On the playground, it was a truth so firmly established that defying it meant social suicide: If you have an earring in your right ear, it means you’re gay. We accepted it as gospel and never questioned its validity.
It may have been the subtle homophobia of my Illinois community in the ’90s. But as I grew up, it seemed like everyone I met, no matter their place of origin, knew and understood the earring code, as arbitrary as it seems.
It was even solidified in the New York Times: A 1991 report said gay men “often [wore] a single piece of jewelry in the right ear to indicate sexual preference.” In 2009, the Times covered it yet again, in T Magazine: “the rule of thumb has always been that the right ear is the gay one,” the author wrote about his own piercing journey.
Historically speaking, the truth is more complex. Earrings on guys have signified many things over the years, such as social stature or religious affiliation. In his book The Naked Man: A Study of the Male Body, Desmond Morris explains that earrings have indicated wisdom and compassion in the stretched earlobes of the Buddha, while pirates wore them in the belief it would protect them from drowning. In the Elizabethan era, earrings were quite fashionable for men, he writes.
And in the 20th century, people got confused about which ear meant what:
In the Western world, earrings, so long a purely female adornment, have recently been seen on increasing numbers of male ears. At first it was assumed that the wearers were all effeminate homosexuals, but it soon became clear the the habit was spreading to the more avant-garde of the young heterosexuals. This led to some confusion and stories began to circulate that there was a secret code, that to wear an earring in a pierced left ear was homosexual, and in a pierced right ear was rebel heterosexual. The problem was that nobody could remember which was supposed to be which. In the end the male earring lost its sexual significance altogether, and simply became a generalized way of annoying middle-aged, latter-day puritans.
So why do so many people believe the right ear piercing is “gay”? Andrew Spena, writing for Mic, references that T Magazine article, which “repeated what is by now a familiar saying for some: ‘Left is right, and right is wrong’ (in this case, ‘wrong’ being a euphemism for ‘gay’). … This cultural unease has spilled onto the internet, filling it with anxious queries from straight men about which ear to pierce, whether to pierce or how best to broadcast their heterosexuality via their facial jewelry,” Spena writes, concluding: “The nice part is, it seems to matter less and less.”
Is that true? What does Generation Z think of the whole gay code?
Cooper Gelb, a 21-year-old writer in Chicago, doesn’t recognize the rumor. “I don’t remember much about the ‘gay piercing thing,’ and I’m from a suburb of Jacksonville, Florida, so I know my share of small-town homophobia,” he says. “So maybe it was a little bit before my time, more of a mid-’90s trend, if anything. I don’t know if anyone made a single earring joke to me or about me. Instead I mostly just got called ‘faggot,’ had rocks thrown at me from passing cars, etc.”
He adds that the whole thing might just be a “straight people rumor than anything.”
“Gayness has a variety of complicated nonverbal signal languages, but earrings aren’t really one of them,” Gelb tells MEL. “This may have been different 20 years ago, but I don’t think earrings were ever a large a part of gay culture or closeted communication.”
Dan Irani, a sound technician in Chicago who’s also in his early 20s, agrees: “The whole thing is stupid, it literally doesn’t exist. Maybe it was a thing in the early days of cruising, but since there isn’t a solid answer about which ear it is, I can’t help but get the impression that it’s just another stereotype pinned on gay people so that cishet men and women can feel a sense of power over them by thinking they can spot the faggot in the room.”
Pat, a gay man in his early 30s from my small town in central Illinois, says 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 they believed many variations of it. “One dude recalls that in dudes, right ear meant gay, both ears meant bi and left ear meant straight. Another guy got two piercings in his right ear in college, to which we all remarked that that he wanted everyone to know that he was a power bottom — which he is.”
A man in the U.S. writes on Quora that he pierced his left ear only to learn his friends reversed the rule:
I remember going through the 6th grade … explaining to all of my peers that it wasn’t a “gay piercing” — because it was in my left ear. If it were in my right ear, that would mean I was gay. It’s burned into my memory …
Later on, I ended up liking piercings, and wanting to get more — but I couldn’t risk people thinking I was gay, so I just got more piercings in my left ear.
Some time after that, of course, I made peace with the fact that I am gay.
In line with Desmond Morris’ theory on where the male earring stands today, Gelb sees his piercings more as more related to style than sexuality. “I did get my gauges as an attempt to look more feminine, but I think they’re more related to coolness than queerness,” he says. “I’ve never seen earrings any sort of signifier of queerness. Gayness has a variety of complicated nonverbal signal languages, but earrings aren’t really one of them. I don’t think less of people with one earring. It’s whatever floats your boat.”