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What "Be Gay, Do Crimes!" means, and why it's important now.

February 02, 2020

What "Be Gay, Do Crimes" means


You may have noticed the phrase "Be Gay, Do Crimes!" kicking around here lately, either as hilarious food pun apparel (like this Be Gay, Do Criminis shirt or crop top) or an adorable queer love card

If you don't know what that's all about, never fear! I get it. I'm definitely On The Internet, but I am not the most up to date with internet speak, if that makes sense. I am often in the corner quietly googling memes so I know what the heck you’re talking about. Then I get all history-nerd about it, and here we are.

So, at the risk of over-explaining the really quite straight forward instruction to Be Gay, Do Crimes, let’s go into a little meme history, shall we?

Origins of the Slogan

While it was definitely a slogan before hand, Be Gay Do Crimes first hit the internet in a big way in 2016 in the form of a photograph of graffiti in Marseille. 

Graffiti that reads "Be Gay, Do Crimes"

The photo got shared far and wide on twitter and the gayest meme generator of our age, Tumblr (may she rest in peace). Be Gay Do Crimes made waves again in 2018 via both a viral tweet and a repurposed political cartoon from 1880. The tweet popularised shouting the slogan at each other, at least among my circles, and reads: 

just saw two teenage girls hop the bart turnstile and run up the stairs and start making out and i couldn’t resist the urge to shout BE GAY DO CRIMES and they raised their fists and shouted back STONEWALL WAS A RIOT so i am informing you that the kids are in fact alright. (@isislovecruft)

The political cartoon, altered by Io Ascarium, was originally by Thomas Nast. 

Nast cartoon altered by Io Ascarium - Be Gay Do Crime!

It shows a skeleton wearing a sash that says “communist” and holding a torch with the word “anarchy” in the smoke. The skeleton holds a scroll which in the original version says something about California politics, and in the updated version says - you guessed it - Be Gay Do Crime. Io also added a quote from a zine called Black Mask which reads: 

Many blame queers for the decline of this society -- we take pride in this.

Some believe that we intend to shred-to-bits this civilization and its moral fabric -- they couldn’t be more accurate.

We’re often described as depraved, decadent, and revolting -- but oh, they ain’t seen nothing yet. 

When asked about the origin of the saying Io said, "as far as I know Be Gay Do Crime is from the communal grab-bag of anti-assimilationist queer slogans. Like ‘ACAB’ or ‘Stonewall was a Riot’ it was pulled from the chaotic ether, originating nowhere and belongs to nobody,” and that's is the best explanation I’ve ever heard (The Gay Star News, 2018). 

Even More Queer Historical Context

This phrase also reminds us that being gay was, and still often is, a punishable crime. 

Ever since the birth of modern homosexuality, there has been a debate about how to best deal with the criminalization of our identities. While the circumstances have morphed and changed, there are two broad perspectives that have been clashing tooth-and-nail since the turn of last century.

  1. The Respectable Gay. The idea behind this camp is that the best way to deal with stigma is to let everyone know how “we’re just like you”. We want to get married, have families, basically have “normal” lives but with someone of the same gender. Raising awareness and showing people that we're all basically the same (and not at all scary) is the best way to change minds.
  2. The Exceptional Queer. This group thinks that there’s something about being queer - whether it’s innate or a result of living with stigma and creating a subculture - that’s not like being straight. This camp celebrates, well, CAMP! We aren't just like you, even within the queer community we are all different, and that's freaking GREAT. Even necessary.

Be Gay Do Crimes is pretty squarely situated in the second camp, as is Our Back Pockets, just in case it anyone was confused about where I stand in the age-old debate. Oh, and given that, I in no way claim these descriptions are unbiased. Just to be clear. 

Admittedly, perhaps this simplified binary distinction is a little unfair. I personally believe that a multi-pronged approach is almost always needed to enact real change.

I think fighting for marriage equality was/is a valuable endeavor! I think that personal, human connection based on empathy is absolutely key to changing people’s hearts and minds. I know I have certainly been on both sides of that particular alchemy. I also absolutely hear and appreciate that many queer people just want to live their lives without needing to make everything about who they are sleeping with! 


I personally think it’s more complex than saying “hey I’m just like you.” The experience of being queer in a heteronormative society that demonizes and sometimes criminalizes those identities is just different from being straight. There are repercussions psychologically that we can't escape. In someways, we do love differently. Rather, we are likely to relate to loving differently.

Additionally, we have created our own rules, and our own culture. I don’t want to give that up. In fact, I think that it’s a valuable contribution to society - even to straight people! I have to believe that we can live honestly and celebrate our unique lives in a way that is not sensationalized, but also isn’t watered down. It's why I make cards with ravens yelling "gay!", and stickers with quirky genitals! We are allowed to be sexual! To be loud! To insist on making our own rules!

However, the most insidious problem with the Respectable Gay perspective - the one that takes this from simple personal differences into full on I-think-you-are-wrong debate - is the question of what happens when a particular identity or subculture is deemed “too weird”.  Often people who don’t share mainstream values or aesthetics are told they are “hurting the cause”, or “giving us a bad name.” Instead, we should be quiet, stop being so gross, and let the Nice Gays lead the charge. These kinds of respectability politics get real nasty, real quick. The truth is, historically the people in the first group are more likely to be white and cis, and less likely to stand up for anyone who, well...isn’t. 

In my mind, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to live a traditional life, with the only difference being the gender of who you’re living it with (although I would argue that it’s way better to examine and choose that path, rather than feel it’s the only option). There is something wrong with thinking that everyone who doesn’t fit into that vision is harming your chances. There is something wrong with prioritizing the status-quo and your personal comfort at the expense of liberation. 

If the choice comes down to standing up for all of us and our right to live as we are, or to ignoring parts of myself - potentially even throwing other people under the bus - in order to be slightly more palatable to those oppressing us? I will choose obnoxious and radical every. Fucking. Time.  

How the slogan has changed, and what it means today.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the slogan has taken off in the last few years.  As rainbow capitalism is becoming more and more of a thing, police presence increases, and our world gets more and more fascist by the day, it’s important to remember not to get complacent. And, as an article in The Gay Star News points out, the cops or large corporations are a lot less likely to co-opt Be Gay Do Crimes than many of the other symbols or sayings.

So on the one hand, Be Gay Do Crimes is funny in-speak for “dear god we’re so gay,” and on the other hand it’s a genuine call to band together, love radically, and unapologetically do what is needed.

Because sure, love is love, but queer love has a specific context.

We would do well to remember that what is legal may not be just, and doing what’s right is often forbidden. If we are able to love freely, it’s because of the sacrifices of others, and we should not let our history or our identities be defanged. In a time when so many people are being harmed, perhaps leaning into this history and context will give us the courage and strength to fight for those who need it.


Hudson, David (August, 2018). What does 'be gay, do crime' mean? The Gay Star News. 

Know Your Meme (last updated 2019). Be Gay Do Crime.


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