When I was in middle school, my sister and I ripped open wrapping paper one Christmas morning to reveal matching periwinkle sweatshirts from my aunt. The sweatshirts, which boldly displayed the word “Gap” across the chest, were much more expensive than any other sweatshirt we had ever owned. They were true luxury items for children in my family’s financial situation. Though I recognized the new pieces of clothing as prestigious and special, I almost never wore my sweatshirt to school in southeastern Massachusetts. If I had, I knew that I would immediately be made fun of, followed around the halls with finger-pointing and incessant taunting. That’s because “Gap” was synonymous with “gay and proud” amongst my ruthless, pre-teen peers.
The schoolyard taunting related to Gap is one of the most formative memories I have about fashion — and my own queerness. I have known I liked girls since elementary school. It was a fact that was pretty easy for me to accept and rationalize without trauma or turmoil. After all, it’s really simple to accept your feelings when they are just your feelings. But when you add in the opinions and judgement of the outside world, things can get tricky.
I will admit, my early 2000s search history on dial-up Internet probably contained the phrase “Does Gap really mean ‘Gay And Proud?’” But even so, I only half-heartedly typed the question to Ask Jeeves. I already knew the answer — of course it didn’t mean gay and proud. But that didn’t stop children from latching on the the pseudo-acronym as a form of homophobic bullying.
“I walked into middle school as a fifth grader with a GAP hoodie on and had to go home and Google what ‘gay’ meant,” 25-year-old Meghan Welch, who is one of my former classmates, tells me. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was bad, and I felt like I was going to get made fun of if I asked what that meant.”
By middle school, I knew liking girls was not “normal” from tiny clues in my life, like my sister once saying my mom thought there was “something wrong with me” because I never talked about crushes on boys. Unlike today, LGBTQ lives weren't often displayed in media in the early 2000s except for in shows like Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. It was rare to see out and proud public figures except people like Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell. Queer sexuality wasn't something often talked about in my small Massachusetts town, and I certainly didn't know any queer people.
The “gay and proud” Gap taunt made it abundantly clear that LGBTQ sexuality was supposed to be shameful and hidden. It wasn’t harmless schoolyard teasing. It is something that still crowds my mind as a 26-year-old queer woman who passes by a Gap store, one of the earliest memories of coming to realize how society viewed people like me.
What Gap Really Means
Gap was founded in San Francisco in 1969, the same year as The Stonewall Riots in New York City, which is largely credited as beginning the modern queer rights movement. Tensions around sexuality were at a high in the United States, with sodomy laws largely still in place. Queer people were often arrested in violent raids for congregating in large groups, charged for “disorderly conduct” for merely being publicly queer. Though people were certainly “gay and proud” in 1969, being so openly was met with violence and resistance. Without a doubt, society at large would have never accepted clothing brand named for the phrase given the social climate.
As a company, Gap has very humble — and straight — beginnings. Husband and wife pair Doris and Don Fisher opened the first Gap store when they were 38 and 41 years old, respectively, with the goal of selling quality denim jeans. The inspiration for the company came from Don not being able to find a pair of jeans that fit properly. The name “Gap,” according to Gap, Inc, was a reference to the “generation gap” between what the retail industry offered at the time and what younger consumers truly wanted from a clothing store. The Fishers, then, wanted to fill the gap — and they did. The iconic “Fall Into The Gap” jingle from 1973 is a reference to the “gap” that the Fishers wanted to address with their brand. Nothing in the brand’s history points to a queered inception.
Though Gap doesn’t officially mean “gay and proud,” the company hasn’t been afraid to champion those who are gay and proud in recent years. In a noted 2012 ad, for instance, Gap portrayed two men sharing a T-shirt with the tagline “Be One.” In the same year, a holiday campaign for the brand also featured a same sex couple. Featuring queer people in marketing was rare enough at the time that the ads made headlines — and spurred boycotts from religious organizations.
Since then, Gap has featured countless ads with same-sex representation. Gap, Inc. has also signed on to the Human Rights Campaign’s Business Coalition for the Equality Act, which is a group of over 100 major businesses advocating for federal LGBTQ workplace protections. The company has received a perfect score on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, which rates businesses on how LGBTQ-friendly they are in terms of health care policies, non-discrimination clauses, and inclusion efforts.
The brand also has raised money for LGBTQ non-profits, including giving proceeds of a LGBTQ-themed pride shirt to the United Nations Free & Equal Campaign during June 2018’s Pride Month. The brand even has queer activists, like musician King Princess and model Chella Man, in 2018 ad campaigns.
“Gap is committed to celebrating individuality and diversity and is dedicated to equality and respect for all,” a Gap representative tells me via email. “We believe in standing up for all forms of equality — inside and outside our company. In recent years, this has included raising our voice in opposition to proposed legislation impacting members of LGBTQ communities, many of whom are current and future employees and customers.”
So while Gap wasn’t founded by a loving queer couple hiding secret messages in the stitching of their logo, the brand has come to champion LGBTQ lives, employment, and opportunity. No, Gap itself isn't gay. But it sure is proud when it comes to including queerness in its social good mission.
A Global Branding Problem
While the internet is peppered with Snopes articles and media platforms addressing Gap’s “gay and proud problem,” the roots of the taunt will probably never truly be uncovered. And that’s especially due to how widespread the teasing once was on middle school playgrounds, reaching my schoolyard and beyond.
“I’m queer and was specifically afraid to wear clothing that implied I was gay as a middle schooler, including the GAP thing,” 23-year-old Becca L'Heureux, who grew up in my hometown, says. “[The Gap taunt] was the first implication I received that being a girl who didn’t seemed to be into boys was ‘funny’...
“It’s something I laugh at now, for sure. But back then it was kind of scathing, because I was still trying to ‘find myself.’”
Twenty-year-old Maggie, who is bisexual and grew up on Long Island, remembers hearing the “gay and proud” taunting from boys in elementary school. Though it wasn’t directed at her, the teasing still impacted how she saw Gap clothing — and herself.
“Back then, I didn’t know I was gay,” she says. “But I still didn’t want to wear [Gap clothing] for fear that people would think I was gay and then bully me. The bullying made me think that gays would always be bullied, as would allies because if you stuck up for one of the kids, you would be called gay, too.”
But the Gap-related taunting didn’t only happen on the east coast of the United States. The Twitter hashtag #GrowingUpScottish includes several mentions of Scottish young people having similar experiences. Tweets from users in countries like Argentina and Portugal show how far reaching the schoolyard taunt and Gap rumor spread.
“I was 11, in year six, which is the end of primary school in England," 23-year-old Faye Harrison, who is bisexual and based in Greater London, says of her first time hearing the taunt. “I heard someone say it directed at a female friend who had come in wearing a jumper from GAP, with ‘GAP’ written in huge white letters across the front.
"At the time, I didn’t know I was bisexual, as I didn’t discover this until I was 15, but I remember feeling bad for homosexuals that it was laughed at and the word ‘gay’ was being used to tease someone," she explains.
In all cases, the Gap taunt encouraged those I talked to and many social media users to avoid the brand’s clothing to not be a target of ridicule by peers — and the same can be said for me. The expensive Gap sweatshirt from my aunt was worn once or twice, but mostly remained untouched in my closet until I outgrew it.
It’s unclear if the schoolyard taunt had a major or minor financial impact on the brand, especially in the early 2000s. Gap would not comment on the potential impact, and the brand has never addressed the taunt publicly. But it did define how many queer people in my generation experienced Gap’s brand and, for me, how I still think of Gap every time I see the iconic logo sweatshirt.
The Taunting Fades
Though Gap indeed now champions those who are “gay and proud,” the brand’s moniker seems to no longer be associated with the phrase as a schoolyard taunt, at least on a mass international scale. Maybe strides in queer rights since the early 2000s has made the pseudo-acronym a less appealing insult. Or, perhaps, it went away with the aging of the millennial generation, phasing out as Gap logo sweatshirts became less and less popular as a status symbol.
Middle school teachers from the area I grew up in all tell me they no longer hear the Gap taunt in hallway whispers. But they all remembered it from their own childhoods in the early to mid 2000s, whether they went to public or private school. Twitter searches for the term show many users remembering the phrase from their youth, but not using it to taunt others. Yet, you can definitely find homophobic slurs both in the hallways of schools and on social media — just ask any queer preteen today.
While no one from Gap, Inc. could give me comment on the schoolyard taunt and whether it’s something addressed internally, I recently went into a Gap store in New York City to ask if the employees still hear customers asking about if the company’s name stands for “gay and proud.” Walking through the store, the Gap logo of three simple, bold letters was on everything from T-shirts to sweatshirts to sweatpants. It confronted me in an unexpectedly emotional way, plucking at memories of childhood bullying and shame.
When approaching workers to ask if they still hear the phrase “gay and proud” in reference to the brand, I felt extremely silly. And that’s because even uttering the phrase with any seriousness exposes how silly and childish it is as a supposed insult, especially in a place like New York City in 2019. When I finally did ask the question to employees, knowing smiles spread across their faces. Both the store manager and a cashier remembered the taunt from their own childhood, but say they hardly heard it come up in the store any more.
“I’m from the Caribbean and when I had gone home, my family asked ‘Oh, does it really stand for ‘gay and proud?’” the store manager tells me. “And I said ‘No. It’s just Gap. That’s the meaning.’”
Though that may be true, the Gap logo still reminds me of childhood pain and the taunt that made me view my sexuality as unacceptable. Though that may color my personal view of the brand, there's also another nugget of truth: If I decided to wear a Gap logo sweatshirt today, I would no longer be ashamed if someone taunted me with the "gay and proud" phrase. That, after all, is exactly what I am.
And I'd like to think if 12-year-old me could look into the future, she might see the confident queer woman I've become and find the courage to dust off that unworn Gap sweatshirt to wear to school.