@LARGE | Michael Andor Brodeur

Gaymoji are new, but gays and code go way back

This week, the popular gay men’s cruising app — err . . . “dating and social network” — Grindr launched its very own lexicon in the form of Gaymoji. I’ll give you 10 minutes to figure out oh for God’s sake Rose it’s a set of gay emoji.

Let me first commend you for not allowing news of Gaymoji’s release to distract you from more pressing distractions and/or threatening tweets, but now that you are aware of Gaymoji’s existence, it’s possible you’re experiencing an ambivalence similar to my own upon first hearing about it — a shady uncertainty that quickly darkened into doubt, disappointment, and plain old inner stinkface.

My expectations weren’t at all buoyed by a New York Times piece describing Gaymoji as “500 icons that function as visual shorthand for terms and acts and states of being that seem funnier, breezier and less freighted with complication when rendered in cartoon form in place of words.”


And while it’s true there’s nothing more gay than seeming funnier, breezier, and less freighted with complication, simmering an entire demographic down to a set of 500 emoji (400 of which you have to pony up for) still sounds like a recipe for too potent a punch with too many competing flavors.

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In practice, this means lots of rainbows and flexing biceps and leather daddies and foofy cocktails and catchphrase stickers shouting “Bye Felicia!” and “YASS!,” plus various butts and bulges and bears. Oh, and a little more than 13 ways of looking at an eggplant.

This is all to say, Gaymoji fills a very specific sets of gaps.

“I thought, ‘Why isn’t there a guy dancing?’ ” Grindr-foundr Joel Simkhai told the Times. “It was weird to me that I always had to send that woman in the red dress.”

Now look, I realize that it’s Dorothy-vs.-Rose easy to throw shade at a set of gay emoji. And there’s really no need to: My gay elders and less thumb-dependent queer peers already frown upon emoji as evidence of the paving over and dumbing down of a language once lush with possibility, reduced to dull rebuses with all the depth of an issue of Highlights. To gays of a certain age, language has devolved from Wilde into something more wild, and Gaymoji won’t cheer them up about it, disco balls or not.


It doesn’t help that in true “G” fashion, Gaymoji kind of blanks on the rest of the LGBTQ community apart from a few obligatory symbols of solidarity, otherwise tailoring the tight fit of its iconography to the particular whims, wits, and wiles of gay men. And not without controversy. A “T” icon was removed from the set when confusion erupted online over whether it designated “spilling the T” (i.e. gossip), or “Tina” (i.e. meth). Grindr contended that the “T,” in tandem with an equally versatile “D,” was intended to facilitate a “DT” (as in, “down to ___”) construction. Really, gurl?)

Also in true G fashion: I’m probably picking on Gaymoji so much because I’m trying to figure out whether I actually have a crush on it. And big surprise: I do.

I like Gaymoji a lot. I can explain.

Especially when deployed into the let’s-get-it-on context of Grindr (which provides users a location-based grid of nearby dudes seeking dudes), Gaymoji may seem purely like a way to shave ever-precious seconds off the preliminary chit-chat. (Symbols like an occupied top bunk or bottom bunk seem custom cut to cutting conversation.)

But scroll deeper through what seems like a stack of sex symbols (that rose is no nod to one Mrs. Nylund), and you can actually get a glimpse of how gay history has navigated its way through the back alleys of language for the better part of a century.


“Gay codes once allowed men to see themselves as participants in the dominant culture by enabling them to see themselves in the interstices of that culture,” wrote George Chauncey in his essential 1994 history “Gay New York.” He goes on to quote literary critic Harold Beaver: “The homosexual . . . is a prodigious consumer of signs — of hidden meanings, hidden systems, hidden potentiality.”

The “hidden system” at work within Gaymoji goes beyond just having to tap to summon another keyboard. These flat-seeming symbols actually draw from a deep, proud lineage of slyly worded signals, clues, codes, double entendres, euphemisms, and other semiotic tactics that have kept the culture connected — proverbial passwords that granted gays access to one another across mainstream channels for decades without being detected.

Even “gay” emerged as code — a term that emerged from the argot of heterosexual prostitution (much like “trick” and “trade”). And even the notion of “coming out,” Chauncey notes, “burlesqued the ritual of society women.” Much of the language of gay has always been smuggled through the language of straight; the rest of it is conveyed through the long cultivated gay art of saying things without saying them — from throwing shade to sending an emoji of an eggplant under a magnifying glass.

Among the hundreds of colorful Gaymoji, a duo of fairy icons refer back to a pre-“gay” marker of queer degeneracy, since reclaimed, a la “queer.” The granular level of grooming detail evident across a selection of facial emoji for use in profile pictures harkens back to the way such details (from plucked eyebrows to red neckties) could transmit signals as far back as the 1930s. Emoji for terms like “Kiki” and “Yass!” and a hand clutching a clutch in a “purse first” style draw their roots from the black and Latino ballroom and drag scenes that emerged in the 1960s and continue to stock the culture with slang today through films and TV shows like “Paris Is Burning,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and the most recent, “Kiki.”

A tiny cloud raining men summons up spirits of the ’70s — a way to channel a bit of that bliss you find now and then on a crowded dance floor. An icon for a tiny antenna’d device is instantly recognizable as every gay man’s prototypical vision of “gaydar.” An envelope symbol with a “1000” hovering over it, a smartphone screen reading “NEW PHONE WHO DIS,” and a more stylishly coiffed poop emoji all land as sly critiques of the weirdness of gay life through dating apps. (And I’m sure the crossed swords emoji is meant to ask friends if they’d like to go to a Renaissance faire.)

And in its own weird little way, Gaymoji even pays tribute to recent revolutions in the battle against HIV/AIDS (there’s an emoji for Truvada), tempered by a shady wink toward those who made it to the golden years (there’s also one for Viagra).

These little symbolic gestures may not seem like much taken together. But one by one, without having to explain, each icon has a story to tell, something it’s not saying because it doesn’t need to be said. As gay culture moves (ever more tenaciously) toward the mainstream, it’s more important than ever to stay connected to and preserve our stubbornly hidden (or cleverly concealed) histories. And Gaymoji can put them at our fingertips.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at