The History and Significance
of the Lambda

Lambda, the eleventh lower-case letter of the Greek alphabet, is the forerunner of our letter "L''. Originally, the letter was a picture symbol for the scales often seen being carried by the figure of Justice. With the passage of time, the lambda bore less of a visual resemblance to a scales, and its meaning became more abstract in that it came to represent the concept or qualities of balance.

The Greeks believed that balance was a reconciliation between two opposites, and as such was not a stable state but one needing continuous adjustment. Finally, due to the influence of Greek philosophy, the lambda emerged as it appears in modern day form; the small hook was added to the base of the letter to indicate that some form of action was necessary to bring about a state of equilibrium, and that constant action was necessary to maintain that state once it had been achieved.

The ancient Spartans adopted the lambda as a symbol of their unity. Worn as a logo on their shields, it signified the special balance which they felt must exist between an individual and the State. They believed that the demands of society should never interfere with each person's right to be totally free and independent. They also thought that each individual must be bound to society only by individual choice and desire. But each Spartan recognised that only in a common bond could they hope to preserve their existence as a free and equal people. Curiously, in some ancient Greek graffiti the capital lambda appears with the meaning "fellate," representing the first letter of either lambazein or laikazein.

As Rome rose to power and conquered the then-known world, the Romans borrowed many things of value from the Greek culture. Among these was the lambda. The overall shape of the lambda suggested a flame to the Romans, and consequently it was used as the symbol for "lampas," their Latin word for torch. In our day, scientists seeking a symbol for the wavelength of light [to set up an equation] drew on the historical past, and the lambda, because of its connection with light, was chosen.

In the sixties, when the quest for gay liberation began to emerge as an organised movement after the famous Stonewall riots, the lambda was selected as a gay symbol because of its historical associations. Its aggregate meaning symbolised justice, balance and the reconciliation of opposites; unity and the relationship of man/woman and society; freedom, equality and independence of the individual; and light. As acceptance of the lambda became more widespread, use of the symbol spread rapidly across the United States. The lambda's most recent historical association with light began to take on an added meaning, one of a social nature. In the early 1970s, New York City's Gay Activists Alliance selected the lambda, which member Tom Doerr suggested from its scientific use to designate "kinetic potential," as its emblem.

As a symbol of freedom for gay people, the lambda has come to represent the "light of knowledge shed into the darkness of ignorance" and promises hope of a new future, with dignity for gay men and lesbians everywhere. Today, the lambda is recognised as a unique international symbol for gay rights, for sexual liberation and for justice and enlightenment, as well as a needed balance in acceptance of differences by and within all humanity.

© 2005 LINQ Communications

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