Rainbow flags, pink triangles, the Greek letter ”Lambda”, freedom rings, green carnations, red ribbons, there are many symbols adopted by the LGBTQ through the decades, but how about the Lavender Rhinoceros?
Gay Media Action Advertising was formed in Boston by Tom Morganti, Bernie Toale, and Daniel Thaxton. Artists Thaxton and Toale, came up with the idea of using a lavender rhinoceros for a public ad campaign from their company. They explained that the rhino was chosen because “…it is a much maligned and misunderstood animal and that the color came from the mixture of pink and blue, a symbolic merger of the masculine and feminine”. The ads were designed to encourage visibility for the LGBTQ community in Boston in the mid-1970s.
In March 1974, Gay Media Action sent out the press packets with the details for their ad campaign to media outlets in Boston, hoping there would be enough public support to run the ads on the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority in time for Boston’s Gay Pride march in June. The MBTA and Metro Transit Advertising, the MBTA’s New York City based advertising agent, approved the designs for the ads.
In May 1974, Metro Transit Advertising announced that its lawyers were “unable to determine eligibility of the public service rate” for the Lavender Rhino ads. This decision raised the $2 per ad rate for public service projects to a $7, tripling the cost of the campaign. Gay Media Action didn’t have the funds to cover the increase in cost and the Lavender Rhino ads almost died.
Gay Media Action challenged the MBTA and MTA’s decision to raise the price of the ads through public protest and legal action. Over a thousand people marched in protest, wearing Lavender Rhino tee-shirts and Lavender Rhino hats and pins. Gay Media Action hired a lawyer to help take their case in court and the mobilized a protest campaign with hundreds of letters sent to the MBTA and MTA.
Despite the public outcry, the MBTA Board of Directors announced their decision to stand by the price increase.
Still, the Lavender Rhino debuted at Boston’s Pride march as people wore tee-shirts and held up Lavender Rhino signs. A life-sized papier-mâché Lavender Rhino led the parade, becoming a symbol of protest and resistance.
Gay Media Action received donations to pay for the increase in costs, raising enough money to begin the circulation of the ads. The ads were reduced to 100 and only were placed on the Green Line, chosen for its route through the city. By the end of 1974, the ads were running on the MBTA’s Green Line.
The Lavender Rhino lived on as a symbol of the LGBTQ community, making a second appearance at Boston Pride in 1976. In 1987, a Lavender Rhino flag was raised at Boston City Hall.
The rhinoceros is characterized by a peaceful demeanor until threatened, an apt symbol in the years following Stonewall. The heart on the rhinoceros reflects the common humanity of all people. The color lavender is a symbol of queer identity; throughout history it has used to denote homosexuality. Lavender became popular in American lesbian circles in the 1930s as a colloquial term for other gay women.
Birmingham, England’s gay village has a outdoor life-sized, lighted, rhinestone encrusted Lavender Rhinoceros at the start of its business district.
The original image of the Lavender Rhino was purposely not copyrighted so it is in the public domain.
The Lavender Rhino may live on, but real rhinos who once roamed many places throughout Eurasia and Africa and were known to early Europeans who depicted them in cave paintings, are now nearly gone. At the beginning of the 20th century, 500,000 rhinos roamed Africa and Asia. But today very few rhinos survive outside national parks and reserves due to persistent poaching and habitat loss over many decades. The western black rhino and northern white rhinos have recently gone extinct in the wild. The only three remaining northern white rhinos are kept under 24-hour guard in Kenya. There are 2,500 black rhinos, a fraction of the estimated 100,000 that existed in the early part of the 20th century.
Source: Boston History Project