Which ear is the gay ear: It was a universal fact on the playground, and opposing it meant social suicide: if you have an earring in your right ear, you’re queer. We took it as gospel and never doubted its veracity.
It could have been my Illinois community’s covert homophobia in the 1990s. However, as I grew older, it appeared like everyone I met, regardless of where they came from, recognised and understood the earring code, as arbitrary as it may seem.
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It was also confirmed in the New York Times: gay men “frequently [wore] a single piece of jewellery in the right ear to signal sexual preference,” according to a 1991 storey. In T Magazine in 2009, the New York Times highlighted it once more: “the rule of thumb has always been that the homosexual ear is the right ear,” the author wrote of his own piercing experience.
The truth is more complicated historically. Earrings on men have long represented a variety of things, including social status and religious allegiance.
Desmond Morris writes in his book The Naked Man: A Study of the Male Body that the Buddha’s stretched earlobes symbolised wisdom and compassion, while pirates wore them in the idea that they would keep them from drowning. Earring were very fashionable for males throughout the Elizabethan era, he notes.
In the twentieth century, people were perplexed as to which ear meant which:
Once a solely female decoration, Earring has recently been spotted on a rising number of male ears in the Western world. Initially, it was considered that the wearers were all effeminate homosexuals, but it quickly became evident that the trend was spreading to the more progressive young heterosexuals.
This caused some consternation, and rumours circulated that there was a hidden code. Wearing an earring in a pierced left ear meant homosexuality while wearing one in a shot right ear meant rebel heterosexuality.
The issue was that no one could remember which one was meant to be. In the end, the male Earring lost its sexual significance and became just another way to upset middle-aged, modern-day puritans.
So, why do so many individuals feel that piercing the right earlobe is “gay”? In an article for Mic, Andrew Spena quotes a T Magazine story that “stated what is by now a familiar adage for some: ‘Left is right, and right is wrong’ (‘wrong’ being a euphemism for ‘gay’ in this context)… “The wonderful news is, it appears to matter less and less,” Spena says.
“This cultural discomfort has poured into the internet, flooding it with worried enquiries from straight guys about which ear to pierce, whether to pierce or how best to proclaim their heterosexuality via their face jewellery.”
Is that correct? What does Generation Z think about the gay code in general?
Cooper Gelb, a 21-year-old Chicago journalist, is unaware of the rumour. “I don’t recall much about the ‘gay piercing thing,’ yet I grew up in a Jacksonville suburb, so I’m familiar with small-town homophobia,” he says.
“Perhaps it was more of a mid-’90s trend if anything than it was during my time. I’m not sure whether anyone ever made an earring joke at me or about me. Instead, I was generally called a ‘faggot,’ and had rocks thrown at me from passing automobiles, among other things.”
He goes on to say that the whole thing could be a “straight people rumour.”
“There are a lot of intricate nonverbal signal languages associated with gayness, but earrings aren’t one of them,” Gelb tells MEL. “It may have been different 20 years ago, but I don’t believe earrings have ever been a big element of gay culture or closed communication.”
“The whole thing is ludicrous, it literally doesn’t exist,” says Dan Irani, a sound technician in Chicago who is also in his early twenties. Maybe it was a thing in the early days of cruising, but because no one knows which ear it is, I can’t help but think it’s just another stereotype imposed on gay people so that cishet men and women can feel powerful over them by believing they can recognise the faggot in the room.”
Pat, a gay man in his early 30s from my small town in central Illinois, claims that his friends — “a gaggle of 30-something’mos from all across the country (Michigan, North Shore suburbs, Minnesota, and NYC) — all remember [the right-earring rule] being a thing,” but that they believed many different versions of it. “In males, right ear signified gay, both ears indicated bi, and left ear meant straight,” one dude recalled. Another guy in college had two piercings in his right ear, which we all joked about because he wanted everyone to know he was a power bottom — which he is.”
An American on Quora claims he pierced his left ear only to discover his friends had reversed the rule:
I recall going through 6th grade… Because it was in my left ear, I had to explain to everyone that it wasn’t a “homosexual piercing.” If it was in my right ear, it would indicate that I was homosexual. It’s etched in my mind…
Later on, I became interested in piercings and wanted to get more, but I couldn’t risk people thinking I was gay, so I merely got more in my left ear.
Of course, I came to terms with the fact that I am gay after that.
Gelb regards his piercings as more tied to style than sexuality, which aligns with Desmond Morris’ theory on the male Earring today. “I got my gauges to look more feminine,” he explains, “but I think they’re more tied to coolness than queerness.”
“Earrings have never struck me as an indication of queerness.” Earrings aren’t one of the many intricate nonverbal communication languages used by gay people. I don’t judge folks who wear only one Earring. It’s whatever makes you happy.”