has at least brought us some comfort.
‘So I guess the slogan means we’re done negotiating with mainstream gays over respectability. We realized being a gay criminal is the coolest thing you could be and war on bourgeois morality is the coolest thing you could do.’
The kids are alright
Two days after Io’s tweet, Twitter user @isislovecruft posted the following tweet.
‘Just saw two teenage girls hop the bart turnstile and run up the stairs and start making out and i couldn’t resist the urge to shout BE GAY DO CRIMES and they raised their fists and shouted back STONEWALL WAS A RIOT so i am informing you that the kids are in fact alright.’
just saw two teenage girls hop the bart turnstile and run up the stairs and start making out and i couldn’t resist the urge to shout BE GAY DO CRIMES and they raised their fists and shouted back STONEWALL WAS A RIOT so i am informing you that the kids are in fact alright
— isis agora lovecruft (@isislovecruft) June 4, 2018
That tweet has been retweeted over 13,000 times and been liked 71,000 times.
Isis Agora Lovecruft says they’d heard the term before. They first saw the slogan in a tweet back in January, which had a photo of graffiti.
two kinds of leftists pic.twitter.com/q7nCbMt4jr
— meth lab for cutie (@AliceAvizandum) January 13, 2018
‘It quickly became a LGBTQ+ slogan that we’d yell at each other whenever a queer friend did anything mildly mischievous.,’ says Lovecruft, who is based in San Francisco.
‘Soon after, I spotted both Nazi and Proud Boy [alt-right] graffiti around San Francisco so I went and bought sparkly glitter spray paint and asked my girlfriend @nicoles on our second date by sending her a picture of the Nazi graffiti and another of the spray paint with the caption “want to be gay and do crime”.
‘She said yeah, so we used a laser cutter to make a stencil of a unicorn and went around town giggling and holding hands and making out and covering up the Nazi shit.’
Lovecruft’s Twitter describes them as an ‘anarchist; hacker’, and the slogan – going by its appearance on Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter – appears to have been adopted by those with a taste for queer anarchy.
The ‘Be Gay, Do Crimes’ graffiti photo in that January tweet was first posted on Instagram in September 2016 by @absentobject, who snapped it in Marseille, France.
‘LGBT+ culture and politics should be anti-capitalist and transgressive’
‘I took the picture in the summer of 2016,’ Frey Kwa Hawking (@absentobject) told GSN.
‘The picture blew up when I submitted it to the blog queergraffiti.
‘It’s funny to see the photo in fan edits and on strangers’ profiles. Online it’s been a thing for years now. Mainstream awareness is probably a little behind. There are variations on it everywhere, which is great, but I think the clunkiness of “do crimes” makes this version charming.
‘People like it because it’s catchy, but a lot of the people who are into it aren’t really that political at all, nor radical, and are really quite liberal and forgetful of our history, which is disappointing.
‘I’d give a long speech about how LGBT+ culture and politics should be anti-capitalist and transgressive rather than conservative but there’s a lot of people out there happy to be complacent who think we’re safe: we’re not.’
This summer, the slogan has been spreading far and wide.
‘This was pretty much adopted as the unofficial slogan during San Francisco Pride this year,’ says Marke Bieschke to GSN. Bieschke is co-owner of The Stud, curator at the GLBT History Museum and publisher of news site 48 Hills.
‘You saw it everywhere on social media and read it on t-shirts; posters of it were plastered in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like the Mission and the Tenderloin.’
A prominent banner bearing the slogan was also carried at the city’s Dyke March.
‘The cozy relationship between the police and Pride’
Bieschke is also uncertain where it came from. He points to a 2009 issue of a Milwaukee anarchist periodical called Total Destroy. It makes mention of activists with a banner saying ‘IT’S OKAY TO BE GAY! BASH BACK!’ and wonders if that evolved into ‘Do Crime.’
Whatever its origin, he can understand its appeal.
‘I think it answered a desire to counter the polished, corporate narrative of Pride in these very unsteady political times, when we’re seeing so much progress rolled back in terms of trans and other queer rights,’ says Bieschke.
‘It also addresses the increasing realization that the cozy relationship between the police and Pride is up for question.
‘As more and more young people discover radical queer history and the role the police played in their forebears’ oppression – and as they see the current situation with the Black Lives Matter movement speaking out against unchecked police violence and an increasingly militarized and over-armed police force – they’re starting to take real pride in the law-breaking resistance that gave birth to the contemporary queer movement.’
Breaking the rules
Be Gay, Do Crime means breaking the rules and challenging authority. At a time when ‘gay’ has been used as a slur to mean weak or lame, this repositions it as rebellious and dangerous.
Whether it be mischievous, anarchic or encouraging people to openly break the law, it’s unsurprising it’s been embraced by many in the queer movement. Given the rise of the far-right in the US, a new generation are discovering that resistance may sometimes require breaking the law.
Today, trends are co-opted and exploited at dizzying speed. At a time when every corporates slaps a rainbow flag on its products for Pride month, ‘Be Gay, Do Crime’ is a slogan far less easy to hijack.