The Girl with a Pearl Earring- A Look at Transfem Piercing History
Authors Note: This blog post is a look at the history of ear piercings in the LGBTQ community, specifically the transfem community. Magazines and mailers from the 70’s and 80’s are used with the historical language of their times. Language has changed in the years since and some of these terms are now outdated, but in order to preserve historical accuracy and self-identification of the authors, they are kept in their original format here.
Rites of passage- a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someones life, especially birth, puberty, marriage, or death. Traditionally, body modification like tattoos and piercings have been involved in rites of passage around the world. This has trickled into modern culture as well- perhaps the most notable rite of passage for a young girl is to get her ears pierced. Often surrounded by her mother, grandmother, and aunts, it becomes a symbol for her femininity, her culture, and a matriarchal celebration. In cultures around the world it is customary to get your ears pierced as a baby girl, you may as well come out of the womb with earrings in many places. For many years traditionally the grandmother did the piercings, passing down the families feminine energies and traditions to the newborn girl. In modern times the whole family comes to a piercer and provides moral support and encouragement to the child. It’s a beautiful ritual with deep roots for many of us, and it’s a wonderful way to celebrate femininity and womanhood.
This rite of passage takes on a new form in piercing studios and bathrooms and bars all over the country- as trans women pierce their ears. A celebration and ritual of femininity and womanhood, permanent earrings to mark your birth as a girl and your future walking in the world as a woman. Piercing your ears becomes a rebirth, a symbol of the new path that lays before you. I can not understate how important and transformative this rite can be for trans women and trans feminine folks- it is such a definite way to celebrate your womanhood and mark this new phase in your life. Catching a glimpse of sparkling stones and shining metal in the mirror is a permanent reminder of your bravery to succumb to the needle and be pierced, and the beautiful woman who emerges after.
Ear piercings have a rich history within the LGBTQ community, especially for trans women and femmes. Back in the 70’s and 80’s it was a different time for anyone queer, it was unbelievably difficult to be out and be accepted. We didn’t have the laws and the culture we have today, and anyone who choose to be out did so at great personal risk. This was in the midst of the AID’s crisis, and the public sentiment toward LGBTQ was at a low. Despite this, many brave folks still choose to live as their authentic selves or tried to as best as they can.
Ear piercings were already a symbol for homosexual men- across America a single ear piercing in one ear (or the other, depending on where you lived) signified being gay. It was a subtle symbol to let others know your preferences. Piercings were a code, they allowed you to communicate with others from across a bar or an office meeting and let them know who you were and who you loved. Piercings were also incredibly popular in gay motorcycle clubs and BDSM groups. The sensuality of shining steel against warm flesh was undeniable- and piercings became symbols throughout all veins of queer subcultures.
Earrings however were the ultimate celebrating of femininity- the process of getting them was akin to the process of taking hormones. Both included the kiss of the needle, but the end result was so sweet. Hundred of years of history went into this rite of passage, millions of women, of mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts, celebrating the women who had come before them and would come after them. This celebration was the perfect step for a trans women to truly commemorate coming into her own.
“It's amazing how fears are overcome when someone honestly wants something badly enough. I have always been deadly afraid of needles, and yet when it comes time for my little painful hormone injection, I'm right on time. Surgery scares everybody, but what true trans- sexual wouldn't go through a sex change operation if only it were financially possible?
To one extent or another, every cross dresser must overcome fears: fear of being thought 'strange' when you buy women's under- clothing, the fear of being recognized, pointed at, discovered. Fear of rejection.
But if you want, if you really want, to own those under garments or to go somewhere dressed or to meet people, then you defy your fears and buy what you please, step through that door, and even risk rejection.
And after a while, you're no longer afraid.
What I wanted was rather simple: my ears pierced. “
From Jessie Collins, The Transvestite World No 41
Who among us can not relate to the fears and nerves surrounding entering a piercing studio and getting a new piercing. Especially is piercing if foreign to you- as first ear piercings are to many. Jessie’s description is electric, even decades later her words resonate off the page. We can all relate to that fear of needles, just as we can relate to overcoming it. For trans folks the needle is a friend as much as it is a foe, it is something to celebrate and respect almost more than we fear. The piercing needle becomes the same thing, a tool that for the smallest price brings the greatest euphoria.
And of all piercings which carried weight or meaning it was the simple lobe piercing, adorned with a delicate hoop or a glittering diamond, encapsulating centuries of traditions of femininity and womanhood that appealed to transwomen and transfems. There was a rite of passage there, a bold declaration of womanhood that was a literal symbol for her transition, her journey. In this time before the internet, mailers and zines were the best way to communicate, and many included instructions for how to pierce your ears. As it was dangerous to be out many trans women led double lives, only being out at bars and clubs after hours. Because of that, it was imperative to transition only so far as you could hide.
This except from Phoenix Monthly includes instructions to have your ears pierced on vacation (presumably so your colleagues wouldn’t see it) and how to hide your piercings once you returned home with either makeup or dead skin from your ear. This allowed trans women to enjoy the glitz and glam of earrings while she was out, but fly under the radar at work and home.
Fortunately times have changes and now it is much easier to be out. There is more access then ever for LGBTQ folks and trans folks especially- hormones, surgeries, and resources are much better accessible. Having your ears pierced, once a taboo, is now the norm. But the ritual, the rite is still there. There is still so much magic in a trans woman making that choice to have her ears pierced and experience this traditional rite of passage into womanhood.
In current times people try to claim piercing as a “modern” trend, and some go so far as to say piercing is not inherently gay or straight, it just is. But this ignores this well documented history of what piercing meant to the queer community. In the 70’s and 80’s it was a code, it was a secret method of communication. As things progressed it became a staple of queer culture. Before there was pride flags and rainbow merch in the stores, there were leather jackets and nipple rings.
“I'd always wanted to be pierced, long before I became a card carrying queer. Perhaps it comes from some primordial instinct. In ancient tribes ear-piercing has long been a marking for homosexuals. Strait womyn had symmetrical piercing done on their ears, while both gays and lesbians in the tribe had mismatched number, e.g. one in the left ear and three in the right. Piercing as an art form became popular in 1970’s. If a man had his ear pierced, you knew he was a faggot. In the early eighties it was said that if you had your left ear pierced you were"cool"and if you had the right pierced you were queer. Lynn Lavender claims the right means you're a bottom, and the left means your a liar. Today, with piercing going far beyond and below the ears, the meanings to a specific point have disintegrated, and as we enter the gay nineties, piercing has become more of an extra-curricular activity, especially for those who frequent the Gauntlet.” Queer Fuckers Magazine 2
For all queer folks, piercings are a huge part of modern American queer culture. But for trans women and trans fems in particular, they hold special meaning. The ability to mark your entrance to womanhood, to celebrate with this time honored rite is an intimate, magical, special moment. These piercings were essential to trans woman in the 70’s and 80’s as one of the few ways they could safely explore their femininity while still remaining hidden at work and at home. The history of trans women writing back and forth across the country to advise each other in piercings, healing, and hiding them is a history of resilience, survival, and strength. These are the matriarchs we honor today when we choose to get our lobes pierced. Their legacy and their bravery is kept alive in the new generation of youth who no longer need to hide their piercings but can wear them proudly. And in everyone who chooses to continue this tradition, to take this rite of passage and symbol of womanhood and femininity and honor all those who came before them.
To all of my beautiful trans women and trans fems, I encourage you if you are interested to incorporate ear piercings into your transition. This rite of passage belongs to you as much as it belongs to cis women, and the unique ancestors and matricharchs you honor through this would be filled with pride and hope to see you today. Piercings can help you find your sparkle, and embrace your transformation into your truest self.
Sponsored by Plume, Accessible Gender Affirming Health Care
"Phoenix Monthly International Vol. 2 No. 9 (September, 1982)." Newsletter. 1982. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/fq977t904 (accessed September 06, 2022).
Slavik, Cathy Charles. "The Transvestite World Directory No. 41." Periodical. 1973. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/bz60cw50c (accessed September 06, 2022).
Jensen, Curtis. "Queer Fuckers Magazine #2." Pamphlet. 1991. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/sf268532d (accessed September 06, 2022).