Some time in the past ten years, unicorns became gay icons, second only to the rainbow flag in symbolizing queerness. In many ways, I’ve embraced it. Peruse the internet for a few mere minutes and you’ll find photos of me squished happy and half naked between two women on a unicorn float on my birthday. But how did this connection happen — the one between a glowing, colorful mythical creature with bedazzled headgear and queer culture? Some people might venture to say that it's because unicorns are mystical creatures and, well, so are queers.
On more cynical days, I attribute the link to the fact that we have always been fetishized outcasts that the cis-het capitalist overlords want to brand into profitability. To me, the ubiquity of pink fluffy unicorns feels like a commodified avatar for the "gay means happy” stereotype — that fatal insistence that queer folx be sparkling and content no matter how frequently society rejects us. And somehow, the unicorn is also a self-selected icon that we have used to replace centuries of ugly stereotypes. How can a one-horned horse mean so much?
After seeking out scholars on the subject of queer unicorns, I came to the conclusion that there’s no consensus on how the unicorn became a gay icon. Ask any queer person and you will likely get a different answer and a compelling story about their own close personal relationship to unicorns.
The ubiquity of pink fluffy unicorns feels like a commodified avatar for the "gay means happy” stereotype — that fatal insistence that queer folx be sparkling and content no matter how frequently society rejects us.
Some folx love the syrupy sweet princess pink unicorn, and others want to remind everyone that the unicorn is a hybrid creature with the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, and a boar’s tail. Natural history writer Natalie Lawrence told the Guardian that it was the Victorians who turned the unicorn into a plaything for children. “They romanticized many of the bestiary images,” she said, but noted ironically that the Victorians also made unicorn porn. Ahem.
I tend to prefer the older, darker unicorn mythos myself. The ancient Roman sage Pliny described unicorns as having a dangerous three foot black horn and a bellowing voice. Pliny wrote that, “the unicorn is the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive.” Ferocity aside, I still won’t turn down a rainbow unicorn cake with sprinkles.
My own relationship with unicorns started when I was six. My dad brought me a copy of The Last Unicorn, an early bit of animated magic about a unicorn who thinks she is the last of her kind. I watched it on repeat for an embarrassing number of years and cried every time the unicorn had to choose between her human love and the safety of her unicorn blessing, which is the delightfully apt name of a group of unicorns. It is not a particularly gay movie, plotwise. The unicorn in human form is a leggy femme waif pining for a prince. But that’s not the point.
The point is that the unicorn is magic and she has been told her whole life that she is the only one. “Me too, me too,” I thought as a child, “I am the only one of my kind,” even though I didn’t feel like a sparkle-eyed waif and I didn’t know what “my kind” were. I just knew that my existence was somehow different than the muggles around me. The unicorn in the movie endures every injustice with kindness and courage, and in the end discovers a sea full of others like her. She bravely leaves her prince behind to live in the woods with her wild, untamed kin, even though she has to abandon all the comforts of wealth and state-sanctioned love.
Frankly, it sounds a lot like my own story. I once married a sort of prince. He was kind and handsome and Ivy-league educated and our life was comfortable and easy. Except I never fit in it, exactly.
I was always a little too much, a little too tattooed, a little too feminist, a little too unconventional for his world. I flirted shamelessly with his female colleagues and made jokes about dildos. I often found myself at expensive restaurants looking around the table thinking, “I must be the only one of my kind.” Well, it wasn’t exactly that I wasn’t the only one, I just hadn’t found my blessing, yet.
When I left my state-sanctioned love for the wild queer world, I left a lot of privilege behind. No more compliments like, “What a beautiful couple you are." No more health insurance benefits, and certainly no more easy life. I opted into a forest inhabited with wild queer creatures. They are, many of them, untamed by cultural norms and joyously ungovernable. While I sometimes miss the high thread count of the cis-het world, I wouldn’t trade it for the many textures that make up my chosen landscape.
I often found myself at expensive restaurants looking around the table thinking, “I must be the only one of my kind.”
I’ve met a lot of princes and princesses of many gender expressions in my adventures in queerness. I’ve even married some, by law or by love. And while none of them has offered me a castle, all of them have made me feel — each in their own way — as though I am magic and not, in fact, alone. This queer forest is inhabited with many magical creatures and unicorns are welcome in with all the rest.
Academics may not have come to a conclusion, yet, about how the unicorn came to be emblematic of queerness. But that lack of consensus just spins the complexities of gender, love, and sexuality into a fierce, beautiful, other-worldly beast. For this queer, at least, the unicorn symbolizes resistance to binaries. She cannot be reduced to either a beauty or a beast. The unicorn is both pure and pornographic, fierce and dainty, and her seeming alone-ness is really an as yet undiscovered blessing.